A President Without Precedent

Author: Robert Schmuhl

November 5 2017 2:30 AM

With the one-year anniversary of Donald Trump's election this Wednesday, Americans and people elsewhere can't stop shaking their heads, wondering about this US president.

What makes Trump tick? Why does he inflame passions with abandon? When will the deal-maker arrive at common ground with Congress to pass legislation he's promised?

The past year - which somehow feels like a decade with the onslaught of investigations, charges, Twitter tantrums, firings and all the rest - demonstrates on an almost hourly basis the unprecedented nature of this presidency.

Without a single day of service in government or the military, Trump won the Electoral College vote and entered the White House with little more than his towering ego and prior experience in real estate and reality television.

Yet what's striking in looking back over 12 months of non-stop breaking-news bulletins throughout the media, is how little change there's been in Trump since last November 8.

He's still more provocateur than politician, a combatant rather than a conciliator, with his trademark pugnacity showing no sign of abating.

He doesn't shade the truth or engage in spin so much as make statements often at odds with verifiable facts or assessments.

He's less the coach of a team with many players in different positions than a free-ranging critic, who's eager to complain about anyone not performing in ways he likes.

He's the leader of the Republican Party - but constantly feuding with powerful members of the GOP (Grand Old Party).

If it sounds as though Trump wants everything on his terms and without apologies, that's not far removed from the situation and how he's operated for decades. Now, though, he occupies a far different stage and the stakes involve war and peace as well as other concerns, domestic and international.

Trump reached the White House without following a conventional path. He campaigned on his own, receiving suspecting glances from established Republicans. Campaign managers arrived and departed without fanfare, but anyone could see the candidate controlled the message and agenda.

A TRUMP-emblazoned jet, owned by the mogul-celebrity dropped from the clouds, and thousands flocked to witness a performance combining patriotic sloganeering, entertaining bombast, bare-knuckled insults and simplistic solutions.

An accomplished prime-time television entertainer - his reality show The Apprentice made Trump a fixture in US living rooms for 14 years, and he always looked commandingly decisive - injected novel excitement into an often ho-hum White House campaign.

Trump's individualistic approach, similar to the way he conducted his business, served as a warning to potential advisers that they might not be taken seriously. Besides, who expected this first-time candidate to win?

With most of the respected political talent reluctant to participate, many of those hired lacked the expertise required for a national campaign and, later, the transition to power or governing.

The difficulty of building a first-rate electoral team is repeating itself in making appointments to the administration. Many prominent positions remain unfilled because potential deputy secretaries, ambassadors and others worry about serving under a president without precedent. (At the time of writing, nobody's been nominated as ambassador to Ireland.)

How different is he? Well, Trump hasn't been shy about criticising his own Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the investigation of Russian involvement in last year's election, and he embarrassed his chief diplomat in a recent tweet, saying: "I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man."

"Little Rocket Man" refers to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, a nickname - as so many Trump uses - to belittle someone he perceives as an enemy. He used "Crooked Hillary" to ridicule Hillary Clinton with such frequency in 2016 that American schoolchildren had trouble remembering her surname.

It's become clear since he declared as a presidential candidate in June 2015 that Trump will say whatever he wants, however he wants, whenever he wants - especially when he's personally irritated. In this respect, his trigger-finger temperament is remarkably constant.

A professional athlete who doesn't stand during the national anthem quickly becomes "that son of a bitch". To a long-time employee - according to sources in a Vanity Fair dispatch the other day -he explodes: "I hate everyone in the White House! There are a few exceptions, but I hate them!"

You could fill a book with his volcanic effusions during the past year.

Trump's emphasis on his self-regarding personality grows out of his Olympian vanity and his experience of doing battle and business in New York City. In the rambunctious world of tabloid journalism there, no shot directed at him ever went unanswered, and all the publicity (because what he said was so colourful, television and radio stations joined the scrum) made him unavoidable in the Manhattan media maelstrom.

Back in 1990, Trump explained to Playboy magazine that displays of wealth (towering buildings, casinos, jets) served as "props for the show". The interviewer wondered: "And what is the show?"

"The show is 'Trump' and it is sold-out performances everywhere," the real-estate tycoon replied with satisfaction.

Trump was 43 when he bragged about his eponymous "show". He's now 71. That's a long time to think you're the centre of other peoples' attention, but it helps explain why he imagines almost everything revolves around him.

Over the years, it's become an unending drama with one character always playing the leading part. The show must go on.

In recent years, before he entered politics and since then, Twitter has become Trump's favourite line of communication with his - at the last count - 41.7 million followers. It's the perfect medium to deliver a verbal punch in the nose or to pat someone on the back.

Generally, the president expands the reach of his 140-character messages because they make news, which almost always happens with impolitic insults or not-so-veiled threats.

Early last month, after several jabs at "Rocket Man", Trump tweeted that previous negotiations with North Korea failed, concluding: "Sorry, but only one thing will work!"

That line provoked more analysis than an obscure passage in TS Eliot's The Waste Land. What "one thing"? Is Trump rattling nuclear weaponry or just rattling for attention? What's to be "sorry" about?

The last New Yorker to become US president was Franklin D Roosevelt, who once said of the White House office he won four times from 1932 to 1944: "It is pre-eminently a place of moral leadership."

Times change. In late July, The New York Times devoted an entire page of a Sunday opinion section to "Trump's Lies", listing each untrue public statement he'd made since his inauguration followed by the correct information. For context, an accompanying article noted: "No other president - of either party - has behaved as Trump is behaving. He is trying to create an atmosphere in which reality is irrelevant."

In large measure, the president's reality is a state of warfare against anyone he considers opposed to him or what he's trying to do. Since taking office, he's attacked federal judges, administration officials, members of Congress, entertainers, athletes and, relentlessly, the news media.

It's become routine. If a journalistic report raises questions or offers criticism, Trump screams "fake news", denying the possibility of any truth to a charge. Last February, he went so far in one tweet to label "FAKE NEWS media" as "the enemy of the American People!"

Just the other day, after watching TV coverage he considered critical, he blasted out this message: "Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licences must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked. Not fair to public!"

This behaviour is taking the US presidency into uncharted territory. Since the nation's founding, an adversarial press (protected by the First Amendment) has played the democratic watchdog, keeping citizens informed about figures in government.

Today, to a considerable degree, there's an adversarial president who refuses to acknowledge criticism or to conform to established norms. This new reality means that divisions in America deepen and become more difficult to bridge.

Trump supporters - and he has a strong hold on about 40pc of voters and upwards of 80pc of Republicans after winning 46pc of the popular vote a year ago - cheer his denunciations of the media and fulminations against politics as usual.

Former Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn spoke for more Republicans than himself when he told a reporter: "We have a leader who has a personality disorder, but he's done what he actually told the people he was going to do, and they're not going to abandon him."

By contrast, a majority, close to 55pc, disapprove of what the president is doing, with many being passionate expressing opposition to him. A productive middle ground, a centre that holds, is difficult to locate in the US.

This tribalism keeps people from stating political opinions in social settings. It also means that the polarisation between partisan Republicans and Democrats will undoubtedly increase as the mid-term Congressional elections approach in 2018 and as Trump seeks another term in 2020, which he's already announced he'll pursue.

Unifying the country, traditionally a presidential objective, rarely seems to animate Trump. He focuses on his core constituency - in the patois of political professionals, his "base" - and their populist nationalism of "America First". He appears at campaign-style rallies in key states, and most governmental speeches - including his address at the UN - seem composed with rhetoric intended to energise his loyal believers.

Interestingly - and an indication of just how individualistic Trump is - he refuses to attend gatherings or events where White House occupants customarily appear. He, for example, declined an invitation to the dinner of the White House Correspondents' Association, spurned the chance to throw out the first pitch to begin the baseball season and has already sent regrets about participating in the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony this December.

He, no doubt, wants to avoid occasions where jokes might be made at his expense or boos might be aimed in his direction. This president prefers environments he can control, desiring the public on his terms.

Trump enjoys having other people, including those in his administration, play a guessing game about what he might decide or ultimately do. According to one widely circulated account last month, he instructed the negotiator of a trade deal to avoid setting a firm deadline in talks in order to keep the door open for a direct order from the president.

"You don't tell them they've got 30 days," Trump was quoted as advising. "You tell them, 'This guy's so crazy he could pull out any minute'."

Later, the president remarked: "You tell them if they don't give the concessions now, this crazy guy will pull out of the deal."

Trump's most successful book of the nearly two dozen bearing his name as putative author is titled The Art of the Deal, published in 1987. Since then, the legend of his deal-making prowess has reached mythic proportions, particularly from his perspective.

Crazy like a fox or something else?

Trump has been playing by different rules since entering elective politics. He's never released his tax returns - established practice with presidential candidates - and not so subtly made sure to keep his business interests front-and-centre by visiting his new five-star hotel in Washington and making weekend jaunts to his plush properties in Florida, New Jersey and Virginia.

The personality-propelled nature of the Trump presidency - complete with its orchestrated showmanship, pugilistic jibing and truth-defying hyperbole - has brought to the fore, if not to centre stage, a concern to constrain an impulsive, at times imperious, executive.

What some commentators call "the guardrails of democracy" - Congress, the courts, government workers, journalism - are operating with new-found purpose to check questionable conduct.

Leaks to the press, which often resemble a deluge and make Trump's blood boil, come from people on the federal payroll sending out SOS signals about what's really happening behind closed doors.

The recent revelation by NBC News that Tillerson referred to the president as a "moron" received widespread attention, not just for its descriptive assessment, but also for the larger concern it telegraphed concerning the highest-ranking cabinet member's frustration with the White House.

Branding every leak as "fake news", the knee-jerk reaction of Trump since taking office, won't succeed as a strategy throughout an entire term, and a poll of more than 14,300 respondents released early last month by Reuters showed that confidence in the news media among Americans has jumped from 39pc to 48pc over the past year.

That increase in the public's trust in journalism occurs after several months of the president railing about press performance - and using the phrase "fake news" on more than 150 separate occasions in tweets, speeches, interviews and news conferences since January.

Of greater significance and potential consequence are the numerous investigations currently being conducted about possible connections between Russia and the Trump business organisation, the Trump campaign or both.

Every time the subject of Russia arises, the president denounces even the suggestion of involvement or collusion. In a May tweet, he dismissed the inquiry as "the single greatest witch-hunt of a politician in American history!"

The decibel-level of Trump's denials arouse suspicion that he might protest too much. Is it within the realm of possibility that dubious Russian investments helped improve his real estate company's balance sheets? How about all those Russian-directed and truly "fake news" websites that played some role in the 2016 election, especially in the key states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin?

Three separate Senate and House of Representative committees as well as special counsel (and former FBI director) Robert Mueller keep interviewing Trump associates and campaign staff to try to get to the bottom of what did - or didn't - happen in connection to Russia.

The felony charges brought against former Trump campaign director Paul Manafort and two lower-level aides earlier this week reflect the seriousness of the special counsel's work. How many more political operatives might face criminal charges?

The outcome of these months-long investigations, especially Mueller's, could help untangle financial and political mysteries related to the president. The findings, whatever they might be, will also undoubtedly influence how he's viewed in the future and his standing both at home and abroad.

An axiom of American elections says the most accomplished politicians campaign in poetry and then govern in prose. Trump sought votes in 2016 without being poetic, but on the stump he dramatically articulated promise after promise - about repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) for health coverage, about building a wall between Mexico and the US (with Mexico paying for it), about "draining the swamp" of Washington.

The Washington Post compiled a list of 282 promises a few weeks after last year's election. As he campaigned, Trump boasted: "We're going to win so much. You're going to get tired of winning."

Most of his promises, however, lacked specific, policy-oriented proposals that could translate into legislation, and thus far - even with both houses of Congress in Republican hands - few bills related to those promises have become law. And, at this point, nobody's fatigued from winning - just from trying to keep up with the "show".

Trump's governmental impact so far has been greatest in reversing regulations or orders created during Barack Obama's eight years in office, especially in the environmental and education sectors, and in withdrawing from, or seriously questioning, the previous administration's international pacts, such as the Paris climate agreement or the Iranian nuclear deal.

Obliterating Obama's legacy seems to be the president's abiding preoccupation, leading Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy, chair of the Democratic Governors Association, to remark tartly of Trump: "If he had followed Lincoln, he'd have tried to reinstate slavery."

In fairness, though, that's a president's prerogative and an important part of executive power. Obama also had trouble passing legislation (largely because Republicans were in charge of the House from 2011 onward), and he resorted to signing executive orders and other measures to make the regulatory changes he wanted.

During the past several weeks, Trump has attempted to reach out to Congressional Democrats to try to advance his agenda. Though he's labelled New York Senator and minority leader Chuck Schumer a "total hypocrite", the president has been even more vociferous lambasting fellow Republican Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, for not being able to pass a healthcare bill and other initiatives.

But McConnell isn't alone. Since entering politics, Trump has lashed out at 10 other GOP senators when they said or did something he didn't like.

Ten days ago, Senator Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican and the retiring chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, was informed by the president that he "couldn't get elected dog catcher" had he decided to stay in politics. Corker fired back at "an utterly untruthful president", who's responsible for "the debasing of our nation".

A few weeks earlier, Corker was on the receiving end of a Trump Twitter tirade, complete with a presidential outburst that he "[d]idn't have the guts to run" in 2018.

Corker, someone Trump considered for vice president and secretary of state, responded an hour later by saying: "It's a shame the White House has become an adult day care centre. Someone obviously missed their shift this morning."

Away from Twitter spasms and during an extensive New York Times interview following the first web-based wrestling match, Corker remarked: "Sometimes I feel like he's [Trump] on a reality show of some kind, when he's talking about these big foreign policy issues... He doesn't realise that... we could be heading towards World War III with the kind of comments he's making.

"I don't think he understands that the messages that he sends out, especially when you take into account they're being received in other languages around the world, what that does."

Corker's worry about the world's perception of the tweets and unscripted statements is documented in a 37-country survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in Washington and released last summer. Responding to the question whether they were confident the US president - Trump - would do the right thing in international affairs, just 22pc expressed confidence, while 74pc registered a lack of confidence. When Obama left office, 64pc were confident and 23pc were not.

What's clear from all his feuding with fellow Republicans is that partisan loyalty and political ideology are less important to Trump than registering legislative victories - and receiving the public's credit and applause for making deals.

Yet if Congress is always off-balance - is the president with us or against us? - it will be difficult to form long-term coalitions. In addition, how will his core supporters react if Democrats become involved in Trump's initiatives?

A year of close Trump-watching leads to the conclusion that unpredictability and mercurial behaviour are the only plausible prognostications an observer can hazard about this presidency and its future. A new firestorm can ignite in a New York second and burn for days across the media, as happened a couple weeks ago following a phone call to the wife of a soldier killed in the line of duty.

Trump's historic and unanticipated victory a year ago brought into bold relief several American obsessions: a magnetic attraction to celebrity, an elevated regard for wealth and a somewhat devilish desire to toss the dice and try something totally different.

"Forgotten Americans," in Trump's phrase, saw him as someone of success who might restore the country to its previous economic, social and cultural position after the foreign and domestic crises that beleaguered the nation in recent decades.

Shortly after John F Kennedy's assassination in 1963, trust in the US federal government stood at 77pc. Today the level of trust languishes at 20pc.

Without trust in government, people form a jaundiced opinion of politics - and want something or someone new and not connected to the circumstances that created the national unease and distress.

Moreover, about two-thirds of the US citizenry today think the country is on the wrong track, another indication of Yankee funk, and this is occurring at a time of low unemployment, a booming stock market and relatively strong consumer confidence.

"We live by symbols," the legendary US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes observed over a century ago. Donald Trump is, indeed, president, but he is also a symbol of the divided states of America and of a historical moment when politics across the Atlantic seems so broken, an inexperienced yet famous outsider can become appealing to millions of voters.

Is he the harbinger of a new age of governmental leadership or a one-time lark of populist petulance? It will take longer than a year to learn the answer to that question.

Robert Schmuhl is a professor of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana and an adjunct professor in the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University. He's currently a Visiting Research Fellow at the Rothermere American Institute at the University of Oxford

This article appeared in the weekend Review section of the Irish Independent.  You can find the piece online here.