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Portrait of Donald Trump - President of the United States

BLOG - 27 November 2018

Could we really have rounded off our gallery of neo-authoritarians without Donald Trump’s portrait? Of course, he is not a dictator, but he is in some ways disturbingly similar to his authoritarian counterparts: he is an autocrat in power, constrained by the democratic and liberal environment in which he operates. His portrait, written by someone who knows Washington well (under a pseudonym) also helps us to reflect on the social, economic and cultural background that leads to the emergence of this type of leader.

A final article will conclude our series on 29 November, in the attempt to launch a debate on the action to be taken: what to do in the face of neo-authoritarians?

Michel Duclos, Special Advisor, editor of this series.


A businessman who inherits a real estate company in New York and embraces the lifestyle of this milieu, characterized by vulgar flamboyance and murky connections.

A reputation for never honoring his contracts, which only serve as the basis for new negotiations. Six bankruptcies that distanced him from traditional financial players and attracted others, both less traditional and much more opaque. An obsession for advertising, exemplified by his name displayed in large letters on all the buildings he touched upon.

Divorces, adulteries, trials, fights and obscenities - always in public -, an apartment the interior of which makes the Gulf princes’ palaces look austere in comparison, and a participation, for about 10 years, in a reality show where, in front of millions of Americans, he bullied, shoved and insulted candidates before firing them with his famous "you are fired".

A complete lack of experience in managing a complex organization, in politics and in public service.

You have before you, as you may have already guessed, the 45th President of the United States of America, undoubtedly the most powerful man in the world. A President whom no one saw coming, whose candidacy, emphatically announced from the Trump Tower (where else?), had only provoked sarcasm and shrugs, and whose improvised campaign was punctuated by scandals and blunders. 

D. Trump is a meteor that has pulverized certainties in American politics.

On the evening of 8 November 2016, as polling stations were closing, all polling organizations, no matter their political color, predicted he would lose. His competitor's team hardly managed to conceal the certainty they would win, and his seemed rather gloomy. A few hours later, he was President of the United States, to the elites’ general astonishment and indignation, Democrats and Republicans alike.

D. Trump is a meteor that has pulverized certainties in American politics. A meteor no one expected since macroeconomic figures were, in 2016, looking good - if not very good - with almost full employment and the longest uninterrupted growth since 1945, which guaranteed, or so we were told, the victory of the candidate of the party in power. A meteor who, without being a Republican, hijacked this party as one hijacks an airplane to own it. 

Trump is, before anything, the intuition he alone had that, whatever the figures, the country was sick, that millions of Americans were ready to rebel against elites who had ignored their sufferings and anxieties, even if it meant turning the table upside down. After the election, universities and research institutes, which this country has plenty of, sought to understand what had happened. They found out that, according to statistics, approximately half of the Americans’ income stagnated or even declined over the last 30 years, that 10 million Americans had lost their homes after the 2008 crisis, that the level of inequality had never been so high since 1910. They further discovered, that 59% of Americans would be unable to cope with an unexpected $500 expense, that 17% of Americans work more than 60 hours a week. Those results also uncovered, that regions which were devastated by globalization and automation were often those that voted for Obama, and then for Trump. In this land of despair, in a country that is doing well overall - but what does overall mean when you’re not part of it? - the wind of revolt blew. Its symptoms were the hatred of those who are successful, the fear of those who are different, the feeling of having nothing to lose, and the expectation of a providential man. 

Trump is this providential man: they do not hold the fact that he is a billionaire against him because he talks like them and flatters their prejudices. He tells them, to this day still, in the great political rallies that he regularly organizes and which generate a lot of enthusiasm, that they are right to be afraid, to feel abandoned and betrayed, and to distrust the elites. He alone listens to them, respects them, defends them and understands them. The United States is in an appalling situation, the entire world exploits them, millions of potential immigrants, rapists and criminals submerge them and steal their jobs, the economy is adrift, the country is bogged down in wars in which it has no interests and is trapped in alliances both costly and useless. This was the new President’s apocalyptic inauguration speech. It is also the topic echoed in each of his statements.

With his victory and his determination to meet the aspirations of his electoral base, Trump has already turned the American political landscape upside down. He is redefining the American right: the Republican Party defended free trade, budgetary rigor and interventionism abroad; Trump is making it protectionist, isolationist and nationalist, and is increasing the budget deficit by more than one point of GNP in a period of growth. Thanks to the enthusiastic support of Republican voters who have never been so loyal to a President they elected, he forces his opponents to either resign or submit to his authority.

"America first" he claims, yet in practice, it really is ''America alone''.

American conservative leaders thought they would easily take over an isolated and inexperienced President. Yet today, they are domesticated, only a few months away from elections before which they feel obliged to give their supporters guarantees of Trumpism. They find comfort in telling themselves that, after all, this President, however disreputable he may be, chose ultra-conservative judges and voted for a tax reform according to their wishes. 

So far, there seems to be some kind of rationale behind an election that recalls others in times of crisis, when voters were suspicious of their elites and institutions, and were tempted by the adventure of rebellion. 

Ending on such a note would, however, be to forget the very character of D. Trump, who brings irrationality, unpredictability and chaos into the picture. Nothing would be more wrong than to imagine a Machiavelli who calculates, analyzes and, finally, acts. Trump doesn’t read anything, to the point where his close friends think he is dyslexic. He spends hours in front of the television, prioritarily in front of the conservative channel Fox News, where commentators who believe in conspiracy theories and who indulge in all types of approximations, exaggerations and imprecations get carried away. In any case, his pathological narcissism leads him to evolve in his own cognitive sphere where, when facts don’t suit him, he invents others. The newspapers note his "lies", which are many - yet this word is not adequate because he believes in the untruths he asserts to his interlocutors, even when these are heads of state. These are not sophisticated arguments, but simple sentences that he repeats over and over again in interviews, in which he does not answer questions but rather listens to himself speak. They include statements regarding foreign policy, which express some obsessions that he is not ready to give up. He is a protectionist, and views international trade as a zero-sum game in which only industry counts. He is an isolationist, and takes advantage of a military instrument intended to deter rather than to act. He is hostile to alliances and indifferent to human rights, he only believes in the crudest form of power relations, he hates international organizations to which he opposes the only reality that matters to him, i.e. the nation-state, and he appreciates authoritarian leaders with whom he thinks he can reach agreements more easily. "America first" he claims, yet in practice, it really is ''America alone''. That being said, Trump follows Obama's footsteps who had also understood the American people’s lassitude towards foreign commitments, and who drew the necessary consequences, as in Syria or Ukraine. Style is important, and his successor’s is brutal, unilateral and uncooperative. Yet the content remains the same, i.e. the United States’ relative and probably irreversible withdrawal from the international scene.

He therefore treats the United States as the Trump Organization and his cabinet members as his accountant.

Trapped in his certainties, impervious to advice and confident in his abilities, Trump is living his presidency all by himself. Absolute power over a small structure is all he has ever known and he’s not going to change at the age of 72. He therefore treats the United States as the Trump Organization and his cabinet members as his accountant. He does not see the relevance of the administration, whose opinions he ignores and whom he does not inform of his choices. He complacently makes decisions without anyone knowing on what basis he does so. Details are indifferent to him once he has claimed victory.

He only accepts servile performers around him. The American administration is now adrift. Disconnected with its President, whose outbursts it is unable to foresee and whose orientations it profoundly disapproves. It is nothing more than a headless chicken pursuing its work. Without conviction, it reaffirms the United States' traditional positions, even if it involves being publicly disavowed. It thus advocates firmness towards Russia even though D. Trump calls for the readmission of this country in the G8... In reality, American politics today is D. Trump, and him alone. 

An authoritarian leader, both self-confident and indifferent to the law and rules, a domesticated party, an unconditional electoral base (around 35% of the population) and an opposition petrified by the head of state... one could fear the worst if this country did not have solid institutions and an active civil society. The federal states, local authorities and the judiciary are fully playing their role as countervailing powers. Judges are demanding and obtaining changes to regulations, and are about to examine the dismantling of the regulation regarding the protection of the environment. There will be a judge, Mueller, who will decide on the President’s future, following an investigation into his campaign team’s ties to Russia. The media, despite D. Trump’s threats, insults and criticism, remain entirely free and are ruthless towards him. Never before have organizations been so active in protests and litigations.

Although American democracy is strong and stands the test, it will not emerge unscathed. In a year, the American public debate has already worryingly deteriorated.

What was a scandal yesterday now leaves people indifferent, be it the racketeering of the President’s family and entourage, his ongoing fake news, his lack of personal dignity or his regular insults. Even the revelation according to which he paid a porn actress to buy her silence on his affair with her leaves a country known for its sexual puritanism unmoved. The President contradicts both himself and his cabinet members, cabinet members contradict each other, the White House spokeswoman justifies the most obvious untruths. Nothing makes a difference: one can get used to anything. 

Invoking facts and truth hardly counts when it comes to shouting the loudest.

Whether they are wary of the accumulation of revelations or have become cynical, Americans are under no illusion regarding their President. Yet many, including in the most religious circles, do not blame him. The silence of some is filled with the uproar of others, who feel authorized by this example from the top to contribute to the general chaos with their own invectives, lies and often racism. Conspiracy theories are flourishing. Invoking facts and truth hardly counts when it comes to shouting the loudest. In any case, facts no longer have the ability to discredit an argument, and reality gradually fades before fantasies. 

Meanwhile, both Democrat and Republican elites despise and execrate D. Trump. The media - be it The New York Times or The Washington Post - openly campaign against him. The "high society" dreams of his resignation or his indictment and, in the meantime, feeds on the slightest anecdote showing the extent to which this man does not deserve to be President. In this context, Trump’s opposition rides the high horses of indignation: it screams each time he acts provocatively, i.e. very often. It thus plays into his hands by proving that he is indeed the enemy of the elites and by resorting to impalpable arguments much less effective than his simplistic assertions. The opposition gives moral lectures rather than it does politics - a moral that exasperates Trump voters, who take it as a mark of condescension and who feel that it has nothing to do with their daily lives.

When confronted to this surge of hostility, Trump reciprocates every attack. He discovered that twitter allows him to directly address his electorate by bypassing his enemy the media, and he uses it without taking nuances or conventions into consideration. It's a fight to the death: he won't give in nor concede anything. That being said, this hysteria means that he is the one dictating the front page of newspapers and television programs. At the end of the day, the opposition eventually talks about Trump and Trump only.

D. Trump proved or recalled that the democratic game was based on the respect of others, rationality and debate, but that voters quickly got used to their abandonment.

Almost 18 months later, in hindsight, the United States offers the example of the takeover of power by a populist leader in a Western democracy. The lesson is bitter. D. Trump proved or recalled that the democratic game was based on the respect of others, rationality and debate, but that voters quickly got used to their abandonment. He showed that one could lie with impunity, betray one's promises, abandon all dignity and insult one's opponents. Trump's presidency also demonstrated that the unacceptable could turn out to be accepted within the period of 18 months, as long as voters felt that it was to defend their interests. This might be the very definition of populism. Yet Trump also unintentionally stressed the importance of institutions for the defense of liberal democracy. No surprise that elsewhere, they are the first targets of authoritarian leaders.

Almost 18 months later, in hindsight, the United States offers the example of the takeover of power by a populist leader in a Western democracy. The lesson is bitter. D. Trump proved or recalled that the democratic game was based on the respect of others, rationality and debate, but that voters quickly got used to their abandonment. He showed that one could lie with impunity, betray one's promises, abandon all dignity and insult one's opponents, and that one could have the unacceptable be accepted in 18 months, as long as voters felt that it was to defend their interests - this might be the very definition of populism. Yet Trump also unintentionally stressed the importance of institutions for the defense of liberal democracy. No surprise that elsewhere, they are the first targets of authoritarian leaders.

That being said, Trump got rid of all those who were trying to moderate him. The Secretary of State (M. Pompeo) and the National Security Advisor (J. Bolton) he has chosen were only appointed to implement a policy of which he is the sole judge. The recent declaration of a trade war with China and the EU, which corresponds to his deepest protectionist instincts, proves it. Trump is now left without any control and has, at his disposal, the immense powers of a US President. The worst is yet to come. 

Moreover, nothing prevents him from being reelected in 2020. As we have seen, Trump is only partially an accident of history, the result of the electoral system. Behind the man lies the crisis of a middle class impacted by the economic choices of the past 40 years and threatened by new technological developments. Obama had felt it. Elected on the theme of change, he tried to provide an answer to this issue but without leaving the neoliberal paradigm. However, radicalization, sensitive to the right, does not spare the left. Fueled by the hatred and contempt of their opponent, Democrat militants are shifting left, as shown by the result of the primaries for the next legislative elections in November 2018. The moderates, "stunned" by H. Clinton’s defeat, remain silent. The left, which already showed its enthusiasm and good organization behind Sanders against H. Clinton could therefore win the primary in 2020 in a context where, amongst Democrats, no legitimate candidate is emerging. No one can say what the result of a confrontation between the outgoing President and a representative of the Democratic left would be.

 

Illustration : David MARTIN for Institut Montaigne

 

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