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The far-right’s useful idiot: How Trump’s attention seeking masks a reshaping of America

US President Donald Trump, pictured during an interviewe with Piers Morgan. Photo: Piers Morgan/Twitter - Credit: Archant

Pulitzer prize winner ALBERT SCARDINO reports on the ways his homeland is changing under its chaotic president.

He’s just the same, old Donald Trump is.

Last weekend, before he had even arrived, he grabbed Britain by the genitals by endorsing Boris Johnson for Tory leader. Then just after landing, he stuck his tongue into the mouth of London politics declaring the capital’s Muslim mayor a “stone cold loser”.

Today’s Tory party disarray at every level represents just the sort of chaos he loves to eat for lunch and then dispose of in the vomitorium to make room for more gluttony. “Why not let Nigel Farage take over the Conservative Party the way I took over the Republicans?” he wonders out loud.

In his visit to the UK, Trump served the same sort of useful purpose for the right wing that he does every day at home. He distracted the cameras and the voters. Without his buffoonish behaviour, the well organised cadres in conservative think tanks, law societies, charitable foundations and lobbyist offices might be forced into the open.

Instead, they work unmolested to undo the last 75 years of expansion of the national government, returning power to the individual states and to corporate and financial backers. In the process, they hope to disenfranchise millions of black, Latino and Asian voters; to roll back the rights women have gained since the 1960s; to undo federal health care and social security programs.

The goal of those funding the movement is straightforward: shrink federal power, returning it to the individual states where it can be more easily manipulated out of sight, as it was before the Great Depression brought Democrats to power.

They have already succeeded in their quest to shrivel taxes. Now they want to squeeze down expenditures by getting the federal government out of most areas of domestic life. That will balance the budget without raising taxes. Just let business be business, and we’ll all profit.

Trump is the useful tool to keep the camera trained elsewhere. As he showed this week, he sees Boris Johnson/Nigel Farage as the same sort of helpful clowns in Britain.

Missing from the British model – so far – is the efficient machine that the right wing has built behind the curtain in the US. Not that they haven’t made sporadic efforts. Robert Mercer, the US hedge fund financier behind much of the right’s activities, tried to seed the movement in the UK – with the creation of data analysis firm Cambridge Analytica, for example – but the UK had not yet organised the infrastructure needed to expand the movement.

The counter movement has also stymied the advance, so the UK has experienced the chaos and much of the shrinkage through the austerity plan, but the second phase isn’t here yet. Only by isolating Britain as a small state by achieving a no-deal Brexit would the right’s plan mimic the success in America. Thus, the Trumps at Buckingham Palace.

Trump hasn’t changed much at home, either. Since the end of his first month in office more than two years ago, his disapproval rating has remained stuck in deep negative territory. In most reliable polls, it now hovers in the low 40s on the approval scale, the mid-50s on the disapproval.

Other modern presidents have hit low points as bad or worse momentarily, but none other has ever settled so far down into such a deep valley. The needle has never come near crossing into positive space since his inauguration.

He remains the same petulant, erratic bully, too, aggressively uninformed and un-informing, using the Big Lie technique he admires so much from fascist and communist Europe.

Trump receives most of his information and perspective from listening. Like most narcissists, he hears those who praise him, threatens those who criticise him. Fox News is his enabler, the same way the tabloid press has enabled the extremists in the Tory party. The commentators on Fox stimulate Trump’s fantasies, but when the news department invited a Democratic presidential candidate on for an interview, he threatened the entire network.

That candidate, the 37-year-old Pete Buttigieg, stirs Trump’s deepest fears about his future. ‘Mayor Pete’ (broadcasters have readily accepted this name tag given his unfamiliar Maltese surname with an Arabic origin) has served two-terms at the head of government of South Bend, Indiana, a small university city on the tide line of American presidential politics.

Most of the Democratic candidates have been voicing opposition to Trump in their early days on the presidential hustings. In many ways, Mayor Pete represents Trump’s inverse.

A fit young man with a full head of hair versus an obese geriatric with dyed, woven hair plugs and an orange, sunbed complexion.

A US Naval Reserve intelligence officer who served in Afghanistan versus the draft dodger.

An openly gay man in a stable relationship versus a predator with a self-confessed history of abuse of women.

An elected Democrat from a Republican state versus a never-before-elected Republican from a Democratic city that reviles its native son.

A successful student from an academic family (father and mother both held professorships at Notre Dame; he holds degrees from Harvard and Oxford, fluent in seven languages), versus a poor pupil who squeaked through a business course and now threatens lawsuits against any institution that releases his transcripts.

In other ways, Mayor Pete frightens Trump because his presidential campaign seems so hauntingly familiar so far. Like Trump at the start of his run for president, Buttigieg has few sponsors from within his party.

He barely registered in a huge field of candidates (24 who have met minimal requirements for federal matching funds, 230 others – yes, 230 – who have declared publicly) until he showed himself comfortable in front of the cameras.

For each, part of their ease with the media comes from having a supportive segment of the audience, a natural constituency. For Buttigieg it is the LGBT community, a group whose advocates accuse the Trump administration of increasingly treating as The Other, even as it becomes far more mainstream, at least in American cities and American law. For Trump, it was less educated white men from rural areas.

Their money has come from different sources, too. Buttigieg reported raising $7 million in the first three months of 2019 from small donors. There is very little that Trump has ever said about financing that turns out to be truthful, but he did report millions of dollars in loans to his own campaign from his personal funds before the money began to flow in from supporters. The Trump campaign has since repaid his loans, substituting contributions from various sources who may wish to influence his decisions as president. Did any of these post-campaign contributions constitute a lightly washed bribe? Let’s see what investigators discover in the coming months. And there are lots of investigators working.

By one count, 34 different federal, state and congressional bodies that we know of are inquiring into his behaviour, his relatives, his campaign organisation, his family members, his inauguration committee, his businesses and his many bankruptcies. The redactions in the Mueller report of his investigation into alleged criminal activity arising from Russian election interference suggest that more criminal cases are in the works.

So far, the Democrats have confounded the Republican attack forces with the sheer number of candidates. Using modern campaign strategy, a politician tries to define an opponent in the most negative way possible before that candidate is able to shape his own public image. Which of the 24 front runners should the Republicans target?

The field may begin to shrink soon. The presidential election may still be almost a year and a half away, the first primaries and caucuses about eight months, but the first presidential debate takes place in Miami in three weeks. These debates will attract significant audiences, taking at least some of the attention off of Trump’s Twitter rants, and the Democrats will try to amplify biting news from congressional investigations into Trump’s affairs. Those investigations are many and varied, and they are grinding ahead in spite of the president’s stonewalling of the oversight committees in the House of Representatives.

Meanwhile, the attorneys general in Democratic states have taken a page out of the Republican handbook and have joined to sue federal agencies on a range of executive decisions, from immigration to federal land use to auto emissions.

States have taken the fight into their own hands on other fronts, too. New York passed a law last week requiring the tax authorities in Trump’s home state to release multiple years of his New York tax returns to congressional investigators if asked.

Even more aggressively, the New York attorney general Letitia James continues to examine the defunct Trump Foundation for abuse of its tax-exempt charitable status for Trump’s personal benefit, including commissioning a portrait of himself to hang in one of his golf clubs. That may amount to an inappropriate personal benefit or service from a tax-exempt organisation. Similarly, Trump used the foundation to make a $7 payment for dues for his youngest child to join a Boy Scout troupe, substituting the foundation’s tax exempt cash for his own taxable dollars.

But James has also cast a wider net to question the actions of certain Trump supporters, in and out of office.

One of those, Deutsche Bank, provided tens of millions of dollars in loans to Trump after he had already defaulted on tens of millions in other loans. James has subpoenaed the bank’s files regarding Trump going back many years. And she is also after one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the US, the National Rifle Association, a New York registered organisation, for alleged financial misdeeds in its executive offices.

She’s launched a probe into possible violations of labour laws at a Trump golf course in New York, and she is among those challenging the insertion of a question on citizenship into the census surveys to be used to count the population next year.

This last one falls under the broader Republican strategy of suppressing Democratic vote totals, a program devised before Trump ran for office.

First, reduce the number of residents recorded as living in areas likely to support Democratic candidates. Under US rules, it doesn’t matter for census purposes whether these residents are citizens or not. Once they are counted, they become eligible for representation in elected bodies, even though they can’t vote.

The Trump administration wants to require those who respond to census takers to say whether they are citizens. That would tend to dissuade those fearful of immigration enforcement officers from stepping up to be counted. Latinos, even those who have gained citizenship, worry that census data might be used by other government agencies against family and friends who aren’t citizens yet, so their participation rates in the census are already lower than other ethnic groups.

Latinos vote 3-1 in favour of Democrats. Every Latino vote suppressed is a white suburban vote enhanced. The US Supreme Court is expected to rule this month on a request by several states and civil rights organisations to prohibit the question.

The next step involves making it more difficult for people of colour and of Latin American origin to register to vote at all, or to vote once they are registered. This technique involves reducing the number of polling stations in their neighbourhoods, requiring government issued ID to vote, refusing people a chance to vote if the name on the voter registration list does not precisely match their ID.

These tactics wiped tens of thousands of voters off the rolls in Georgia last year, costing the Democratic candidate for governor the election, or so that candidate, Stacey Abrams, believes.

In Florida, a state that has voted barely in favour of Republicans for 30 years, no one who had ever been convicted of a felony could ever regain the right to vote, even after serving a prison sentence. Some 1.7 million Floridians, of a population of 19 million, had a felony criminal record, but had served their terms, so could not register. More than 35% were black men, in a state where they make up only 8% of the population. Black men tend to vote Democratic more than 85% of the time.

In a surprise to most observers, voters in Florida in November backed a state constitutional amendment that restored the right to vote to any ex-con who had completed his sentence. It began to look as if Democrats might have a once-in-a-century opportunity to break the Republican vice on government in the state, if only they could register these ex-cons to vote. Then the Republican strategists set to work.

The state legislature and the governor’s office (Republican controlled) this year adopted new laws that require felons to pay any outstanding costs associated with their cases before they could register. That included fines, victim restitution awards, even the administrative cost of being released. Until they do, Florida does not consider them to have served their sentences.

Not many ex-convicts come out of prison on a sound financial footing. At best, minimum wage jobs with no access to credit. Very few of the 1.7 million have yet been allowed to register. Trump’s prospects for winning Florida in next year’s presidential election remain very strong.

Not so much in some of the other states he would need to repeat his trick of losing the popular vote and winning the election. Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan have all experienced significant shifts toward Democrats in the last two years, contributing to the party winning control of the House of Representatives in 2018.

Still, the Republicans control both houses of the state legislature and the governor’s office in 22 states, versus 14 for the Democrats. The country remains split on regional lines, with the Deep South from Texas to Virginia forming the core of Trump’s strength. Those states also control the majority in the US Senate, a grip the Republicans are likely to retain for some time.

Nearly 50 years ago, Lewis Powell, a Washington lawyer, delivered a blueprint to his client, the US Chambers of Commerce, outlining what the national business community would have to do to regain its influence in American life. Start a new television network to provide a different slant on the news. Fund academic chairs at compliant universities to provide alternative ‘expert’ views on controversial subjects such as the economy, history, constitutional law. Create new think tanks to counterbalance the policy ideas coming out of established Washington centres.

The next year, Richard Nixon appointed Powell to the Supreme Court, where he served as a voice of moderation for 15 years. Meanwhile, corporate America embraced his recommendations enthusiastically. That project soon morphed into a broader assault on the Democratic Party. Over the next two decades, a new cadre on the right turned the message into a crusade. The corporate machinery Powell had envisaged set to work creating the tools to power the project: image manipulation, media management, neighbourhood political organising. They identified niches in the constitution that would allow them to take control of state legislatures and the courts.

Democrats, on the other hand, thought they could be safe if they could win the presidency and hold a majority on the courts. They gave up on the states. It was a mistake they are now trying to rectify. Yet, they have a tough time getting their message across.

When those 20 Democratic hopefuls gather for the first time to debate in Miami later this month, Trump, the great distractor, will be setting trash bins afire every place else.

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