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One year in, nightmare of Trump far from over

PAUL CONNEW on how, despite everything, the President retains his support base

From coast to coast an indeterminable number of Americans screamed helplessly at the sky on Wednesday, November 8. An alien invasion? Not exactly. But a novel way of protesting against the ‘alien’ they believe has invaded the White House and threatens to destroy US democracy while boasting he’ll ‘make America great again’.

Desperate. Daft. Defiant. Democratic? Maybe all of those simultaneously, but the ‘Scream Helplessly at the Sky’ movement at least represented liberal America’s method of marking the first anniversary of Donald Trump’s shock election victory and the seismic shift it brought.

It also served as a sobering reminder that, barring impeachment, a cabinet revolt to invoke the 25th Amendment declaring the president unfit for office or an unscheduled Act of God, we’re less than a quarter of the way into the Trump term of office.

As thousands of Americans elected to scream helplessly toward the heavens, POTUS himself was in Beijing courting China’s Xi Jinping whose president-for-life status and all-powerful ability to crackdown mercilessly on human rights, press freedom and voices of protest this most dictatorial and vainglorious of US presidents might well envy.

The 12 months since Trump’s election has seen American politics transformed beyond recognition, plunged into a scandal-soaked year of living dangerously, divisively, disruptively and desperately.

But on the first anniversary it is also worth recollecting that – fleeting – moment, in the early hours of November 9, 2016, when Trump’s victory speech offered the promise of a presidency different from the hate speech rhetoric of his grotesque, showboating campaign.

So unexpected was his victory that night that his chief speechwriter Stephen Miller was scrabbling to rewrite the concession speech they’d prepared and cobble together the triumphant version in time to address supporters.

Miller, the Alt-Right, anti-immigrant protégé of Trump’s campaign master strategist Steve Bannon, instinctively began striking the bombastic, vitriolic tone of the campaign trail, but suddenly The Donald surprised many of his campaign team by editing Miller’s words by hand and striking out much of the belligerent, triumphalist text.

Whether off his own bat, or by listening to more cautionary whispers from wiser heads, Trump echoed Abraham Lincoln and pledged: ‘Now it’s time for America to bind the wounds of division.’ There were even gracious words for opponent Clinton.

But any faint hopes that Trump the president and Trump the campaigner might be cut from a different cloth did not last long. The anniversary of his victory sees an America more divided than at anytime since the dark days of racial segregation, lynch law and the Vietnam War. Divisions between black and white America, Hispanic and white America, male and female America, liberal and conservative America have been whipped up to a chilling new degree. White Supremacists feel re-empowered and the gun lobby feels all too confidently immune from any threat of a real gun control.

Trump has stripped the dignity of his office from the moment of his inaugural address, which screamed ‘America First’ and was accompanied by laughable lies about the size of his inauguration crowd. From there has followed a welter of personal feuds, fights, vendettas and violations of political norms, frequently conducted via an insatiable addiction to his Twitter feed.

Through it all, though, a narrative has been developing – the Russian Connection, which has morphed from rumours and allegations into an investigation and, in recent weeks, indictments. And still it grows. This week the ‘Paradise Papers’ revealed that the president’s Commerce Secretary and billionaire longtime ally Wilbur Ross is linked through a British-registered shipping business stake to Vladimir Putin’s son-in-law and a Kremlin-connected oligarch already on the US government’s sanctions list.

In another development, court papers show that US attorney general and prominent Trump campaign figure, Jeff Sessions was aware that George Papadopoulos, the young foreign policy adviser who has now pleaded guilty and turned whistleblower, was liaising with Russian officials offering to ‘dish dirt’ on Hillary Clinton and also offering to fix a secret meeting with Putin. Although Sessions ‘shut down’ the conversation, he later failed to mention it as legally required during his Senate confirmation hearing. Given that Sessions has already had to recuse himself from overseeing the Russian Connection investigation because he also failed to declare his own meetings with Russia’s US Ambassador during the campaign, his position looks decidedly precarious and he might even conceivably fall into Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s net.

Such has been the chaos of the Trump presidency that Yuval Levin, editor of National Affairs, a prominent conservative policy journal, says it feels like the final year of a presidency, rather than the first year of one.

‘The general pattern of a presidency is a productive first year and then a steady decline toward exhaustion, incompetence and scandal. Trump’s first year has felt like the eighth year of recent presidents.’ Levin was, at least, a little optimistic that Trump’s presidency could be the ‘usual model in reverse’ and that ‘the beginning was likely worse than the end’.

But whether the presidency can last through to the end of its first term, let alone the eight years of a double term, is still open to question. With opinion polls now reflecting approval ratings averaging around 37%, a record low for a first year POTUS, it’s all too easy to dismiss the idea of Trump surviving through to a 2020 re-election run and winning.

But even anti-Trump Republican strategists acknowledge that, despite those poll ratings, Trump’s populist, anti-establishment, pro-gun lobby and racially-divisive persona retains the loyalty – at least for now – of his hardcore support base.

And there is genuine fear among them that, while the GOP currently has control of both Houses of Congress, they are a deeply divided party in the age of Trump. Not least with Steve Bannon – now back at the helm of Breitbart News and re-exerting his influence over the president – declaring war on the party establishment, backing Alt Right challengers in forthcoming elections and determined to reconfigure the GOP in line with his and Trump’s election credo.

Such internecine strife on the right should, theoretically, represent manna from electoral heaven for the Democrats in next year’s mid-terms and the 2020 presidential fight. But if Trump’s shock victory last year has left the GOP badly divided, the Democrats are finding the scars inflicted by their defeat are equally hard to heal, with the hostility between Clinton and Bernie Sanders and their supporters showing no sign of abating.

The nightmare is not over yet.

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