America First: What will Trump mean for American democracy?

PUBLISHED: 10:36 28 January 2017 | UPDATED: 17:14 28 January 2017

A limousine on fire during a demonstration

A limousine on fire during a demonstration

© 2017 Bloomberg Finance LP

The opening days of the Trump presidency have been part black comedy, part political thriller and part pure farce

US President Donald TrumpUS President Donald Trump

Somehow it was inevitable that Donald Trump chose My Way as the tune to waltz first lady Melania around the floor at his Liberty inaugural ball. For, only a few hours earlier, he’d delivered an inauguration speech unlike that of any of his 44 predecessors as president of the United States; a speech that was the equivalent of ‘it’s my way or the highway’.

Fitting enough, perhaps, for a man who is counting on highways, walls, coal mines, stroke-of-a-pen oil pipeline expansions and climate change denial to cement him in office. Fitting enough, perhaps, for a president whose bullying, aggressive, nationalist America First inaugural speech at least had the merit of confirming that he intends to occupy the White House in the same narcissistic, bullyboy, fake news promulgating, protectionist populist style he employed to campaign for it.

But even those of us who had expected as much hadn’t quite anticipated such a chilling performance on the historic steps of Washington’s Capitol building, as much a symbol of American democracy as the Statue of Liberty in The Donald’s New York hometown symbolises its compassion.

Compassion was certainly in short supply as America’s 45th president abandoned all sense of grace, good manners, national unity, consensual politics with a bile-filled, slogan-sated address that had all the eloquence of his Twitter feed.

Instead of reaching out to the 75% of American adults who did not vote for him, President Trump sought only to appeal to the hardest element of his own core support base, This, surely, was the inaugural speech of a man who never really thought he’d win the election, never truly thought he’d become president and, deep down in his psyche, is still campaigning to convince himself he’s legitimately in office.

Maybe that, in a strange way, explains his graceless and unprecedented inaugural failure to offer any thanks to President Obama for his work and achievements in office.

Maybe that, too, explains his excoriating, self-serving, anti-democratic attack on both Republican and Democratic party leaders even as they stood politely applauding him (albeit, in many cases on both sides of the political divide, with grimly gritted teeth). If, for once, ‘draining the swamp’ wasn’t in what passed for the inaugural script, it might as well have been.

Maybe that, too, explains the crude resort to painting America in dystopian, almost apocalyptic, terms with his ‘carnage’ rhetoric and its subliminal undertones of a third rate Hollywood disaster movie. Of course, there is no denying that the US has plenty of domestic issues, and, yes, too many desperate ‘forgotten people’ across the Rust Belt and rural America. If that wasn’t the case, The Donald wouldn’t have been standing on the Capitol building steps pouring out poisonous, divisive banalities and promising simplistic and dangerous solutions to complex problems.

But maybe, just maybe, there was cause for symbolic hope for that non-Trump supporting 75% when the rain descended just as the president began his inaugural address/rant. (Were the heavens hellbent on raining on this most divisive of president’s grand parade?).

It’s no great secret that Trump has never been much of a book reader, not least of political history. Spreadsheets and building contracts, along with his own Twitter traffic, have been his preferred reading matter.

So, it would be interesting to know, if The Donald was personally aware his recurring America First inaugural address slogan directly echoed that of Charles Lindbergh and American fascist sympathisers who campaigned to try and stop FDR taking America into the Second World War.

But, even if Trump himself was oblivious to that historic echo, there can be little doubt that his exceedingly well-read chief of staff and erstwhile Breibart News eminence grise, Steve Bannon, poster boy for the Alt-Right, was well aware of it and the sinister connotation it conjured up in millions of minds inside and outside the US.

If nothing else those echoes played into the Trump inaugural narrative of foreigners and immigrants exploiting America’s good nature and generosity and promising miraculous salvation via a global trade reversing gospel of isolationism and protectionism.

“From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first,” intoned The Donald in the style of a third-rate TV evangelist.

Is it any wonder that Nigel Farage, an honoured guest (courtier?) at ‘King’ Donald’s ‘coronation’ was in a near-swoon at his words? Is it any wonder that Farage’s successor as UKIP leader, Paul Nuttall — poised to challenge rattled Labour in the Stoke Central byelection – declared himself ‘massively excited’ by the dawn of the Trump presidency?

Theresa May, on the other hand, ought to have been reading and re-reading, and analysing, every single word of that speech as she jetted to Washington for her audience with the biggest ego ever to have landed in the White House.

Amidst all the fine talk of ‘old alliances’ and the ‘special relationship, it should serve as a reminder that Donald Trump will still put America first when it comes to trade deals and that, whatever deal he eventually offers down the line, it will fall far short of the potential losses in European trade under a ‘hard/clean’ Brexit.

With May’s Davos speech championing global free trade still fresh in the mind, the prime minister’s air travel time might also have included more than a little musing on the irony that Chinese president Xi Jinping’s Davos speech echoed her own far more than the noises coming out of the US.

Even before May’s on-trend kitten heels traipsed across the White House threshold Trump had announced he is pulling the US out of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, indicated he plans to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement and hauled in a string of corporate executives, including the automobile industry, to warn of tough border taxes and tariffs for those who move production outside America, or even resist his calls to relocate existing overseas production operations back to the US.

Naked protectionism and America First, red in tooth and claw indeed, prime minister!

As The Times argued this week in a leader headlined ‘Free Trade First’... “Britain has been handed a historic chance to make the case for global commerce in the first days of the most protectionist US administration in modern history.”

The Murdoch Times also flagged up the handicap surrounding euphoric speculation of a UK-US trade deal being signed within 90 days of Brexit. Under EU rules, the UK wouldn’t be allowed to formally open talks with the US until after Brexit takes place.

Together with the not inconsiderable matter, which even a Trump approach to presidency would find hard to circumvent, that the US congress requires a six-month notice of a trade pact from the White House. And, for the record, the quickest one the US has ever negotiated (with South Korea) took just over 4 years to ratify.

Last week, I wrote in The New European that Trump’s running feud with most of the mainstream US media in the build-up to the inauguration was ‘beyond satire’.

Well, little did I anticipate that ‘beyond satire’ would dismally fail to even come close to the farcical reality of the dawn of his presidency.

Clearly shaken by the biggest political protest gatherings America has seen since the Vietnam War, Trump and his senior aides spent the opening weekend attacking a ‘dishonest’ press. Sparked extraordinarily by a reality-denying insistence that a record crowd had attended the swearing-in ceremony and that media reports that the attendance had been far smaller than for Obama’s inaugurations amounted to ‘deliberately false reporting’.

In a performance worthy of a Saturday Night Live skit in its own right, Trump’s new press secretary Sean Spicer was sent out by his boss to fume and froth: “This was the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period. These attempts to lessen the enthusiasm of the inauguration are shameful and wrong.” Before ominously declaring: “We’re going to hold the press accountable.”

For his pains, the hapless Spicer incurred only derision and ridicule, with newspapers and TV repeatedly re-running stills and footage proving beyond doubt that the Trumpian claims of a record turnout was a mix of hubris and a clear case of a fake news exercise straight out of the White House.

As the media mockery escalated, Kellyanne Conway, the new president’s counsellor and key election strategist, managed to undermine her own savvy reputation, by going on NBC’s political flagship show Meet the Press to defend the indefensible by suggesting that Spicer’s discredited record turnout claim was merely an “alternative fact” (No, me neither).

Meanwhile, in another twist on reality, Trump elected to visit the CIA the day after his inauguration to claim that he was in a “running war” with the media and that they were to blame for “false” reports that he was a critic of the agency. Perhaps POTUS deludes himself that America’s spook community somehow doesn’t follow his Twitter account or watch his televised campaign trail rants and press conference accusations. It prompted outgoing CIA director John Brennan to publicly brand it a “despicable display of self-aggrandisement. Trump should be ashamed of himself”.

All of this against the backdrop of an estimated two and a half million people in Washington and cities across America and several other nations joining marches protesting against Trump’s “Pussygate” misogyny, and his policy on human rights and climate change issues.

But size, we should remember, really does matter to Donald Trump and that oh-so-fragile monster ego. After all, this is the only US president on record as feeling the need to publicly boast about the size of his penis on the campaign trail.

And, on the subject of size mattering, there’s that little matter of three million more Americans having voted for Hillary Clinton than for The Donald. Particularly sensitive given that Trump had long derided an “outdated” electoral college and championed the popular vote deciding POTUS.

So, in another remarkable outburst on Tuesday, the president out of the blue revived his sensational and totally unproven claim that he’d really won the popular vote too, but three million fraudulent and illegal voters had swung it Clinton’s way. It was a bizarre move that even provoked an intervention from Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, who not only dismissed the suggestion but effectively suggested Trump should shut up on the subject.

In reality, there is far more evidence to back-up US intelligence services insistence that Kremlin-approved Russian cyber-hackers had sought to influence the presidential campaign in Trump’s favour... even if we’ll probably never know either way whether their sinister efforts proved a deciding factor.

But the row over the claims of mass voter fraud has done nothing to allay the fears of those who view Trump as a demagogue-in-waiting inside the Oval Office. Interestingly, Trump’s swift counter to the storm was to suddenly announce his plan to go-ahead with that Mexican border wall and tough and controversial new immigration controls.

All in all, however, it was a pretty toxic Washington which awaited Theresa May, on her mission as a supplicant for post Brexit British trade favour, a beseecher for stronger presidential commitment to NATO and, given the chance, a defender of international agreements on global warming. However, despite a fanciful advance splash in the Mail on Sunday, there seems little chance the prime minister was up for giving The Donald a full-frontal dressing down, even in private, over his attitude to women.

Meanwhile a former Trump campaign aide told me this week not to expect the president to show the ‘traditional diplomatic niceties’ over forthcoming European elections in France, Germany and Holland. “He’ll think he’s entitled to indicate which candidates he prefers rather than staying neutral.” Sweet music to the ears of Marine Le Pen in particular, perhaps. Or maybe not, as some of the Front National leader’s inner circle are warning that, among female voters merely flirting with the idea of voting for Le Pen, there’s a serious risk that a Trump endorsement could prove more a turn off than an overture to electoral intercourse.

In another development the US Committee to Protect Journalists has criticised Washington police over the arrest of six journalists who were covering the inauguration day protests, and called for any charges to be dropped. If convicted, the arrested journalists could theoretically face up to 10 years and/or $25,000 dollar fines.

Just a few days in to the presidency, and the Showman President versus America’s Press looks set to be the hot ticket show that runs and runs. Call it Disunited States of America, if you like.

Part black comedy, part political thriller, part pure farce…. but in the fake news, post-truth age, the fate of the Trump presidency and the future of American democracy, and with it that of the whole western world, could hang precariously on the outcome.

Paul Connew is a media commentator, broadcaster and one of the authors of a new book, Last Words: Can Newspapers Survive The Decline of Print? published this month by Abramis. He’s is a former editor of the Sunday Mirror, deputy editor of the Daily Mirror and a former US Bureau Chief for the Mirror Group

PANEL

The mounting controversy over President Trump’s potential ‘conflict of interest’ issues could end up in court.

It comes after a group of prominent legal experts announced they were suing the president alleging he’s in violation of the US constitution because he continues to own hotels and businesses that do business with foreign governments.

The action was filed in New York on Monday by Crew (Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a liberal watchdog group.

Trump lawyers plan to vigorously contest the case and argue that the president has already gone further than legally required to distance himself from the Trump business empire now being run by his sons.

But if Crew can press their case through to the discovery phase, it might force the defence legal team to reveal far more detail about the complex and labyrinthine details of the Trump empire than ever before.

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