While much has been already been written about President Donald Trump recent racist taunts against four first-term women Members of Congress, I have a few observations of my own to make.
In the first place, no one should have been surprised that as Trump began his re-election campaign he would target and bait people of colour. This, after all, was how he won in 2016. Back then he incited against Mexicans, Muslims, and refugees, in addition, of course, to the “fake news media.” It appears that nothing has changed — his modus operandi and his targets are still the same.
In a series of tweets and then at a campaign event this past week in North Carolina, the old-new Trump was on full display. As the entertainer-performer-in-chief, his campaign rallies are more like a stand-up comedy routine than political speech-making. He taunts his opponents, making crude jokes at their expense; he conjures up threats, preying on his audience’s hatreds, fears, and insecurity; he makes outrageous (and often fabricated) boasts and false promises that he has no intention of fulfilling; and he complains bitterly about the suffering he must endure because he alone is fighting an establishment that impedes his efforts at every turn.
There is a political agenda to be sure, but for the most part, his rallies are performance, masking that agenda.
When Trump first began his run for the presidency in 2015, the Republican establishment had contempt for him and his antics. Back then, Senator Lindsey Graham called him a “a wrecking ball for the Republican Party who’s a race-baiting, xenophobic bigot.” Then Chair of the Republican Party, Reince Priebus, charged that Trump’s rhetoric came “at the expense of American values.” Other critics included former vice-president Dick Cheney, Majority Leader Paul Ryan, and Senator Marco Rubio.
He’s not, in my view, a racist by any stretch of the imagination. I’ve never heard him make a single racist statement!
It was during that primary season that I had a leading Republican (a former Senator, turned political consultant) on my weekly TV show Viewpoint. At that point in the election, Donald Trump had taken a lead in the polls and the GOP establishment that had once rejected his candidacy has suddenly fallen silent. I asked my guest “Why?”
His response was quite simple. “They are afraid of his ‘base,’” he told me. They had seen the enthusiasm he generated at his rallies and although they still “found his message repulsive,” they didn’t want to “alienate his supporters” by continuing to attack him.
When it became clear, that Trump had defeated his opponents, the Republican establishment made what can only be described as a virtual “Faustian deal” with the presumptive nominee. If he won, they would be in a position to get what they wanted most: more conservative judges, a revamped regressive system of taxation, sweeping deregulation that would roll back decades of reform, and undoing most of President Obama’s progressive agenda, including the GOP-hated “Obamacare.”
In return, the GOP would not only remain silent in the face of Trump’s peccadilloes — past and present — they would also subject themselves to the humiliation of actually trying to defend his words and behaviour. Listen to this “post-Faustian deal” Lindsey Graham: “He’s not, in my view, a racist by any stretch of the imagination. I’ve never heard him make a single racist statement!”
There were those Republicans who believed (or maybe just hoped) that after entering the Oval Office Trump would become more presidential. They were sorely mistaken. If anything, his behaviour became more erratic and provocative. His bizarre claims, his inflammatory tweets, and some of his executive orders have continued to generate outrage. While members of his party may have felt some discomfort at these “un-presidential” antics, they soon learned that, for Trump, there was a method to what appeared to be madness.
He dominated every news cycle. When challenged by negative developments, a “crazy” tweet would create sufficient enough distraction, that it became the day’s “Breaking News.” Even his recent North Carolina rally was initially organised to divert attention from the scheduled Congressional testimony of Robert Mueller which the White House assumed would prove embarrassing for the president. And ever conscious of his base, Trump knew how to turn attacks into a rallying cry for the faithful. His enemies hadn’t changed — Mexicans, Muslims, and Media. Nor had his reaction to them.
What had changed is that the entertainer-in-chief became so enchanted with the power he had over his followers (speaking before large rallies of adoring fans can have a drug-like effect) and they had become so captivated by his message of resentment and fear of the “others” against whom he rails that we have entered a danger zone.
In the beginning, Trump may have been merely playing a part — now he really means it. And some of his supporters may have found it liberating that his taunts and insults of “undesirable” foreigners now gave them permission to no longer need to be polite and correct in their public views. Now they are acting on this in hateful and hurtful ways. Hate crimes are up and law enforcement agencies which once focused their resources mainly on “Muslim extremism” have shifted to confront the growing threat of “white nationalism.”
And through it all, the president seems not only not to care about the impact his antics are having on our country and its political culture, he actually appears to be delighted by it.
Compounding this growing concern has been the Trump administration’s obstructionism in the face of legitimate Congressional inquiries. While Republicans tormented the Clinton administration with repeated investigations into their earlier Arkansas financial dealings and Hillary Clinton was subjected to repeated grilling over the patently false accusation that she was responsible for the murder of the US Ambassador to Libya, Trump has refused to cooperate with any Congressional requests for information. He has refused: to release his tax returns; to allow inquiries into whether or not his businesses have profited from his presidency; to provide information as to how he was able to overturn the decision of the intelligence community to deny security clearance to his relatives; to explain why he fired the FBI chief who was investigating Russian meddling in our elections; and to justify why and how the Commerce Department sought to make a change in the way the census is conducted. The president has not only refused to comply with these legitimate requests for information, he has also refused to allow administration officials to testify before Congress. All of this has not only created a sense of impunity with this administration seeing itself above the law. It has also been exploited by the president in tweets and speeches to inflame his base against the Congress, the courts, and the rule of law.
A few weeks back, after Trump tweeted that he might seek to change the Constitution to enable him to run in 2024 for a third term, one commentator raised the question “What would Donald Trump do if he lost this election in 2020?” Would he leave office gracefully? And would his supporters accept the verdict of the majority of voters or would their anger and resentment that he has so assiduously cultivated lead them to protests and violence?
These are worrisome questions, to be sure, but the very fact that they are being asked should be cause for concern. We are living in the political world that Trump and the GOP’s “Faustian Deal” has created and it’s dangerous.
Dr James J. Zogby is the president of Arab American Institute, a non-profit, non-partisan national leadership organisation.