Among Abraham Lincoln’s many notable traits and extraordinary accomplishments are the pithy quotations he bequeathed to posterity that speak to his wisdom and understanding of human nature. One of my favourites is “You can fool some of the people all of the time, all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”
There have been many occasions when I have referred back to this piece of Lincoln wisdom since Donald Trump first began his race for the White House. Following his election as president of the United States, I am daily reminded of this quote.
Instead of seeing the 16th US president as his guide, Trump, it appears, takes his cue from a quote from Peter Weiss’ play Marat/Sade where the main character speaking disparagingly about how easy it is to propagate falsehoods among desperate masses says, “And anyone believes what they hear over and over again.”
Realising that he commands media attention as the occupant of the White House, in addition to having control of a massive following on Twitter, and an echo chamber consisting of Fox News and several popular talk radio programmes, Trump has propagated myth after myth on his susceptible base. Most concerning is the fact that his myths, repeated over and over, have been believed.
This trait was in evidence well before he entered the Republican contest in 2015. Early in the Obama administration, Donald Trump was one of the leading proponents of what came to be known as the “Birther Movement” — the myth suggesting that Barack Obama was not born in the US and, therefore, ineligible to serve as president. Alongside this falsehood was the suggestion that Obama was really a “closet-Muslim” and was lying about his Christian faith. Taken together, these two conspiracy theories preyed on the alienation of white, middle aged, middle-class born-again Christian voters who were suffering from the economic dislocation created by the Great Recession of 2008-9. By projecting these myths, the GOP sought to delegitimise the 44th president. These false stories provided fuel for the ‘Tea Party’ movement, which aided the Republican resurgence by giving the party control of Congress in 2010.
It didn’t end there, however. Real damage was done. Despite the passage of time, the sad fact is that recent polling shows that at least a plurality of Republicans still believe that Obama wasn’t born in the US and isn’t a Christian.
More reliant on myth-making
Once Trump was in the White House, he became more emboldened and more reliant on myth-making — regarding matters big and ridiculously small — even when they were obviously and provably untrue. He claimed that: the crowds at his inauguration were larger than Obama’s; his ratings were the highest ever; his White House operations ran like a well-oiled machine; he would bring jobs back to the US, give everyone tax reductions and the best health insurance coverage ever. In international affairs he promised: “the deal of the century” for Israeli-Palestinian peace; to end the Iran nuclear deal — “the worst deal ever made” and then show Obama how to get a great deal by denuclearising North Korea; build a wall on the southern border and insist that Mexico would pay for it; and restore American prestige and leadership in the world.
Trump did walk away from the Iran deal (as well as the Paris Accords on Climate and the Trans-Pacific Partnership) — but no one else followed. He shut the US government down three times trying to force Congress to pay for the wall since Mexico will not pay for it. We’re still waiting for the “deal of the century”, and, meanwhile, US standing and confidence in US leadership is at its lowest point since the middle of the George W. Bush era.
Trump’s domestic approval rating, which has never been over 50 per cent, is now in the low 40s. And yet his base remains secure and, as a result, even moderate Republicans who are repulsed by the president’s behaviour have hesitated to break with him — fearing the backlash they may incur from his supporters. They call to mind the members of the royal court in Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes. They knew he had no such clothes, but were afraid to be the first to break ranks and acknowledge it.
This past week, however, has been as especially problematic one for the president and his loyalists — and may be a turning point in this president’s fortunes. Three events were noteworthy.
The testimony of Michael Cohen, Trump’s long-time personal lawyer/“fixer” before the House Committee on Oversight opened a window on several of the president’s questionable financial practices. The documentation Cohen provided will no doubt give rise to deeper investigation in the future. It was noticed that while Republican members of the committee were ruthless in their treatment of Cohen, on no occasion did they speak in defence of the president. This should be of concern to the White House.
Some observers suspected that the White House scheduled the surprise summit with the leader of North Korea in order to divert attention from Cohen’s appearance. Trump’s hope that the summit would produce a much-needed win collapsed when it ended abruptly without any agreement. In its aftermath, even the president’s advisers were quoted as having cautioned him against the summit and about creating unreasonable expectations for the ill-prepared meeting.
The week ended with revelations that the president had directly intervened to counter the decision of professional intelligence and national security staff to deny both Trump’s daughter and son-in-law ‘Top Secret’ clearance. Security officials, it appears, had decided that his son-in-law had not been fully forthcoming in filling out his clearance forms and, in any case, had questionable contacts and financial entanglements that made him a security risk.
Now while some analysts say that it is the president’s prerogative to overrule the professional staff, what is concerning is that he has publicly denied doing this — even though we know that he did, in fact do it. It is also now known that the president’s decision in this matter so troubled his chief of staff and his national security adviser that both wrote memoranda “for the record” documenting their disapproval.
Will these events be enough to shake the hold the president still has on his base or move loyal Republicans to risk losing the support of this base? Or when even more shocking revelations still to come when the investigations led by former FBI chief Robert Mueller are completed and released — will that do the trick?
Whose wisdom will win out — that of Abe Lincoln or the cynical view of weak human nature expressed in Peter Weiss’ play?
Dr James J. Zogby is the president of Arab American Institute, a non-profit, non-partisan national leadership organisation.