When you see a street magician waving a red handkerchief in his right hand, you can be sure he is doing something more significant with his left. If Donald J. Trump has one true talent, it is as ringmaster of the media circus, knowing that by being outrageous he can focus the limelight back on himself, his TV show, his businesses or, more recently, his political future. In Kanye West’s admiring words, speaking of the presidential election result: “His approach was f***ing genius, because it worked.”
Last week, the president-elect settled for $25 million three lawsuits over his bogus Trump University that he had promised never to settle. Some obligatory self-justification followed, saying he would easily have won the cases but was too busy focusing “on our country” to fight them. Then he waved a red handkerchief: The real issue, he declared on Twitter, his mainline feed to both media and public, was that his deputy, Mike Pence, had while visiting New York been welcomed from the stage of the musical Hamilton by a cast member who said, “We truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us. All of us.” Hamilton is an explicitly political work about the founding fathers of the United States. Trump exclaimed in reaction, sounding for all the world like one of those lily-livered students the alt-right love to berate for their emotional fragility: “The Theater must always be a safe and special place. The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologise!” The president-elect achieved his aim: His surrender over the Trump University fraud cases dropped down the news cycle, overtaken by the non-story of Pence’s visit to a theatre.
This will surely be a pattern during the Trump presidency. His chief strategist, Steve Bannon, uses a similarly disruptive technique. Look at the headlines on his website, Breitbart News: “Birth control makes women unattractive and crazy,” “Would you rather your child had feminism or cancer?” or, just weeks after a mass shooting in a historically black church in South Carolina by a 21-year-old white supremacist, “Hoist it high and proud: The Confederate flag proclaims a glorious heritage.” The working principle is that everyone will be so busy outraging over an obnoxious assertion, or some fake news, that they do not notice what is actually happening: A lie will travel half-way around the world before truth can get its boots on. The former Ku Klux Klan leader, David Duke, greeted Bannon’s appointment with the line: “I think that’s excellent.”
In the last week, Trump and his presidential transition team have picked for senior roles not only Bannon, but Mike Pompeo, Jeff Sessions and Michael Flynn — four men who, between them, have a record of race-baiting, ideological extremism and anti-Muslim prejudice. Pompeo ran as a congressional candidate in 2010 against Raj Goyle, a Democrat: His campaign called Goyle, who was born in the US, a “turban topper” who “could be a Muslim, a Hindy, a Buddhist etc”. As for General Flynn, he was fired from his last job in the US military and wants Hillary Clinton to be imprisoned. He seems a reckless choice as national security adviser. Watching an earlier interview with Flynn, I felt his notable qualification, aside from his prejudice, was his detached ignorance. He appeared, for instance, to be confused as to any distinction between Islam, a faith followed by 1.6 billion people, and Islamism, a revolutionary political creed espoused by terror groups like al Qaeda and IS. As Colin Powell, the secretary of state at the time of 9/11, noted in a private email: “I asked why Flynn got fired. Abusive with staff, didn’t listen, worked against policy, bad management, etc. He has been and was a right-wing nut.”
Since his election victory, Trump has not only focused on appointments. Alongside creating an aggressively partisan and non-diverse team of close advisors, the president-elect found time to meet the boxer and felon, Floyd Mayweather Jr., his real estate business partners, the Chordia brothers from Pune, and to be photographed at Trump Tower with the Brexit champion, Nigel Farage, in a golden elevator that looks as if it was designed by a Bellary mining billionaire. This is likely to be a dynastic, imperial presidency. Before contacting the State Department or Pentagon for a basic briefing, Trump met for the first time with a foreign leader, the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, accompanied by his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner, who are supposed to be looking after his private business interests while he is president. Does such conduct ring any conflict-of-interest bells? You bet. Will the new president threaten, cajole and bluster each time he is pulled up for an ethical infraction? He will, because the judiciary in the US will not permit arbitrary and autocratic rule by any president. We have a bully in the bully pulpit, and it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Some compare Trump to Ronald Reagan, and believe he will grow into the presidency. But when he was elected, Reagan had political experience as a trade unionist and a two-term governor of the state of California. He believed in a muscular but imaginative foreign policy, in low taxation and in small government. Trump, on the other hand, has almost no policy position he has not at one time contradicted. At the moment, he appears to believe in limiting regulatory constraints on business; in strong borders and controls on immigration; in a curtailment of accepted values about the way Americans should treat one another; and in a narrow and transactional national interest which beats any universal ideal.
We must confront the possibility that the US is changing, and may no longer seek to guard the international order, or promote its better face to the world. This is a far cry from the days of President George W. Bush and the Indo-US nuclear deal, in which America made substantial policy changes and concessions in order to secure India as a long-term ally in Asia, believing that a stable, powerful and democratic India was an ideal regional counterweight to the rise of China. In the new world order, Russia may secure superficial wins over the US, but the real victor, in terms of economic and strategic power, is likely to be China. In comprehending this process, we will have to search carefully for what is real. Insult and social outrage are not a genuine scandal. We must check the signal-to-noise ratio, and ignore the ringmaster’s red handkerchief.
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