Tired of ‘winning’: The pyrrhic victory of 2016
Looking back at the presidency of Donald Trump
Many blame the shortcomings of the Trump presidency on the ‘deep state’. Writing in the New York Times, a White House insider revealed that “many of the senior officials in his own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda”. In an unsent resignation letter Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, accused Trump of subscribing “to many of the principles that we fought against” in the Second World War. Rather than resign he decided to stay and “fight from the inside”. These people weren’t the deep state, they were Trump appointees. He appointed Ja’Ron Smith who, prior to joining the White House, had helped organise the Hoodies on the Hill protest about the death of Trayvon Martin (his avatar on Facebook is an image of a Black man raising his fist). He appointed Omarosa, who went on to make the absurd claim to Al Sharpton that the president wanted to start a “race war”. He appointed national security advisor H. R. McMaster who told the National Security Council that the term “radical Islamic terrorism” was not helpful because Islamic terrorists are “un-Islamic” (this would be news to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who gained a PhD in Islamic Studies before founding the apparently misnomered Islamic State). He appointed Mark Milley who defended the study of critical race theory in the military. He appointed Gary Cohn, a registered Democrat who referred to violent Antifa protesters as “standing up for equality and freedom”.
Did Trump know anything about these people before he invited them into the White House? In 2016 Trump was the only Republican candidate willing to condemn the disastrous Iraq war. He picked John Bolton, one of the leading advocates of that war, as his National Security Advisor, apparently without doing a cursory google search. Here’s an exchange between the President and the Wall Street Journal:
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Trump: And after the first month or so, you know, I asked him one question. I said, “So, do you think you did the right thing by going into Iraq?” He said, “Yes.” And that’s when I lost him. And that was early on.
WSJ: You didn’t ask him about Iraq before you brought him into the White House? If he regretted that?
Darren Beattie, who worked as a speechwriter for Trump and remains a Trump loyalist, said of the ex-president “what was remarkable was how little authority he actually had… He is not the author of the things that his own administration was doing. And he had really little say in it and frankly I think he didn’t have very much interest in having a say in it”. Many blame Jared Kushner for everything bad about the Trump presidency. According to Peter Navarro, who worked as an advisor to President Trump, Kushner repeatedly said the words, “That was the campaign. This is reality,” while subverting everything Trump had claimed to stand for. But who in the White House was any better? Trump decided to defenestrate the few people in his administration (Jeff Sessions, Steve Bannon, Beattie himself) that actually supported the agenda he ran on. The key insight of Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury was how the President “was often most influenced by the last person he spoke to” — and he had surrounded himself with politically correct swamp creatures.
There were many surreal episodes from the Trump presidency but none comes close to making gangster rapper Ice Cube a key policy consultant in the run-up to the 2020 election. Ice Cube is the man who rapped: “Beat a police outta shape and when I'm finished, bring the yellow tape…punk police are afraid of me… when I'm finished, it's gonna be a bloodbath”.
According to New York magazine, “Ice Cube’s biggest push was to get Trump to commit to a $500 billion investment... Ice Cube also pushed the Trump campaign to consider labelling the Ku Klux Klan a terrorist organization and to declare Juneteenth a federal holiday.” All of these policies were adopted by the Trump campaign as part of the ‘Platinum Plan’. The $500 billion (reparations in everything but name) was essentially a bribe to get the black vote. As Gregory Hood put it, “President Trump offered a Platinum Plan to blacks, an American Dream Plan to Hispanics, and empty rhetoric to whites”.
Law and order… and nonstop riots
During the prolonged riots of 2020, Senator Tom Cotton convincingly made the case for invoking the Insurrection Act. One poll found that 63 percent of Democrats ‘strongly’ or ‘somewhat’ supported Cotton’s suggestion. The act had previously been used by George H.W. Bush during the L.A. riots in 1992. President Trump, by contrast, was happy to tweet in all caps the same phrase repeatedly rather than “own the problem” by deploying active-duty troops. He considered it safer politically to let the riots take place and blame them on Joe Biden, repeatedly labelling them “Biden riots”.
Yet the “LAW AND ORDER” president, when not impotently tweeting, was letting African American criminals out of jail. In 2019 Kim Kardashian, the daughter of O. J. Simpson's defense attorney who rose to fame by staring in a sex tape, visited the White House to discuss criminal justice reform. Ivanka tweeted that “at the recommendation of @KimKardashian” her father had granted clemency to three criminals. The Trump re-election campaign spent $10 million on a Super Bowl ad that boasted about getting a drug dealer out of jail. Campaign manager Brad Parscale tweeted about legalising crack cocaine to fight racism. To defeat crime we’ve got to “be tough and be nasty and be mean”, he said in a speech to the America First Policy Institute. Yet in office Trump expressed a desire to meet with the family of violent criminal Jacob Blake, for whom he said he “feels terribly” — the 2020 Republican Party convention started with a prayer for him. When NBA players boycotted a playoff in protest of Blake’s fully justified shooting, Jared Kushner reached out to LeBron James: “President Trump and this White House are willing to work with them…let’s both figure out what we both want to accomplish and let’s come up with a common pathway to get there.”
Immigration — where’s the wall?
“Build the wall” was the signature policy of the Trump campaign. It was the chant heard at every rally. Since he entered office, only 80 miles of new wall have been built (the border with Mexico is almost 2000 miles long). I use the term “wall” euphemistically — it’s a fence that can be breached using common power tools from any hardware store. Making Mexico pay for the wall, as Trump repeatedly promised, may have sounded deluded or hyperbolic, but could have easily been achieved by taxing remittances, as Trump had suggested. That never happened.
Trump compared his own immigration policies to those of Barack Obama. “What people don’t know is that Obama got tremendous numbers of people out of the country,” he told Bill O’Reilly. “Well, I’m going to do the same thing.” When Obama was still President, Trump had struck a different tone: “We have no border... People are flooding across.” Deportations of illegal immigrants were lower under Donald Trump than under his predecessor. Spokeswoman Katrina Pierson comically tried to explain his immigration flip-flop: “He hasn’t changed his position on immigration. He’s changed the words that he is saying.” Most notoriously, Trump tweeted that amnesty would be on the table when negotiating with the Democrats: “Amnesty will be used only on a much bigger deal, whether on immigration or something else. Likewise there will be no big push to remove the 11,000,000 plus people who are here illegally”.
When it came to legal immigration, Mr Trumps record is even worse. He said in his 2019 State of the Union address “I want people to come into our country in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally.” After the speech Trump doubled down, telling a reporter “I need people coming in because we need people to run the factories and plants and companies that are moving back in. We need people.” This was a marked change from his words in Phoenix only a few years earlier: “(W)e will reform legal immigration to serve the best interests of America and its workers, the forgotten people. Workers. We’re going to take care of our workers”. As reported by Time magazine, the Washington Post and The New York Times, Trumps own business, The Trump Organization, employs plenty of illegal aliens. Even of it’s legal workers, a vast majority are non-citizens. The Trump Organization relies heavily on the H-2B visa program — one report found that only one out of 144 jobs available at Trump properties during 2016 and 2017 went to an American.
Even the so-called “Muslim ban”, one of the silver linings of the Trump presidency, only applied to a handful of countries. 9/11 was carried out by Saudi nationals yet the ban never applied to Saudi Arabia, a country where a high proportion of people have a positive view of ISIS. The travel ban also failed to include Pakistan — the country that harboured Osama Bin Laden. It even omitted Afghanistan. In fact, Trump wanted more immigrants from the terrorist hot spot. Prior to entering the Oval Office, Trump had repeatedly called for an end to the war in Afghanistan. In the end it was President Biden who exited that quagmire. Trump used the occasion to criticize Biden for not evacuating enough refugees. An official statement released on donaldjtrump.com read:
“Can anyone even imagine taking out our Military before evacuating civilians and others who have been good to our Country and who should be allowed to seek refuge?”
Trump expressed pride for his role in pushing the made-up holiday ‘Juneteenth’ into the mainstream: “I did something good: I made Juneteenth very famous,” Trump told the Wall Street Journal. “It’s actually an important event, an important time. But nobody had ever heard of it”. It’s now a federal holiday.
We should have seen this coming
In 2016, Ted Cruz accused Trump of harboring socially liberal “New York values”. It was an accurate assessment. It is well known that Bill and Hillary Clinton attended Trump’s wedding to Melania. Trump donated $100,000 to the couple’s Clinton Foundation. He donated to Hillary’s Senate campaigns six times between 2002 and 2009. Trump granted Bill free access to his Westchester golf club where he hung photographs of the ex-president. Maureen Down writes in the New York Times, “Trump realized that golf was his entree if he wanted to pal around with Bill Clinton, whom he considered a kindred spirit… Trump once told me that he rebuilt the club, in part, because he knew Bill Clinton would need a place to play.” Ivanka and Chelsea Clinton were once close friends. Mr Trump was himself so desperate to attend Chelsea’s wedding that he phoned up Clinton advisor Doug Band seeking advice.
Trump for decades maintained a close association with with two of America’s most notorious race hucksters: Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. A Google image search finds dozens of photographs of the men looking intimately familiar with one another — Trump and Jesse doing a thumbs up for the camera; Trump leaning in close to Sharpton while grinning ear to ear. Trump gave free office space to Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH organization and supported Jackson’s presidential campaigns in 1984 and 1988. He said of Jackson in 1999, “he’s a terrific guy, we love him and I’m here for him”.
Al Sharpton is a man so heinous that even the New York Times branded him an “anti-white race hustler”. In 2002 Trump cut the ribbon at Sharpton’s National Action Network annual convention. He would attend another National Action Network convention in 2006. Sharpton has flown on Trump’s private helicopter. As recently as 2014, Trump said of Sharpton, “I’ve always gotten along with him, to be honest with you.” Trump now call’s Sharpton “a third-rate con guy”. Did it take two decades to figure that out? What changed? According to a report in the New York Times, Trump told aides he “believes that his attacks on Mr. Sharpton will appeal to his base.“ It was performative hollow race-baiting to shore up votes.
Roger Stone, a long-time Trump associate and self-proclaimed “dirty trickster” masterminded Al Sharpton’s 2004 campaign for the Presidency. The New York Times reported that Stone had a hand in some of Sharpton's most effective attacks on Howard Dean, his opponent in the Democratic primaries: “They have delighted in skewering Dr. Dean, with Mr. Sharpton generating one of Dr. Dean's lowest moments in a debate when he forced him to admit he had no blacks or Hispanics in his cabinet when he was governor of Vermont”. “I saw Roger's fingerprints all over that,” said Donald Trump. Stone, the man that attacked Democrats for not having enough affirmative action hires, went on to stage-manage much of Trumps 2016 campaign.
As documented in the film Get Me Roger Stone, in 1999 Stone encouraged Pat Buchanan to seek the Reform Party nomination for the Presidential race. Trump quickly followed suit. The whole exercise was a ruse by Stone to undermine the Reform Party in order to get George W. Bush, one of history’s most disastrous Presidents, into the White House, smearing Buchanan along the way. In words strikingly similar to Hillary’s “basket of deplorables” speech, Trump said of Buchanan: “he’s a Hitler lover. I guess he’s an anti-Semite. He doesn’t like the blacks. He doesn’t like the gays. It’s just incredible that anybody could embrace this guy”. Buchanan was in many ways a smart, articulate, principled version of the Trump of 2016. Trump stole much of his platform yet had a history of repeatedly bashing the man. In his book The America We Deserve, Trump accused Buchanan of “many egregious examples of intolerance”. His “extremist views have to be challenged by someone” — and that someone was Donald Trump.
What is the real legacy of Donald Trump?
Is America a better country now than it was in 2016? Is it more conservative? Less woke? The slogan for Trump’s campaign changed from “Make America Great Again” to “Keep America Great” — as if something had actually been achieved in the past four years. While Trump was all bluster and no action, the extreme response he elicited has been very real. Some claim that Trump shifted the Overton window. Far from opening up debate, America is more ideologically censorious now than previously imaginable. People that helped Trump get elected have been purged from social media. The course of his presidency saw the massive expanse of Silicon Valley censorship, huge growth in support for Black Lives Matter, the mainstreaming of radical transgender ideology — and Trump did nothing to counter any of it. Trump did change the culture, but in the polar opposite direction than we hoped: the most deranged strains of anti-racism metastasized during his presidency.
His personality failings and un-Presidential behaviour have only served to further stigmatize sensible policy positions. The right is now associated with the total retardation of QAnon and the rapacious mendacity of the Trump family. When Teddy Kennedy passed his revolutionary 1965 immigration act he downplayed its consequences to allay the fear of it’s opponents. Trump did the opposite: he radicalised and energised the opposition with outlandish tweets but passed no legislation to actually challenge them. Liberal meltdowns may be an entertaining spectacle but they came with monumental blowback. Black Lives Matter were a spent force at the end of the Obama years and it was opposition to Trump, more so than the death of George Floyd, that ushered in the cultural revolution of 2020. He single-handedly saved the liberal media. Trump derangement syndrome was a huge money spinner and the New York Times, CNN and MSNBC, and a slew of liberal NGO’s all profited.
Trump said at a recent Turning Point USA event, “we should use every power at our disposal to stop the war on free speech.” The most significant change after four years of Trump in theoretical power was the radical crackdown on dissident views online. When he actually had the means to act, he did nothing. The power at his disposal now is non-existent.
There has certainly been no great ideological realignment of the GOP. Steve King, one of the few genuinely nationalist Republicans who had advocated building a border wall and ending birthright citizenship while Trump was still just a reality TV star, was rebuked by his own party and lost his primary in 2020. With the ouster of the awful war-hawk Liz Cheney, it seems that Trump has largely taken over the GOP. She has been replaced by the Trump-endorsed Harriet Hageman, who in 2016 called Trump “racist and xenophobic” but who is now willing to to kiss the ring in order to gain political power. Trump has remade the GOP, but as a personality cult populated by opportunistic shills, not as a coherent political project.
Trumps Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping, largely portrayed as preventing the teaching of Critical Race Theory in the Federal government, was signed in his final months in office. Having spent his presidency railing against cancel culture and political correctness, it was the only concrete action the ‘most powerful man in the world’ actually took to counter it. While commendable, it was instantly rescinded once Joe Biden made it into the White House. Biden signed 17 executive actions on his first day in office. Trump threw his supporters a bone after four years of inaction because an election was looming and he’d seen the poll numbers.
He had promised to end birthright citizenship — it never happened. He had a plan to cut $4 billion in foreign aid but scrapped it. He vowed to officially designate antifa a terrorist organisation —that also never happened. Trump infamously said “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters”. He was so convinced of his own popularity that he didn’t realise he actually had to deliver. Trump sent over 11,000 tweets during the course of his presidency. Tweeting was not enough. Compared to 2016, Trump did better with every demographic in 2020 except one — straight white men. There was only so much they were willing to put up with. Publicly, Trump blames election fraud. In private, according to a report in Axios, Trump blamed his election defeat on “Jared's woke s***”. But don’t assume Trump learnt anything. The America First Policy Institute, formed to, in Trump’s words, “propel the America First Agenda into the future”, lists Jared and Ivanka as advisers (the Institute’s CEO, Brooke Rollins, supports amnesty).
In 2016 we viewed Trump as a wild card. In the words of Michael Moore, his election was “the biggest fuck you to the establishment in history“. His victory had seemingly overturned so many tired Republican shibboleths only for him to enact the agenda of Sheldon Adelson and Paul Ryan once in office.
According to one poll, fifty-five percent of Trump supporters would prefer a more competent and presidential candidate with Trump’s views on immigration, nationalism and willingness to challenge political correctness over Trump himself. We need nationalism without Trump.
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This is an excellent summation of a lost opportunity, the surprising presidency of Donald Trump. Not only is it enlightening about the past, it also offers a dose of harsh reality to those who still harbor illusions about the potential of another Trump administration.
The best answer to those who maintain that what we need is Donald Trump again is the man’s own record -- which in truth is the record of the much more disciplined people who through flattery and ignorance wheedled their way into influence from 2017 to 2020.
That record is the millstone around the neck that will, I hope, sink a Trump comeback.