Trump’s first weeks in office have for those of us on the left been a procession of miseries. His wholehearted embrace of Wall Street and big business, his appointment of unqualified big donors to cabinet positions, and of course his #MuslimBan — it’s easy to be dizzied by the pace of these controversies, and in fact some commentators have suggested that the relentless blitz of so-called ‘shock events’ is part of Bannon’s strategy.
Whilst the headlines have been focussed on the rash of hirings, executive orders and congressional repeals another story has quietly growing, forgotten temporarily but never going away: Russia.
The resignation of General Mike Flynn, formerly Trump’s National Security Adviser, following a dogged investigation from the Washington Post is the most recent revelation, and a damning one which casts further doubt on the Trump administration’s honesty about its dealings with Russia. The Post reports that Flynn discussed US sanctions against Russia with the Russian ambassador in the weeks prior to Trump’s inauguration, sending a signal to Moscow that they would be lifted. Flynn subsequently denied having done so, and others from the administration including Vice-President Mike Pence reiterated that there had been no contact with Russia. US officials have confirmed that Flynn did discuss sanctions, and said the VP had “either been misled” or “misspoke”.
Trump’s ties to Russia and admiration for Russian premier Vladimir Putin are well known, and were often at the forefront during the last weeks of the presidential election campaign. It will be a concern to his administration and to Republican Party leaders that not only have these ties continued to be news, alarming and significant material has come to light on a regular basis. Much was made earlier in the year of the ‘dirty dossier’ on Trump, a report drawn up by a former MI6 officer from sources in Russia (one of whom was found dead in Moscow) which alleged that the US President had hired sex workers whilst being secretly recorded in a Russian hotel, and was liable to blackmail from Russia. There are also questions relating to the sale of shares in a Russian gas company, and potential conflicts of interest about Trump’s business interests.
Trump has been fortunate to gain so much from the hacking of Democratic emails, and Hilary Clinton’s own email hack. FBI Director James Comey’s much-criticized intervention in the final weeks of the election campaign was widely seen as having changed the debate in Trump’s favour and focussed media attention on Clinton’s mistakes.
It’s impossible to say how the election would have gone without Comey. Trump’s poll numbers climbed the most after a rocky summer when he fell in line with the GOP’s traditional ‘drain the swamp’ messaging. At the crux of criticism of Clinton from both the right and the left was that she was ultra-establishment: a steady hand who would shake up nothing. There are enough people fed up of the system in America that you can win an election by appealing to them.
Given that Trump has followed through with many of his outlandish promises like the #FuckingWall the following phrase has become a bit of an albatross, but: many of his voters took him seriously on the issues he raised, but not literally. When he talked building a wall they thought that meant secure borders. A Muslim ban meant strong on terrorism. They didn’t necessarily believe or even want him to do what he’d said, just to be strong on national security. On the economy voters wanted a fairer system. On national security they wanted safety.
The Republicans have always been seen as the party strong on law and order (and on “law and order”) and strong on defence. It’s part of the set of assumptions which underpin US political discourse: the namby pamby effete liberal and the muscular buzzcut conservative. 68% of Republicans say they are “extremely proud” of their country, whereas only 36% of those identifying as liberal feel the same extreme pride. The GOP have the patriot vote cinched.
That grip is loosening. Obama was perceived as being strong on defence thanks in no small part to his raid against Bin Laden. To the discomfort of many on the left he also presided over an expansion in drone strikes; American troops have broadly been kept out of harm’s way, without America withdrawing from participation in global security. It dents the armour on the Republican’s stars-and-stripes battleship.
Trump now lobs rockets at that battleship on a near daily basis. Following his election he has engaged in a war of words with the US intelligence community, disregarding their work, criticising their efforts and praising himself in front of a memorial wall commemorating their fallen.
Now in response to the Post’s reporting, President Trump has taken to Twitter to accuse his own intelligence agencies of acting illegally, being “un-American” and compared them to Putin’s Russia.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 15, 2017
The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by "intelligence" like candy. Very un-American!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 15, 2017
All of which present the Democrats with a unique opportunity to pivot and attack the Republicans for being weak on national security and defence.
With the Democrats’ tanks parked on the GOP’s lawn, large numbers of voters it had previously written off as beyond its reach suddenly become accessible to the Democratic Party. They become the party of FDR, the ones who won the war, robust and responsible.
They can capture the anti-establishment vote too. Trump ran as a candidate promising to drain the swamp but very quickly announced a massive swamp extension project with the appointment of Goldman Sachs bankers and talk of rolling back Obama-era clampdowns on Wall Street. The Democrats must focus on being the party of small and medium business, casting themselves as the alternative to the ultra-rich love-in presided over by the Republicans.
And how about looking at the GOP’s ‘values’ platform? Under Trump it’s not inconceivable to imagine the Democrats being able to pivot to represent the religious mainstream, the ordinary majority for whom their faith, whatever that may be, is about doing good. They can hardly look at the pussy-grabber in chief and conclude that he is their man. Framed properly, it’s morality pitched against slash and burn nihilism.
Trump’s style can best be described as chaotic. It was true during his campaign, with little overall strategy, and remains true now. A top US general has described the administration as being in “unbelievable turmoil”, adding he was concerned about the government’s stability. That’s not going to get better. A fall-out between Trump and the Republicans is inevitable, and with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announcing a wider probe into Russia’s links with the Trump team and other Republican politicians signalling their own concerns over ethics that fall-out could be sooner rather than later. Who knows how Trump would respond, having shown during the Muslim ban that he is happy for different branches of the government to come into direct conflict.
The Democrats must resist the urge to navel gaze and re-affirm to themselves their own values by retreating to their most traditional ground. In the UK we have seen that strategy backfire spectacularly, sparking internecine war between factions of the left and allowing the right to define the narrative. The Democrats need a sharper focus, and a continued energy opposing Trump not with screaming hysteria but with concerns over the legality, morality and practicality of the policies Trump puts through the Republican machinery of government.
It is likely to be a long road (barring events, dear boy). The Republicans control many of the states’ governments, and frequently gerrymander electoral districts in their own favour — although the Democrats do the same, much less successfully. There have even been plans to adjust how the electoral college votes, giving shares of the vote to the runner-up in a number of states typically won by Democrats and raising the bar for a potential Democratic candidate in the future.
The Democrats have to make difficult choices, but they can make those choices and still remain consistent with their values. A Trump administration demands a functioning opposition able to hold him to account and fend off his worst excesses. The Democrats must campaign not on the areas they are most comfortable in, but on the ones which are the most necessary. If they walk this path they may even find a new frontier.