By all accounts, Donald J Trump is an atypical character among the men who have served as President of the United States. That maybe the reason for the atypically hostile, often violent, sentiments he provokes among political foes.
In elite circles, notably in Europe, Trump-bashing is regarded as a sign of intelligence and cursing him a duty of progressive humanists.
In a recent panel on BBC television I found myself ostracized by three American and European colleagues, plus the presenter, for suggesting that maybe, just maybe, Trump was not responsible for all that was wrong with the world. Hardly a day passes without the mainstream media in Europe, not to mention the US, indulging in a frenzy of Trump-bashing.
Inside the US itself, Trump-bashing has evolved into a rite of passage among elites who curse him as a vulgar tribune for unwashed and uneducated plebes.
Some Trump-bashers are so angered by the man that they lose all sense of proportion. Noam Chomsky, the retired linguist and guru of anti-Americanism, has branded Trump as “the greatest criminal in all history”, apparently forgetting such choirboys as Genghiz Khan, not to mention Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. Washington columnist Max Boot sees Trump as “the worst American president ever”, forgetting James Buchanan not to mention Barack Obama whom, for eight years, Boot castigated as a failure.
Trump is atypical, to be sure.
Of all US presidents, 33 had a military background, among them no fewer than 12 generals, while Trump never went beyond wearing a parade uniform. Among the presidents, 24 were trained lawyers, while Trump’s connection with the law has been through litigations, often with himself as defendant.
Trump is also alone as a businessman to win the presidency. Four other presidents did have a business background but reached the White House after long spells as politicians. Trump is the only president with no experience in any branch of government. Even Obama had a two-year stint as a junior senator.
Thanks to a TV show he hosted as a side-job, Trump is also the first US president with a media background. Ronald Reagan had been a movie star but built a career as politician and governor before standing for the presidency. Warren Harding had his journalistic career behind him before touching the greasy pole of American politics.
Trump may also be alone in having broken the two-party mold of politics without founding a party of his own. US history is full of party splits and reversals of loyalty; the Whigs, Know-Nothing Party, Free-Soil Democrats, American Party and Wide-Awake Republicans come to mind. But Trump, even in his fourth year as president, still sticks to his one-man show, albeit with a Republican label.
Though Trump perhaps exaggerates his wealth, he may also be the richest man to win the White House. So far he is also the oldest person in history to be elected US president.
Six of the presidents had family links, son and father in two cases, grandson and grandfather and distant cousins in two other cases.
More importantly, perhaps, Trump is the first US president to provoke so much rage, not to say hatred, among European elites who idolized John Kennedy and treated Obama as a rock star even before he won the presidency.
Speaking off the record, European Union bureaucrats speak of a “Resistance to Trump” front. In Europe today, you won’t be regarded as chic unless you vilify Trump. John Bercow, former Speaker of the British House of Common, sees his refusal to invite Trump to address the House as the peak of his parliamentary glory. Sadiq Khan, London’s Mayor, has made his refusal to welcome Trump a theme for his own re-election campaign. The French left used anti-Trump themes in their recent, and unsuccessful, bid to make a splash in local elections.
In Germany, Trump is vilified for his “America First” slogan that is heard as an echo of an old German hymn buried as a family secret.
And, yet, Trumpian themes are creeping into mainstream global politics.
Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping lace their discourse with patriotic, rather than the old leftist ideological, themes. In India, Narendra Modi’s fans dub him “the Indian Trump” while in Brazil Jair Bolsonaro plays the South American Trump. In Central and Eastern European states, local Trumpians are on the ascendance. In Last Sunday’s presidential election Andrzej Duda’s opponents branded him “the Polish Trump”. Guess what, he won.
In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson campaigned and won on a Trumpian platform of national identity and industrial revival. Even Germany’s Angela Merkel, a sneaky critic of Trump, now talks of the need for a bigger defense budget, curbs on globalization and Russia as a threat.
Perhaps, the best convert to Trumpism is France’s President Emmanuel Macron, the first foreign leader to address a joint session of the US Congress as Trump’s guest.
He used the occasion to lecture Trump on multilateralism, multiculturalism and globalization. Last month, however, he adopted a Trumpian stance against the Black Lives Matter (BLM) lava that had reached France. He said he would not allow French history to be re-written and the police to be insulted; nor would he let anyone topple statues or change street names. He rejected what he called “separatism”, attempts at conjuring double-barrel identities such as “African-French”.
On his 14 July traditional TV interview, Macron spoke of “industrial patriotism”, a favorite Trump theme to end export of jobs to lower wage economies. He indicated that “the strong economic comeback” in the US was a sign of hope for post-coronavirus European economy.
In his idiosyncratic, not to say gauche, style Trump attacked domestic and foreign policies that no longer worked. He also tried to rebalance globalization to halt the long-term de-industrialization of the United States. Prior to the coronavirus crisis, his administration had one of the best records in job creation and the reduction of poverty among black Americans. So far, he is also the first American president in a century not to have led his country into a new war. (Even Noble Prize winner Obama, leading from behind, got the US involved in Libya.)
Personal dislike of Trump, including his “you-are-fired” style of management, has made him enemies even among Republicans. But the Democrats won’t be able to defeat him without a sober critique of his policies, not his person, and offering credible alternatives. So far, they have copied Trump’s bare-knuckles Twitter-centered rhetoric. They may find out that they need to copy some of his policies, too. Writing off Trump is easy but risky. Even if defeated in November, he is unlikely to retire to his golf course and may stand again in 2024 when he would be just a year older than Joe Biden.