A useful scaremonger

Trump is skilled at playing the powerful lobbies’ game and even rebukes them occasionally. And he’s offered each of them good reasons to support him

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos at Trump Tower together with other technology sector leaders for a meeting with the US president. Trump accuses Bezos of using The Washington Post to attack him. REUTERS/ANDREW KELLY/CONTRAST
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos at Trump Tower together with other technology sector leaders for a meeting with the US president. Trump accuses Bezos of using The Washington Post to attack him. REUTERS/ANDREW KELLY/CONTRAST

One of the key slogans of Donald Trump's victory in the 2016 presidential elections along with his Sovereignist motto "Make America Great Again" and his anti-immigration mantra "Build the Wall", was "Drain the Swamp". With this promise, the former New York real estate tycoon made himself out to be an outsider who was going to clean up the system by fighting corruption, the establishment, the lobbyists and the large corporations they represent and finally, the media.

As etymologist Barry Popik has explained, the term "Drain the Swamp" was first coined by the Socialists, who at the start of last century meant to overthrown America's capitalist society. It is therefore intriguing to say the least that the billionaire should have adopted it, and managed to successfully use it to back his campaign for the White House. As Anthony Scaramucci, Trump's leading spokesperson for all of 10 days, has written, Trump is a "blue collar president". He may be rich, but he speaks and lives like a blue collar worker in the flyover states, and this has been the key to win over the trust of a demographic that is essential for victory, meaning the older white electorate with limited education, who feel threatened by globalisation, immigration and the gradual demolition of their secular and religious values at the hands of the liberals. All this does however raise two crucial questions:  first, one should start to assess whether Donald is actually draining the swamp; secondly, how is the "establishment", which he is supposed to bring down, reacting.

An important "fat cat" of the Grand Old Party, meaning the major funders that run the party from off stage, summed up the situation as follows: "The establishment Republicans don't like how Trump goes about things, but they like what he gets done. So they'll keep backing him forever, partly because he has the votes, and they don't". This 'on the level' explanation, owing to its simplicity and frankness, helps us to understand why many sections of the electorate and power groups have essentially fallen into line.

For the evangelical right for example, the appointment of conservative pro-life judges made by Trump, such as Brett Kavanaugh appointed to the Supreme Court but also many appointments made to lower federal courts, are of such vital importance that they override any other concern. During the impeachment procedure against Bill Clinton I interviewed reverend Jerry Falwell, the promoter of the "Moral Majority" that had backed Ronald Reagan into the White House. «Ronald», he told me, «was so respectful of the presidency, that when he was in the Oval Office he would hardly dare remove his jacket». Jerry Falwell junior, who has followed in his father's footsteps and leads the Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, was one of the first evangelical leaders to back Trump, and he didn't even back down when he found out that he'd had an extra-marital relationship with porn star Stormy Daniels two months after his wife Melania gave birth to his son Barron. It may be that in time Falwell will pay for this lack of moral rectitude and hypocrisy in terms of credibility, but right now what he is receiving from Donald is worth much more than his reputation and justifies everything.

The same can be said for what President Dwight Eisenhower used to call the "military-industry complex", meaning the armed forces and all the industries that operate in this sector. By allocating annual funding of 716 billion dollars for 2019, Trump has approved one of the highest budgets in the Pentagon's history. Given this kind of economic commitment, the fact that he couldn't be bothered to visit the Arlington Cemetery on Veterans' Day , or the fact that he deployed the army along the border with Mexico to stop caravans of migrants, in an operation that on the eve of the midterm elections looked very much like an attempt to exploit the military for electoral purposes fades into the background.

The effect of the tariffs on steel and aluminium have still be properly assessed, and the same can be said for the protectionist support that Trump has offered to the traditional manufacturing industry. But once again, many companies have quickly and predictably fallen in line, although not all of them have met his request to bring jobs back to America. Harley Davidson for example, an icon of Trump's vision of America, has refused because it can't do without its European market, and it has immediately had to pay a price.

The environmental policy and the rejection of the Paris Accord on climate change have worked very much in favour of the coal, oil and gas industry, a boost unlike any they had been granted in the past. For the first time since 1973, The United States are once again the world's largest crude oil producer, unseating Saudi Arabia and Russia. This being the case, who is going to quibble about Rex Tillerson, former head of Exxon, being ousted rather quickly and brutally from his post as Secretary of State. Wall Street in the last two years has beaten every record, thanks to the loosening of the rules that held back finance and business and the sweeping tax cuts, although all the 2018 gains have recently gone up in smoke. Now there are those who fear that the economy might overheat, and those who predict that things will slow down in 2019, including Goldman Sachs and T. Rowe Price. But even if Michael Bloomberg and George Soros are among the leaders of the resistance, and the head of JP Morgan Chase Jamie Dimon is entertaining the idea of running for the White House, the financial establishment, at least publically, is not about to storm the palace.

The Jewish electorate is still prevailingly democratic, but for Trump backers like Sheldon Adelson, the CEO of Las Vegas Sands, decisions like moving the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, or backing away from the nuclear deal with Iran, are results that are worth a lifetime commitment.

There's clearly no need to consider the allegiance of NRA arms manufacturing lobby, seeing as the president has defended it even after the massacres in Las Vegas and Parkland, claiming that the only way to prevent them is to put more guns and rifles in the hands of the right people.

Where a dilemma is instead playing out is in Silicon Valley. Naturally liberal leaning, besides the exceptions such as the founder of PayPal and Palantir Technologies Peter Thiel, it also needs to keep the doors of immigration open in order to attract the best talent from all over the world. The trade war with China hasn't help, and for Jeff Bezos there's even been a personal clash with Trump, who accuses him of using the Washington Post to attack him. The world of social networks, from Facebook to Twitter, all side with the democrats and especially with the Obama administration. The conservatives accuse them of belittling and undermining their thinking, and this suspicion has now spread to Google, relative to how it selects its search results on the web. Then came the Russiagate, the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and the charges levelled at Mark Zuckerberg for not having done enough to fight fake news and the exploitation of its users personal data for electoral purposes by Trump's campaign. Twitter on the other hand has become the president's main form of direct global communication, though he cannot be banned from doing so, even if Jack Dorsey regrets having this role. On the one hand, then, the political feeling with the democrats has lost a bit of its shine, while the tax cuts have been particularly beneficial for digital giants like Apple, which has also found support in its tax and privacy battles with Europe.

With the media a fully blown battle is still ongoing, besides the militant support provided by the Murdoch group, which Trump encourages because it wins him plenty of votes among his constituencies. The most emblematic episode was the revocation of White House credentials for Jim Acosta, the head of CNN's office at the White house, which ended up in court. Judge Timothy Kelly, appointed by the same President, ruled against him and ordered the access pass returned, mainly because the administration had violated the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution which guarantees that all citizens are entitled to "due process", meaning a procedure based on the rules that enables them to defend themselves. But the issue of the possible restrictions to the First Amendment, which protects freedom of expression, is still up in the air.

During my time at the School of Journalism at Columbia University, which awards the Pulitzer prizes, they even suggested we shouldn't vote, to preserve our objectivity. «If you go to the polls» – was the reasoning – «two things are bound to happen: either you'll start to talk up your party, because of your electoral affinity; or you'll attack it out of hand, to prove to yourself that you're still honest, in spite of this affinity. So bite the bullet and don't go out and vote». They may have been taking things a little far, but objective journalism is still possible, at least in news articles. Every expert professional knows whether they are being objective while writing an article, recording a comment or publishing a tweet. And it's fairly essential at a time when the subjective interpretation of the truth, as well as blatant lying, are eating away and compromising democracy.

However, the polarisation caused by Trump's election has turned out to be irresistible for traditional American media. The majority of journalists has always been liberal, even when it tried to mitigate this stance with its professional approach, at least until Murdoch's conservative news network Foxnews broke the spell, or the hypocrisy, by starting to produce blatant propaganda. The other's followed suite, particularly after Donald's victory, and have in fact regretted not having done more to stop him in the past. So under the Washington Post heading there's now a warming which reads, "Democracy Dies in Darkness", while the New York Times, CNN and MSNBC have all become "enemies of the people" according to the president. I have taken part in a number of rallies in which he would point to the press box while baiting his supporters. It's a strategy that helps him to ward off the attacks, but it's also very effective in motivating his electorate, who now more than ever doesn't believe anything they read or see on mainstream media.

From an economic point of view, however, this full frontal collision has been a godsend for the newspapers, websites and TV stations, which have seen their copies, subscriptions, audience and consequently advertising all increase. If Trump didn't exist, he would have to be invented, and who knows what will happen to media revenue when sooner or later the show will end.

The fairly general consensus is that Trump is not busy draining the swamp, and all in all the "establishment" has benefitted considerably from his presidency. The problem if any is understanding how to keep this myth of "Draining the Swamp" alive, at least until the next presidential elections in 2020, when he'll need his base to believe it once more to be re-elected.

@PMastrolilli

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