Donald Trump has only been in the White House a few days but already his presidency is gearing up to be as belligerent and aggressive as the tone of his rambunctious inaugural speech. I’ve had to remind myself that I’m not watching the latest Netflicks thriller featuring a devious despot in the White House but instead am witnessing a real-live car crash with Trump in the driving seat.
He isn’t some fictional character who’ll disappear from our screens after episode ten. He is real. He is scary. And sixty three million people voted for him.
It’s hard to believe this Washington reality isn’t a piece of fiction. But then it’s hard to know what’s real anymore in this dystopian era of post-truths, fake news and alternative facts. That this reality is more gripping than any Hollywood version, reflects the bizarre times we’re living in where truth fades in and out of the thick fog of lies and spin that are becoming the de rigueur weapons in the armory of these populist messengers.
Even Frank Underwood couldn’t outdo Trump for dramatic impact.
The President’s inaugural speech sounded more like a cri de guerre than a peace offering to mend badly bruised emotions following the US elections. His fisticuffs lecture of protectionism and nationalism was a jaw-dropping marker in modern history. Here was an American president accusing other countries of stealing American companies and destroying American jobs. His brash talk of black, brown or white all bleeding the same red blood of patriots, sounded like a bad movie script that should have been relegated to the cutting room.
And there was more.
Trump’s fiery vow that Americans would never be ignored again, reminded me of another nationalist battle-cry in 1987 when the former Serbian politician Slobodan Milosevic, stoked the fire of Serbian nationalism in Kosovo. Milosevic’s cynical manipulation of Serbian insecurities was the catalyst that eventually led to the breakup of the former Yugoslavia and the wars that ravaged that region.
The President’s promise to eradicate radical Islamic terrorism from the face of the earth revealed another naive grasp of Realpolitik. Recent history has highlighted the challenges of trying to curb Islamic radicalism as this loose network of extremists has morphed into a plethora of shadowy organisations that operate from ISIS strongholds in Syria to the back streets of Brussels and Paris. And what better way to radicalise prospective terrorists than to fire some loose gun-ho battle talk their way.
In any case if Trump has any hope of stamping out Islamic terrorism, he’ll need all the help he can get including that from his own security and intelligence agencies which he recently compared to Nazi Germany.
Of course Trump is not alone in propagating hardline rhetoric. He’s cultivating a cadre of like-minded zealots who’re also using the podium to vent their fury. This was spectacularly illustrated on Saturday when Trump’s spokesman Sean Spicer delivered a blistering attack on the media during a briefing in the White House. Spicer accused the press of distorting the number of crowds who attended last Friday’s inaugural event. He said that photos were intentionally framed to minimise Trump’s support and he went on to claim that the ceremony had – and I’m using his words – “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration – period – both in person and around the globe”. Such claims were quickly rubbished by the very media Trump’s press man was accusing of distorting the facts. Enough photographic and metro evidence was produced to provide a convincing case that far fewer people turned up to Trump’s ceremony than had for Barack Obama’s previous two inaugurations.
But who cares about the truth when you can play fast and loose with the facts or should I say alternative facts. That’s what Trump’s advisor Kellyanne Conway called them when she was forced to defend Spicer’s inaccurate claims during an interview with NBC television. It was another jaw-dropping moment from the Trump team.
But Spicer was merely reflecting Trump’s own prickly ego. When the new President addressed the CIA on Saturday, he couldn’t resist challenging the media assessment of the inaugural crowds. Trump said that when he looked out at the vista ahead of him he reckoned there were around a million to a million and a half attending.
And he went on to excoriate an American journalist who had mistakenly reported the bust of Martin Luther King missing from the Oval Office. Within minutes the journalist rectified his mistake when he discovered the statue had been hidden from his view. However, President Trump vilified him during his CIA address and accused journalists of being the most dishonest human beings on earth.
What’s really staggering is that Spicer and Trump would devote valuable airtime to such petty quibbling. Here they are, the day after the inauguration, venting personal rants about stuff most people couldn’t care less about.
Instead of using the opportunity to calmly explain how they were planning on implementing some of the policies they had promised during the campaign, both men trumpeted the same kind of populist rhetoric that dominated the Trump campaign.
When I watched those appearances of Trump and Spicer on Saturday, it was compelling viewing. And the whole thing would have been very entertaining if it hadn’t been so serious.
Trump is the new President of the United States and he’s coming to office at a time when Europe is in disarray with Brexit and other populist movements threatening to dismantle the European Union. And this president is a cheerleader for that fragmentation.
But maybe things will change.
Maybe President Trump and his team will mature as the weeks go by. Perhaps the daily grind of establishing a new administration, and implementing a plethora of extremely complicated policies, will help tone down their rhetoric as the reality of doing business in the White House becomes more apparent.
We’ll just have to wait.
In the meantime, President Trump’s attacks on the media will only increase their scrutiny of his activities. He may now be very powerful but so are they. And his visceral dislike of probing journalists will only embolden their determination to investigate any potential skeletons in his closets.