In the weeks after Trump’s inauguration, the US liberal establishment had its fighting face on. Media outlets were speaking truth to power. Democratic politicians linked arms with protesters in the streets and ended all their tweets with #resistance.
Then it happened. It didn’t last long, because a new scandal broke over the Trump campaign’s links with Russia, and normal programming resumed. But it happened. Trump, you see, was “presidential”. He gave a speech to a joint sitting of Congress, in which he managed to go a whole hour reading from a teleprompter and not going googly eyed or threatening to lock up the editor of the New York Times.
This speech and its aftermath, short-lived as it was, told us everything we need to know. Not about Trump and his lunatic right wing administration – the things we need to know about that are already painfully clear – but about the liberal establishment and just how little it takes to return to its default position: worshippers of power and sycophants of reaction.
The New York Times’ Glen Thrush declared that Trump had finally “delivered on his promise to speak the Reagan Republican dialect of optimism and reconciliation”. CNN’s Van Jones said: “He became president of the United States in that moment – period”. Jones was referring to Trump’s words about a botched military operation in Yemen, which killed a US soldier and a dozen or more Yemenis, including children. This was a raid that, according to some reports, Trump green-lighted only because he was told that Obama would be too chicken to carry it out it if he were still in charge.
The real content of Trump’s speech was the usual mix of reactionary nationalism and racism on the one hand, and economic populism combined with promises of rivers of gold to business on the other. One of the new announcements was the establishment of a Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement Office – a horrifying proposal that plays to the worst racism of the Trump base.
But for the liberal media and Democratic politicians, previously forced by Trump’s deranged ranting into what was for them the extremely uncomfortable position of opposing the president, the content of Trump’s speech was immaterial. He spoke proper. He didn’t yell FAKE NEWS into the microphone. The dignity of the Congress was upheld. Hallelujah! The president was being presidential and the balance of the universe was restored.
What concerns them is not truth or justice or equality, notions that have been opposed and undermined by every US president in living memory. What they want is a head of state who upholds and expands the credibility of the institutions through which the US ruling elite plunder both their own people and the world.
Who are the most “presidential” presidents of the modern era, according to the liberal establishment? One is John F. Kennedy. He is the one whose belligerent militarism and anti-communism brought the world, during the Cuban missile crisis, closer to nuclear annihilation than at any time before or since. But when JFK threatened to wipe human life off the face of the planet, he did so with all due respect to the norms and institutions of the US state, and to boot threw in eloquent speeches about not asking for whom the bell tolls.
Most recently, there is Barack Obama. There were few people on the left of politics who did not shed a tear when the first African American president was inaugurated. But Obama, whose Blackness was in one sense the antithesis of centuries of tradition dictating who an American president could be, nonetheless proved himself eminently presidential.
First, he waxed lyrical about the timeless struggle to create “a more perfect union”. Second, he bailed out Wall Street and made working class Americans pay for a crisis that was entirely the fault of the ruling elite. Presidential!
Liberals can respect Republican presidents as well. And while soaring oratory and coherent policies are a welcome extra, they are nothing near being a job requirement. Take George W. Bush. Here was a president who couldn’t put a sentence together, let alone a stirring speech invoking the spirit of the republic. And yet his lies about weapons of mass destruction, allegedly held by the Iraqi regime in 2003, were accepted as fact. Why? Because the institutions of US power – the Pentagon, the CIA, the State Department – all backed up the lie. So the overwhelming majority of the US media accepted it: the institutions of the US state had spoken.
Donald Trump is a hard right president, with a hard right agenda. He is also an uncontrollable freewheeling maverick with no respect for the institutions and norms that have served the US ruling class so well for more than 200 years.
The first aspect of Trumpism is a threat to most of humanity. The second is a threat to the ruling class of the United States. When they say they want him to be “presidential”, they mean they want him to fall into line and screw over ordinary people in the US and across the planet using the time-honoured and institutionally approved methods of US presidents past.
What the rest of us need to worry about is not whether or not Trump is “presidential”, but how he and the system that created him can be stopped.