Don't blame President Bannon. There’s a simple reason Trump’s approval ratings are historically low.
- By Max BootMax Boot is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His forthcoming book is “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam.”
To say that President Donald Trump had a bad first two weeks in office is like saying that Plan Nine from Outer Space was not a great movie.
Trump arguably had one good day in his first two weeks, on Jan. 31, when he rolled out the nomination of the well-qualified Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court — and that only was because he resisted the temptation to stage an Apprentice-style extravaganza with both the winner and runner-up sitting in the audience. Of course, Trump was compelled to move up the announcement of a Supreme Court pick, previously scheduled for Feb. 2, to distract from the scathing news coverage about his executive order banning all refugees and visitors from seven Muslim nations. Other than the Gorsuch selection, which is enthusiastically applauded by all conservatives and even by a few principled liberals, it’s been one snafu after another.
Trump is experiencing the highest disapproval ratings of any newly inaugurated president. Millions of people have marched to protest him — far more than gathered to watch his inauguration. The opposition party is already more militantly mobilized than against any previous president other than possibly Nixon, post-Watergate. Federal judges have gutted his most high-profile initiative, an executive order on immigration, after it revoked more than 60,000 visas. (If more faithfully implemented, we now learn, it might have shut down all tourism to the United States.) The president’s staff is so inept that when it issued a list of 16 foreign leaders Trump has spoken to, it included the “president of Australia.” (Ahem, that would be the prime minister.) And the president is so ignorant and ill-prepared that in commemorating Black History Month, he gave the impression that he thinks Frederick Douglass, who died in 1895, is still alive.
The White House is leaking like the Lusitania, with the press receiving chapter and verse about who is responsible for each and every screw-up. Career officials, including roughly 1,000 Foreign Service officers, are protesting the president’s ill-advised initiatives. The White House staff is feuding with each other and with cabinet secretaries. Trump, in turn, is feuding with the president of Mexico and the “president” of Australia, while the European Union is coming to regard the United States of Trump as a foe on a par with Russia, China, and “wars, terror and anarchy in the Middle East and Africa.” Yet while attacking American allies, Trump is defending Vladimir Putin from the charge that he is guilty of killing a lot of innocent people. “We have a lot of killers. What, you think our country is so innocent?” Trump told Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly, thus engaging in the kind of moral equivalence that Republicans once criticized.
His aides are reduced to brazen falsehoods about a nonexistent “Bowling Green massacre” and a wildly inflated inauguration-crowd count in order to please their difficult boss. He has even presided over a flawed special operations raid in Yemen that may not have been his fault but that still adds to the stench of failure hanging over this White House. The attempts of White House spinmeisters to lay blame for this mishap on the previous president and on the Pentagon have been handicapped by their notorious record of retailing falsehoods (see above).
It’s a sure bet that Trump will scapegoat others for his woes, beginning with his external critics and concluding with his own aides, who will eventually be accused, in true authoritarian style, of “betraying” him — in fact that was the very word he employed in firing acting Attorney General Sally Yates over her refusal to defend his indefensible immigration diktat. Nixon ranted and raved about his “enemies” in the privacy of the Oval Office; Trump does it on Twitter for the whole world to see. He would be better advised to look in the mirror — something he no doubt does regularly to check that his pharmaceutically-assisted coif is in perfect order.
Much as Stephen Bannon, the White House white-power ideologue, may be rightly reviled for his ham-handedness and heavy-handedness, he is not the true architect of the administration’s misfortune. That would be the president who appointed him — a chief executive who is utterly lacking in government experience yet has foolishly surrounded himself with aides who are equally unseasoned. Is it any wonder that their initial initiatives have been fiascos?
Trump got as far as he did by running a renegade campaign; he committed dozens of gaffes, any one of which would have sunk any other candidate, and he disdained the kind of discipline that most contenders embrace. He got away with it because he was running against a singularly inept and unpopular adversary in Hillary Clinton. But now he is being judged not by comparison with Clinton but with history — and by that standard his attempts to run a renegade White House are not working out well. Many people might want to see Don Rickles in a comedy club; few want to see him in the Oval Office.
There is, in fact, nothing remotely attractive about a president who appears before a wall honoring fallen CIA officers and uses the occasion to boast (falsely) of how large his inauguration crowd was. Or who appears before the National Prayer Breakfast and uses the occasion to brag that his ratings on The Apprentice were larger than those of his successor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Trump desperately wants to be loved, as his friend Howard Stern noted, but such over-the-top, out-of-control, out-of-place braggadocio, if it continues, will only lead more people around the nation to view him with as much contempt as the New York media elite, whose favor he has sought for decades, already do.
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Far more chilling are his incessant assaults on critics. He has accused Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who have been more courageous in criticizing his excesses than any other elected Republicans, of “always looking to start World War III” — precisely the same accusation that the government-controlled Russian media level against them. He repeats another standard trope of Putin’s propaganda by accusing protesters of being, not patriots, but rather paid dupes of shadowy cabals: “Professional anarchists, thugs and paid protesters are proving the point of the millions of people who voted to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!” he tweeted on Feb. 3. (Where exactly does one get work as a “professional anarchist” or “paid protester”? Sounds like a dream job.) He assails the mainstream media on an almost daily basis, with the New York Times being a favorite target (“the FAKE NEWS @nytimes is still lost!”) even as he continues to grant it behind-the-scenes access.
Worse than any of this are the tweets he sent on Saturday morning assailing the federal judge who the night before had issued a restraining order preventing the nationwide implementation of his immigration order. “The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned!” he thundered, adding that as a result “many very bad and dangerous people may be pouring into our country.”
The “so-called judge” in question, James L. Robart, is a Republican who was appointed by George W. Bush and confirmed, 99-0, by the Senate. It’s bad enough when candidate Trump made a racist assault on Judge Gonzalo Curiel. It is a more serious matter when the president, charged with enforcing the nation’s laws, singles out a federal judge for such an intemperate assault.
Just imagine how differently Trump would be viewed if he acted in a more dignified fashion. If your imagination isn’t that elastic, see the Twitter parody account known as PresidentialTrump (@MatureTrumpTwts). For example, in place of the attack on Robart, its anonymous author wrote: “I ask for patience as we sort out legality on this issue. Please don’t fear-monger- act civilly & respect whatever the eventual outcome is.” Instead of Trump’s assault on “paid protesters,” PresidentialTrump wrote: “Clearly there’s growing unrest & discord here in U.S. We MUST listen to each other NOW, find common ground & heal divides to move forward.”
Sadly, it’s just about impossible to imagine the real Trump acting in a more presidential manner, because he’s been the same obnoxious bully for the past 70 years. And for that reason it’s hard to imagine his tenure getting much better. If character is destiny, the president is in big trouble — and so are the rest of us who are along for this wild ride.
Photo credit: ANDREW HARRER/Pool/Getty Images
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