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How Donald Trump Played America—and Himself

May 9, 2021

This leadership post is a look back at one I wrote prior to Donald Trump becoming President of the United States. Much of the numbness from the Trump term has abated now that President Joe Biden has just passed his 100 days in office. However, there’s much uncertainty what the future holds for The Land of the Free, starting in 2022 and then in 2024. After all, Trump may be silenced on Facebook and Twitter, but political pollsters in spring 2021 see him as being the Republican candidate in the 2024 election.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower (serving from 1953 to1961) once said: “Never question another man’s motive. His wisdom, yes, but not his motives.” Wise words indeed, and especially relevant back in 2016 as the U.S. presidential election campaign—circus may be more appropriate—lurched forward to November 8th.

Plenty of people expressed their views, insights and horror on Donald J. Trump’s attempt, and associated behaviour, for the crown jewel of President of the United States. This sickening spectacle, a first since the country’s independence in 1776 (there have been plenty of looney political events in its history), prompted many to question Trump’s motives.

It certainly begged the question at the time: was Donald Trump that unhinged and dangerous, given his propensity for spontaneous rantings and threats aimed at whomever gets in his crosshairs? Or was he more the cunning strategist, playing to America’s underbelly (Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables”), having an alternate plan if he lost the national election? Indeed, one could argue that Trump never had any expectation of winning the presidency, instead looking at his run for office as a springboard to further building his brand post-election.

Now that we’re in 2021 we know the answers to some of those questions, but others will remain unanswered, such as what would Trump have done had he lost the 2016 election. And it’s too soon to say what Trump’s plan is for his 2020 election loss to Joe Biden. To date, Trump has done mostly howling at the moon, including any people inclined to listen to his rantings. His feeble attempt to create a blog where he shares his distorted views and continues to peddle the nonsense that he won the election is proving to be lacklustre. 

Some observers have been postulating for some time that Trump wants to create his own Trump TV news show or cable network, something along the lines of the wacky Fox news network and its rag tag band of pseudo journalists. Fox seems to be a sucker for punishment, with Trump at times lambasting the cable network, both before and after his election loss. Trump, who has a penchant for laziness, likely doesn’t want to put in the effort—or invest his personal money— to create a cable channel.

It became glaringly apparent that “The Donald” was, however, successful in creating a reality show while inhabiting the White House. Every day brought a new batch of firings, leaks, and tweet blasts from The Commander in Chief. The Apprentice couldn’t hold a candle to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Keep in mind that Donald Trump is less a businessman (his floundering Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City finally closed its doors in October 2016 and hotel owners tore the Trump signage off their facades) and more the masterful self-promoter, analogous to the P.T. Barnum of the 21st Century.

In the lead-up to the 2016 election, the media had essentially concluded that Hillary Clinton had conclusively won it. That’s how the media operates, attention span of a budgie and overly quick to conclude. However, what was— and still is— at stake, as more seasoned journalists and political observers have pointed out, is: a) the Republican Party faces dissolution due to infighting, and b) Trump’s election loss is creating a huge socio-political chasm across America, splitting families and communities apart. This will spell disaster if the world’s longest-reigning democracy becomes in effect a one-party state.

Well, that hasn’t happened yet. Trump’s base has proven to be resilient. What’s surprising is Trump’s strong showing in November 2020. More astute political observers have noted that had Trump shown stronger and more consistent national leadership as the Covid-19 pandemic gained steam and spread alarmingly across America, he would have easily won the election. Reflect on that for a moment—a horror show 2.0 avoided.

In 1993, Canada’s Progressive Conservative Party, once proud and strong, began its implosion following a national election in which the Liberal Party gave it a sound thumping. A decade later, the PC party was no more as it merged with the radical right Canadian Alliance to create the Conservative Party. The point is that change can come swiftly and unforgivingly to those in politics who don’t pay heed to voters.

Like a desperate rat that’s cornered (to borrow from Russia’s Vladimir Putin’s story as a young man growing up), Donald Trump lashed out viciously at whomever pissed him off, and especially following the second Presidential debate with Hillary Clinton. It raises the question, therefore, of how much of Trump’s behaviour was truly spontaneous and uncontrolled, as opposed to playing to his core supporters and also following his playbook (assuming there was one).

Witness his statement at the third and final Presidential debate on October 19, 2016, in Nevada. When asked by Fox news moderator Chris Wallace if he would accept a Hillary Clinton victory on November 8th, Trump replied that he didn’t know at that point, noting that he’d keep people in suspense. This contradicted his response at the second debate when asked the same question. At that debate he replied yes he would. His VP running mate Mike Pence has also stated that Trump would accept a Clinton win. This flip flop was more than just a Donald Trump moment. There seemed to be an underlying current of: “Just watch me, folks; there’s going to be some big stuff happening if I lose the election.”

One doesn’t have to pretend to be a fear monger to legitimately suggest that even in a Hillary Clinton election victory that Trump would have made every effort to bring down the country’s political system, from the Office of the President to the Republican Party to helping spawn violence in the streets. The latter is not an overly dramatic statement. Just witness the January 6, 2021, invasion of the Capitol Building, indirectly urged on by Trump, and still under investigation by the FBI.

Indeed, while British historian Niall Ferguson predicted “blood in the streets” following the 2008 financial meltdown, which didn’t quite occur, it did happen on Capitol Hill in January 2021. Witness the disgraceful fights that took place at political events during Trump’s campaigning.

Despite the election win by Joe Biden, he’s hampered by a highly partisan Congress, with Republicans showing no interest in the good of the country. The United States has so many inter-twined domestic and global issues to address that it’s beyond comprehension. And being the world’s dominant military power (for now) and political force for democracy in a world where it’s fast disappearing, a huge amount of national energy was diverted for four years to the Machiavellian aims of a half-rate reality show host and bumbling real estate business man. And the show’s not yet over.

Donald Trump, in his own self-perceived brilliance, may believe that he put one over on a large segment of America, that he’s played his supporters like a grand puppet master (witness the millions of dollars he suckered from his gullible base to pay off his 2020 campaign expenses).

He’s still a danger to America. JT

The great sadness is even if Trump doesn’t become president, we live in a country where half the people think he should be.
— Bill Maher (Twitter, October 16, 2016)

Connect with Jim on Twitter @jlctaggart and LinkedIn

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