After less than a year in office, President Donald J. Trump has exceeded the expectations of his supporters and confounded his enemies.
Economic growth is accelerating, stock prices are rising, and consumer confidence is soaring. The only distressed asset in the US market is conventional wisdom, which dismissed the former real-estate developer and reality TV star as a blundering amateur.
On the contrary, Trump evinces a shrewdness about American voters better than that of any politician of his generation. Even more importantly, he has the nerve to take risks in order to draw his opponents into battles that he thinks he can win. I can think of no politician with his combination of courage and cunning since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to whom I compared the then president-elect in a December 2016 essay for Standpoint.
In the past week alone:
– The White House shepherded its tax cut bill through the Senate and probably will have reconciled legislation from the House and Senate on the President’s desk before year-end;
– The mainstream media’s efforts to tar Trump with the charge of collusion with Russian interference in the 2016 elections flamed out in some of the most embarrassing blunders in television history;
– Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of alleged Trump collusion ran into land mines as evidence of political conflicts of interest surfaced; and
– Most impressively of all, Trump appears to have inflicted punishing losses on the National Football League, which suffered a sharp drop in viewers after the president attacked team owners for allowing players to refuse to stand for the national anthem.
It’s one thing to take on the Senate Republicans or the Federal Bureau of Investigation, quite another to persuade Americans to turn off football.
The kneeling protests of black football stars who refused to honor the national anthem may seem trivial beside the great questions of economics and national security. Trump’s adroit handling of the issue, though, shows both his political virtuosity and the fatal weakness of the Democrats, who have turned their party into the defender of racial, sexual and ethnic victimhood.
Americans, for the most part, are fair-minded and tolerant, and will sympathize with what the Democrats like to call “marginalized” groups – up to a point. Trump has a marvelous instinct for identifying that point. When Colin Kaepernick, then a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, knelt rather than stood for the national anthem earlier this year to protest racial injustice, Trump began a campaign of Tweets in September denouncing the dishonor to national symbols. “The issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race. It is about respect for our Country, Flag and National Anthem,” he tweeted on September 25.
The issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race. It is about respect for our Country, Flag and National Anthem. NFL must respect this!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 25, 2017
The protests spread among black NFL players, and Trump blasted team owners for not firing the players. By November 28, the president gloated, “At least 24 players kneeling this weekend at NFL stadiums that are now having a very hard time filling up. The American public is fed up with the disrespect the NFL is paying to our Country, our Flag and our National Anthem. Weak and out of control!”
Enough Americans agree with the president to hurt NFL television ratings. According to Deadline Hollywood, “Average weekly viewership is approximately 90 million and last year’s week 14 and 15 averaged 110 million. That would equate to an 18% drop Y/O/Y.”
Americans admire black professional athletes, as they admire the self-made wealthy in most walks of life. Their success assures ordinary people that the system works, and that talented and hard-working people can come up from the bottom. For just that reason they rankle when wealthy athletes turn on the country that gave them the chance to succeed.
Some of the president’s probes, to be sure, have gone astray. But that is unimportant, because the occasional haymaker makes up for all of the missed jabs
A September Reuters poll found that 85% of Americans “stand in silence” at an event where the national anthem is played, and 74% perform the civilian salute by placing their right hand over their heart. Fifty-eight percent said that “professional athletes should be required to stand during the national anthem at sporting events.”
Trump’s provocative Tweets have been the subject of scorn on the part of Republican as well as Democratic enemies. Neo-conservative Commentary Magazine complained of “Trump’s addiction to self-destruction,” while NBC News convened a panel of pundits to enumerate his “five most self- destructive Tweets.” His detractors fail to grasp that Trump is playing classic Rope-a-Dope with his opponents, provoking them into risky attacks so that he can clobber them.
Some of the president’s probes, to be sure, have gone astray. But that is unimportant, because the occasional haymaker makes up for all of the missed jabs.
Trump’s Twitter war with the NFL is a case in point, but his most consistent theme on social media has been the charge that the mainstream media produces “fake news.” Last week, blunders by CNN and NBC allowed the president to stack the bodies of his media adversaries like cordwood.
Fake News CNN made a vicious and purposeful mistake yesterday. They were caught red handed, just like lonely Brian Ross at ABC News (who should be immediately fired for his “mistake”). Watch to see if @CNN fires those responsible, or was it just gross incompetence?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 9, 2017
On Friday, CNN claimed that Trump was offered Wikileaks copies of Democratic National Committee emails on September 4, 2016, days before the embarrassing material was posted on the Wikileaks website. The cable network blasted its scoop as supposed proof that the Trump campaign colluded with nefarious forces (presumably Russia) to take down the Democratic Party just before the election.
The alleged smoking-gun email, it turned out, was sent on September 14, days after the public had access to the DNC material. The story of the year was no story at all.
Days before, NBC’s top investigative reporter Brian Ross had claimed that Trump’s former National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn had contacted the Russians before the elections under Trump’s orders, only to sheepishly admit that Flynn’s contact with the Russian ambassador took place after the election – normal business for an incoming administration.
The President gloated in a Saturday morning tweet, “They were caught red handed, just like lonely Brian Ross at ABC News (who should be immediately fired for his ‘mistake’). Watch to see if @CNN fires those responsible, or was it just gross incompetence?”
The case for “collusion” with Russia in the 2016 elections is vanishing, and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation will taper off with a few minor convictions, including the judicial mugging of Lt. Gen. Flynn, according to former federal prosecutors familiar with the case.
Trump’s announcement last week that he would move America’s Israel embassy to Jerusalem and recognize the city as the capital of the Jewish State was another well-conceived gambit. I argued in this space last week that it makes peace more likely by encouraging the Arab side to abandon the delusion that the Jewish State can be eliminated.
Of course, the decision panicked German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel — the same Herr Gabriel who had announced days earlier that “American foreign policy dominance was a thing of the past.” The Europeans and Pope Francis didn’t like it, but the Sunni Arab states didn’t much care, focused as they are on the threat from Iran, against which Israel is a de facto ally.
Americans see no reason to take chances with unvetted immigrants from overseas war zones
In terms of domestic politics, though, the Jerusalem decision was a master-stroke. The ghosts of the George W. Bush administration had hovered over his administration in the form of The Weekly Standard, Commentary Magazine, National Review and other diehard “NeverTrumpers,” and in the persons of Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain. Recognizing Jerusalem brought in a stream of positive energy right out of “Ghostbusters,” and left the neo-conservatives with nothing to say.
Britain’s body politic reacted with outrage when Trump re-tweeted video clips of alleged Muslim atrocities first published by a fringe organization, Britain First. That might keep Trump off the guest list for the next royal wedding, but it plays well at home.
The turning point in Trump’s 2016 primary campaign came when he called for a travel ban from some Muslim-majority countries, a proposal that a majority of all Americans supported. Americans will not countenance violence or bigotry against legal Muslim immigrants, who in the United States form a very small and relatively prosperous minority. But they see no reason to take chances with unvetted immigrants from overseas war zones.
By no means is Trump’s execution perfect. We do not know the final shape of his tax bill as it goes through reconciliation between the House and Senate versions, but the result will leave everyone with something to carp about.
In a recent speech, former House Speaker Newt Gringrich, a Trump adviser, compared Trump to British Field Marshall Montgomery, who beat Gen. Erwin Rommel at the 1942 battle of El Alamein. Montgomery understood the culture of the British Army, Gringrich explained, and knew that Rommel would have the upper hand in any mobile engagement. He therefore drew Rommel into a static, set-piece battle, because that was the kind of battle that the British Army knew how to win.
Trump, for better or worse, is stuck with the Republican Party, which only knows how to do a tax cut in its own fashion. The result is flawed but better than nothing, and a political victory for Trump.
Trump’s first-year initiatives, to be sure, barely begin to make America great again, as he promised during the campaign. But he gets top marks for courage and cunning, and has emerged against (nearly) all expectations as a formidable figure in American politics.