IT IS, paradoxically, so easy to overlook and diminish Donald Trump, despite his ubiquitous presence in the news media worldwide. It seems natural to underestimate and dismiss as a temporary phenomenon this fatuous blowhard who seems so sensationally self-absorbed and disloyal that it is a wonder he has any political allies or even business associates. Trump has proven to be a headline hog who has so debased the office of president of the United States that pundits and casual observers alike still bet privately and occasionally publicly that he will not complete his first term in office.
And yet his support among Republicans and various political fringe dwellers stays solid. In the face of the startling departure from conventional two-party US politics that he uniquely represents, neither traditional American political party has been able to gather itself so far to present a credible alternative.
In the November 2018 by-elections, Democrats in the Senate are far more vulnerable than they collectively were last year when the GOP nonetheless retained control of the upper chamber. This is because in 2016, Republican senators were seeking re-election in states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin that were deemed reliably Democratic.
Trump’s success in those and other Democratic strongholds made several Senate Republicans look better to voters, and they were returned to office as part of a triumphant GOP election night.
The entire House of Representatives will stand for re-election in 14 months, but talk of Democrats regaining a majority there now may be empty blather. Much can and will change before next November, but there is a growing feeling that Trump may be slowly, painfully gaining his footing in office.
There is a recognition in Washington and elsewhere that for all his myriad shortcomings, Trump has an appeal that seems durable, at least to a solid minority of voters.
His appeal lies in his personification of the repudiation of traditional two-party American politics.
Trump has remained slavishly loyal to his campaign promises, no matter how absurd or impractical they sounded to many. And now, eight months into his first term in office, he has appeared to turn away from his Republican majorities in both houses of Congress to flirt instead with the Democratic opposition on a budget deal and maybe more.
There is something undeniably appealing about this president’s persistent refusal to do political business in the way that has characterised Washington since the early part of the Clinton administration, 25 years ago. He retains an ill-informed and potentially dangerous misunderstanding of America’s role in the world, and there may yet be dire consequences from his stubborn ignorance.
But he is different than the rest, and that counts for a lot in a nation made cynical and disillusioned by the political practice of its elected officials.
In Washington, erstwhile and future rivals have been busy trying to present themselves as alternatives. Their effort has been largely fruitless and unsuccessful so far.
On the Republican side, one-time party establishment darling Marco Rubio, the junior senator from Florida, reneged on his 2016 pledge not to run for re-election and won re-election nonetheless. He is not often seen or quoted in the media. Texas Senator Ted Cruz, another vigorous Trump rival from last year, has been quieter than John McCain or Rand Paul or Lindsey Graham. Ohio governor John Kasich continues to attempt to become the GOP’s anti-Trump. He has not gained much traction.
They all seem somehow small compared to the president.
Democrats are struggling for party unity. They are not so far succeeding. Hillary Clinton is now making the media rounds touting her new book, still unable to concede that a candidate with less baggage might well have dispatched Trump in 2016. Bernie Sanders remains in the Senate, and represents a litmus test for prospective Democratic prospective candidates.
Sanders is proposing a single-payer, Medicare for all health care system for the US. His rivals and contestants for the favour of the liberal wing of the Democratic party have all jumped in to endorse his plan. The US may well be heading for a British-style health system with extra benefits for those who can afford them. It looks premature to try to run on this issue now.