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Fintan O’Toole: Why Donald Trump is the Tony Soprano of US politics

Trump – one year on: The president plays a character, one whose divisiveness his supporters adore

The word “character” has two opposite meanings. On the one hand it suggests the inner essence of a person, the fixed truth behind all surface impressions. On the other hand a character is a fictional creation, a persona invented for public consumption, an elaborate lie.

To understand why Donald Trump’s presidency is not yet quite the failure that liberals would like to think it is we have to acknowledge that he is a terrible character in the first sense but a compelling character in the second.

Trump as president is every bit as rotten as his fiercest critics feared he would be. The behaviour summed up by the dissident Republican senator Jeff Flake in his dramatic excoriation – "the personal attacks, the threats against principles, freedoms, and institutions, and the flagrant disregard for truth or decency, the reckless provocations, most often for the pettiest and most personal reasons" – is undeniable. But it does not make him, in the second sense, a bad character. On the contrary, the appeal of the Trump persona is proving to be remarkably resilient.

Trump was the middle finger that one half of the United States wanted to raise towards the other half

A year on from his stunning victory it is a given that Trump is at historically low levels of public approval. If he were someone else, if he were a conventional, career politician, this would matter much more than it actually does. The basic aim of the conventional leader is to be approved of, to be liked, to be respected. But Trump was not elected because people approve of him or like him or even respect him. He was the middle finger that one half of the United States wanted to raise towards the other half. You don’t need a beautifully manicured hand for this ugly gesture – perhaps, indeed, the cruder it looks the better.


The fact is that most Trump voters probably agree with Jeff Flake – and the other fact is that Flake is, nonetheless, being forced to step down as a Republican senator while Trump has consolidated his hold over the Republican Party. Trump has his hard-core fans who think he's a great man, but most of his own voters know very well that he's not the kind of person they would normally respect. A Pew poll in August showed that even most Republicans have negative or mixed feelings about the way Trump has behaved in office. Just over a third said they like the way Donald Trump conducts himself as president. Yet there is no good reason to think that most Republicans would not vote for Trump again tomorrow.

And the reason why they might well continue to support him is that they judge not his character but his performance as a character. Think of it this way: if a poll were to ask whether you approve of Dracula’s conduct as a count of Transylvania you would probably say that you do not. But if you were asked whether Dracula is a successful “character” you would surely agree that he is a powerful, enduring and disturbingly entertaining creation. So is Donald Trump.

So by any ordinary political criteria Trump's presidency has been a horrendous failure. His signature border wall is no closer to becoming a reality – and Mexico is not going to pay for it. His attempt at a crude ban on people entering the United States from some Muslim-majority countries was blocked by the courts and had to be watered down, depriving it of much of its viscerally xenophobic appeal. His effort to replace Obamacare crashed and burned – twice. His own conduct and that of his administration has been chaotic, undisciplined and at times almost comically inept. Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus, Sean Spicer, Anthony Scaramucci and Sebastian Gorka had to be banished from the White House. Not a single piece of positive legislation has been passed. The promised trade wars seem increasingly unlikely. The ham-fisted handling of allegations of collusion with Russia has simply created, in the relentless special prosecutor Robert Mueller, a nemesis from central casting.

His base belongs not so much to Trump the bumbling president as to the fictional character honed long before Trump became a serious political player

Most puzzlingly, Trump has not even managed to cast himself in the easiest and most obvious role: Don the Builder. Given his lifelong association with property development and his campaign rhetoric about the shameful state of basic infrastructure in the world’s largest economy it should have been simple enough for him to roll out a major project in every state and boast of American jobs for American blue-collar workers.

The Democrats would have been forced to support him, and if fiscally conservative Republicans had opposed him so much the better: Trump could have presented himself as a doer who transcends petty partisan politics. Yet he has been too lazy, too feckless and too distracted to undertake even a project with such clear political advantages.

Yet, given all of this, what is remarkable is not that Trump’s net approval ratings are lower than those of any other president at this point in his term, or that they have fallen in every single state of the US, or that among the rural voters who turned out so solidly for him they have fallen from a net 17 per cent positive in January to a net zero now.

Trump's failures make him relatable. They disguise the reality that he was born into extreme privilege and has repeatedly spent – and lost – other people's money

It is that, depending on the poll, somewhere between 33 and 44 per cent still approve of Trump’s presidency. He retains a very real base, one that still gives him effective control of the Republican Party. And this base belongs not so much to Donald Trump the bumbling president as to the fictional character created and honed long before Trump became a serious political player.

One thing to remember about the Trump character as Americans have known it for at least a quarter of a century is that failure is part of it. While critics of Trump point to his six bankruptcies as evidence that he is a sham and a cheat, his fans see the opposite. His failures make him relatable. They disguise the reality that he was born into extreme privilege and has repeatedly spent – and lost – other people's money.

The mythic hero must overcome great setbacks, must rise again and again from seemingly terminal adversity. Trump's gigantic screw-ups have been part of his heroic persona for a long time. His 1997 follow-up to the bestselling The Art of the Deal is called The Art of the Comeback. To come back, of course, he had to be gone. The voiceover for the pilot episode of the US version of The Apprentice, in 2004, has Trump boasting of how he turned his disasters into triumphs: "I fought back and won – big league. I used my brain. I used my negotiating skills."

Trump fans are therefore seeing a different story from the rest of the world. Other people see a tale of rise and fall: the astonishing triumph of November 2016 followed by descent ever lower into an abyss of ineptitude, tantrums and possible criminal investigation. But they see a tale of fall and rise. The Trump plot they are prepared for is crash and burn followed by the great comeback and ultimate triumph. In WWE wrestling (in which Trump featured heavily as a character) it is no fun if the guy who wins just flattens his opponent. He has to be down on the canvas a few times and nearly counted out before he turns it around. He has to fight back before he can win big league. This begs the question of whether Trump can or will miraculously resurrect his presidency. But what matters for now is that it buys him a lot of time with his fans. They’re primed to wait for the comeback.

His fans know his persona is no more inclined to reconciliation and persuasion than Tony Soprano is. That's  what makes him a vivid, compelling character

Equally, liberals see Trump's horrendous divisiveness as a failure. Established political wisdom assumes that someone like Trump, who was elected without a majority, has to use the powers of office to construct one, to win over at least some of those who didn't vote for him. But to his fans Trump's divisiveness is not a problem. It is the greatest satisfaction he delivers them. They know his established persona is no more inclined to reconciliation and persuasion than Tony Soprano is. That's precisely what makes him a vivid and compelling character.

Trump understands the raw thrill of pitting people and groups against each other. As Emily Nussbaum reported in the New Yorker, one of his big ideas for boosting flagging ratings for The Apprentice was to pit a team of white contestants against a black team: "Whether people like that idea or not," he mused, "it is somewhat reflective of our very vicious world." An idea that was actually implemented on the show was to pit the Haves against the Have-Nots: in the sixth season the winning team, the Haves, got to live in a mansion in Los Angeles while the losers, the Have-Nots, lived in a "tent city". Trump is a character in a binary universe where there is only Them and Us.

The Trump character has never been about reaching out to his enemies and healing divisions. It thrives on hatred. In the fifth season of The Apprentice, when Ivanka Trump chastises a contestant for bearing grudges, her father interrupts: "Who doesn't? I do. Nobody takes things more personally than me. When somebody says something personal about me I hate them for the rest of my life. It's probably wrong, but I hate people."

And Trump’s hard-core fans hate people too. Racism, Islamophobia, anti-immigrant sentiment and paranoia about the outside world are the pungent ingredients in the Trump stew. So is a visceral, tribal loathing of liberals. Bearing grudges is what Trump’s people do best. They don’t want to follow a character who melts into touchy-feely love of all mankind. They want a tale of resentment and revenge.

Even if Trump is achieving nothing positive it is a mistake to underestimate the power of this pure negativity. The relentless assault on everything Barack Obama achieved – from the Paris climate-change deal to the Iran nuclear accord, from healthcare to environmental protection – generates, for Trump’s hard-core fans, a vandalistic thrill.

The more outrage Trump provokes the more his fans will conclude that he must be getting something right

In this regard the worse Trump gets, the more outrage he provokes, the more his fans will conclude that he must be getting something right. Trump’s assault on the idea of objective journalism has been his biggest success: 46 per cent of voters and 76 per cent of Republicans believe that mainstream media make up negative stories about Trump. And in this world view, where everything is fake news, the one thing you can really believe to be true is the howl of pain and hurt from liberals, Democrats, minorities, un-American cosmopolitans. If it takes a boor to inflict this torment on the enemy, let’s hear it for the boor.

This is where Trump’s presidency lies a year after it became a reality: a positive disaster but a negative triumph. It is a shadow presidency, the evil twin of a great democratic office. It is not about doing. It is about undoing. It exists not to create but to destroy. Trump’s rhetorical promises of protection for his people have been betrayed, as they were always going to be. But they have, for now at least, a sufficient substitute in the pleasures of rage and the frenzied dance on the grave of liberalism.

The problem is that grave dancers, for all their mad motion, are rooted to a single spot. There is no forward momentum in mere destructiveness. The Trump character has a dramatic arc he is supposed to follow: from the bankruptcy of his presidency there is supposed to arise a triumph of power. Trump’s story is supposed to mirror the United States’ under his messianic leadership: a tale of woe that becomes a narrative of greatness. His fans abide the current woe because they think it is the prelude to a resurrection.

The question that arose a year ago is all the more insistent now: what will they do when they realise that this plot has already been lost?