One year of Trump | The World Weekly
When he took the oath of office on the steps of the US Capitol on January 20, 2017, Donald Trump seemed a strangely antithetical presence. He had been derided as “unfit for office”, written off by nearly every pollster, and regarded by many observers - at least initially - as a joke candidate. Yet when he addressed the inaugural crowd on that wet day in January, he was Donald Trump, 45th president of the United States of America.
“January 20, 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again,” declared President Trump in his inaugural address, “The forgotten men and women of our country, will be forgotten no longer. Everyone is listening to you now.”
That sense of disruption began in the Oval Office. Sources told the New York Times that Mr. Trump approaches each day as a game show-esque “battle for self-preservation”. Everything is about confrontation, with his now eponymous Twitter account reportedly fuelled by watching cable television news for up to eight hours a day. The White House has largely dismissed the report as false.
Yet amidst his fight for survival, Mr. Trump has begun to enact his conservative, ‘America First’ agenda. After a faltering first 100 days, Mr. Trump has delivered on several of his campaign promises: environmental regulations have been stripped away, he is building a conservative-oriented federal judiciary that will last a generation (epitomised by newly appointed Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch), and prototypes for his much-promised border wall with Mexico are being built.
When action fails, President Trump falls back on his unique brand of rhetoric. “Trump dismisses uncongenial data from institutionalised custodians of knowledge… trafficking in misinformation,” argued Kathleen Hall Jamieson, professor of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. His anti-establishment messages do not need proof. Objective facts that contravene his arguments can be explained away by the corruption of the Washington “swamp.” Only his own, untarnished information, can solve this decay and lead America to safety.
Casting aside facts has consequences. “This administration has sidelined science,” Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Centre for Science and Democracy at the Union for Concerned Scientists, told the World Weekly, “They are not taking science into account as part of our public policy, showing little interest in fostering scientific works.”
Headline moves like withdrawing the US from the Paris Climate Accord are symptoms of the wider extrication of government from scientific practice. Scientific reports running contrary to government policy have been suffocated by sudden grant withdrawals and even their simple deletion from federal government websites.
In a case in October 2017, three Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scientists were suddenly stopped from presenting their study about climate change’s effect on the Narragansett Estuary Bay at a conference. EPA spokesman John Konkus offered no reasoning for the move, stating simply that “EPA scientists are attending, they simply are not presenting, it is not an EPA conference.”
The news media has received similar treatment. President Trump has frequently used the term “Fake News” to delegitimise coverage he deems critical or misleading - generally from liberal-leaning organisations like CNN, the New York Times or the Washington Post. Journalists have even been verbally threatened by Mr. Trump and denied questions at press conferences after “fake” reporting.
“This level of personal attacks by the president of the USA on the media is unprecedented,” Courtney Radsch, advocacy director at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), told TWW, “Such anti-press rhetoric from the highest echelons of government can send an implicit signal that it is ok to attack and vilify journalists.” The US Press Freedom Tracker (at which the CPJ is a lead partner) has documented 39 physical attacks on journalists in the US in 2017.
Mr. Trump’s rhetoric has had a global impact. This year has seen the number of journalists imprisoned on false news charges rise to 21 - up from nine in 2016. Non-democratic governments like Cambodia, Russia, and Egypt have been some of the most vocal supporters of Mr. Trump’s treatment of the press. Whilst not directly responsible, argues Ms. Radsch, “Mr. Trump’s fake news trope has been used by authoritarian governments around the world to justify repressing critical reporting.”
At 32%, respondents to an Associated Press poll in December gave President Trump the lowest approval rating of any first-year president on record. Out of those surveyed, 52% saw the country as worse off since Mr. Trump became president; 67% believed America was “somewhat more/much more divided” under his presidency.
Protest has defined his first year in office. It began on day one with the ‘Women’s March,’ epitomised by the one million people who took to the streets of Washington DC to defy Mr. Trump’s “America First” ideology. From the protests at 80 airports over the so-called ‘Muslim travel ban’ to disruption of Obamacare repeal hearings, almost every policy proposal of the Trump administration has been marked by anger and passionate activism.
“The images of protesters and defiant political stances represent the increasing importance of resistance in contemporary America,” Dana Fisher, professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland, told TWW.
Mr. Trump’s combative style of governing has played into these divisions. His inaugural image of “American carnage” has spiralled into attacks on a perceived moral decay in America. He has branded National Football League players kneeling to protest police brutality and wider racial injustice as unpatriotic. As winter approached, he repeatedly returned to the conservative-coined ‘War on Christmas’, triumphantly telling the Value Voters Summit that “We are saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again.”
“Resistance” in America is, in part, a necessity against such antagonistic political rhetoric, argues Professor Fisher. “Momentum begun by the Tea Party and other conservative actors… has contributed to a culture war that is fracturing the general basis of America’s democracy. Bipartisanship and public discourse is no longer possible.”
Many of these issues breed ideas of conflict where none exist. In a Pew Research Centre poll, just 32% of respondents preferred to be greeted by “Merry Christmas” - split between 54% Republicans and 19% of Democrats. For 52% of Americans surveyed, it simply did not matter.
“The dual realities of Trump’s electoral success and early governing struggles increase the importance of asking whether a Trumpian rhetorical approach will remain appealing to a significant swathe of the American electorate,” writes Professor Jamieson.
President Trump's core white, working class political base has certainly remained steadily behind him. A November NBC/Wall Street Journal poll from 438 “Trump counties” where he outperformed predictions in 2016 showed an approval rating of 48%.
But a difficult path lies ahead to reconcile his frequently fact-free rhetoric with his actions. This week the Republican Party passed its Tax Cuts and Jobs Act - at an estimated cost of $1.5 trillion to the economy.
“Job! Jobs! Jobs!” President Trump has promised again and again that this bill is fundamentally geared towards bringing an economic boon back to his “forgotten” supporters. Economic analyses, however, have disputed this claim. One study showed that by 2019, foreign investors in American companies would have received $5 billion more from the act than the bottom 80% of the income ladder in all the states that voted for Mr. Trump combined.
After finishing a tour across the US in December, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, issued a stark warning: “The proposed tax reform package stakes out America’s bid to become the most unequal society in the world... the American Dream is rapidly becoming the American Illusion.”