For once, Donald Trump cannot blame it on fake news

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Cosmopolis column published in the Hindustan Times (14 July, 2017)

If anything about Donald Trump has impressed me in the past year, it has been his rather incredible imperviousness to scandal and error. Each week of his election campaign seemed to produce another embarrassment, culminating in the leaked audio recording of him bragging about sexually assaulting women. To his critics, that tape confirmed everything we imagined about Trump the human being: a man who was crude, grasping, and more than a touch psychopathic. Many commentators were convinced that Trump’s bid for the presidency was doomed.

A few weeks later, he won the election.

Winning the presidency didn’t stop the parade of gaffes or dispel the air of farce. From his obsession with turnout figures at his inauguration to his amateurish conversations with world leaders, his administration has lurched from clumsy spectacle to clumsy spectacle. His policy agenda has faced constant rebukes, in the form of principled federal courts (defying his Muslim “travel ban”), a fractious and uncertain Republican party (still struggling to pass any bill on health care), and reality (there’s no way Mexico will pay for a “border wall”).

And that’s all before we consider the overriding theme of his young presidency, the subject that eats up all media oxygen in the United States: Trump’s alleged ties to Russia. Since the beginning of the year, it’s become clear that many of Trump’s associates maintained contacts with representatives of the Kremlin. The US intelligence community is in no doubt that Moscow attempted to disrupt the American elections. The suspicion that Trump and his lieutenants may have been in cahoots with Russia has raised the spectre of “collusion”.

So far, Trump has weathered the drip-drip revelations and fever-pitched news cycles with a kind of manic defiance. In every instance, Trump pushed back unapologetically, dismissing the whole saga as “fake news” drummed up by the media.

This tactic worked because it pandered to his right-wing base. While Trump’s approval ratings are abysmal for this early stage of a presidency (hovering around 40%), upwards of 85% of Republicans still think he’s doing well. For a large section of the American public, the Russia investigations are malicious noise, the hyperventilation of elites in New York and Washington.

Like other rulers in the strongman mould, Trump relies on polarising the public. He enjoys dividing the country between the virtuous patriots who back him and the craven, effete cosmopolitans who want to do him down. He is far happier grandstanding at rallies (which he still holds) than immersing himself in the warp and weft of governance. His fury at treatment by the media allows his presidency to remain in this declarative mode, with only gestures at performance.

That is why the emails released this week to and from Trump’s son were so damning. They showed that members of Trump’s campaign were willing to meet representatives of the Russian government, that they were aware that Russia wanted to help Trump against Hillary Clinton, and that both Trump’s son and son-in-law Jared Kushner were closely involved in building connections to Russia. What Trump had so adamantly waved away as “fake news” was, in fact, rather real, and spelled out in his own son’s emails.

For the first time, Trump supporters have begun expressing concerns about the administration’s handling of the Russia imbroglio. “Strong support” for Trump has halved in many polls. Many loyalist pundits on Fox News haven’t tried to defend Trump. In an internal message, a top editor at the right-wing website Breitbart suggested that the emails raised the prospect of that dreaded word: “collusion.”

To his credit, I suppose, few other politicians could survive the distortions, stupidities and cruelties that Trump has made routine in his short political career. But in Paris on Thursday, he cut a bit of a dejected figure. He tamely defended his son’s conduct. There was very little of his usual bluster, and one couldn’t help feeling that for once he was shaken.

At this stage, further investigation may pull up more damning evidence of Trump’s Russia ties. Or it may not. Regardless, the Trump administration’s credibility is now not just in tatters, but non-existent. His presidency has taken a hard punch to the face – not from the media or the opposition, but from itself.

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