Abelson: ‘It’s the world according to Trump’

Illustration by Frank Neufeld

He just doesn’t get it – and may never will. In U.S. President Donald Trump, Political Science professor Don Abelson – one of Canada’s leading experts in American politics, U.S. foreign policy, and think tanks – sees a leader rooted in his narcissism, increasingly insulated from reality and prone to wild pronouncement without a basic understanding of American politics, history or culture.

With daily headlines dominated by every move of this American President, Abelson looks into the near future of a President having trouble meeting even the lowest bar and what it means for our neighbours to the south.

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We last spoke shortly after Trump took the Oath of Office. What’s the tone, as you see it, of his presidency so far?

He has demonstrated, time and time again, that not only is he ill-equipped to assume the Office of the Presidency, but with respect to a number of policy issues, and pronouncements, he is terribly inept. One need only look at events like Charlottesville, and his response to that particular crisis, to reveal it is a struggle for him to say the right thing, to be appropriate, to focus on issues and events that really matter.

It’s not about his ideology – because I don’t really think he embraces a consistent ideology. The problem is with his messaging, his demeanour, his attitude. He simply appears incapable of rising to the occasion and to embrace what one would expect from the Leader of the Free World.

What’s most troubling to people is not that he’s a Washington outsider – there have been others, including Ronald Regan and Jimmy Carter – it’s the fact he has virtually no intellectual curiosity. He has limited capacity when it comes to understanding how the American government functions. Even more troubling is his unwillingness to leave campaign mode and begin to govern the nation. It’s disturbing he has yet to realize he won the election, and you have to kind of take stock of where, and what, your responsibilities must be. Every time he feels attacked by the media, or by the people on Capitol Hill, or people inside The Beltway, his immediate response is to either go on Twitter and defend himself, or to hold yet another rally so he can remind himself he won in November 2016.

That’s highly problematic when it comes to issues that are important like healthcare and education, and the economy and foreign policy, and race relations – he can’t get outside himself to focus on that.

How would he do that, if he felt so inclined?

It’s not that he doesn’t have enough good advisors around him. He does. But he has to have the capacity to listen, and more importantly, the willingness to learn about issues he has little familiarity with. He’s so terribly narcissistic that he’s unwilling to listen to the advice he’s given – and when he does, it’s often too late. To have to remind the President of the United States that there’s no moral equivalency between Neo Nazis and members of the KKK and those that are risking their lives protesting against racism, then there’s a fundamental problem.

This has captured the essence of the Trump presidency – he thought he would be able to step in and wave his magic wand and get his agenda through. Now we’re at a stage of his presidency where members of his party are distancing themselves from Trump. They are disavowing many of the policies he has embraced, and if this continues, things can spiral out of control, certainly in the months leading up to the 2018 midterm elections.

As many people have said – we shouldn’t be surprised; we shouldn’t be shocked. We can be disgruntled and disillusioned and angry and upset, but we shouldn’t be shocked. He revealed his true character over several months during the Republican primaries and it’s kind of like the Holiday Inn ad – the best surprise is no surprise.

Well, why are we surprised? He revealed himself and made misogynistic, racist, sexist comments both in words and actions. He’s not going to change. It’s not that he pretended to be someone else. The American people knew, yet a large enough percentage were able to catapult him into office.

His problem, among others, has been that he continues to do whatever he can to placate his base. But his base shouldn’t be those that supported him, it should be the entire country, which he is unwilling to reach out to.

Let’s talk about the Russia ties.

We’re going to have to wait and see what (Special counsel) Bob Mueller reveals through the investigation, but clearly, important questions have yet to be answered, one being why does Trump, who is known for throwing people under the bus, remain so loyal to Michael Flynn? What is it that Flynn has on Trump with respect to collusion with the Russians? Perhaps there’s a financial scandal or something else that has taken place. Clearly, there were ties to the Russians. He encouraged them to hack the DNC (Democratic National Committee), hack Hillary Clinton’s emails, which they did.

There’s overwhelming evidence that has revealed Russian collusion and involvement in the election. He is not prepared to go down that road. Meetings that took place between his son-in-law, Soviet officials, Russian officials, phone calls he’s had with (Russian President Vladimir) Putin – and he’s one of the few leaders Trump has come out in support of.

There’s no doubt once the investigation has run its course, there will be a lot of questions that will be answered. But if Donald Trump was not concerned about his ties to Russia at all, he would have released all of his tax returns, he would invite Mueller to go through every shred of information. And he’s not prepared to do that and clearly he’s hiding something. At the end of the day, I suspect the special prosecutor is going to come up with evidence which will either confirm our worst fears, or possibly exonerate him and others. But we need to know where things stand.

What’s the implication of all this on the Office of the Presidency today, and in the wake of Trump?

If he lied, if he encouraged others to broker deals with the Russians over sanctions, these could be impeachable offenses. A lot is going to depend on what Trump knew, what he condoned, what he authorized, even before he assumed the presidency, what kind of communications took place, what he encouraged the Russians to do, if he was aware of hacking and helped to facilitate that – these would be impeachable offenses.

What’s your take on his revolving-door administration?

Over the last several weeks, several people from his administration have been fired, including (former White House chief strategist) Steve Bannon and more recently, (former Deputy Assistant to the President) Sebastian Gorka.

Part of the reason of the revolving door is you have an inexperienced president. You have someone who wasn’t prepared to listen to some of his closest advisors. He now has, I think, a little bit more stability in the West Wing because of (White House Chief of Staff John) Kelly being brought in. It’s a lot of inexperience and an unwillingness to accept his own limitations.

Generally speaking, if you’re a Washington outsider, you trust people who have considerable experience and strong credentials and understand how Washington works. But his position from the very beginning has been, ‘Let’s drain the swamp, let’s get rid of corruption, let’s bring people in who are going to shake things up.’ That’s all well and good, but that needs to be tempered with people who understand how the process works. You need advice in piecing together a team and the reality is, one of the few victories he’s had since taking the Oath of Office is getting (U.S. Supreme Court Justice) Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court. Short of that, he has no legislative victories, he’s made a complete fool of himself with respect to the travel ban, the border wall, health-care reform – all of these big-ticket items he said he would accomplish great things with.

His supporters still say he’s getting things done, though.

Oh, he’s doing a lot of things. What he’s doing is distracting the American people, he’s involved himself in some vitriolic language with the leader of North Korea and others. He has alienated some of America’s key allies in the process. He has alienated people from his own party. He has abused and condemned some of the most loyal senators in the Republican Party for years.

That’s what he’s accomplished.

He doesn’t have the capacity or the background to understand how Washington should work. And that is part of the problem. He’s unwilling to take ownership of anything unless it’s something he can take credit for. He can’t assume responsibility for anything that has gone wrong. He seems incapable of reaching out to the American people to bridge this huge divide which is destroying the country.

It’s one thing to make policy pronouncements during the campaign that allow you to distance yourself from your competitors, but when the campaign is over, the responsibility of the president is to unite and to heal and to bring people together. He has no intention of doing that because he can’t cope with the fact he’s being asked to unite a country that has a large percentage of Americans that remain opposed to him. Instead of saying, ‘I’m your President despite the fact you may not have voted for me,’ he’s like a 5-year-old who says, ‘If you’re not prepared to play by the rules I’ve set out, I’m heading home.’

He doesn’t want to win anyone over. If anything, he wants to solidify or at least distance himself even more form his detractors and you can only take that so far. He’s done it with the media, his own party, people in the United States and with Americas allies around the world.

What’s the biggest regress of his term so far, as you see it? Race relations?

That’s huge. I remember shortly after (former U.S. President Barack) Obama was elected, he gave a very important address in Philadelphia on race relations, which I think was one of his most powerful speeches. He had the experience and capacity; he had the temperament to understand how volatile race relations have been throughout the history of the United States.

Trump doesn’t even have a basic understanding of the Civil War; he doesn’t have a basic understanding of American politics, history and culture. He has no sympathy. He can’t address issues that are far larger than him. So, it’s difficult for someone like Trump – it’s probably impossible for him – to understand the complexity of race relations because he doesn’t understand, and isn’t willing to invest the time and effort to understand, America’s troubled past. And if you’re unwilling to look back in history, how can you possibly prepare for the future? It’s a fundamental laziness. It’s a lack of intellectual curiosity. He can’t possibly speak with any authority on an issue he has little knowledge of.

I’ve often spoken of George W. Bush, and how criticized he was, and rightly so, for many of the things he did. But one of the most appropriate things he said early on in his presidency is, ‘I’m smart enough to know what I don’t know and I’m going to surround myself with people who do.’ Trump is unwilling to go there – you saw in the speech in Phoenix – he had to remind everyone how good a student he was, what a wonderful apartment he lives in.

The problem is, for Trump, everything is about him – and that’s his pathology. It’s all rooted in his narcissism. Barack Obama could give a powerful speech on race relations because his very essence was shaped by the history of the country– he came from biracial parents; he understood it and lived it. Trump didn’t live that and no one expects him to have lived that, but he’s not even prepared to educate himself. You can read about it. You can speak to people about it. You can go to museums.  You can understand and you can be advised. He can’t do that because that would be an acknowledgement he’s not the smartest guy in the room.

What do you see coming of the midterms (November 2018)?

In the midterms, what we’re going to see, in all likelihood, if things continue down this road, is what we witnessed in the November 1994 midterm elections when Bill Clinton found himself in deep trouble and many Democrats in the house and senate did whatever they possibly could to distance themselves from Clinton. It was Newt Gingrich who was the favorite flavour of the month in the fall of 1994, not Clinton.

What we’re going to see is the Democrats, again, have a lot of obstacles in their path. But, if they organize themselves properly, they’re going to recapture a lot of important seats, and even if they are able to take back one chamber in Congress, it will have a profound impact. Assuming they are organized and they convey the right message, they’ve been given so much to work with, that if they can’t pull off a huge victory in November 2018, then there’s something fundamentally wrong with the Democratic Party.

We are still talking about Hillary. It seems counter-productive. Am I wrong? Seems to me we should stop talking about what could have been, and move on to talking about fixing what could and should be happening next time around.

Absolutely. Many Democrats admit perhaps Hillary wasn’t the right candidate at this time. Nothing can be done with what’s happened.

But is the Hillary conversation even worth having at this point?

I don’t think so. The conversation has to be that America is facing considerable challenges at home and abroad. Leaders around the world are looking at Trump and trying to figure out what the next steps are going to be. What is the Democratic Party doing?

Intentionally or not, he frequently distracts from the issues we should be discussing.

I can’t recall, in recent memory, another president or presidency where there’s been so much discussion whether he’s suffering from dementia. It’s not just his temperament. Is he altogether there? When you have respected officials claiming they are deeply concerned because Trump has access to the nuclear codes, well-known people and politicians questioning if he’s well enough to be president – these are serious conversations.

The reality is this – it’s not normal. When you watch the speech in Phoenix, when you watch his reaction to Charlottesville – it’s not normal. This is not what you expect from a president. This is not what you expect form a rational human being. That’s the problem.

He’s being given an A grade because he has directed FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) to assist in Texas. Um, yeah. That’s one phone call. You shouldn’t get credit for something you should be doing anyway. The bar has been set so low that any time he actually rises to the occasion and does what a normal human being would do, people are reaching out and saying well, maybe there’s still hope. Really? Come on. I think we should expect more.

Say he isn’t impeached and finishes the term. What are we left with?

We’re going to be left with a country in shambles. I’m still predicting he’s not going to last the term. I really do think something will either emerge through the Mueller investigation or something else will come to light and he will resign before criminal charges are laid. That’s not going to prevent prosecution down the road, but I suspect something is going to come up in relation to Russia or something else, and if you believe the person who ghost wrote The Art of The Deal, who has been interviewed on a number of occasions, his prediction, which I agree with, is he will turn a loss into a win. He will get out in time to save his skin but he will blame everything on the country, on the media, on the party. It will be consistent with his pathology.

If Trump did everything he promised he would do in his campaign, there would be riots in the streets. If he didn’t do everything, there would be riots in the streets. And that’s what happens when you paint yourself into a corner. He’s not an ideologue. I don’t think he’s smart enough to be one. He’s not a Bannon, not someone who has a coherent set of ideas or a coherent vision. He picked up on issues that would resonate with a large swath of Americans who, over time, became increasingly disillusioned, despondent and upset and angry, and he tapped into that anger and was able to pull off this victory.

But he’s not prepared to deal with nuance. For him, the world is divided – and I can’t even say into black and white because black and white assumes you understand both sides. It’s ‘the world according to Trump’ and it’s a world that simply doesn’t mirror reality.

There’s no shred of optimism here.

It’s deeply troubling. When you see events like Charlottesville, you see he simply doesn’t get it.

If you had a leader who was prepared to learn from their mistakes, then you’d have a chance. With Trump, you don’t. He’s not going to change. The only thing that is going to change is what Republicans in Congress are willing to do about it. It’s not the Democrats; it’s the Republicans.  Quite frankly, although this would cost them considerable political power, those that have integrity should be standing up more often than not, and saying what the president has advocated, doesn’t reflect true Republican principles.

That’s what they need to do. What John McCain did. What Lindsay Graham did. What Bob Corker and others have done.

At the end of the day, they don’t owe their allegiance to Trump. They owe their allegiance to the people who put them in office, and keep them in office, and I think they would have far more respect from the American people if they got up and said, ‘I can no longer support this President.’

It’s going to take more Republicans who have the courage to do that. And that’s what’s going to happen. As we get closer and closer to the midterms, as that base of support he has gets chipped away, more Republicans will come forward and say this is not who we are as a people and this is not who we are as a country. That’s how things are going to change.

People are going to have to have the courage to come forward and I really think they will.