Trump’s silly season was a moral and political car crash
The heat in central Arizona in August is so dry and thick and fierce that you feel it in your throat. Three summers ago I stood in the forty-one degree desert heat, just north of Phoenix, and wondered how Arizonans cope in this skull-shaking climate. I didn’t realise at the time that a few miles to the south, there were many who couldn’t.
Thousands of racially-profiled Latinos, arrested usually on minor crimes, had sweltered in Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s tent city in Phoenix since its formation in 1993; in 2009, they were joined by a few hundred undocumented migrants at a time, who had been arrested in Arpaio’s infamous ‘sweeps’ of restaurants, homes and businesses. Once in the makeshift prison, inmates were humiliated, abused, and served food so far past its sell-by date it was covered in mould. Prisoners died, often by suicide, often not, at incredible rates. Those in need of immediate medical attention, even those who were in labour, were ignored by guards, and inmates were regularly rounded up by Arpaio and marched into segregated areas behind electric fencing, as publicity stunts. He had a webcam set up in the women’s toilets and would stream the feed online. Cases of sex abuse against prisoners, often children, were routinely ignored and covered up, and Arpaio himself once proudly described his prison as a ‘concentration camp’ in a speech to political supporters.
Arpaio was finally found by the Department of Justice to have conducted the worst pattern of racial profiling in American history, and was charged with contempt of court when he later ignored orders to stop the practice. But Arpaio was also a prominent birther and a vocal supporter of Donald Trump during his presidential campaign. On Friday, in return, Trump pardoned him.
In the UK, August is the political ‘silly season’, given the lack of real stories, and while the phrase is a little too quaint to have made it to America, the same has traditionally applied there. With Congress in recess, political coverage tends to turn to hypothetical and electoral predictions, with the occasional nonsense, tongue-in-cheek ‘scandal’ thrown in; Obama’s tan suit claptrap, which was erupting three years ago today, was perhaps the most August story of all. Wardrobe choices aside, it’s hard to mess up August.
But Donald Trump has used the month to throw bones to his base, reveal shocking sympathy for white supremacy and pick political fights, and has been rewarded with his lowest approval ratings yet. He ends August with just 35% of Americans approving of the job he is doing, numbers which Obama and Clinton never sunk to and which George W. Bush didn’t suffer until after his response, or lack thereof, to Hurricane Katrina. And it’s a situation entirely of his own doing — in the past month, we have seen Trump reveal his truest colours and act on impulse time after time, despite the supposedly stabilising appointment of John Kelly as his Chief of Staff. If you want to know Donald Trump, the man, studying the August of 2017 is a good place to start — his ego, bitterness and wayward morality have been on full display, and it’s been painful to watch.
The Arpaio pardon came on the back of Trump’s incredible response to the Charlottesville violence, which he pinned on ‘many sides’ hours after a white supremacist drove a car into a crowd of anti-fascist protesters, killing Heather Heyer. Two days later Trump doubled down, praising ‘some very fine people’ who were apparently amongst the fascist chanting ‘Jews will not replace us’, and asking why the ‘Alt-Left’ was not being criticised too, ignoring the fact that it was the Far-Righters who had arrived at the rally ready to commit violence, and armed more heavily than local police. It was remarkable to see a President of the United States immediately revert to the defensive when expected to criticise Nazis, equating them automatically with anti-Nazi groups — one wonders whether he would similarly bemoan the ‘many sides’ responsible for violence in the Warsaw Uprising or the Auschwitz mutiny should he ever accidentally stumble upon a history book.
There were political disasters in August too, which once again stemmed from Trump’s uncontrollable impluses being set loose. His unabashed anger over his Party’s failure to pass many of his electoral promises led to a month-long feud with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell which will likely derail his relationship with the body when it returns from its break; he’d already accused John McCain, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski of ‘letting the country down’ over their sinking of Obamacare repeal, and the signs are there that Republican politicians are finding their backbones when it comes to publicly dressing down the President. That sentiment extends into the White House — we’ve known for a while from numerous self-leaked reports that Gary Cohn, Dina Powell and the other members of the Committee to Save America have been ‘concerned’ about Trump’s weekly demonstrations of incompetence and his roundabout response to Nazis, but the most stunning example yet of his political quarantine came this weekend, when Rex Tillerson was asked whether Trump represented ‘the American people’s values’ and responded that ‘the President speaks for himself’. Trump’s isolation from his party and even his own administration grew larger this month, and his constant retreats to his base suggest it will only continue to grow.
And now Trump ends his horrifying month dealing with his own massive storm; a response akin to Bush’s Katrina debacle could be the dagger to his administration, but it seems he doesn’t yet gather the importance of the moment. Asked on Monday why he chose to pardon Arpaio just as Hurricane Harvey was devastating southern Texas, killing several and leaving tens of thousands stranded and homeless, Trump forwent presidential esteem and opted to highlight once again his love for television coverage about himself; “In the middle of a hurricane, even though it was a Friday evening, I assumed the ratings would be far higher than they would be normally — you know, the hurricane was just starting”.
Two days later, as Houstonians climbed onto their rooftops and prayed for rescue, Trump tweeted that he would soon be visiting “a wonderful state, Missouri, that I won by a lot in ‘16”, before also musing that “With Mexico being one of the highest crime Nations in the world, we must have THE WALL”. It is unlikely that the newly dispossessed and homeless in America’s fourth-most populous city took much solace in their President’s reminder of his 2016 electoral college win in Missouri or his renewed promotion of THE WALL, but Trump certainly did, and he wasn’t going to let a few feet of rainfall steal his thunder. He also promoted a book by former sheriff David Clarke (another campaign supporter) on Twitter, but declined to use his thirty-six-million-follower platform to encourage the public donate to the Red Cross, or even to mention the several people killed by the hurricane. On Tuesday, he visited Houston. “What a crowd, what a turnout!” he shouted in a campaign rally-style speech to hurricane victims, none of whom he met with personally. He wore a newly-made baseball cap which he also happens to be selling for $40 to raise funds for his re-election campaign.
Presidential reactions to natural disasters matter, and Trump’s was to steal the disaster’s television coverage for himself, then revel once again in his crowd sizes. Presidential reactions to the worst aspects of a nation’s society matter as well, and Trump’s response to that aspect in his nation, namely white supremacy and neo-Nazism, was to equate it to anti-Fascism and to call some of its proponents ‘very fine people’. And a President’s reaction to racial profiling and disregard for the law matters — Joe Arpaio made a name for himself by abusing his authority, ignoring the Constitution and defying federal law, and he is a free man because he shared the President’s politics. Many more racist sheriffs and police chiefs will have watched Arpaio’s pardon and cracked a smile.
Morally, politically, strategically, August was a terrible month for Trump. He surely emboldened his base, but in doing so horrified much of America and great swathes of his party. He enters September battling a storm which would be called a defining event for his Presidency, were it not for the unforgettable display of incompetence and ethical bankruptcy he has already presented in the past four weeks.
‘The President of the United States’ is a phrase meant to drip of lustre and reverence, but given its current referent is a flabby and congealed personification of America’s id, it sounds more like the thud of an infant-flung turd against a wall with each passing week. It’s a useful comparison, given that this image is precisely what most sensible observers are drawn to whenever a fit of insecurity publicly overcomes the Leader of the Free World, but it’s growing more and more tiring by the hour. The silly season is over, and as Washington returns to work, Donald Trump is an isolated and increasingly derided figure. Maybe, in the future, the summer months will again be lit up with outrage over the colour of the President’s suit. But there are three more August to go until then.