Why Donald Trump’s fans would be living up to the ‘deplorable’ tag if they support him after Helsinki
Robert Delaney says the US president’s actions during his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin was a repudiation of America’s cornerstone values
This group did not deserve the moniker when Clinton used it during the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election. Calling half of Trump’s supporters a “basket of deplorables” was probably one of the factors that cost her the White House.
The demographic that supported Trump in 2016 had reasons to be angry and ready for a departure from politics as usual. They watched Washington bail out large corporations in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis as the bankers who precipitated the mess suffered nothing more than a bit of downtime on their yachts. Trump voters felt – rightly or wrongly – that the bomb-throwing candidate would do more than Clinton to address stagnating wages and the loss of manufacturing jobs.
But last week represented a turning point for American politics and a point beyond which no excuses can be made, a disjuncture of major proportions, different from the racist and misogynistic signals that have defined Trump’s mindset.
Everything about Trump that raised our eyebrows before his trips to Brussels, London and Helsinki was just history repeating itself. Expressing support for white nationalists? Racism is as alive in the US as it is in just about every other country and, sadly, a part of American history. Cavorting with a porn star and a Playboy bunny? Please. This is what most men do at some point in their lives. Trump’s version of these transgressions might be more salacious, but is still just a variation on a very common theme.
Trump’s deference to Putin was different. Not because it was new, but because he reiterated allegiance to the Russian leader immediately after his Justice Department indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers in an effort to sabotage Clinton’s campaign.
Regardless of how his communications team tried to spin his statements overseas last week – maligning the press in the process by calling the “fake news media” the “real enemy of the people” – what should have become clear to everyone is that Trump would like to remake the US in the image of a Putin-dominated Russia.
The Fake News Media wants so badly to see a major confrontation with Russia, even a confrontation that could lead to war. They are pushing so recklessly hard and hate the fact that I’ll probably have a good relationship with Putin. We are doing MUCH better than any other country!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 19, 2018
Many Trump opponents would like to believe that his Putin worship has more to do with the possibility that the Russian leader has some very toxic dirt on him. We have no evidence that this is the case.
Trump simply admires powerful autocrats. Even in the middle of a trade war with China, Trump has nothing but kind words about his “good friend” President Xi Jinping while European leaders get mixed signals at best.
China and Russia practise forms of governance that are antithetical to the US version. Yet through international commerce and in the cultural sphere, Americans have had robust engagement and diplomacy with these countries in recent decades. Americans accept this because they have always felt confident about their form of representative government and the many rights this form of government guarantees.
Watch: What does Russian President Vladimir Putin fear?
This is not to judge Russia or China. It is pointless to try to evaluate which system is better because the answer depends on what measurements one chooses to emphasise. We can only make judgments about whether those in power are governing according to their society’s broader cultural values, laws and foundational texts.
The US is a country of immigrants, descended from the Enlightenment movement that blossomed in western Europe in the 18th century. In this paradigm, freedom of political expression, individual rights, and due process – all broad checks on authoritarian tendencies – are civilisational cornerstones.
Trump’s behaviour in Brussels and Helsinki was his clearest rebuke yet of these ideals. He feels threatened by them and is determined to undermine them by wrenching the US from the global order America established in the 20th century and re-aligning it with governments at odds with that order.
According to Gallup, Trump’s approval rating has been rising steadily for the past six months, from a low of 35 per cent in mid-December to 43 per cent in the last reading, taken before Trump went to Europe.
If it continues to rise, we know that Trump’s base wants to trade America’s core values for tax cuts.
Robert Delaney is the South China Morning Post's US bureau chief, based in New York