Policy Analysis United States

Trump’s Strategy of Political Maneuvering While His Country is Distracted

Donald Trump is currently the most disliked president compared to any other in modern American history, currently sitting at an approval rating of 37% according to Gallup. According to the same polling data, 58% of Americans disapprove of the president today, and he hasn’t even completed his ninth month in office. Compared to every single previous president, Donald Trump is by far the least popular, only competing with Gerald R. Ford for the spot (after August), according to TIME.

Now, none of this data should come as a surprise to anyone who remotely follows news and politics. The President Trump’s time in office has only really delivered substanceless rhetoric with no major legislative accomplishments. The country has been reeling from countless scandals, poor responses to crises, and the fear of millions losing their healthcare.

The only thing Trump’s time in office has given the world, however, is a refined model in which we can study how government administrations, like the current White House, direct negative attention elsewhere and use political opportunities in order to get things done that are unpopular and often times abhorrent. Things like scandals over unpopular comments, natural disasters, or even national issues have all been used to deflect criticism of the government when it really counts, and this September it became even more painfully obvious.

Last month, the Trump administration managed to deflect media criticism over the federal government’s poor response to Puerto Rico’s crisis post-hurricane Maria. Instead, Trump and the staff operating his Twitter account managed to focus the media’s spotlight on Trump’s loud mouth towards Mayor Carmen Cruz, as well as the NFL kneeling-for-the-anthem controversy as the US response to Puerto Rico continued to stagnate. Though maybe even unintentional, it’s an example of the world focusing on the wrong things with regards to the federal government, and it is bad news for the United States of America.

It must be pointed out that none of this is to say that Barack Obama — or any other previous president after the second world war — has been free from scandal (except maybe for Jimmy Carter, who successfully never had a shot fired during his time in office). Obama increased government surveillance of its citizens, the mass collection of private and communications data, and expanded the powers of government agencies to share this information with each other. Obama also ramped up the war on whistleblowers, and even though he eventually pardoned Chelsea Manning. He still didn’t let Snowden come home and cracked down on members of the government who revealed its shortcomings and criminal actions. Hundreds of those killed in the drone war under Obama were civilian casualties and he increased the number of US military interventions around the world. He perpetuated the conflict in Yemen, now being described as the worst humanitarian crisis in this century, with the man-made cholera outbreak about to become the worse ever.

With all that being laid out, it’s clear that any pundit or writer who believes “Obama’s presidency was free of scandals” is an absolute and total fool. He should understand that his [Obama] unlawful actions as a president laid the way for many of the things that Trump has already done and is going to do. The unknowingness of the American people to the crimes of the past president has allowed an entire population of over 300 million people to largely go about life, completely unknowing of the crimes their empire is committing.

And that’s the key issue here.

For the past nine months, the world has slowly grown accustomed to the new president’s governing, and in that time, Trump may not have accomplished any major legislative victories, but he and his Republican-controlled Congress have had a significant impact on domestic policy and the world already. In the first month of his presidency, Trump’s first act in his new position was to eliminate an Obama-era guideline that made it easier for first-time homeowners to buy their first house, acting as an effective tax increase on lower-middle-class homebuyers. Trump’s first military action as President was to allow a raid — one which Obama hadn’t permitted because of risk — which killed a Navy SEAL and several civilians including an eight-year-old American girl.

Soon after these actions, however, the world lost sight of these issues and moved on to other things, all, of course, being less significant than the impeachable offense of extrajudicially killing an American citizen.

Side note: You probably just read that last sentence and hardly took notice to its implications. Take a second to grasp it. President Trump’s first military raid killed an eight-year-old girl, who retained US citizenship, and not a single member of the team that carried it out, or the president, faced any punishment. Instead, the president that same week used the death of the Navy SEAL to push his agenda and distract from his crime. Donald Trump used what was really a massive failure (and a total massacre) to push an idea that the raid was necessary in his first speech to Congress. He got a standing ovation for honouring the widow of the soldier he’d just authorised the death of.

Every time Donald Trump had done something horrible, he’s somehow been saved by media outrage for something less horrible he did, a prime example of the media focusing on the wrong things at the wrong time. This isn’t something new, however. This is something that started long before his presidency. When Donald Trump got caught on a hot mic telling Billy Bush that he “grabs [women] by the pussy, [he doesn’t] even wait,” the media firestorm that ensued focused not on the fact that Donald Trump admitted to several occasions where he could have sexually assaulted women, but instead on the fact that he said “grab ’em by the pussy” in the first place. Almost a year before that, Trump advocated for war crimes by telling Fox and Friends hosts that “we need to take out their families” when talking about innocent civilians who were related to terrorist combatants. Of course, rather than talking about the fact that a presidential candidate advocated for the state to murder innocent civilians in war, the media simply quoted the president without providing any context, like for example, how such an act would be a blatant violation of international law according to the Geneva Conventions, the most important layout of rules and restrictions during warfare ever conceived.

(Trump said that he intended to change that, too. Outcry? Nowhere).

Now, Americans are being affected by policies that many don’t even know were passed — or, for that matter, repealed — and it’s a very dangerous position for the country to be in. A good example can be found in a legislative push made during April of this year by Congress that Trump later signed which allows for internet service providers to sell consumer data without their consent. The legislation signed in April had one of the lowest approval ratings of any legislation to get through Congress, and though it did cause some outrage and movement online, it was already out the door within a week.

“There is literally no public support for this bill. Its only advocates are the nation’s biggest phone, cable and Internet companies. There’s no longer any question — if there ever was — whose needs this administration intends to serve. But people everywhere are on high alert to the serious threat to the free and open Internet. And they will fight back.” — Craig Aron, CEO of the advocacy group Free Press.

At the point in which the legislation was passed, Trump had already pulled back nine Obama-era guidelines that were intended to protect Americans, and the bill he signed in April made internet privacy rules number ten. Since then, the Trump administration has taken several steps behind the people’s backs, attempting to spare themselves from criticism by taking action while the country was distracted. Examples of this include but are not limited to: the pardoning of a criminal sheriff in the midst of a hurricane; the firing of 46 prosecutors that worked under the Obama administration while Trump’s financial ties were being investigated in March; receiving gifts from the Saudi Arabian government — all while the world keeps looking for evidence that Trump colluded with Russia — and then making policy that benefits the despotic monarchy by selling at least hundreds of millions of dollars worth of weapons to them, which likely is a violation of the emoluments clause of the constitution and an impeachable offence; and the list goes on.

A good list of Donald Trump’s quiet accomplishments can be found here, covered gracefully by the Atlantic.

What’s particularly troubling about all this is that there is a chronically misguided way in which the White House and President Trump have been covered, and it is an easy problem to fix. It’s quite simple really.

Stop getting outraged when the President says something offensive, or incorrect, or stupid. Be outraged when he does something wrong, or immoral, or unethical. Be outraged when he advocates and acts on crimes. Be outraged when the government does something against the interests of their constituents. What has become so normal in North America needs to go back to being very, very not okay, and now that Trump is in office, there is a brand new opportunity to do exactly this. The eyes are on. Political engagement is up, people are motivated, and people are aware. The system was broken before Trump, but now that somebody more dangerous, unhinged, and uneducated has taken that role? It’s time to make sure that the world knows exactly what to focus on.

The next time the President of the United States says something offensive, racist, sexist, stupid, absurd, or any other variety, don’t get upset. Wait until you read the news story that talks about how his administration is doing more and more to quash science and research, like by hiring completely unqualified people into scientific agency positions of power that could decide whether or not you and your children grow up to lead healthy lives. Get outraged when the White House quietly pushes a tax reform that will raise the percent-taxed of the poorest Americans from 10% to 12% while giving tax cuts to rich people and costing the government over $2 trillion.

Get outraged when it counts.

The world has been getting better with regards to direction-of-outrage in the past eight months, and if you’re specific, it’s possible to avoid getting caught up in less-important coverage of President Trump saying something offensive. Still, the United States and those affected by their policies — which is everyone, by the way — have lots of work to do with regards to appropriately focusing on the issues that count. If the world can’t figure it out by the end of Trump’s presidency, however, then things may wind up looking more and more like some bizarre dystopian fiction novel — and that isn’t hyperbole when a government is willing to kick 23 million people off of health insurance for a political accolade — until it’s too late.

Who knows, maybe it already is.

This article was originally published on Medium.

By Dermot O'Halloran

Student at the University of Toronto. Very political, focused on policy substance and important issues. Freelance writer when not practicing saxophone.

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