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24 Nov 2017 5:43
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  •   Home > News > International

    Make no mistake, Donald Trump is at his zenith

    He has failed to pass legislation, under a legal cloud and facing threats of impeachment, but that's not the end of the story. Donald Trump is on a high, writes Bruce Wolpe.

    Donald Trump is the most unpopular president at this stage of his tenure than any president in modern American history. But that's not the end of the story.

    He has not secured passage of one major piece of legislation through Congress, failing spectacularly in his efforts to repeal Obamacare. He has presided over a precipitous decline in America's standing in the world, and has engaged in ugly exchanges with world leaders from the UK to Australia.

    He is under withering fire in media coverage and op-ed columns from coast to coast. The "I" word — impeachment — is uttered weekly in the halls of Congress.

    His former campaign chairman Paul Manafort has been indicted, and the Special Prosecutor clearly has other targets.

    He is attacked by fellow Republicans on Capitol Hill as unfit for office.

    Mr Trump has lost his chief of staff, chief strategist, press secretary, national security adviser, head of the FBI, and a cabinet officer within the first eight months in office, and has publicly and repeatedly humiliated two other members of cabinet.

    He regularly insults the Republican leaders in Congress. He has brought the United States to the edge of war with North Korea.

    But make no mistake: as we near the anniversary of Mr Trump's election last November 8, and notwithstanding the legal clouds looming over the White House, Mr Trump is at his zenith astride Washington and his party.

    Trump's strength

    Mr Trump's great strength is his fidelity to what he said he would do in the campaign. While he has failed at governing in partnership with Congress — even though the Republicans control the White House and both houses of Congress — he has ruthlessly pursued the policy and political agenda he outlined last year.

    At home, he is enforcing his agenda through executive power and the bully pulpit, pushing his cabinet to go full throttle on erasing the Obama legacy: defunding Obamacare and the financing essential to maintaining insurance coverage for millions; slashing immigration intake and slowing access to America at the borders; repealing anti-carbon pollution rules and efforts to fight global warming; opening up national parks to energy development; undercutting support for public schools.

    Every judicial appointment, from the Supreme Court down, has been a bedrock conservative, starting with where they stand on the constitutional right (under present rulings) to abortion. His man will run the Federal Reserve.

    Abroad, Mr Trump has walked away from the Paris climate agreement; has initiated talks that will likely terminate the free trade agreement between the US, Canada and Mexico; brought the US to the brink of withdrawing from the nuclear agreement with Iran; and reduced US support for NATO — all core elements of his campaign message.

    In terms of America's political culture, Mr Trump has relentlessly pushed the populist and nativist buttons that drew millions to his rallies: viciously attacking the media, labelling journalists "enemies" of the American people, and threatening to silence a major television network; railing against immigrants and continuing to push for construction of the wall with Mexico; using the players of the National Football League as foils in the debate over the state of race and justice in the country; and unmistakably aligning himself with white nationalists, the National Rifle Association, and anti-abortion forces.

    All of them know they have a friend in the White House.

    Critics leaving the field

    Taken together, Mr Trump is maximising the underlying strength of the presidency and its executive power — and channelling it to maintain the support of those who put him in office.

    In 2016, Mr Trump engineered a hostile takeover of the Republican Party by prevailing over a dozen competitors who divided the field and ultimately could not counter the solid core of Mr Trump's grassroot support.

    In 2017, Mr Trump has consolidated his control over the party, and those who oppose him have capitulated.

    It is telling that Mr Trump's most vocal Republican critics are retiring and leaving the field. Trump's hardline strategist, Steve Bannon, is waging a political cleansing war on conservatives who are not Trump partisans.

    Trump agenda stands strong

    At the same time, no Republican leader in Congress has broken with the Trump agenda. There is no movement among Republicans to "take back" their party from Mr Trump and his America First vision — to reclaim the traditional Republican mantle of fiscal responsibility, free trade, open markets, internationalism, and multiculturalism and tolerance.

    At the ballot box, Democrats have not won one special election since last November — there have been no gains in their seats in Congress.

    There is no Senate Estimates-style oversight by Republicans in Congress over what Mr Trump is doing, and whether he is, pursuant to his oath of office, taking care that the laws are faithfully executed.

    The House and Senate investigations of Russia and its interference in the 2016 election, and whether officials in the Mr Trump campaign committed treason in colluding with the Russians, have ground to a halt.

    The mood in Washington right now is that even if Special Counsel Robert Mueller finds criminal activity at the highest levels of the Trump campaign, including possible obstruction of justice by trying to shut down the probe, the Republicans in the House will not vote to impeach Mr Trump.

    Mr Trump is not going anywhere. He is prosecuting his agenda with abandon. He has overpowered those in his party in Congress who resist his leadership.

    Democrats have not translated Mr Trump's unpopularity into a potent political counterforce.

    For those who voted for Mr Trump, their man is on the hustings keeping full faith with his campaign policies and blaming all those standing in his way — Republicans and Democrats — for not getting with the program. The economy is growing at 3 per cent. The stock market is near all-time highs.

    One year on from his shock election over Hillary Clinton, this is Mr Trump at his zenith.

    Bruce Wolpe worked with the Democrats in Congress in Barack Obama's first term. He is chief of staff to former prime minister Julia Gillard.

    © 2017 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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