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With High Negatives And Low Expectations, The Bar Is Set Really Low For Donald Trump's Presidency

With Trump in the White House, the world will have a chance to tell America how to survive a strongman.

20/01/2017 10:19 AM IST | Updated 20/01/2017 10:56 AM IST
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A new wax figure of US President-elect Donald Trump is viewed a day after it was launched at Madame Tussauds in Washington,DC on January 19, 2017.

It's really happening. If there was a sense of denial that had persisted in the weeks since the US election, that is finally giving way to a sinking feeling.

This is not a sci-fi movie about an alien spaceship landing in America. The Trumps are indeed coming to the White House. The Obamas don't live there anymore. The most unpopular President-elect in at least four decades is really going to become the President of the United States. He will have some three million votes less than the person he ran against. But he will still become the so-called leader of the free world.

Except these days it seems as if the world is leading and America is following.

This is not a sci-fi movie about an alien spaceship landing in America. The Trumps are indeed coming to the White House. The Obamas don't live there anymore. The most unpopular President-elect in at least four decades is really going to become the President of the United States.

Italy is reminding America that they too had a leader "who worried more about his hair than about world issues. A politician who confused his private business with affairs of state. A person who treated the truth as optional". Both parleyed business success and wealth into political appeal and projected themselves as anti-establishment and a victim and foe of political correctness.

Both were treated as buffoons by the media until they actually seized power. Both admire Vladimir Putin. But relax, writes Beppe Severgnini in the New York Times "We survived Mr. Berlusconi, and the United States will survive Mr. Trump."

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Trump, writes Steven Coll in the New Yorker, will join Narendra Modi as the "latest figure in the world's swelling ranks of populist-nationalist leaders, a gallery of strongmen in countries rich and poor, some more democratic and some less so, who govern partly through intimidation and a certain curated arbitrariness, a methodology of deliberate surprise."

Even more telling, writes Coll, Trump's transition team will look familiar to many in other parts of the world. Son-in-law Jared Kushner and daughter Ivanka have emerged as key advisors, sitting in on meetings with foreign leaders, already anointed with the moniker Javanka. It's a shrugging disregard for firewalls between personal business interest and political power and as Coll writes "From Pakistan to Indonesia, that is altogether normal."

At least Robert Vadra in India was merely accused of reaping unfair gains from his First Family connections, not determining policy.

Trump's great liability is that unlike many of the other strong-willed thin-skinned autocratic Big Daddy leaders in the world these days, he is terribly unpopular.

And of course while Americans once tut-tutted at the famously salty-tongued President Rodrigo Duerte of the Philippines for his intemperate remarks, now they have to deal with their own President prone to intemperate Twitter fights. As for polls that get it wrong, the UK is still smarting from its Brexit polls.

America can be bossy, prone to teach the world how democracy works and preach to others about human rights. Now the world has a chance to tell America how to survive a strongman. This is one area in which much of the rest of the world has had a lot more experience and a lot more scars. America is a relative newbie.

Trump's great liability is that unlike many of the other strong-willed thin-skinned autocratic Big Daddy leaders in the world these days, he is terribly unpopular.

68 percent of Americans find him "hard to like". His own biographers say that it builds in a man as narcissistic and self-centred as Trump, an insecurity about his own legitimacy. It causes him to lash out even more. He has always been about "gaming the system rather than winning on merit says Michael D'Antonio, author of Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success. Three million votes less than Hillary Clinton bothers him more than he lets on.

"So he has this deep fear that he is himself not a legitimate president, and I think that's why he goes to such great lengths to delegitimize even the intelligence community, which is the president's key resource in security," says D'Antonio to Politico. An Irish betting website, unfazed by betting wrongly on Clinton, gives 4-1 odds that Trump will be impeached within the first six months of his presidency. At Ladbrokes the odds have halved after opening at 2-1 post his election but 90% of the bets are still on Trump not finishing his full term.

Mike Segar / Reuters
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump stands behind protective glass at the "Make America Great Again! Welcome Celebration" at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, U.S., January 19, 2017.

Yet ironically all of this could work in Trump's favour. With such high negatives and low expectations, Trump's bar is set really low. In contrast, Barack Obama came to power and was immediately saddled with fixing an enormous financial crisis. As the first black President he was regarded with great hope as ushering in a post-racial America. He was meant to heal racial strife in America. He was going to alleviate poverty, expand healthcare, tackle climate change.

He got a Nobel Peace Prize even before he had done anything to deserve it. It was given in anticipation of what he would do. As a matter of fact, as Medea Benjamin points out in The Guardian, Obama was hardly a peacenik. His drones dropped 26,171 bombs in just 2016. Now with 20-20 hindsight he is being accused of paving the way for Trump by not coming down harder on the big banks in the wake of the foreclosure crisis where so many lost their homes.

But Obama's great asset was always being nice, being measured, being cool. He was the middle-way President trying to find common ground. It also means that Obama could never do enough. The expectations were sky-high and the disappointment was equally crushing with author and activist Cornel West calling him a "Rockefeller Republican in blackface". At the first White House correspondents dinner, Obama joked "I strongly believe my next 100 days will be so successful I will finish them in 72 days. And on the 73rd day I will rest."

He has been turned into such a caricature, just a week when he does not tweet, will be considered progress.

Trump's slogan promises to make America great again but greatness is a state of mind and Trump can declare America great again whenever he likes without any facts to support it. A little civility from Trump will be regarded as an amazing step towards finally being presidential. One out-of-the-box appointment will be hailed as proof that he's independent minded. He has been turned into such a caricature, just a week when he does not tweet, will be considered progress.

Trump can turn his liability into an asset. But that would also require a certain humility, an acknowledgement that he understands he has been elected President but he is not liked by a majority in the country.

But humility has never been his trump card.

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