Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 21 September 2019

Sharpiegate: a bellwether of the Trump administration's attempts to strip state institutions of their authority

As a storm brews over an apparently doctored map showing the path of Hurricane Dorian, why can't the US president admit when he gets it wrong? asks Hussein Ibish

US President Donald Trump with the apparently doctored map of Hurricane Dorian that appears to have been extended with a black line to include parts of the Florida panhandle and the state of Alabama. Reuters
US President Donald Trump with the apparently doctored map of Hurricane Dorian that appears to have been extended with a black line to include parts of the Florida panhandle and the state of Alabama. Reuters

Last week a new word entered the Washington lexicon: Sharpiegate, named after the marker pen that generally sells for less than $1. That's because it's the writing instrument of choice of US President Donald Trump, who spurns the $120 rolling ballpoint pens preferred by his predecessors.

The president likes Sharpies because they write smoothly and boldly in thick, indelible strokes, perfectly conveying his now-familiar signature, which has been compared to an electrocardiogram reading. And since so much of his presidency has been based on imprinting his ECG signature on declarations and executive orders, Sharpies are now closely associated with him. His campaign team is even selling Sharpies decorated with his signature now for $15.

The Sharpie became an issue when, following the trauma of Hurricane Dorian, what should have been a minor mistake turned into a prolonged political struggle over truth and reality.

US President Donald Trump updates the media on Hurricane Dorian in the White House. Jim Watson / AFP
US President Donald Trump updates the media on Hurricane Dorian in the White House. Jim Watson / AFP

Just over a week ago, the president, who had extensively tweeted news and advice about the impending hurricane, had mistakenly warned the people of Alabama, together with the Carolinas and Georgia, that they were in its destructive path and were “most likely to be hit harder than anticipated”. The National Weather Service, however, said no such thing, and in an immediate response reiterated that Alabama faced no risk at all.

So far, no big deal. Everybody makes mistakes.

But not this president. What should have been a minor hiccup became a seemingly endless tug-of-war over whether Mr Trump is capable of error.

The Trump administration issued numerous statements by senior officials backing up his claims, all completely unconvincing, as the president angrily insisted that he, and not the government's scientists, had been correct.

US President Donald Trump during a briefing on Hurricane Dorian in the Oval Office. Evan Vucci / AP
US President Donald Trump during a briefing on Hurricane Dorian in the Oval Office. Evan Vucci / AP

Last Wednesday, the president summoned reporters into the Oval Office and brandished a map purporting to show the projected trajectory of the hurricane. It had been crudely altered with a Sharpie to show the storm winds reaching Alabama.

According to the Washington Post, senior unnamed officials confirmed that the president had made the alteration himself. While Mr Trump denied knowing who had doctored the map, his inability to admit a simple human error and move on has been obsessive and perturbing.

For several years in these pages, I have been tracking the progress of deinstitutionalisation in the US under Mr Trump. This recent incident, however seemingly absurd, constitutes a new threshold in an alarming process.

There is a clear pattern of this administration batting facts aside in favour of a narrative that is more emotionally satisfying, ideologically buttressing and politically empowering

It is unlawful for anyone to tamper with an official US government meteorological map. It is also a perfect example of how Mr Trump is more comfortable with a psychologically affirming narrative than objective, quantifiable reality, and the extent he will go to assert the primacy of myth, politics and ego over fact. Government scientists and meteorologists have now been formally warned to “only stick with official National Hurricane Centre forecasts if questions arise from some national level social media posts", which has been interpreted as a reprimand for criticising Mr Trump, even if he is misleading the public on a matter as serious as the path of a hurricane.

Time and again, it has not mattered to him what relevant and qualified authorities say about crowd size, voting patterns, immigration, terrorism, economic trajectories, climate change, scientific findings, or any number of other measurable, objective realities. These cases constitute a clear pattern of this administration batting facts aside in favour of a narrative that is more emotionally satisfying, ideologically buttressing and politically empowering.

In recent weeks deinstitutionalisation has taken a qualitative leap forward in several crucial ways.

The attack on fact-based reality and the scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is one example.

Another is Mr Trump's ongoing war with the Federal Reserve Bank and its chairman in maintaining that, even though the economy is strong, the bank should lower the prime interest rate anyway, presumably because that might help secure his re-election.

Mr Trump has amplified his attacks on the press, the FBI, Congress, courts, his own bureaucracy and, seemingly, anyone and anything that might provide an alternative source of authority and information.

Deinstitutionalisation is even targeting the electoral process itself

The prime target remains the media, ever the low-hanging fruit in democratic politics, with Mr Trump now even turning on Fox News, which is split between entirely supportive and moderately supportive programming, as insufficiently "working for us anymore" and, as a consequence, "we", meaning his political support base, "need a new network".

Deinstitutionalisation is even targeting the electoral process itself.

The Federal Election Commission has been allowed to dwindle below a quorum, so there will apparently be no referee for accountability in the forthcoming election. And Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, now commonly referred to as "Moscow Mitch" because of his refusal to do anything to stop Russian meddling in US elections, has blocked every effort to create a national set of election standards.

Deinstitutionalisation has also come to the Republican primaries, given that three relatively minor candidates are standing against Mr Trump. Caucuses and primaries within the party have been cancelled in South Carolina, Nevada, Arizona and Kansas, ostensibly to save money.

And Mr Trump, who is sworn to uphold and enforce the law, allegedly told his officials to disregard laws and simply seize land to build his wall along the southern border, promising them pardons if needs be, according to the Washington Post and New York Times, although administration officials claimed he was merely joking.

American deinstitutionalisation is rapidly accelerating. Many hope all this will be easily reversed when Mr Trump leaves office. But as any parent of young children will tell you, it’s incredibly hard to remove ugly stains left by a misused Sharpie.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute in Washington

U.S. President Donald Trump holds up the altered National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) chart showing the original projected track of Hurricane Dorian that appears to have been extended with a black line to include parts of the Florida panhandle and the state of Alabama. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
U.S. President Donald Trump holds up the altered National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) chart showing the original projected track of Hurricane Dorian that appears to have been extended with a black line to include parts of the Florida panhandle and the state of Alabama. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Updated: September 9, 2019 07:03 PM

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