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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

There is no crisis of legitimacy in Washington, despite what some would have you think

Nobody should wish for Mr Trump’s swift ejection from the White House. Sholto Byrnes explains why

Donald Trump is here to stay, writes Sholto Byrnes. Michael Reynolds / EPA
Donald Trump is here to stay, writes Sholto Byrnes. Michael Reynolds / EPA

The barrage has, it seems, finally broken. After Donald Trump’s apparent equation of the demonstrators at Charlottesville – there were “some very fine people on both sides” he said in the lobby of Trump Tower last week – a tide of opinion has coalesced that the US president has finally gone beyond the pale. Only three things have been predictable about Mr Trump: his unpredictability, his tendency to make outrageous comments and his tenuous relationship with the truth.

Nevertheless – and despite the fact that the president had also denounced white supremacists and racism in the clearest terms from the White House – it was the point of no return for Eliot Cohen, the former state department official. “The sooner the Trump presidency disintegrates, the better,” he wrote in The Atlantic. Americans should not “still want the president to succeed”, he continued, looking forward to Mr Trump being removed by impeachment, invocation of the 25th amendment or “some kind of resignation”.

A New York Times columnist declared that this was "the week when Trump resigned" in terms of his moral authority, while Newsweek warned darkly that Mr Trump was “just six senate votes away from impeachment”. (That’s actually quite a lot, but never mind.)

Mr Trump still has his backers, such as the treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin, who released a statement on Sunday saying “the president in no way, shape or form believes that neo-Nazi and other hate groups who endorse violence are equivalent to groups that demonstrate in peaceful and lawful ways.”

But that support aside, nobody should wish for Mr Trump’s swift ejection from the White House, for several reasons.

Firstly, there are the glimmers of hope that haven't yet been extinguished. There was a common constituency, remember, that both Mr Trump and Bernie Sanders appealed to in last year’s campaign. Both had an unabashed appreciation for big government and the role it could and should play in the creation of infrastructure and jobs. Mr Trump has been in office for barely six months. It is too soon to conclude that he could not, at some point, be able to agree with Democrats a stimulus package that no other Republican leader – wedded, as most are, to the mantra that government is the problem – would even contemplate.

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He is also more inclined than almost anyone else in US politics to try to improve relations with Russia; and for all of us who think Russia's history and view of itself as a world power have to be acknowledged, for only then would it be likely to become a more useful and congenial state actor, that is a cause for hope.

Whether Mr Trump’s admiration for Vladimir Putin stems from a weakness for strongmen is, frankly, beside the point. A new Cold War, that has partly arisen from the foolish extension of Nato to Russia’s borders, benefits no one. Mr Trump is circumscribed by Republican Russophobes in Congress, but that he would like to achieve a reset with Russia – on mutually advantageous terms, naturally, not as a patsy – is commendable.

Secondly, and more importantly, are the consequences of defenestrating Mr Trump early. There could be very serious civil unrest. The "deplorables" would be pretty justified in concluding that the Washington establishment had conspired to remove the only man who, as they see it, was really standing up for them, and that the whole system is fixed. How would they react? I would predict riots and damage to property at the very least. There would probably be threats to the lives of various members of Congress, and possibly even a terrorist attack by an enraged and emboldened far right. Mr Trump would condemn any such action, of course. But his removal would make it more likely.

It would also mean the world the pleasure of getting to know President Mike Pence. He looks reassuring and normal, for sure. In the Oval Office he could in fact be the most right wing president since the Second World War. As the Huffington Post put it: "Donald Trump might blow up the world, but Mike Pence would set the clock back to 1954."

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His Christian piety may appear admirable to some, but it underlays a conservative vision that would severely restrict the rights of women and may well have already contributed to the US withholding potentially billions of dollars from health organisations around the world if they advise on abortion – regardless of whether the money is for completely different programmes, such as on malaria or the Zika virus.

So yes, Mr Trump's suggestion of equivalence this week was appalling; although I don’t think anyone really believes he is a neo-Nazi sympathiser. It is also clear that a constant stream of shocking comments is the new normal. Why be shocked by what can only be expected? What would be truly shocking was if the president were to spend the next six months deliberating calmly, diplomatically and non-controversially.

But I suspect the truth of the matter is that this furore is not really about Charlottesville. Much of it stems from the animus that those who never accepted him as a legitimate Republican nominee, let alone president, still bear against him. Just as with Brexit and leaders like Mr Putin and Turkey’s president Erdogan, there are critics who regard certain democratic elections as having produced the “wrong” result. But, so long as they are fair, that is impossible. The American people elected Donald Trump in the full knowledge of his multiple flaws. What will count in the end is what he does, not what he says; and a legitimately elected president deserves the full four years to be judged on his record – no matter how the Washington and coastal establishments shudder at the very thought of him.

Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Malaysia

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