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News analysis

Trump unsinkable for now - but, also on notice 

Love him or hate him - and there is plenty of both to go around - President Donald Trump has his own way of destroying critics.

Thus, at one point in a rambling interview with the Associated Press last week, he railed against critical television channels, and then said: "Whatever. Whatever. In the meantime, I'm here and they're not."

If this resembles high school point-scoring, then the President is not alone. The liberal opposition is guilty as well, flooding the streets and the Internet with scorn and derision aimed at everything from Mr Trump's hair to his bad spelling and overly long, signature red ties.

Endorsements from Madonna, Scarlett Johansson and many other celebrities at the anti-Trump Women's March soon after the presidential inauguration felt good to the well over half a million marchers.

But so stark is the gulf between two separate, parallel Americas - one of the vibrant, multi-ethnic, cosmopolitan cities and coasts, and the other of the depressed, largely white, Christian, middle- and working-class "flyover states" - that the numbers, and the names, cut little ice with Mr Trump's base.

Street protests in mature democracies are an indicator of the public mood, but rarely have much real effect. A million people flooded the streets of London in February 2003 to protest against going to war with Iraq- to no avail. The invasion, now seen as an epic blunder, went ahead.

On April 13, Mr Scott Dworkin, a Democratic Party activist and relentless anti-Trump campaigner, tweeted to his 123,000 followers: "#TrumpShouldResign is trending #9 on Twitter. #theresistance is rocking today!"

 

With this kind of symbolism over substance, it is little wonder that a new Washington Post-ABC News poll has revealed that while a majority of Americans think Mr Trump is out of touch with the people, even more think the Democratic Party is out of touch.

And while Mr Trump's popularity rating is at a record low for a first-term president in his first months in office, it masks the persistent, sharp divide. In a Quinnipiac University poll, for instance, 71 per cent of Republicans thought it appropriate for the President's daughter Ivanka to have a prominent role in the White House, but 78 per cent of Democrats thought it was not.

And, amid the frenzied news cycle generated by a president in a hurry to remake America, a largely partisan media has not helped the public understand the issues as it reacts to distractions.

Complaints about Mr Trump's frequent trips to his Florida estate to play golf, or analysis of his sometimes incendiary early-morning tweets, miss the fact that he has maintained a steady drumbeat of executive orders, even if they have also often been more symbolic than indicative of immediate action.  

The state of Mr Trump's relationship with the powerful media will be underlined on Saturday. The annual White House Correspondents' Association dinner in Washington, usually attended by the president, will proceed without him as he presses the flesh at a rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Here, in all likelihood, he will point at the television cameras and call the media "dishonest". And his supporters will love it.

Like it or not, Mr Trump has barged his way through his first 100 days with his armour dented but intact, picking himself up after every stumble - like the ill-fated "Muslim ban" immigration orders stalled by federal courts, and the failure to replace the Affordable Care Act - and barrelling on.

US President Donald Trump shows a signed executive order next to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue during a roundtable discussion with farmers at the White House.

US President Donald Trump shows a signed executive order next to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue during a roundtable discussion with farmers at the White House.PHOTO: REUTERS

But as Mr Trump has learnt in office about the complexities of healthcare and North Korea and Syria and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, the opposition and the media will likely learn that he should not be underestimated.

Presidential historians see Franklin D. Roosevelt's first 100 days in office as the gold standard. But it is a "ridiculous standard", the iconoclastic Trump tweeted last week. Nevertheless, on Saturday, in Harrisburg, he will spin his own first 100 as a tour de force.

The real test will be apparent only by the end of this year, when the often radical promises come home to roost. And his promises have been many: record-breaking job creation, the border wall, better healthcare, immigration curbs, tax reform, education reform, the military beef-up, smashing the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and settling into an equation with North Korea.

The focus will then turn to the reckoning - the November 2018 mid-term Congressional elections, which will essentially be a referendum on Mr Trump.

If his promises have not been made good and if his spin fails to carry, the Democrats will claw back seats in the House. His agenda will then grind to a halt.

Meanwhile though, as he says, he is in the White House and his critics are not. They had better get over it.

But it cuts both ways. Democratic Party candidates, who unfailingly remind voters that Mr Trump may have won the Electoral College but lost the popular vote by more than two million, did very well in two special elections in Kansas and Georgia this month.

President Trump is also on notice.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 26, 2017, with the headline 'Trump unsinkable for now - but, also on notice '. Print Edition | Subscribe