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25 November 2016

From the gold palace to the jobs for his children, Donald Trump is shaping up to be a classic autocrat

This might be the hardest thing to digest about Trump’s presidency: not how outrageous it is, but how banal.

By Helen Lewis

There was a short period after the election of Donald Trump – four or five days, perhaps – when we were urged to “wait and see” how his administration would work. We must look for signs that President-Elect Trump would emerge from his campaign chrysalis, shedding his history of mean tweets, minority-bashing and terrible policies, and unfurl great wings of statesmanship, tolerance and pragmatism.

It’s hard to pinpoint the moment when this dream died, but it was struck a mortal blow by the appointment of the “alt-right” website Breitbart’s Stephen Bannon as White House chief strategist. The Southern Poverty Law Centre, a hate-watch group, described Bannon as the “main driver behind Breitbart becoming a white ethno-nationalist propaganda mill”. Under his command, the website attributed many of America’s problems to two groups: Muslims and African Americans.

It published pieces by Pamela Geller, an anti-Islam activist banned from entering the UK in 2013, which bore titles such as “How Muslim migrants devastate a community”. As the Black Lives Matter movement, set up to protest against police violence and racism, was gaining mainstream attention, Breitbart created a “Black Crime” tag. It’s not hard to guess which groups will be blamed if Trump finds it unexpectedly hard to “make America great again”.

In crafting this message, Trump’s incoming chief strategist will find an ally in the proposed attorney general, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who once allegedly described the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People as “un-American”. Sessions will be responsible for the justice department, which oversees the FBI and defence of voting rights. This follows an election in which the FBI’s director made politically charged interventions that damaged the Democratic nominee, and in which residents of predominantly poorer, minority areas faced long waits and strict ID checks before they could vote.

There will be no quarrel in the Trump White House over the identity of “real Americans” but, on economics, Bannon might find himself a more lonely voice. In a speech to a conference at the Vatican in 2014, he said he was opposed to “crony capitalism . . . a brutal form of capitalism that is really about creating wealth and creating value for a very small subset of people”.

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This is not a message that will resonate with Trump, who used a recent meeting with Nigel Farage to urge him to lobby against windfarms, which he feels spoil the view from his Scottish hotel. It is not a message that will resonate with a man who appointed three of his children to his transition team – the same three children who are supposedly running his businesses in a “blind trust” to prevent conflicts of interest. It is not a message that will resonate with a man whose Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC invited a hundred foreign diplomats to a schmoozing session a week or so after the election. “Why wouldn’t I stay at his hotel blocks from the White House, so I can tell the new president, ‘I love your new hotel’?” one told the Washington Post.

Even the supposedly progressive econo­mic policy of the new administration – a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan – provides ample opportunities for rewarding favoured companies. As the Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman points out, the opportunities for enriching the first family pale beside the foreign policy implications of running America as an extension of Trump, Inc. “We’re about to enter, or may already have entered, an era of corrupt governance unprecedented in US history,” he tweeted on 21 November. “And think about the pro-tyrant bias of foreign policy. Democratic regimes – say, in Europe – are by their own rules unable to offer de facto personal bribes to the US president. Putin’s Russia or, for that matter, Xi’s China, will be fine with sending huge business to the profiteer-in-chief. And that will cause a tilt of US policy towards authoritarian regimes.”

This might be the hardest thing to digest about Trump’s presidency: not how outrageous it is, but how banal. In every respect, he is shaping up to be a classic autocrat from the developing world. The signs are all there. His gaudy taste in interior decoration – displayed to great effect in that photo-op with the serial electoral failure Farage – is uncannily reminiscent of that of Muammar al-Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein or Viktor Yanukovych of Ukraine. (Between them, those three owned a gold toilet brush, a zoo full of ostriches and a peacock-feather fly-swat topped with a gold elephant.) And like the first two, Trump has always kept his children close – inside his business empire, and now inside his political circle.

In terms of rhetoric, Trump is closest to Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, who called Barack Obama the “son of a whore”; vowed to crack down on drugs by saying, “Forget the laws on human rights”; and praised Hitler as a man who got things done. “Hitler massacred three million Jews,” Duterte said in September. “Now, there are three million drug addicts. I’d be happy to slaughter them.” Never forget people’s desire to mistake chilling threats for good ol’ plain speaking.

Ah, but we have the great American free press to expose Trump’s failings. Except he hasn’t held a press conference since 27 July and prefers to communicate through angry tweets about his vice-president getting booed at musicals. The US media, squeezed by the migration of digital ad money to ­Facebook and Google, feel toothless.

The 20th century was marked by American exceptionalism. Now, the United States can look at its new leader – in his gold palace, surrounded by his children, treating his interests and the country’s as one – and see how unexceptional it is. l

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This article appears in the 23 Nov 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile