Trump appeals for loyalty as 100th day fanfare threatens to fall flat

Julian Borger in Washington
On his 100th day in office, Donald Trump declared himself ‘disappointed’ with congressional Republicans. Photograph: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

On his 100th day in office, facing a historically low popularity rating, a succession of intractable foreign crises and multiple investigations of his links with Moscow, Donald Trump reminded the nation that 1 May was Loyalty Day.

The day is an American tradition dating back to the Cold War, when it was a bolster to stop May Day becoming a rallying point for socialists and unionised workers. But for an embattled president learning on the job, it has an added resonance.

Making his remarks in an interview with Fox News timing with the 100-day mark, Trump also declared himself “disappointed” with congressional Republicans – despite his many “great relationships” with them.

Regarding his lack of signature legislative achievement, he blamed the constitutional checks and balances built in to US governance. “It’s a very rough system,” he said. “It’s an archaic system … It’s really a bad thing for the country.”

The Loyalty Day announcement came amid a flurry of other proclamations to mark a milestone at which presidencies are traditionally measured. The coming seven days were named both National Charter Schools Week and Small Business Week. May has been burdened with being National Physical Fitness and Sports Month, Older Americans Month, Jewish American Heritage Month, National Foster Care Month and Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

Such announcements are always a mechanism to help a president look busy – doubly so for an inexperienced politician rapidly learning the limits of presidential power even with a solid Republican majority in Congress.

Trump has failed to get any of his priorities turned into legislation in the face of party disunity, and his attempt to rule by executive order has been largely hollow. His decrees have been either meaningless, like his one-page, detail-free tax reform plan, or have been been blocked by the courts, like his two attempts to impose a travel ban on refugees and travellers from some Muslim-majority countries.

In what is supposed to be a honeymoon period, the president’s approval rating has remained mired at historic lows, hovering around and frequently below 40%, well below recent predecessors at this stage.

But his core supporters have remained faithful, choosing to believe that the mainstream media is a purveyor of fake news rather than accept that Trump has not been the unrivalled success he has claimed. They have also accommodated Trump’s affinity for Vladimir Putin. The percentage of Republicans who see Russia as an unfriendly state has fallen from 82% in 2014 to 41%, according to a CNN/ORC poll.

Claims v realities

On his 100th day, Trump turned to this loyal base and trumpeted the issue that bonds them most tightly – economic nationalism. On an otherwise leisurely Saturday, in which his only other engagement was a morning call with the CIA director, Mike Pompeo, the president was due to attend an evening rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, a state in which disenchanted workers defected from the Democrats in droves in the 2016 election.

While visiting the town – and skipping the media’s White House Correspondents Dinner in Washington – he was due to sign an executive order to establish an office of trade and manufacturing policy, which will help push his drive for import substitution.

Trump’s weekly presidential address focused on jobs, repeating his claim that his first 100 days “has been just about the most successful in our country’s history” and pointing to evidence of an economic revival that has been previously suggested to be a result of corporate decisions made before Trump came to office.

In his address, Trump claimed that car companies were “roaring back in”, an apparent reference to General Motors’ plans and Ford’s decision to expand in Michigan, which both appear to be part of long-term strategy.

Trump also claimed that his approval of the Keystone oil pipeline from Canada would create tens of thousands of jobs. That will be true in the short term, during construction. After that, keeping the pipeline going is expected to employ 35 people on a permanent basis.

The gap between the extreme bravado of Trump’s claims and the daily realities of governing has deepened public cynicism. In a new Gallup poll, just 36% declared the president honest and trustworthy, down from 42 in early February. His general approval rating stood at 40%.

There is strong evidence however that fact-checking of presidential claims is having a small and dwindling impact on true Trump loyalists. Support remains strong in blue collar areas and evangelical strongholds, where there is more trust in the president than the mainstream media.

The president has relentless assaulted the media, launching an attack per day on average, denouncing negative news as “fake news”. There are signs the offensive has inflicted wounds. One poll released on Friday found that more people trusted the White House than political journalists.

Against that background there were reports on Saturday that Steve Bannon, the champion of economic and ethnic nationalism, is making a political comeback in the White House, and that he remains a bulwark of Trump’s strategy to secure his core support and win again in 2020.

Bannon’s hand has been seen behind the rapid-burst issue of protectionist moves in the run up to the 100th day, including picking fights with Canada over milk and softwood imports and measures to shield the aluminium industry from foreign competition.

“All of these people who say the president doesn’t have an ideology, they’re wrong,” one unnamed Bannon ally told The Hill. “He does have an ideology, and it’s Bannon’s ideology. They are just now figuring out how to implement it.”

Bannon was also said to have drafted an executive order withdrawing the US from the North American Free Trade Area (Nafta). Trump chose simply to issue a call for its renegotiation on Thursday, reportedly after having been shown a map showing it would cost the most jobs in states that had supported him in the election.

The battle between countervailing factions in the Trump White House continues to ebb and flow, but the president’s reflex in times of adversity is to fall back on the “America First” nativist message that got him elected in the first place.

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