National Column: The competing storylines to explain Donald Trump

by Thomas Walkom

Canadians looking at Donald Trump may ask how the embattled U.S. president survives. A special counsel has been appointed to examine his ties with Russia. His decision to fire the head of the FBI appears to have left him open to charges of obstructing justice.

In Congress, the word “impeachment” is bruited about, even among fellow Republicans. His White House is said to be in chaos.

But for a good many Americans, Trump is still the man.

True, his detractors maintain their dislike for him. Nationally, his overall poll numbers are below 40 per cent. But his supporters think he’s great. The latest Gallup poll estimates that 84 per cent of Republicans approve of the way the president is doing his job.

How can this be?

The answer lies in the fact that two entirely different sets of reality have been constructed in the U.S. to explain Trump. Each is plausible. Each contains both verifiable facts and unverified speculation. Each refers to the other as fake news.

The storyline that most Canadians are familiar with goes something like this: Trump is a braggart and an idiot. He won the presidency last year only because Russian agents were able to hack into the email accounts of his Democratic adversaries and pass on embarrassing material to WikiLeaks.

His campaign team and possibly even the president himself may have been part of this Moscow-led conspiracy to subvert American democracy. Trump fired FBI director James Comey because he feared the bureau’s investigation was getting too close. But the wily Comey kept notes of his meetings with the president, including one damaging memo that has been leaked to the press.

This is the storyline that is being expanded upon and articulated every day in mainstream newspapers, such as the Washington Post and New York Times.

The other storyline is expressed through right-wing outlets, such as Breitbart News, formerly run by key Trump adviser Steve Bannon.

This storyline suggests that damaging emails were passed onto WikiLeaks not by the Russians but by a computer specialist working for the Democratic National Committee who was murdered last year. It notes, correctly, that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange – while not confirming the young man as his source – offered a $20,000 reward for the apprehension of his killer.

The alternative storyline pays less attention to the content of the damaging leaks coming out of the Trump White House and more to the fact that they occur at all.

It argues that the “deep state” – meaning the permanent security bureaucracy – is conspiring to remove a president it views as hostile to its interests.

When the Washington Post, citing unnamed sources, reported this week that Trump had surprised his staff by sharing top-secret information on terrorism with senior Russian officials, Breitbart’s headline was: “Deep state leaks highly classified info to Washington Post to smear President Trump.”

In the universe of newspapers like the Post, any criticism of Trump by fellow Republicans is treated as important. In the world of Breitbart, however, such behaviour is dismissed as the predictable reaction of an out-of-touch party elite.

“Knives out: GOP establishment makes its move,” reads the Breitbart headline after Republican Senator John McCain compared Trump’s situation to that of Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal of the 1970s.

Indeed, the entire brouhaha over Trump is dismissed as a whole lot of nothing. Breitbart’s headline, “Washington establishment declares war on Trump voters,” sums up the mood.

For Trump’s many critics, it is easy to dismiss the Breitbart view of the world. But doing so obscures the fact that, for many Americans, this particular storyline seems more plausible than the alternative, which presupposes that the elected U.S. president is a Russian stooge.

Take the controversy over the Comey memo. In the anti-Trump universe, Comey’s memo, which describes Trump’s alleged effort to have the FBI go easy on fired national security adviser Michael Flynn for his contacts with Russia, is taken as further evidence of the president’s perfidy.

In the pro-Trump universe, however, it only raises questions. Does the memo exist? (The reporter who broke the story never saw the actual document, parts of which were read to him over the phone). Even if it does exist, why should Comey’s recollection of a two-person conversation be given greater weight than that of Trump, who denies the published version?

These aren’t stupid questions. Nor is the Breitbart, deep-state critique of American politics entirely outlandish. Those who want to summarily dismiss the supporters of this particular alternate reality should keep this in mind.

Thomas Walkom appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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