‘He talked about jobs’: Trump comes out fighting – and touts ally in Roseanne


Ann Coulter has warned of a backlash but a sitcoms success with ordinary Americans prompted the president to throw away the script

Donald Trump grabbed the page with his right hand and showed it to the audience. “You know, this was going to be my remarks. It would have taken about two minutes but …” He tossed the sheet into the air then ducked as it came fluttering down, waving his hands with contempt.

“That would have been a little boring,” he said with sly grin. “No, I’m reading off the first paragraph and I said, ‘This is boring. Come on. We have to say – tell it like it is.’”

There may have been a White House speechwriter somewhere who felt a little part of him or herself die. But the audience in White Sulphur Springs in West Virginia laughed and lapped it up. It was the Trump they have come to know and love: norm-busting, improvisational, throwing away the script. Dispensing with expertise in favour of “telling it like it is”, purportedly allowing himself to be wholly known.

It was also a Trump that America is having to come to terms with: capricious, erratic on policy, increasingly self-assured, cutting loose from advisers and trusting in his gut instinct. In the past week alone, he has effectively declared a trade war on China (giving the stock market the jitters), announced plans to deploy troops to the Mexican border and flirted with the idea of pulling the US military out of Syria.

To understand how such decisions are made, it is essential to comprehend the bubble Trump now occupies. Dissenting voices in the administration have been purged. Perceived foes (“Fake News Media”, Amazon) are insulted and demeaned. Flattering cable news hosts, celebrities and opinion polls are embraced, as are popular culture hits such as Roseanne, which the president believes represents the forgotten tribes of America only he can rescue. It is a case of keep your friends close and your enemies demonised.

“Trump is desperately seeking validation from anywhere he can find it,” said Kurt Bardella, a political commentator and columnist for HuffPost and USA Today. “He will cling on to anything or anyone that give him affirmation. It’s certainly an interesting way to shape public policy.”

Thursday saw his fourth visit to West Virginia, where he beat Hillary Clinton in a landslide and where he could eulogise “clean, beautiful coal” and expound conspiracy theories about migrants and rape without fear of contradiction. Senator Shelley Moore Capito praised him as “an incredible listener”. State governor Jim Justice said: “I love him with all my heart, and I’ll support him to the death. He’s a great man.”

Then there was Tony Hodge, a mail carrier, who told the gathering how Trump’s tax cuts had saved his family $2,417 this year, allowing them to renovate their kitchen. His wife Jessica, almost in tears, added: “I said I wasn’t going to cry. Gosh. I just want to say thank you to you for the tax cuts.

“This is a big deal for our family. I think half of this audience is our family. We really support you. And this is a big deal. These tax cuts are a big deal. Thank you for listening to us. Thank you for fighting for us. Thank you for caring enough to allow us the opportunity to come here and tell you ‘thank you’ to your face. My little 10-year-old wants to be president one day.”

It is testimony like this, not the jabs of TV satirists or the arguments made at demonstrations such as last month’s March for Our Lives, that make up Trump’s diet and convince him that he is on the right track. Indeed, like a besieged despot, he regularly patronises states that voted for him while generally avoiding hostile territory in the hands of the “resistance”. His one visit to California so far was dominated by prototypes for his border wall.

‘If he builds the wall, he’ll be the Emperor God again’

Ann Coulter had criticized Trump over his failure to secure significant funding for the border wall. Photograph: Latour/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

Likewise, Trump’s inner circle could not be described as catholic, challenging or diverse. As president he could host the leading historians, judges and philosophers of the age. But regular diners at the White House reportedly include Sean Hannity and Bill Shine, a host and executive on Fox News, the conservative channel Trump watches avidly and hires staff from. The Fox Business host Lou Dobbs is regularly put on speakerphone during Oval Office meetings, according to the Daily Beast.

If Hannity plays the role of boxer’s corner man, firing his man up, the rightwing commentator Ann Coulter effectively slaps Trump across the face to keep him focused. Last week she let rip at the president for signing a $1.3tn spending bill that allocated just $1.6bn for the wall, which the Department of Homeland Security has estimated would cost more than $20bn.

“The Former Trumpers should keep Donald Trump awake at night,” Coulter, author of In Trump We Trust, told the New York Times in one of the starkest warnings yet of a potential backlash from his base. But she also offered him a way back: “If he builds the wall, he’ll be the Emperor God again. I’ll throw a huge party. I’ll start a committee to put him on Mount Rushmore. But right now, if I were a betting woman, I don’t think we’re getting a wall.”

Attacks like this may have played a large part in Trump’s abrupt announcement that he wants to send national guard troops to defends parts of the Mexican border, which apparently came as a surprise to many at the Pentagon. Bardella, a former spokesman for the rightwing site Breitbart News, said: “Any time there is a certain level of criticism from his right, he immediately does something to throw them a bone.

“Trump’s strategy – if there is a strategy – is to hold on to those 35% to 40% dedicated Trumpians who will never abandon him whatever he says or does at the expense of the rest of the country.”

Most opinion polls show the president’s approval rating hovering around 40%. But he repeatedly highlights the one that does most to legitimise him. “Thank you to Rasmussen for the honest polling,” he tweeted this week about a survey dismissed an an outlier by most experts. “Just hit 50%, which is higher than Cheatin’ Obama at the same time in his Administration.”

Another comfort blanket has been thrown from an unlikely quarter: the TV actor and comedian Roseanne Barr, whose series has just returned after two decades off air. A huge 18 million viewers tuned in to the first episode, rising to about 25 million with DVR-delayed viewing and striking a particular chord in states such as Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania that helped Trump win the election. This week’s episode had 15.2m overnight viewers, still highly impressive for a sitcom in 2018.

Trump, ever obsessed with crowd sizes and viewing figures, said in a speech in Cleveland, Ohio: “Look at her ratings. They were unbelievable … and it was about us” – presumably a reference to the unpretentious white working class family it depicts. He called Barr to congratulate her.

Gwenda Blair, author of Donald Trump: Master Apprentice, said: “Roseanne has made her Trump loyalties apparent. Why wouldn’t he embrace her? Of course he would want to see the ‘real America’ being recognised. He sees the world as like a photo opportunity if someone is a winner or champion, he wants to be in that photo.”

Roseanne Barr and John Goodman in a scene from the reboot of Roseanne. Photograph: Adam Rose/AP

But Barr, 65, shares Trump’s penchant for fringe conspiracy theories. On the day of her show’s premiere, she accused the teenage gun control activist and Parkland survivor David Hogg of giving a Nazi salute. She later retracted the claim. In another tweet, she claimed Trump has “freed so many children held in bondage to pimps all over the world”. It was a debunked rumour that she again deleted.

Yet in a split-screen nation where even TV viewing habits are divided, Barr’s show has been praised as a rare place where people can disagree on politics without grabbing each other’s throats. She portrays a Trump voter who, in the first episode, tells her appalled sister, “He talked about jobs, Jackie”. The sister, who wears a pink pussy hat and “Nasty Woman” T-shirt, brings Russian salad dressing for dinner. Barr’s onscreen husband is played by John Goodman, who became acting president in the liberal favourite The West Wing and more recently parodied the former secretary of state Rex Tillerson on Saturday Night Live.

Trump voter Sabrina Motes, 38, from Orlando, Florida, said: “It’s a typical blue-collar family. It shows the core people that Hillary ignored. When she says, ‘He talked about jobs’, a lot of people out there felt that way.”

Jeffrey Seibold, an unemployed 58-year-old from Hagerstown, Maryland, added: “It’s a dysfunctional family like the way I grew up – mine was a lot worse. A lot of middle-class Americans are like that. I was a truck driver for 20 years and I’ve been all over America. We all have the same wants and desires but we just have different ways of getting there.”

‘He’s doing a fine job’

Despite Coulter’s alarm bells over the wall, eight Trump supporters interviewed by the Guardian said they remain loyal to the president. Seibold said: “He’s doing a fine job. I’m more than satisfied. If he runs for re-election, he has my support.”

Shannon Wilburn, 50, who leads a Christian youth centre in Roby, Texas, said she had witnessed first hand the concerns at the border and recently learned, via Facebook, of a mutual acquaintance who had two vehicles stolen by undocumented migrants. Trump still believes he can get the wall built, she said: “He’s been vocal from the beginning so it’s hard to see him backing down on that.”

Audience members listen as Trump speaks in White Sulpher Springs. Photograph: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Pam Rutherford, a business owner in Boonsboro, Maryland, also had no regrets over her vote. “I think he’s doing what he said he’s going to do. He’s meeting a lot of resistance, which is what I was expecting. He’s doing the best he can without the support he needs to follow through on it. He has a pile of crap to sift through but I’m glad he has the backbone to deal with it.”

But the 48-year-old admitted: “I don’t see him getting the wall built with all the pushback he’s been getting on it. He can’t build it himself.”

Trump insatiable appetite for plaudits can lead to frustrations. Ahead of a working lunch with the heads of three Baltic states this week, he claimed that Nato was “taking in a tremendous amount of money because of Donald Trump” and instructed the Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaitė to say so in front of the TV cameras. It was a scene of potentially toe curling awkwardness.

Grybauskaitė gave a discursive answer that praised the US rather than Trump himself. “And has Donald Trump made a difference on Nato?” he prompted again, a little anxiously. Once more, she did not quite answer as directly as he would have liked, so he cut her off and said: “And again, Nato has taken in billions of dollars more because of me.”

He does, after all, remain his own greatest cheerleader.

Read more: www.theguardian.com


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