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Jon Sopel on the Fading Power of Donald Trump

Posted on 12th January 2021 by Mark Skinner

As the BBC's North America Editor, Jon Sopel has been following the turbulence and trauma of the Trump administration for the past few years. His diary of the remarkable 2020 US election, UnPresidented, is a fascinating insider's insight into the madness and mayhem of the campaign trail. In this exclusive piece, Jon relects on recent events - including the storming of the Capitol by Trump supporters - and the waning power of the most divisive of US Presidents.  

If Washington DC had a reserve currency it would be power. Go to cocktail parties in this city (in those happy, halcyon pre-Covid days), and you would meet people who you felt were looking you up and down, doing an immediate assessment of how many concentric rings away you were from the centre of power. If you were a senator, or a senior White House staffer then people would be all over you like cheap scent. If you were a Supreme Court justice the same. Ditto a top news anchor. But the BBC’s North America Editor? Hmm people struggled with that. Big international broadcaster, tick. Fancy sounding position, tick. But ultimately a representative of NVTV – No Votes Television. “Lovely meeting you Jim, sorry Jon, but there’s someone more interesting I want to catch up with across the room.” You give them your business card, and you know you will never hear from them again.

I say this because power in DC is everything. It is intoxicating, an aphrodisiac, a shining badge that says you matter and that you have status. But when it goes, it is brutal. And after the horrifying events of recent weeks that has been even more marked.

Let’s start with the President. Donald Trump likes to wield power as a big stick. He follows Machiavelli’s maxim that it is better to be feared than to be loved. And Republican Congressmen and women are terrified of him. I mean, bed wetting, fever dreams scared. Unless you show him 100% obsequious fealty, you might receive a tweet attack – a warning shot. It could then escalate to the president calling you out for a verbal tongue lashing. And his ultimate sanction is to, in effect, end your career, by putting someone else up to challenge you in your electoral district. Loyal Trump supporters know which way to go – they will go for the person Trump is backing. And the money will follow that person.

But has that all gone now following the storming of the Capitol? Has the Trump brand become toxic? Donald Trump famously remarked that he would be able to walk onto 5th Avenue, shoot someone, and get away with it. There have been times during this presidency when I have genuinely believed that to be true. The political disasters that would have destroyed any other living politician, Donald Trump survives; emerging from the rubble seemingly unscathed – those layers ofTeflon and perma-tan are tough.

Yet as he prepares to leave power, bloodied and defeated – a one term loser, there are signs. Sure, he still has the power to cause terror, but it’s not what it was. 

Look at this. Bill Belichick is the coach of the New England Patriots, he is the most famous name in American football. A colossus who a week or so ago Donald Trump announced would be the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honour a president can bestow. But citing the riots at Congress, he has turned Trump down. That just doesn’t happen. The President loves boasting about his friendship with Belichick; the president likes nothing more than consorting with the rich and famous. 

The night before the American PGA, the main golfing body in the US, announced that it would no longer be holding the PGA Championship – one of the four grand slam tournaments in the sport – at Trump’s Bedminster course in New Jersey. The president of the body issuing a statement that "It has become clear that conducting the PGA Championship at Trump Bedminster would be detrimental to the PGA of America brand, it would put at risk the PGA's ability to deliver our many programs, and sustain the longevity of our mission."

Ouch. That decision more than his removal from Twitter and Facebook is said to have sent the president into an apoplectic rage. And I’m sure we would have heard about it on Twitter – had he not been banned.

So this is a president whose star seems to be very much on the wane. But what about all those lawmakers on Capitol Hill? 140 Republican members of the House of Representatives refused to certify Joe Biden as the next president, a task that is normally a mere formality once the electoral college of all the states has cast its votes. They were doing Donald Trump’s bidding. But now the backlash against them is growing. And they are being hit where it hurts: in the wallet. Big money donations are the essential lubricant of American politics, and congressmen are permanently rattling the collection tin – they face re-election every two years. But corporate America is taking a dim view of their efforts to overturn a democratic election.

Some of the most famous names and brands have said they are no longer going to make campaign contributions to those lawmakers who refused to accept that Joe Biden had won, even after the riots had taken place: Hotel chains, chemical companies, the banks – and even Hallmark cards – probably writing to those affected in rhyming couplets:

On what should be a special day
We’re sorry to be taking all your money away.

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