Fear: Trump in the White House

Less than a month out from the US presidential election and the polls are predicting a comfortable win for Joe Biden with a ten point lead and just 25 days to go. There is no precedent for a candidate recovering that much to win in such short time but as 2016 showed us ruling out Donald Trump is fraught with hazard. Maybe COVID can do what Hillary Clinton and bring Trump down with would-be elderly supporters in the key state of Florida deserting him as they watch their friends die and worry about their own survival in the face of federal incompetence. Bob Woodward’s recent book Rage charts how in private Trump knew exactly how bad the pandemic was while ignoring or downplaying it in public.

But I’ve just finished reading Woodward’s earlier book (2018) Fear: Trump in the White House which charts how Trump got elected in 2016 despite seeming in a hopeless position a few months out from the election. Unlike Rage, Trump did not consent to be interviewed for Fear, but Woodward cobbled together a compelling story based on hundreds of hours of interviews with many other key participants, mostly on “deep background” which meant the material could be used but not directly attributed to the source.

In August 2016, three months out from the election, Trump was the Republican nominee but his campaign was in deep trouble 10-20 points behind Clinton with unnamed sources close to him saying he was bewildered, exhausted, sullen, gaffe-prone and in trouble with donors. Trump had called Mexicans “rapists” and the RNC was looking at shutting off funding for Trump to save Senate candidates. Desperate to change tack, Trump turned to Steve Bannon.

Bannon was the chief of right-wing Breitbart News with a strong America First focus and a supporter of Trump from the wings. But now he was front and centre, brought in to replace the hapless campaign manager Paul Manafort. Bannon’s strategy was simple: Forget Trump – put the focus on Hillary Clinton. Bannon’s three main themes would be to stop mass immigration, to bring back manufacturing jobs, and to get America out of endless foreign wars. Bannon said Clinton couldn’t defend against these themes. “Just stick to that,” he advised Trump on their first meeting.

Bannon knew Trump had another advantage – he didn’t sound like a politician. Trump had built a movement – he sounded authentic and angry in comparison to Clinton and the campaign would put up Kellyanne Conway as the feisty front for the daily news. Conway told Trump people wanted specifics and they also wanted assurance the businessman could deliver on his promises. Unlike the RNC but like Bannon, Conway believed Trump could win the election.

Bannon’s first day on the job involved dealing with another scandal, as the New York Times showed $12.7m in payments to Manafort from a pro-Russian Ukrainian party. That was the official end for Manafort and Bannon got to work on RNC chair Reince Preibus who had control of the money. Preibus had learned from Obama to rebuild the RNC into a data-driven organisation staffed with armies of volunteers. They identified hidden Trump voters across the battleground states that would be critical to win the electoral college.

Bannon’s three phase approach was to halve the gap to five points before the first debate, then avoid too much damage in the actual debates against a seasoned debater, and finally use Trump’s own money in the final weeks to sway the swing states: Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. On August 19, 2016 as Manafort left the building, it all seemed like a giant fantasy.

Yet Trump did gradually claw back the lead and Clinton did not land a hammer blow in the first debate. Endless rallies had turned Trump into a rock star. Then on October 7, ahead of the final debate the Washington Post published a hammer blow. “Trump Recorded Having Extremely Lewd Conversation About Women in 2005” The story had audio outtakes from NBC’s Access Hollywood with Trump making crude remarks like “Grab them by the pussy”. Trump issued a brief statement calling it “locker room banter” and said Bill Clinton had said far worse to him on the golf course. But donors dived for cover, VP candidate Pence had distanced himself from the remarks, with prominent Republicans talking of him running for president with Condi Rice as VP. Even Priebus said “it’s over.”

But Bannon refused to bend. “Your supporters will still be with you,” he told Trump. The comparison with Clinton was handy and instead of apologising they needed to go on the attack. Trump took to Twitter (where he called himself the “Ernest Hemingway of 140 characters”) and tweeted: “The media and establishment want me out of the race so badly – I WILL NEVER DROP OUT OF THE RACE, WILL NEVER LET MY SUPPORTERS DOWN! #MAGA” and then at the last minute cancelled an ABC interview ahead of the debate as he refused to read a prepared apology speech written by Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie and instead went off to the debate where four women were present that said they were attacked by Bill Clinton.

Bannon did his bit with Breitbart writing stories about the Clinton accusers all day and Trump dutifully tweeted them all. When asked about the tape in the debate, he again referred to it as “locker room talk” but was nothing compared to ISIS “chopping off heads” and he would deal with them if elected. He pointed out Bill Clinton had done far worse and named two of the former president’s accusers in the audience. “When Hillary…talks about words I said 11 years ago, I think it is disgraceful and she should be ashamed of herself.” The moderator had to interrupt the applause to allow Clinton to speak.

It worked. The religious right vote closed ranks behind Trump. In swing state North Carolina conservative women chartered a bus urging women to vote for him. “The evangelical vote is out. We’ve got this,” Bannon was reassured when he visited the state. They also used Mike Pence well with numerous appearances in the swing states where they urged him to campaign on local issues as if he was running for governor.

Still on election day, the New York Times gave him just a 15pc chance of winning and exit polls suggested a Clinton victory. But all along it seemed as if the US was performing its own version of “shy Tory factor” and people were lying to pollsters about their true voting intentions. Clinton’s problems were exposed quickly as voting came in and African American and Latino turnout was down. Ohio was was called for Trump at 10.36pm, Florida 15 minutes later, then North Carolina and Iowa on midnight.

Obama called Clinton to say another uncertain outcome like 2000 would be bad for America and advised her to concede early. When Wisconsin was called for Trump at 2.29am, he had won the college, and improbably, the presidency. Clinton conceded shortly after. Bannon was convinced Trump was stunned having no idea he would win. “He never thought he would lose, but he didn’t think he would win. There’s a difference.”

That difference was quickly exposed with a total lack of a transition team. They had 4000 jobs to fill in 10 weeks and no one to manage it. If the election was chaotic, then it was only going to get worse. The rest of the book looks at the tensions in the White House between Trump and his family on one side (daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kuschner had free reign of the building and did not report to the chief-of-staff but had direct access to the new president) and the establishment Republican figures they needed to fill positions in the new administration.

The biggest clash was with Goldman Sachs president Gary Cohn who Trump appointed head of the White House National Economic Council. Cohn wanted tax reform and less regulation as did Trump but Cohn was a globalist who believed in free trade which Trump hated. Cohn spent most of his time trying to talk Trump out of reneging on NAFTA and the free trade agreement with South Korea. Trump hated trade deficits and and try as Cohn might he couldn’t convince Trump they were good for America. For the first 12 months of his presidency the free traders relied on the fact Trump kept no task list and as long the matter did not land on his desk – or was discussed on the news channels he watched constantly – he would forget about it.

Eventually they ran out of time to convince Trump on trade. He wanted tariffs. Cohn buried him in data showing how tariffs on imported steel would hurt America. He showed him the tiny amount of revenue it raised when George W Bush imposed them for similar reasons. He told him tens of thousands of jobs would be lost in industries that consumed steel. Look, Trump said, if it doesn’t work, we’ll undo it. Cohn said that might not be possible, “it either works or you go bankrupt”. But he knew Trump had gone personally bankrupt six times and bankruptcy was just another business strategy. Walk away, threaten to blow up the deal. Or as Trump himself put it, real power is fear.

Trump’s exasperated advisers had to deal with the back-and-forth, the evasions, the denials, the tweeting, the obscuring and the “fake news” indignation but none of them, nor the media that reported on them, could bring them to say to the president, as Woodward said in his final crude line in the book: “You’re a fucking liar.” Joe Biden didn’t swear but perhaps that was the one line about Trump that did cut through from their chaotic debate. Four years in, everyone knows Trump is a liar.

Pattie Lees’ Question of Colour

Pattie Lees.

A few weeks ago I went to the Injilinji Aged Care facility to interview its CEO Pattie Lees about her autobiography “A Question of Colour: My Journey to Belonging” which she co-wrote with her son Adam C. Lees. Pattie was a member of the Stolen Generation and in 1958 from aged 10 she was taken from her mother and place in institutionalised care for eight years, the last six years of that in Palm Island. I hadn’t been able to read her book when I met her but I knew a bit about Palm Island’s troubled history and hoped I would be able to do justice to her story.

Among the many things I didn’t know was the foreword to the book was written by former prime minister Kevin Rudd who said Pattie’s was a story we all should be more familiar with, calling the legacy of the stolen generation “a blemish on our nation”. As PM, Rudd invited Lees to attend his 2008 Apology to the Stolen Generation. Lees turned it down in respect for those members of the stolen generation who weren’t invited. Rudd accepted that and noted that Lees had walked two conflicting worlds of protectionism and assimilation before rising to represent her people at the UN.

I didn’t know any of this. The lede of my article was that a new book by a prominent Mount Isan “looks back on the life of the stolen generation and growing up on Palm Island”. This was true to a point and Lees and her son praised my article after it came out. But I couldn’t wait to read the book to find out more. When I did I found I had missed the central point, the conflict in her life caused by the question of the title. The Queensland government made decisions about the lives siblings of Pattie and her siblings based on obsessive and archaic definitions of colour and race. Lees did not have the freedom to choose her own identity growing up.

Pattie’s best childhood memories are of her first 10 years when she lived with her Torres Strait Islander mother Agnes, two brothers and a sister in Cairns. Her Irish father was married to someone else and an irregular visitor. The kids were blind to the colour of their mother’s skin, she was just “mum” but was a beautiful singer from Mer (Murray Island) the same place as Eddie Mabo. As well as Torres Strait, she had Melanesian, Filipino and Aboriginal ancestry. Agnes was schooled on Thursday Island and moved to Babinba after marrying John Janke. They had one son also John and they separated in 1945.

Patricia’s father was Keron Patrick Glendon who was already a married man with 10 children when he met Agnes. They lived in a menage a trois with his wife Emma who turned a blind eye to their dalliance until Agnes became pregnant. Although Emma left Keron, he never formally moved in with Agnes though he fathered four children with her. Instead he married another women leaving Agnes to bring up the family and grief stricken she took to alcohol.

She played cabaret at local pubs to earn money but her drinking left her less time to look after the family. Though she married Kaj Eggertsen from Norway, they both drank heavily and had one child Elin. The children were unsupervised for long periods. Pattie was “Little Big Girl” and a defacto parent for younger siblings. Oldest son Terry was constantly in trouble and they had trouble putting food on the table. In 1957 the couple were charged with neglect and in 1958 the police intervened again.

Pattie was 10 when she and the other three older children were locked up at Cairns police station. Police were empowered to take neglected children into protective custody without a warrant, pending a court hearing. Agnes appeared in court without a lawyer and the hearing relied entirely on hearsay evidence from a local constable who said older brother Terry had broken into a neighbour’s house and stole crackers. At the house he found Terry feeding baby Elin with no mother around and took the children into custody (Elin was taken to hospital). He said the mother was addicted to alcohol and had been often arrested for drunkenness.

The magistrate removed the children from her care and declared them wards of state until 18. They were taken by train to Townsville State Children Receiving Depot as the state children’s department figured out what to do with them. They “belonged to neither race” but being “comparatively light-skinned” they weren’t sent to Palm Island. The Depot was a home for children deemed “neglected” or “uncontrollable” and the four children stayed there, enrolled at a local school while authorities sought foster parents. Johanne was fostered early and rarely saw her siblings again while misbehaving Terry was taken away on a “picnic” and didn’t return to the Depot, taken instead to Palm Island.

Pattie looked after younger brother Michael for almost two years at the Depot when they too were removed to the island in 1960. Unaccompanied as they landed on Palms they went to the police station where they though they had gone to the wrong place and should have gone to Magnetic island. “You’re a lot whiter,” the sergeant said, “You shouldn’t be here.” But here they were and they were escorted to island superintendent Roy Bartlam’s office. Bartlam’s power was absolute on the island and his reputation today is poor because of the 1957 rebellion but Lees says he treated her with nothing but respect.

She and Michael were separated, she to the girls dorm and him to the boys where he was reunited with Terry. Aged 12 Pattie was doubly disadvantaged, sent to Palms because she was too black and ostracised in the dorm because she was too white. All aspects of her life were controlled. She could not cross to the whites only Mango Avenue without authorisation, she was punished for failing to obey orders and could not leave the island without permission. Aboriginal people were expected to work 30 hours a week in exchange for accommodation and food rations which were poor. It was a womb to tomb experience for many.

Pattie was assigned to cooking, laundry, washing and yard work. She was constantly supervised and bad behaviour was not tolerated with lights out at 9.30pm. “We led silent lives”, she wrote. Pattie needed to convince her bullying dorm sisters she was a “proper blackfella” before they would accept her. One sympathetic girl rubbed soot on her face to make her darker and it worked, she finally started making friends.

It was tougher still in the boys dorm where Terry reported being beaten, set upon and sodomised within a month of arrival. He escaped in 1962 as indentured labour to a cane farm near Innisfail. Pattie earned pocket money cleaning the house of a white assistant and also discovered that house’s library where she devoured books.

Aged 14 in 1962 she met Father Cassian Double the Island’s new and unorthodox resident Franciscan friar. During her adolescence Double was her surrogate mother buying her her first bra and educating her on all matters female. Double became a guiding force helping her endure the agony of separation from her mother. She did well at school and got a scholarship to boarding school in Charters Towers aged 14.

Lees struggled to adjust to the freedoms of the mainland and her scholarship ended abruptly after a disastrous incident. On the weekend she was reading a book under a tree when the college principal took the book off her and start hitting her with it. Lees hit back and she was forced to leave college and return to Palms. Deeply ashamed she worked hard and got a clerical role in the island main office. In 1966 she saw a full page ad for the navy and wanting to “roam and explore at will” she applied and forgot about it. The same year aged 18 she left the island for good to go to Cairns to look for her mother.

She found her father first who said her mother had moved to Bloomfield River, 170km north. There Pattie and her mother had an emotional reunion after eight years. “Our years apart, the hurt, the pain, the loneliness endured without her, my sheer hunger for her presence all collided in one single moment.”

Pattie stayed at Bloomfield River for several months as she and her mother made up for lost time. She left when she found out her Navy application was successful and she enlisted three months after the 1967 referendum changed the laws relating to Aboriginal people. She trained up at HMS Cerberus in Victoria where fellow recruits had no idea of Aboriginal issues and assumed Palm Island was a paradise. Her comrades were shocked when she was not served in a Nowra pub but having come from Queensland with its segregation and colour bars, it seemed “no big deal for her”.

In the Navy Pattie met the love of her life Terry Lees, who had similar qualities to Father Cassian. They dated and married in 1969, forcing Pattie to leave the Navy. They lived in Canberra until Terry’s insurance business went under before returning to Cairns. In their five years together they had four children. But she couldn’t escape the ghosts of Palms.

Queensland’s Department of Native Affairs pettily chased her to repay the $20.39 advance on a new dress and other items while employed in the Palm Island main office. Her tally of receipts showed she owed $20.19 and she paid that back explaining the 20c difference. In the years that followed the Department sent more letters demanding the 20c. She learned they hassled her brother Michael for five years over a $5.44 debt.

In Cairns she found out she had another brother John from her mother’s first marriage. She also later discovered her sister Elin was still alive. Husband Terry was promoted to be an area manager for Carlton and United Breweries based in Mount Isa. Knowing no-one in the mining town she reunited with fellow Palm Islanders while Terry became well known for his Sports Time program on local television, his work as 4LM manager and his work with Rotary managing the growing Mount Isa Rodeo.

Pattie’s mother came to Mount Isa where she died at Christmas 1977 “a brilliant and talented woman but few of her dreams were fully realised”. But she spurred Pattie on. She found document that showed the effects her mother went to, to find her children after they taken. “We were simply caught in the scrutiny that befell her domestic situation”, Pattie wrote.

Her family’s story featured in the 1997 Stolen Generation report “Bringing Them Home”. Pattie ended up dedicating her personal and professional life to addressing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander disadvantage. She was CEO of an Indigenous legal services group for 17 years and an ATSIC councillor for seven years. She was a delegate to the UN Commission on Human Rights draft declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People in 2000 and also attended the UN General Assembly special session on women.

Pattie identifies as an Australian of mixed-race ancestry. She says that when the First Fleet arrived “one part of her mob greeted another part on the beach”. She says identity is shaped by the need, desire and necessity to belong. She finishes the story with a deeply emotional trip to her mother’s homeland Mer she took with son Adam in 2014. They visited the graves of family relatives and also the grave of Eddie Koiki Mabo. There her mother’s spirit was finally free to rest among the wind, the sea and the stars. The work of “Little Big Girl” was finally done.