Living in Trumpestuous Times

Things are heating up. From the NYT:

President Trump lashed out at the nation’s intelligence agencies again on Wednesday, saying that his former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, was brought down by illegal leaks to the news media

All the smart people said something like this was coming, a big showdown between Trump and the establishment. It sure happened fast.

In a war between Trump and the dark masters of our growing surveillance state, it’s hard to pick sides. Do we want to fight a proxy war with Russia in Syria and Ukraine, or a war with Iran? Do we want a government defined by underhanded leaks, or a government defined by fear-mongering and cronyism? I think Trump’s team is so awful that I guess I’d have to back the meddlesome puppeteers of the intelligence community over his ghoulish gang. But it’s a tough call.

As to the probable winner? Most people I know think Trump is doomed to be contained and expelled by the bureaucratic auto-immune systems of our government. The Republican leadership doesn’t like him. Judges have already clashed with him. The intelligence folks are sniping at his people. It looks like the noose is tightening.

I’m not so sure. We’re constantly reminded that the American president has a lot of power–at least notionally–even if he happens to be an ass. And though I certainly think Trump is an ass, he’s an ass with some rather remarkable talents. Trump has a big faction of the party base on his side, and that faction is unusually active and passionate. They’re also, in certain ways, unusually threatening. They have a representative cohort in Congress, and those representatives almost shut down the government, even with resistance from the House leadership, even without the president on their side.

The intelligence folks are using a Trumpian tactic, playing the media as a means of undermining Trump’s White House. But Trump himself is pretty good at playing the media. It’s also not entirely clear to me that he’s at a legal disadvantage, though of course I’m not an expert on such matters. Are malicious leaks to the media entirely above-board?

What’s to prevent Trump from whipping up the base, getting them to put pressure on their Congressional representatives? And if Congress acts, what’s to stop them from focusing their investigations on the leaks, in addition to–or instead of–investigating Trump’s murky ties to Russia?

I’m not a wonk; I don’t know how these things tend to play out. All I can do is keep a diary of my impressions. Apart from the technical issues of law, political convention, and interdepartmental conflict, a few things seem true:

  • Trump has the bully pulpit, and he’s good at using it.
  • Trump’s presidency is just the tip of a big populist uprising, and those rightwing populists don’t like the offices and agents of the deep state, aka the Washington establishment, e.g. the intelligence community.
  • Whenever establishment Republicans have been pressured by their populist base, the establishment Republicans have caved.
  • This conflict is likely to lead to a long period of scandal, uncertainty, confusion, and disorder, and in times of scandal, uncertainty, confusion, and disorder, people turn to charismatic leaders for moral guidance. Unless some other charismatic leader emerges, that need for security will focus on Trump.

All in all, I think Trump stands a good chance of benefiting from this debacle in the long run, even though he has little experience in government, even though he’s a clown, even though he seems to be–le mot du jour–incompetent.

I suppose I have much less faith in our system–and in the judgment of my fellow Americans–than my peers do.


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