[Author’s Note: I’m not sure I ever posted this little comment on the Trump era, which I wrote back in March, during the health care fight. It might be buried somewhere in my earlier slew of Trump-themed screeds. Whatever; it hardly matters. The content still holds up, I think.]
“What happens,” Paul Waldman asks, “when [Trump] fails to deliver?”
What happens when coal miners don’t start streaming back into the mines? What happens when China doesn’t bow down before Trump’s superhuman negotiating skills and give us back our old-fashioned, labor-intensive manufacturing jobs? What happens when his voters join a long line of people who fell for the Trump scam, from the casino investors he left holding the bag when he declared bankruptcy to the people who thought Trump University would teach them how to get rich?
What happens is that Trump blames the problem on someone else, picks a fight, throws a tantrum, accuses Obama of something or other, blames Republican backstabbers for fouling up his tremendous plans, tweets something untrue but outrageous, reminds his supporters that the country faces an existential crisis because of shifty foreigners and snooty liberals, and uses the same diversionary tactics he’s used a thousand times before to exempt himself from any attribution of error. And it will work, more or less. Haven’t we seen this before?
I haven’t been paying much attention to the affairs of the Trump administration–not at a detailed level, anyway–the debacle of the ACHA, the wiretapping nonsense, the new Muslim ban, etc. etc. That’s largely because I’ve already settled on my long-view interpretation of this moment in history; everything else is just scorekeeping. And from my view, the score is already best calculated in negative integers. Nothing to do for the moment but bear through or fight back–and when the time comes, I’ll take a look back and see if my long-view interpretations were correct.
Most people I read and talk to are convinced that Trump is a narcissistic buffoon and his administration a rolling disaster, and that therefore Trump and his nearest minions are doomed to go down in flames. Some people believe this because, like Waldman, they think voters will eventually wise up to Trump’s lies and boondoggles. Some of them think Trump is a despicable but essentially clueless naif doomed to be undone by more powerful and more diabolical institutions: a cunning Republican Congress, a scheming deep state, a cabal of wily corporations secretly pulling the strings of government, or some coalition of unholy forces determined to plunge the United States into war with Russia. And some just think that a person as patently ridiculous as Trump has to sink into ignominy sooner or later, preferably sooner.
I agree with the preconceptions, but not the entailed consequences. Trump is a ludicrous buffoon, but I see no reason why he should therefore fail. The government is full of meddlers, but I don’t take it as elementary that they’ll meddle their way to success.
The reason lies not in my intimate knowledge of politics, but in my ugly suspicions about human nature. The fact that Trump is president at all shows that most of the arguments marshalled against his success are fallacious. Trump may be incompetent, but his fellow federal bureaucratics and Congresspersons haven’t yet proven competent enough to stop him. Trump may be a shameless con, but his supporters obviously don’t care–and those supporters punch the ballots for a feckless Republican Congress that’s already internally divided and all but paralytic. Trump may be at odds with the spies, but what are the spies going to do about it? Leak some more vague allegations to the Times? That all ya got?
The spies can pick off vulnerable Trump cronies. Republican Congresspersons can cough into their hands about naughty tweets Trump sent. The liberal talk shows will have great fertilizer for a bumper crop of viral jokes. And of course, the press will scold and scold. But what will it change? Unless something definitive happens–a smoking gun from the CIA, a Batman-style twist in which Trump is caught on tape trashing his devoted supporters, the emergence of an equally shameless lefty demagogue–all the feuds and failures just add to the general climate of scandal, gossip, conflict, and dysfunction. Governmental dysfunction builds frustration, which increases partisanship, which increases dysfunction. The only people who benefit from this cycle are extremists, demagogues, and entertainers. Trump is all three.
The ACHA would seem to be a disaster for Republicans. But for Trump? He’ll just pin it on Ryan. Or on the RHINOs. Or on Democratic stonewalling. Or on the press. Or on Obama. Or–heck, why not–on illegal immigrants and Muslims. Or all of the above, or none of the above. Who cares? What matters is that something is going wrong, and that makes people angry. And you know who it feels good to be angry at? Our enemies.
This says less about Trump (or Bannon’s) craftiness than about the tenor of our times. In a way, Trump’s regime would be more predictable in a less civilized society. Trump rules like a mad king, and if he were a mad king, the consequence would be obvious. Someone would assassinate or try to depose him, and we’d have a succession crisis or civil war. But Trump is a mad king ruling a sclerotic bureaucracy, a human whirligig spinning in a crowd of toilsome drudges, a clown amid hacks, a man without qualities pouting and preening in a rat maze packed with cowardly chair-warmers and careerist flunkies. Where’s the MacDuff who’d have his head?
Even if Trump gets taken down, we’ll still be stuck with the forces that brought him to power: growing inequality, demographic shifts, the culture wars, rogue finance, Islamic terrorism and Western overreaction to it, and–most importantly, in my opinion–a media environment that amplifies the destabilizing effects of every problem. Fifteen years ago I wrote in my journal that the internet was nothing but a “gossip machine,” and that we’d get ourselves in trouble if we tried to use it for anything else. Since then, the gossip machine has been chugging along, doing whatever gossip does with ever-increasing efficiency. We’re living in Marshall McLuhan’s global village, and we’ve gradually seen it evolve from Lake Wobegon, Minnesota to Winesburg, Ohio to Salem, Massachusetts.