Four months on, I’m surprised by how little seems to have changed. There have been a number of news cycles, yet the patterns that were set in place by April or May have played out without too much alteration in the underlying dynamics. For the news, this means alternating cycles of “Trump has done something newly awful and unthinkable” and “Trump is for the moment behaving and merely being his usual bad self” (palace intrigue, governmental incompetence, For the administration, it means alternating between the creeping whiff of Muller’s detectives and ham-fisted attempts to accomplish anything whatsoever. For the country, it appears to be a slowly increasing sense of detachment, as the promises of revival or totalitarianism fail to be realized.
Even when an escalating event occurs, such as with Charlottesville or North Korea, there is no longer a sense that any tipping point has been reached. And with Puerto Rico, even Trump’s callous indifference to the devastation wasn’t enough to raise the outrage to a fever pitch. Unlike with New Orleans, Puerto Rico is not considered part of the United States.
What it all amounts to is a sustained exercise in what America does uniquely well, which is postponing acknowledgment of the underlying reality. Depending on which group a person belongs to, the reality which they’re avoiding varies.
Republicans are postponing recognition of the fundamental inability of their majority to govern beyond appointing right-wing judges and depending on the capricious whims of their still-popular President. True-blue right-winger Bob Corker’s condemnation of Trump as an incompetent madman reflects one serious breach of the denial of the extent to which Trump threatens the Republican party as it currently exists, but it is just one breach, and complacency still rules.
This was most on display in the time-consuming and pointless efforts to pass an ACA repeal bill–any bill. Even after the failure of the main “skinny” effort, there were several attempts at resurrecting a bill from the dead. I don’t think it was pure pageantry. I think Republicans are scared of not delivering on their repeal promise, they need the money from repeal to fund regressive tax cuts, and the initiators really thought that Republicans would see the light. They didn’t. Too many Republican politicians and Republican voters want the ACA to stay, although some of them may not fully realize it. So when it comes to the ACA football, the Republicans are Lucy and Charlie Brown at the same time. Trump’s cancellation of ACA subsidies will cause a lot of trouble and probably kill a number of people, but it’s still not repeal, though perhaps Trump will be able to sell it as such.
Democrats are playing ostrich with their descent into being a regional party with an unenthusiastic and fractured base. While the Republicans elected their crazies, Democrats pander to theirs while not actually doing anything for them, which is all the much easier given that they’re out of federal power and short on state power outside of California and New York. They rely on the great unifying principle of their voters’ hatred of Trump, but it’s unclear to what extent this will make up for their structural and strategic deficits. There has been little reckoning with the massive failures of the 2016 campaigns; in its place there has been a lot of empty moral posturing, which has gotten more desperate in recent months but is still the same old song.
The populist moves of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have made a lot of noise and boosted the more noisily left Democrats, but the persistence of tired Democratic leadership and the heavy promotion of status quo Democrats like Kamala Harris, Andrew Cuomo, and Terry McAuliffe (as well as perverse nostalgic looks at Hillary Clinton herself) signal that the existing Democratic establishment is clinging very hard to its sinecures and will not yield easily. This contrast isn’t as stark as I suggest, because the party overall has moved left, but there is still a huge gap even between Sanders and Warren, and an aggressive freeze-out of the Sanders contingent is still to be seen at every level. This is exacerbated by a lack of up-and-coming stars.
The Establishment Media are persisting in the belief that they are acting as gatekeepers of information and creators of narrative, when these powers only exert control over a narrowing subset of the citizenry. I’ve shrunk my news consumption down to the Washington Post’s Daily 202, which attempts to strip out all the chaff and provide news ostensibly relevant to those who care about the actual state of the world. It’s pretty good, yet it is still myopically attuned to DC. Perhaps that is all that really matters in the short-term, but it’s useless for detecting germinating trends.
The Alternative Media are being devastated by the outflood of money from their publications and the online shift to video, but are mostly still writing as though it were 2015, only with increased defensiveness and poorer quality control. Establishment media is paying less attention to them, understanding that they are hurting the establishment’s credibility rather badly. Google and Facebook’s crackdown on “fake news” is devastating here as well, for less-established media outlets, many of them indeed unreliable, are being crushed by Google’s new deranking. First prize for the denial of reality, I’m afraid, goes to the leftist outlets who thought only right-wing sources would be penalized.
Right-wing Media persists in Trump worship but the sell-by date is approaching. It remains a cottage industry, enough to cause major headaches for the Republican party and keep up hatred of the Democrats, but it is not a growth industry as it was during the Obama years.
Trump Himself remains supreme in his denial of any reality outside of his need for love and worship. His facade is taking a beating, however, with one story in particular being of serious note: Trump’s failed endorsement of Luther Strange in the Alabama primary. When Strange lost out to long-time Bible-thumper Roy Moore, Trump took it very hard.
Vanity Fair: In recent days, I spoke with a half dozen prominent Republicans and Trump advisers, and they all describe a White House in crisis as advisers struggle to contain a president who seems to be increasingly unfocused and consumed by dark moods. Trump’s ire is being fueled by his stalled legislative agenda and, to a surprising degree, by his decision last month to back the losing candidate Luther Strange in the Alabama Republican primary. “Alabama was a huge blow to his psyche,” a person close to Trump said. “He saw the cult of personality was broken.”
There is not a lot in Trump that is raveled, but this source’s point deserves much more attention. Trump’s mental health hangs in large part on his belief that he has a core, unshakable group of fanatical supporters who will love him no matter what he does (which is good because he hasn’t done much that they had hoped for). Having been talked into endorsing Strange by his advisers (against the advice of the recently-departed Steve Bannon, who supported Moore), Trump was shown in stark terms that his popularity was insufficient to cause his base of supporters to do what he said. Trump remains popular among Republicans, so there’s been little explicit evidence showing that Trump’s more or less constant approval ratings didn’t necessarily equate to the sort of wild enthusiasm Trump eagerly devoured during the campaign. His staff have been managing this loss of enthusiasm as best they can, but this single failed endorsement was incontrovertible evidence that something (Bible-thumping revivalist politics, specifically) could triumph over unwavering devotion to Trump when it came to political action.
Trump has comforted himself with knowledge of how sheerly reviled Congressional Republicans are by their own voters, and how Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell especially have taken the blame for Republican dysfunction this year. Next to them, Trump looks pretty good to the Republican base (a fact which nonetheless has many implications going forward). But Trump took that as carte blanche, which it wasn’t. People are falling out of love with Trump. It may not be enough for the Democrats to make enough gains to take back Congress next year (it’s too soon to tell), but it is enough for Trump to be emotionally devastated. I’ve written several times about how tightly Trump’s reactions are tied to others’ views of him. Usually, when he bottoms out and loses support in a particular environment, he walks away and says he didn’t care about it anyway. He can’t do this here (not easily anyway). Ironically, the main force of change in the upcoming months may be Trump’s own declining self-image.
America is, bizarrely, not so different from where it was a year ago. Trump’s election had a seismic effect on people’s psyches, but the George W. Bush administration effected more actual policy in the month after September 11, 2001 than Trump has managed in his entire presidency so far. That’s not to discount the draconian executive orders he has made and the quiet gutting of various executive branch entities, but when you look back at the apocalyptic predictions that were being made, the overwhelming horror of the Trump administration so far has been the sheer fact of Donald Trump being president, rather than the death-by-1000-cuts of his diplomatic, policy, and PR actions. The rational portion of the fear comes from knowing that the status quo could change at any minute should Trump get it into his head to do something far more drastic and crazy than anything he has done so far. Yet few steps are being taken to address that rational fear, and instead we have impotent hysteria against offenses both grievous and trivial, as well as the persistence of old habits with the hope that they still mean what they used to. Neither will be of much use if the deluge truly comes.
We are seeing the disheartening spectacle of politics as usual even in the age of Trump. That too is a postponement of reality.