David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

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Trump Diary 12: Postponement of Reality

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.

Trump Diary 11: May Day

The 2017 British election was a real duck-rabbit–an ambiguous event that admits two incompatible interpretations, one loosely pro-Trump, one anti-Trump. I’m wary of extrapolating from it to what might lie ahead for the US, but the pratfall of PM Theresa May and the unlikely success of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is too important to be ignored.

The election, in which Theresa May’s Tories lost their majority and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party made its best showing in 20 years, is either a continuation of the populist rage that drove Brexit and Trump; or else it was a 180-degree turnaround from those very trends.

British parliamentary elections are vastly more complex than American congressional and presidential elections. Here are the facts in brief:


  • May called a very early election with the expectation of boosting the Tories’ numbers and strengthening her Brexit position. She came to power after David Cameron resigned in the wake of Brexit.
  • May’s campaign was notoriously inept and uninspiring. May skipped debates and generally articulated no vision whatsoever save for the promise of more austerity and Brexit.
  • The Tories fell drastically in the polls leading up to the election, and lost 16 seats.
  • The Tories no longer have a majority, holding only 318 out of 650 seats in Parliament, and will need to partner with Northern Ireland’s right-wing Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in order to have a working majority.
  • May is holding on as PM for now but is in a very damaged and precarious position. Another election is likely in the near future.


  • Jeremy Corbyn became Labour party leader in a landslide in 2015, trouncing three more establishment candidates. Corbyn’s personal record is far-left, more akin to former London mayor “Red Ken” Livingstone than Bernie Sanders. He is not a fan of the EU or NATO, though his own position on Brexit was sometimes difficult to divine. The extent to which he has moderated since becoming leader is much-debated.
  • Since becoming leader, Corbyn has suffered massive defections within his own party, including the resignation of over half his cabinet. He endured thanks to the support of a strong old-school socialist base that reelected him as Labour leader in 2016 after a no-confidence vote. Corbyn is despised by Blair-ite New Labour forces, as well as by most of the press, left and right.
  • Nevertheless, Corbyn led Labour to its best showing since Tony Blair’s glory days, boosting its vote share from 30% to 40% and gaining 32 seats. Corbyn’s position is safe for the time being, though the Tories still have nearly 60 more seats than Labour.


  • Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party (SNP) was hammered, reduced from 56 seats to 35. The SNP had accounted for Labour’s near-elimination in Scotland in the 2015 election, where they had gone a mere 6 seats to 56 (out of 58 Scottish seats total). Scotland nearly voted for independence in 2014, and Sturgeon’s platform rested mainly on calls for a second independence referendum, alongside with pro-Europe and traditional welfare state policies.
  • In Scotland, the ex-SNP seats were split between Labour and the Tories, with the centrist Liberal Democrats also taking three.
  • Nativist UKIP party was annihilated. While they had garnered 13% of the vote in 2015 (winning one seat), they only managed 2% this year.
  • Turnout was at a longtime high at nearly 70% (compare with a longtime low of 55% in the 2016 US election). This boosted Labour. Turnout was up throughout the UK except for Scotland, where it was down everywhere save Glasgow.
  • The youth vote was very high, and this also boosted Labour. Labour picked up a number of university towns.

So what does it all mean?

Duck Interpretation: the British people voted for Brexit after being manipulated by UKIP and other nativist elements, which were amplified by the cynical maneuvers of Tories like Boris Johnson, who hoped to coast on the populist anger even as they thought Brexit would not pass. With the humiliations foisted on them by Brexit and the loss of faith both in UKIP and the Tories, the British people turned away from movements based on national identity (not just UKIP, but also the SNP, which suffered severe losses to the Tories) and moved leftward, bringing down the Tories somewhat and boosting Labour, but leaving the Tories with a near-majority. The election was a rejection of less established movements, be they UKIP, SNP, or even neoliberalism, and a return to more traditional values of conservative Toryism and socialist Labour, euroskeptical but not nativist. It was also a leftward swing, though not an extreme one.

Rabbit Interpretation: the British people realized they had been sold a false bill of goods with Brexit, and that Farage was a false prophet. They were even more disgusted with Theresa May’s craven attempts to use Brexit to boost her own position, without a care for how Britain would come out of it, and they lost faith in May’s leadership. At the same time, they saw some appeal in Corbyn’s free-education policies and saw in him a break from the detritus of New Labour that they had tossed out with the rise of David Cameron’s Tories. Overall, however, the message was one of disenchantment and disgust. Disappointed by the empty promises of smaller parties, they threw a lot of bums out, no matter which party they belonged to. England dumped the Conservatives for Labour. Scotland dumped the SNP for Labour or the Tories. There was no movement to the left, only a momentary blip of an energized but muddled youth animated by disgust for Brexit and May, as well as Trump. Yet this disgust makes the electorate more likely to vote wildly for the next outsider figure to come around.

The core difference is that the Duck sees the populist rage dying out, while the Rabbit sees it growing. I don’t believe the dispute is resolvable at this time. Rather, I think the history will be created in retrospect, depending on what happens in the next election, which looks to be soon. The complications of British parliamentary politics make it more difficult to determine what gains and losses mean: Labour and the Tories’ gains in Scotland from the SNP mean something quite different than Labour’s gains from the Tories in England.

Regardless, though, both Duck and Rabbit place Jeremy Corbyn at the center of the election, even if neither can decisively explain his success. Corbyn is also a Duck-Rabbit: either he is an old-time socialist who stands for the values of postwar Britain and is a proper heir to Attlee and Wilson (and more precisely, Tony Benn), or else he is the idiot voice of anti-establishment rage who has been elected to destroy Labour as it exists and remake it into something beyond Tony Benn’s wildest dreams. Either he is the antidote to Trump, or he is a manifestation of the same forces that got Trump elected. The difference hangs on whether you perceive New Labour as an evolution of old Labour or as a betrayal of it.

Corbyn’s continued survival is a genuine surprise. Corbyn has established a reputation for inarticulate incompetence and impractical anachronism. I don’t pay enough attention to British politics to determine how deserved this reputation is. I do know that he was reviled by every segment of the press (the tabloids backed May to the hilt), by the national elites, by much of his party, and (when we weren’t simply ignoring him) by America. That he not only hung on but also did better than all the New Labour acolytes is not a fact that can be waved away. It is a fact, however, that will be interpreted in many different ways. Here is one of them, from James “Too Much Democracy” Kirchick:

I am no radical democrat myself. In fact, I am enough of an elitist to recognize that one of the best ways of combating radical populist tendencies is by not publishing editorials like this. Conservative Kirchick is a reminder that the neoliberals’ distaste for social welfare policies and Bernie Sanders is small potatoes compared to the sheer disgust felt by conservative intellectuals for the vast majority of Republican voters. The classic example is Kevin Williamson’s 2016 National Review piece arguing that white working-class communities “deserve to die.” (They didn’t deserve to die while they were voting for Bush, McCain, and Romney, however. Just when they started voting for Trump.) There are clear echoes of Williamson and Kirchick’s disgust for Trump voters in most descriptions of Corbyn’s base of support, just as there were in the caricature of the “BernieBro.”

I don’t say this as any particular fan of Corbyn, and I am skeptical of the extent to which Labour’s gains reflect an endorsement of Corbyn’s own political positions. For now, this doesn’t matter. By remaining in the minority, Corbyn is still spared the challenge of having to put any of his ideas into practice. And the fact that the UK electorate is much more engaged and, believe it or not, considerably more left-wing than America’s makes it difficult to generalize to any joint ideological shift among them. The indisputable significance of Corbyn is in the success of such an unlikely party leader, and his success in spite of the uniform narrative against him. The blame for Trump is frequently put squarely at the feet of Breitbart and Fox, but this is to ignore the fact that Bernie Sanders did far better than he ever could have in the pre-social media world.

Consequently, the British election was not a good moment for national elite overculture. Even though May was widely disliked, the uniform chant of “Corbyn will be a disaster” has caused political punditry to take yet another credibility hit in a time when it is already vulnerable (see: Brexit, Sanders, Trump).

It is another sign that the overculture’s grasp on power and narrative is not what it used to be. It is a sign that social media can prop up establishment-rejected political figures like Trump, Sanders, and Corbyn, even in the absence of mainstream backing. Corbyn may not augur much for America, but his success does signal that our national voice and our national narratives are not as unified, nor as controlled, as they once were. And control won’t be regained by complaining about the alt-right, BernieBros, or CorbynComrades.

Trump Diary 10: Everybody Hates Trump

It’s safe to say the pseudonormalization of Trump has stopped, at least for a while.  The moment Trump fired Comey, DC immediately returned to the frantic hysteria of the first month of the administration.  Trump, who thought that Comey’s firing would be welcomed by even the Democrats, shattered the illusion that he might be able to behave himself. Trump made the letter to Comey look as suspicious as humanly possible by thanking Comey for telling him he wasn’t under investigation:

Politico: Two people familiar with White House discussions said Trump was determined to write a line in the letter firing Comey saying that the FBI director had given him three assurances he wasn’t under investigation. The words, said one White House adviser, “probably will cause him more heartbreak than anything else.” The line, this person said, had worried White House officials after it was printed – but few people saw the letter before it went out.

The result was a nightmare for any Trump staffer and a veritable binge for the media. Consequently, I believe what we are witnessing is the resurgence of an intra-executive war between Trump and the executive bureaucracy. A month ago I observed that the leaks about White House dysfunction had dried up:

What has happened, I believe, is that White House staffers now have an incentive to keep their mouths shut and not talk to reporters. And I think that’s because there is no longer quite the constant stress of random chaos imposed by (a) Trump’s going off message on Twitter and elsewhere, and (b) Steve Bannon. They now feel they have a chance of survival, and they are more willing to bury hatchets and stick together. They’re still miserable but they are engaging in less friendly fire.

With Comey’s firing, this immediately ceased to be operative. CNN’s Fareed Zakaria switched from “I think Donald Trump became President of the United States last night” to “President Trump poses a danger to American democracy.” The leaks started up again with a vengeance. Impeachment was on the table.

It’s curious that the media should be seen as such an enemy when their main role in damaging the Trump administration remains that of stenographers for anonymous sources, rather than investigators per se. The investigations into conflicts of interests and shady business deals don’t look good, but don’t move the needle much in terms of the administration’s ability to function. But leaks about Trump’s blabbermouth to the Russians and Trump’s demand for Comey’s loyalty pledge definitely do–and the leakers know this full well. You can’t look at this record of events and not think that there is some coordination going on in terms of what is being leaked and when:

I’m not suggesting any conspiracy. When you antagonize and frighten a great number of people, those people tend to react together. If those people have damning material on you, they tend to release it. What I’m suggesting is that the executive branch, and the intelligence community in particular, are not just leaking these stories to damage Trump but also to send the signal that a lot of people are going to make Trump and his administration’s lives a living hell, and that they are capable of doing so for quite a while.

Daily Beast: One veteran agent in the FBI’s criminal division responded to a message from The Daily Beast this way: “Who cares, nothing matters, no one knows anything, everything sucks.” A senior-level FBI source was more candid. If Trump has declared war on the bureau’s leadership, the source said, then the president should expect “nothing less in return.”

Hence the list of damning leak-driven stories above. That list doesn’t even include the “Republicans said Trump was on Russia’s payroll” story. Whether McCarthy was joking or not when he said it, that story is exactly the sort of thing to raise Trump’s paranoia and make him increasingly convinced that the Republican party is against him, thus causing him to degenerate even further. If Trump has turned against his own son-in-law (who apparently thought firing Comey was a super idea and wanted to fight back against the special counsel appointment), how long will it be until Trump starts firing staffers at random and publicly ranting about his own party and administration?

NYT: Mr. Trump’s appetite for chaos, coupled with his disregard for the self-protective conventions of the presidency, have left his staff confused and squabbling. And his own mood, according to two advisers who spoke on the condition of anonymity, has become sour and dark, turning against most of his aides — even his son-in-law, Jared Kushner — and describing them in a fury as “incompetent,” according to one of those advisers.

Trump only knows escalation and confrontation (and petulance), so the only remaining options to him are going to become increasingly crazy and irrational:

Axios: Trump is also irritated with several Cabinet members, the sources said.  “He’s frustrated, and angry at everyone,” said one of the confidants. Trump’s friends are telling him that many of his top aides don’t know how to work with him, and point out that his approval ratings aren’t rising, but the leaks are. “The advice he’s getting is to go big — that he has nothing to lose,” the confidant said.

Trump probably does have nothing to lose, unlike the rest of us. The incessant flow of damaging stories suggests that the intelligence community is trying to push things to a crisis point now rather than later–possibly out of the fear that Trump will do even worse things than he has done so far. Even the accompanying leaks from his own administration continue to paint him as an infantile bully who literally cannot understand the requirements of his job and requires constant ego inflation.

Politico: Top White House officials learned of the looming New York Times story about a memo Comey wrote memorializing Trump’s request two hours before it went online. Aides rushed to ask Trump what he had actually told Comey. But the White House had no memos or tapes of the meeting to rebut the claims, several officials said. Trump didn’t even give an entire readout of his conversation, leaving staffers “actually unaware of what happened,” one official said. “It’s not like we were in on the meeting,” this person said. “We had no idea. We still don’t really know what was said.” Another official laughed when asked if Trump had really “taped” the meeting, as he’s suggested on Twitter: “If so, none of us have heard the tape.” Trump was furious about the story, one of the officials said, but retreated to the White House residence within 75 minutes of it going online – leaving aides to “figure out how bad the fallout was.”

WFB: “No one in the White House likes or respects Trump.” Those are the words of a source with very close ties to a number of officials in the White House explaining the views of key personnel advising the president.

These staffers are, again, making sure everyone knows that Trump is the problem, not them. Who can blame them? Trump makes their own lives a living hell already. The “adult” of the administration, NSC head H. R. McMaster, just threw away his credibility weaseling around Trump’s disclosure of classified info to the Russians. McMaster’s book Dereliction of Duty is about how the Joint Chiefs failed to speak truth to power during Vietnam: “The president was lying, and he expected the Chiefs to lie as well,” McMaster wrote. God’s Department of Irony has been working overtime on McMaster. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein managed to salvage a bit of his reputation by appointing Mueller as special counsel. McMaster surely knows the time for him to do so is running out rapidly. But Trump won’t listen to anyone, so his “loyal soldier” options are minimal if not nonexistent.

Other anonymous sources reinforce the total impossibility of speaking truth to Trump’s power:

NYT: After four months of interactions between Mr. Trump and his counterparts, foreign officials and their Washington consultants say certain rules have emerged: Keep it short — no 30-minute monologue for a 30-second attention span. Do not assume he knows the history of the country or its major points of contention. Compliment him on his Electoral College victory. Contrast him favorably with President Barack Obama. Do not get hung up on whatever was said during the campaign. Stay in regular touch. Do not go in with a shopping list but bring some sort of deal he can call a victory.

All of this is sure to fuel the “Everybody hates Trump” narrative that is building in Trump’s head. Strangely, he still blames the media, not seeming to realize that they’re primarily fueled by the enemies in his own organization.

Trump: Look at the way I have been treated lately, especially by the media. No politician in history, and I say this with great surety, has been treated worse or more unfairly.

Yet despite Trump’s engorged persecution complex and the sclerotic executive branch, I’m skeptical that we’ll reach the crisis point soon. Things could still calm down and we could return to another pseudonormalization period. It may depend on just how many damaging stories the intelligence community has stored up. It’s possible they have a lot. But it may primarily depend on the most chaotic factor of all, Trump himself.

Postscript: Within an hour of posting this, two more stories leaked out just in time for the weekend news cycle. First, a senior White House adviser, likely Kushner, has been deemed a person of interest in the Russia collusion investigation. Second, Trump bragged to the Russians about firing Comey: “I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.” Looks like the leaks won’t stop any time soon.

Trump Diary 9: Black Blocs and U-locks

In the previous diary I wrote about the pseudonormalization of Trump over the last month. What I gave was only half of the story.  I didn’t explore the sheer significance of the administration’s marginalization of Steve Bannon. Bannon’s demotion and marginalization is indeed a key part of what allows the pseudonormalization of Trump. But the reasons are not what they may seem to be. It’s not because of Bannon’s nastiness or even his views. While Bannon fancied himself a radical, there are plenty of precedents for Bannon’s politics in Lee Atwater and Karl Rove. Bannon took these attitudes further, but what killed him was that he was an anti-establishment outsider.  He was the Trump administration’s point of contact with the underculture of America, by which I mean everything that stands outside the NYC-DC coastal circuit of corporate-sponsored discourse.

Our overculture, of which I have occasionally been a part, consists of what Robert Wiebe termed the “national elites,” the class of people geared toward national (and, more recently, international) affairs rather than local and regional matters. My last diary was concerned with the overculture’s pseudonormalization of Donald Trump. I talked about the mainstream media, pundits, DC culture, billionaire donors, the administration itself, and the politics of Republicans and Democrats. What I talked about were the elite, upscale city-dwellers.

What I didn’t talk about in the last diary was social media, conspiracy theories, “fake news,” the “alt-right” (whatever that is), Bernie Sanders, /pol/, social justice, Antifa, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Breitbart. All of these things fall under the rubric of what I called “American underculture” in the very first diary.

The underculture is the heterogeneous set of local, non-elite, non-corporate institutions and social groupings that went unnoticed before the dawn of social media, which allowed its members to network nationally and globally on a scale that had never before been realized, producing a number of echo chambers that were not moderated by elite influence. The underculture exists in rural America, as well as in non-elite, mostly non-white areas of cities and suburbs. It is not an economic divide per se, but a cultural one. Some of its groups are still invisible online, but the internet has enabled some groups of the underculture to speak loudly enough to be heard nationally.

Hillary Clinton easily won the vote of the overculture, while doing far worse than Obama among rural underculture groups. (African-Americans are the one underculture demographic on which the Democratics maintain a hold…for now.) Donald Trump did awful in the overculture, while winning enough of the underculture, particularly in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, to prevail.  So what I am discussing is not exactly an economic divide, not exactly a racial divide, and not exactly a class divide either, because the underculture in particular is composed of many wildly disparate groups who are unified only by their lack of national voice. If you opposed the Iraq War in 2003, you were part of the underculture. If you supported Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders in 2016, you were part of the underculture.

If you went on 4chan in 2016, you were part of the underculture. If you read about 4chan in the news and believed what you read, you were part of the overculture.

I’m oversimplifying, but my point is that the elite overculture by its nature is one culture that speaks with select controlled and constrained voices. That which falls outside its boundaries constitutes the underculture, whatever it may be. Patricia Crone, in her 2003 edition of Pre-Industrial Societies, wrote of the globalization of the overculture’s national class:

The blocks of people sharing the same language, culture and political status are being eroded by globalization, the constant and practically instantaneous movement of information, capital and human beings around the earth. A new, worldwide elite is forming. Creamed off from the national blocks, communicating in the same high cultural language (international English), and sharing what will eventually be a single high culture (still under formation), this global elite is reducing the nation states from which its members hail to the same status as that of the tribes and village societies from which the elites of pre-industrial times were recruited.

I believe this is an accurate description of 2003. What subsequently happened, however, was that some of the tribes and village societies outside the elite found ways to make themselves heard, loudly, on the national and global level. It’s those tribes of the underculture that are relevant to this piece: specifically, those which are politically mobilized on either the left or the right. Less politically mobilized segments, such as the extremely poor or the disenfranchised (southern minorities, for example), remain of less concern. Gamergate, likewise, is so politically conflicted and muddled that it lacks any real voice, despite being held up anachronistically as some supposed alt-right progenitor.

The two most vocal and significant underculture groupings of 2016 were those supporting Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Both were able to coordinate and speak independently of overculture mechanisms, thanks to social media. They are what allowed Trump (with a major assist from CNN) to gain the Republican nomination and Sanders to almost gain the Democratic nomination despite a barrage of negative press on both of them.

The bigger story, then, is that over the last decade, the overculture attempted to coopt these new underculture groups for political gain and profit. In 2016, the additional voice given to the underculture groupings led to too much political control slipping out of the elite’s hands, as symbolized by Brexit and Trump. It yielded the defining headline of 2016:

It's time for the Elites to Rise Up Against the Ignorant Masses

How did that work out?

For “ignorant masses,” read “the underculture” or “everybody else.” It is a blunt statement that too much control and too much voice has devolved to certain non-overculture groups. Yet this could not have happened without the tacit permission of the overculture. They did not know what they were getting into.

My thesis in this diary is that elite institutions, having tried to coopt and exploit the newly-vocal underculture, with disastrous results, have turned tail and are now quickly shutting them out. We are now seeing a separation process as the elites exert greater control over those cultural areas over which they have authority, and shut out “pollutants” that were previously seen as groups to exploit either through cooptation or stigmatization. Now the underculture is to be ignored.

The right and the left elites had very different relationships with their respective underculture groups. In short, the right politically enfranchised its underculture allies, while the left culturally enfranchised its underculture allies. On the right, this led to the Tea Party and the Freedom Caucus. On the left, this led to anti-oppression movements (“social justice” for short) and Black Lives Matter. Both, however, got out of hand and drew too much attention to themselves, though this chaos was ultimately of far greater consequence to the right than to the left.

The right-wing underculture is by now known to all of us, primarily because Hillary Clinton unsuccessfully attempted to use it as an electoral strategy. As I wrote in the first diary:

The seedier site of internet underculture came to most people’s attention last year as part of a concerted effort by the Clinton campaign to associate Trump with racist internet trolls and the amorphous “alt-right” movement, which was defined as much by the media as by the “alt-right”‘s actual members. The mainstream narrative around these internet cultures is confused, ignorant, and alarmist, partly because the Clinton campaign was happy to exaggerate and distort the reality in pursuit of an effective campaign strategy (it didn’t work), and partly because the people writing about it did very little first-hand research and have no familiarity with the workings of the internet underculture…Excluded from the national conversation, Trump’s supporters are mostly able to express themselves through the underculture. They do not constitute the majority or even a significant plurality of the underculture, but they are unified in their goals (evangelizing Trump, hating on the media, attacking Trump’s opponents) in a way that most underculture groups are not, and they are far more prone to express themselves outside the underculture so that the mainstream takes notice of them.

(Angela Nagle has written incisively about the far-right underculture.)

Republicans have long spoken to their underculture denizens through right-wing talk radio and television, and over the last decade have mobilized them quite effectively through the Tea Party and subsequent know-nothing agitation. A great deal of what tore Fox apart over the last year or two has been its increasingly difficult mission of bridging Republican overculture and the underculture, which is why Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly have been fired and Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage have not. Like many of Rupert Murdoch’s properties including the Wall Street Journal, Fox retains significant allegiance to the overculture, serving as a gateway drug as well as a mildly moderating force.

The Trump administration had exactly one point of contact with the underculture, and that point was Steve Bannon. Trump may miss his worshipful crowds, but no one else around him does, because as I said in the previous diary, underculture residents are not capable of functioning in the DC federal government–not even Steve Bannon. Republicans are already so beholden to their underculture support (because of geographic and demographic factors) that they won’t be able to shut them out any time soon, but they are trying. You will not be seeing, however, much in the way of Trump support from elite media, even on the right. And you will see underculture avatars who get too big for their britches, such as Milo Yiannopoulos, getting the boot from the Republican establishment. They are not welcome.

The elite overculture is, as a totality, trying to shore up its weakest point. That weak spot is not on the left, but on the right. It is where the underculture made a genuine breach by getting Trump elected (as well as, in previous years, electing Dave Brat and other Freedom Caucus members). Since Trump is stuck in the overculture’s presence for at least the next few years, there will be an attempted process of normalization, which I’ve already discussed. But there is also a concerted (if perhaps unconscious) attempt to repair the breach. The evidence I’ll point to here is the New York Times’ hiring of Bret Stephens as an op-ed columnist. Stephens is a right-wing neoconservative climate change denier, but more significantly, he is very anti-Trump and impeccably patrician. One might think the spot should have gone to, for example, Ta-Nehisi Coates, who seems a better match for the Times’  readership. Stephens’ appointment hasn’t been met with a great deal of enthusiasm in my circles. But this is to miss the real purpose, which is not to make nice with the right–certainly not with the right as it actually exists in America today. The purpose is to shore up the weakest part of the establishment: the Noonan-Frum-Brooks anti-Trump, pro-Bush, Republican axis. That is vastly more important than catering to progressive indulgences. The overculture cares about its own: you do not see mainstream media defending press freedom for threatened underculture outlets, whether Techdirt, the Center for Investigative Reporting, or Wikileaks.

The left is a different story. Historically, unions performed Democratic underculture outreach for the left, but the power of unions has greatly diminished. It still persists in some areas, such as in Harry Reid’s Nevada machine, which genuinely neutralized Sanders’ threat and got a win for the party’s candidate, Hillary Clinton. But while DC Republicans have suffered internal strife from letting too much of the underculture seep into their party (see: Sarah Palin, Dave Brat, Steve King, the Freedom Caucus), DC Democrats have suffered a collapse in power due to ignoring the underculture and drawing almost exclusively on the national overculture (and its special interest groups) to make their case. The overculture is not large enough on its own, and the Democrats’ pretenses  toward underculture groups have evidently not been convincing, despite the reliable African-American vote.

Here is an example from an undernoticed story. DeRay Mckesson, avatar of the Black Lives Matter movement and former leftist media darling, ran for mayor of Baltimore in April of 2016, after coming to prominence during the Ferguson protests. Mckesson was the only candidate I had ever heard of, and I doubt I’m alone in that. Despite a large social media following and a great deal of positive coverage, he finished with 2 percent of the vote, versus winner Catherine Pugh’s 37 percent. Baltimore is not an overculture city. It is overwhelmingly Democratic, but it is not composed of elites. Unlike in New York and Calfornia, the overculture presence is not strong enough to prevent the election of a Republican governor like Larry Hogan. And the overculture’s coverage and attention was absolutely meaningless in terms of drawing Baltimore voters to vote for Mckesson.

The Maryland and Baltimore Democratic party apparatus likewise had no use for Mckesson, which hints at another ugly detail. The national Democratic party apparatus, and indeed the overculture itself, had no use for Mckesson either beyond PR. Mckesson supported Sanders in the primary, and Mckesson started getting a lot less media attention once the Clinton machine started up in earnest. The Democrats wanted Mckesson to parrot the party line, not advocate for his own issues. This is a perennial error of elites, who assume that outsiders will always be appreciative and obedient once welcomed into the culture. (How could they not be?)

The problem was that the progressive overculture’s radical chic of 2014-2015 did not sit well at all with the centrist Democratic candidacy of Hillary Clinton. Consequently, much mainstream and progressive media of 2016 became an odd mix of social justice rhetoric and neoliberal policy. In early 2016, I remarked on this tension in my valedictory Slate column:

Slate: Even a site like Vox, with its wonkish Beltway origins, now frequently tilts hard to the left, with headlines and sentences like: “Bombing a hospital in Afghanistan is the modern American way of war”; “If you’re not one of 65 million Americans with a criminal record … then accept the possibility that actually, you may not know what’s going on, and you may be part of the problem”; and “Riots are destructive, dangerous, and scary — but can lead to serious social reforms.” This kind of systemic critique butts against Vox writers’ more pragmatic praise for Clinton’s candidacy, for her knowledge of “the painful trade-offs of governing” and her “audacity of political realism.” Judging by retweet counts, such lukewarm endorsements are far less compelling than the righteous excoriations of injustice with which Vox also fills our news feeds.

Lukewarm has since won out. For much of this decade, elites of the left and right sought to exploit and mobilize their underculture supporters, primarily via online campaigns and social media. For both sides, it backfired, because social media allowed the ideological policing and monothink to become runaway trains. The increasingly militant tone of leftist clickbait outlets, imitating the longstanding militancy of right-wing media paranoia generators, helped to solidify a movement that viewed Clinton as an out-of-touch dinosaur who knew nothing of the leftist underculture. From my Slate column:

Online social networking has allowed Sanders supporters to reinforce one another’s beliefs, so that the general shutout of Sanders by the mainstream media—and even a good deal of the leftist media—allowed Sanders to survive where he would have suffocated even in 2008. The Internet made it much, much easier for Sanders supporters to organize, with a core of young voters far more native to the Web than even Obama’s base eight years ago.

Just as the Tea Party and the Freedom Caucus got out of hand, Sanders supporters got out of hand. And Democrats are now quite worried that what happened to the Republicans with Trump and Labour with Jeremy Corbyn will happen to them. And so radical chic is also being killed quickly.

The underculture left never got traction within the Democratic party; Sanders had to be a long-time independent in order to get to where he did in the Democratic primary. And so the underculture left remained a diffuse array of some varied and incompatible groupings, including hardcore Marxists, anti-oppression activists, Chomskyan anarchists, hapless students, and assorted combinations of such. The mainstream overculture elevated the social justice rhetoric of the anti-oppression activists because it was most amenable to existing Democratic politics, being primarily focused on cultural rather than political matters.

But now things have changed. Social justice clickbait has died off, persisting mostly in lower-grade blogging outlets. We no longer hear from the DC establishment that “Riots are destructive, dangerous, and scary — but can lead to serious social reforms.” The more respectable outlets have returned to gentler “diversity” stories of the sort that were popular 10 years ago, rather than excoriations of privilege and structural prejudice. Jay Caspian Kang predicted exactly this sort of retrenchment in December, though for somewhat different economic reasons than those I’m giving here:

I think it’s important that minority writers be honest with ourselves. Many of us were hired in the last two years and almost every single one of us reports to a white editor who will kowtow to the panic of his or her publisher. Too many of us were brought into media as part of a cynical push to turn “race writing,” especially race writing about pop culture, into a click factory.

Wei Tchou remarked similarly in The Nation on the commodification of social justice as a clickbait strategy:

The Nation: Moreover, as the wall between writers and audiences (and, thus, traffic numbers and advertising rates) has all but collapsed, inevitably, so has the wall between what is personal and what is commodified. As soon as a person performs his or her opinions to a mass audience, those politics are also for sale…What’s most pernicious about diversity’s commodification is that the model, on its surface, appears progressive: more women of color on mastheads, more open-minded coverage of social and political causes. So long as the staff at MTV News is considered to be diverse, does it matter that the pieces are mostly superficial riffs on identity politics?

Yet as the clickbait model dies (as I predicted back in 2015), the overculture establishment is furiously building that wall between writers and audiences back up.  Comments sections are shut down, paywalls are erected, discourse is more tightly controlled. One of the few recent features on Black Lives Matter has been by the Atlantic’s non-progressive libertarian-ish Conor Friedersdorf. Vox, as far as I can tell, has done no features on Black Lives Matter this year. This is a more general manifestation of the trend symbolized by Bret Stephens’ appointment. The more extreme manifestations of social justice politics are quickly disappearing from outlets of consequence, replaced by politer rhetoric. Even though harsh social justice indictments were marshaled against Sanders, this was obviously not a manifestation of any new radical attitudes within the Democratic party. Even progressive loudmouths who were strident Clinton supporters may find themselves shut out.

Yet these attitudes will persist in subcultures. Even as I see the tides of social justice recede in mainstream media, they remain strong in assorted cul-de-sacs, particularly nerd culture: tech/hacking, comics, animation, science fiction, video games, alternative comedy, Cracked Magazine, etc. The etiology of the social justice presence in these subcultures deserves an entire book, but the relevant point here is that these are politically anodyne subcultures that are unlikely to mobilize in any significant way outside of their niches. (However progressive Google’s employees may be, Google’s PAC donated more to Republicans than Democrats in 2016.) And that’s part of the reason why people in those subcultures haven’t noticed the larger shift away from social justice rhetoric, and why its denizens still practice and/or excoriate it with a passion that now feels anachronistic.

The most visible struggles will take place on college campuses, which are more heterogeneous than any of these other subcultures and don’t permit the same level of ideological policing.  Universities will continue to lean left, but incidents like Joy Karega’s antisemitic conspiracy theorizing at Oberlin and George Ciccariello-Maher’s inflammatory tweets at Drexel are posing serious financial threats to colleges, and administrations are taking measures to protect their institutions. “Safety” is a ready-made excuse for policing faculty speech.

Berkeley (the city as much at the school) has turned into a flashpoint, hosting a clash of right-wing Trump supporters and far-left Antifa activists. Both these groups are firmly underculture. The overculture wants nothing to do with either of them. Progressive media outlets have been remarkably silent on the Berkeley riots, even as the right-wing media has made hay. I’ve seen no mention of Louise Rosealma, who got punched out by a white supremacist, outside of the New York Daily News. Even the more alternative leftist outlets that celebrated Richard Spencer getting punched have gone awfully silent on the “U-lock justice” meted out by a black bloc member during last Saturday’s Berkeley riots. An Antifa attacker emerged suddenly out of a crowd and smashed a Trump supporter over the head with a bike lock, leaving him bleeding and seemingly concussed. 4chan’s hard-right /pol/ boards quickly identified a person as the assailant via “weaponized autism,” combing through all available footage and social media evidence. Whether or not he’s the right man, he’s gone into hiding and his employers are dissociating themselves from him.

The message from the overculture: “When we told you we were at war with the right, we didn’t mean that literally.” “When we told you that riots can lead to serious social change, we didn’t mean you should actually do it.”

Given all the fuss about social media, political violence, and divided America, one would expect such violent clashes to be a major story, yet like the shooting at the Milo Yiannopoulos Seattle event in January, it has gone almost unnoticed. In Seattle, a man was shot on a university campus at a charged political event, but the overculture press ignored it and instead talked about fake news, Facebook, and Chelsea Clinton. Now the underculture’s left and right are starting to take to online and offline combat, but there is less coverage of these clashes than there was of far smaller incidents at Trump rallies last year. Instead of documentation of Berkeley violence, we get vague thoughtpieces about free speech and political correctness. I attribute this to the rebuilding of those elite walls. In all likelihood, neither the assailants nor the victims had much in the way of connections to the natural elite overculture, and their utility to the overculture is far lower than it was two years ago. Our national overculture wants all of these people to go away. Inclusivity is no longer an ideal. The overculture will shut out that which it never understood in the first place.

Trump Diary 8: Pseudonormalization Prevails

How far we are from a month ago. One of the reasons I started writing these entries, and probably the main reason, was because I was certain the high emotions and crisis mentality of the election and inauguration would not endure in the same form for long and would quickly turn into something else. Some aspects of the dominant narrative (on all sides) would fade into the background, while others would be decay into more stable forms like radioisotopes. I wasn’t sure which, but I wanted to take my own snapshots of the world in its highly unstable form.

Sure enough, I look back at the early Trump Diaries and they read like missives from a different world. The seething paranoia bred by the travel ban has died down. There have been no mass mobilizations like the one spurred by the initial travel ban, which was the moment the shoe dropped and Trump had to make a decision on whether or not to flinch. Trump flinched.

Fewer people are concocting conspiracy theories about Trump consolidating power in a “coup,” especially with Steve Bannon’s apparent marginalization. Bannon was reduced to allying with his sworn enemy Reince Priebus in order to retain influence, after Trump’s other advisers became disgusted with the Priebus House Republican faction (over the health care bill disaster) and Bannon (over all the other disasters). The supposed Bannon quote, “I love a gunfight” looks like embarrassing posturing now. I assume the people who leaked the quote knew it would, just like leaking that Bannon called Jared Kushner a “globalist cuck” signals that Bannon is no smarter than the idiots who thought Trump would give them a white ethno-state.

In money terms, Robert and Rebekah Mercer (Bannon’s biggest backers) are out, and the Koch Brothers (who back Bush/Romney-style corporatist Republicans) are back in.

Trump is tweeting a lot less, having given up on the inauguration crowd size and mass voter fraud windmills. Putin and Trump are no longer BFFs. (The Syria strike put a definitive end to that.) Trump now likes NATO. Trump has either abandoned or sidelined his most radical anti-establishment stances, to the open dismay of his core. The narrative of narcissistic megalomania has been replaced with the narrative of incompetent failure, at all levels.

I said in February that Trump would not want to give the establishment the satisfaction of admitting they were right:

To stop the flood of leaks and trash talk, all Trump would have to do is to give in and agree to do things their way (that is, the way they’ve been done since Eisenhower, loosely speaking), but because he believes he’s suffered injury at the hands of the CIA, the State Department, the news media, the Democrats, most Republicans, and more or less anyone who’s ever had to deal with him, he doesn’t want to give them the satisfaction.

I also said in February that Trump was doomed to lose his battle against the establishment, because he could not amass allies for that battle. He lost. So the flood has stopped. With the sidelining of Bannon, at the urging of nearly everyone else in the administration, the number of stories about White House dysfunction has severely dried up.

I am certain that there is still great dissent within the ranks. You can’t get rid of sentiments like these so quickly:

Politico: “The various warring fiefdoms and camps within the White House are constantly changing and are so vast and complicated in their nature,” said one former Trump campaign aide, “that there is no amount of reporting that could accurately describe the subterfuge, animosity and finger-pointing that is currently happening within the ranks of the senior staff.”

What has happened, I believe, is that White House staffers now have an incentive to keep their mouths shut and not talk to reporters. And I think that’s because there is no longer quite the constant stress of random chaos imposed by (a) Trump’s going off message on Twitter and elsewhere, and (b) Steve Bannon. They now feel they have a chance of survival, and they are more willing to bury hatchets and stick together. They’re still miserable but they are engaging in less friendly fire.

In the place of civil war is a very familiar combination of (a) corporatism and (b) the military-industrial complex, one which has been with us since Reagan and to a lesser extent since Truman. The military-industrial complex side is represented by National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster, who replaced Michael Flynn. McMaster consolidated power quickly. Though Trump promised Flynn deputy K. T. McFarland that she could stay on with McMaster, it wasn’t long before McMaster got her fired and replaced her with the ultra-establishment Dina Powell. McMaster also kicked Bannon off of the National Security Council, instigating Bannon’s subsequent fall.

The corporate side is represented by Gary Cohn (Goldman Sachs), Dina Powell (Goldman Sachs), Steve Mnuchin (Goldman Sachs), and Jared Kushner (Goldman Sachs) himself. Cohn, Mnuchin, and Kushner are Jewish, while Powell (née Dina Habib) is an Egyptian Coptic. Predictably (well, I predicted it), Trump’s white nationalist fans are complaining of a “Jewish coup.” Sorry, racists: if you wanted to dislodge Goldman Sachs, you should have found a brighter revolutionary than Steve Bannon and a more loyal demagogue than Trump. Trump ultimately had to side with the people who were nominally capable of doing their jobs. Bannon brought nothing but losses.

Just as I feared excess paranoia in the early days of Trump, I now fear excess normalization. I think we are going to see an increasing number of “Trump has been tamed” editorials from the right, which will be tacitly accepted by the mainstream. Trump will still be awful, just as George W. Bush was awful, but he won’t be the walking constitutional crisis he’s been portrayed as for the last year. Too many people are looking to escape that narrative, because it’s exhausting and unsustainable. When we heard this after Trump bombed Syria–

Fareed Zakaria, CNN: I think Donald Trump became President of the United States last night.

It was an exercise in wish fulfillment. It was because Zakaria wanted Trump to become President of the United States. It was because Zakaria wanted things to return to normal and to sanity.

So expect a lot more of this:

Ed Rogers, WaPo: Yet, a lot of left-wing commentators are saying don’t try to normalize Trump, he is not normal, and there must be resistance to his presidency and anyone working in his administration. Well, bad news for them: The normalization of Trump’s presidency may be happening on its own as reality and a sense of responsibility seeps into the Oval Office and those around it.

Rogers is an old-school Republican politico, but on the very same day (April 13), we have this from two of the Post’s own reporters:

WaPo: Donald Trump campaigned as an outsider who would upend years of Washington orthodoxy in matters of both war and peace — an approach that helped him assemble the unconventional coalition that ultimately won him the presidency. But in recent days, the president has done an about-face and embraced many of the policy positions he once scorned as the trappings of a foolhardy establishment. Trump voiced support for NATO, which he called “obsolete” during the campaign. He walked back his pledge to label China a currency manipulator and ­endorsed the Export-Import Bank, which he had opposed. These and other recent flip-flops have soothed the nerves of many Republicans who worried he was looking to upend too much of the status quo. “I would say this is looking more now like a more conventional Republican administration,” said Elliott Abrams, who served as a foreign policy adviser in the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations. “To me, that’s a very good thing.”

The reason for this normalization is that much of the anti-Trump narrative, from the right as well as from the center-left, was less about Trump’s actual policies than about his anti-establishment tone, boorish personality, and agonistic tactics–as well as the constant chaos emanating from such. What was ideologically permissible from Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Mitch McConnell, and Dick Cheney was not permissible from Donald Trump. Ultra-establishment Republican Peggy Noonan (who just won the Pulitzer Prize) made a telling point at the end of March, after Trump lost his showdown with the Freedom Caucus over the healthcare bill:

WaPo: Once you use the stick, it is hard to start handing out carrots again. If the Freedom Caucus caves at this point, they will look weak. Trump has become the boy who cries wolf. If he doesn’t follow through after drawing this red line, his words will seem hollow. Bluster works better in business than politics. Peggy Noonan argues artfully in her column for Saturday’s Wall Street Journal that Trump’s mishandling of this Obamacare fight, including the latest attacks on the Freedom Caucus, shows that he really doesn’t understand who makes up his base or how to pass legislation. “Whenever I used to have disagreements with passionate pro-Trump people, I’d hear their arguments, weigh their logic and grievances. I realized after a while that in every conversation we always brought different experiences to the table,” Noonan writes. “I had worked in a White House. I had personally observed its deeper realities and requirements. Their sense of how a White House works came from … TV shows such as ‘House of Cards’ and ‘Scandal.’ Those are dark, cynical shows that more or less suggest anyone can be president. I don’t mean that in the nice way. Those programs don’t convey how a White House is an organism demanding of true depth, of serious people, real professionals. A president has to be a serious person too, and not only an amusing or stimulating talker, or the object of a dream.”

Noonan’s implicit point here is that The West Wing is the standard, not House of Cards. And indeed, no administration could survive the level of melodrama portrayed on television. But not being House of Cards does not make you The West Wing, just as not being Chicken Little doesn’t make you Pollyanna. Anyone who lived through Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld should realize that. When it comes to gravitas, It’s not professionalism, or seriousness, or depth that matters, but having the right connections and speaking the right language. FEMA, the CDC, and the EPA may have turned into a joke under Bush, but Bush could not be dislodged from being “serious.” Noonan, without realizing it, is making the classic elite argument: Donald Trump cannot be president, but George W. Bush can. I do not find this especially reassuring. There is a similar irony in the fact that David Frum, the coiner of the “Axis of Evil,” is now being elevated by The Atlantic as the principled conservative warning of Trumpian autocracy. (In fact, he called it the “axis of hatred” and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson dubbed it the “Axis of Evil,” but I think my point stands.)

So we have the Trump administration going through a false normalization. Jeff Sessions will still quietly be rounding up more immigrants; the EPA will still be gutted; neocon hawkishness is re-ascendant (with bipartisan backing). The administration, if not Trump himself, is speaking the language of DC better. 39 out of 47 major newspaper editorials supported the Syria strike. (See the breakdown here. Was it a good idea? I, like the authors of these editorials and like Trump himself, do not know.)

So these dismaying trends will not seem egregious in the way that the travel ban did, which makes them that much more likely to succeed and endure. There will probably be few legislative atrocities due to internecine Republican warfare; Trump’s largest impact will be through the executive branch.

Two major differences remain, however.

First, the administration is wildly understaffed and non-functional, with only 22 political appointees confirmed, another 60 in the pipeline, and nearly 500 positions without even a nomination. (Trump is not behind most presidents in confirmations, but he is way behind on finding actual candidates.) HUD, Interior, State, Agriculture, Labor, Interior, Energy, Education, and of course the EPA all look to be running ghost crews for some time. It’s hard to measure the effect this is having, and whether it’s resulting in Obama-era continuity or actual stasis. Either way, though, the overall effect will be entropic. In the absence of leadership or direction, things will stop getting done. They will be little things, but they will add up. It will be hard to assess the consequences directly, unless mid-level staffers leak, but I believe the overall result will be a notable decrease in government functionality and efficiency, without any decline in its cost. With it looking less likely that Trump will get his major government funding cuts, the federal government may just become sclerotic for the next few years. The difference will be most noticeable in times of crisis: FEMA, for example. A repeat or two of Michael Brown’s performance during Hurricane Katrina seems inevitable. But I think the overall damage will be far greater than under Bush.

Second, there is Trump himself, hobbled, humbled, and humiliated, but still defective and unpredictable. For now he seems to be guided by Jared Kushner above all in his desperate turn toward Goldman Sachs and McMaster, but when this turn fails to yield him love and success, as it will, it’s difficult to predict what will come next. At the center of the Trump administration remains the void himself, reluctantly allowing himself to be remade in the establishment mold, but still fundamentally incompetent and narcissistic and stuck in the midst of a party at war with itself. If he goes with the flow, the elites may begin to ignore this fact, especially with his tweets seemingly drying up. But what if he changes his mind?

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