Our Political Reality Is the Stuff of Nightmares
It’s become the new abnormal: Trump’s decrees, accusations and posturing; his transparent lies, threats and reversals. Then comes the cleanup crew, the White House propagandists, pretending he’s serious.
Half the media plays it straight, according Trump a gravitas unsupported by facts or details. Others, from TV comedians to seasoned political columnists, cannot keep a straight face. Whatever being presidential or serious governing is, they know that’s not Trump.
One hundred days in, what are we to make of this confusing mess? So many conceits and balls are in the air. We know he likes it that way. Ending Obamacare; giving the super-rich a trillion-dollar tax cut; building the wall with Mexico; reviving King Coal.
America has become a new dystopia. People see what they want to see, hear what they want to hear, believe what they want to believe. The latest spin from establishment Republicans, who abhor Trump, is he is a bumbling but harmless fool. They believe they have his number—he’s easily provoked, pushed, manipulated. In the end, he's all bark and no bite.
“Don’t get me wrong, I wish we had a president who had actual convictions and knowledge,” wrote New York Times commentator David Brooks on Friday, the high priest of this GOP faction. “But it’s hard to maintain outrage at a man who is a political pond skater—one of those little creatures that flit across the surface, sort of fascinating to watch, but have little effect as they go.”
Brooks’ portrayal of the lightweight-in-chief is the most optimistic assessment we have seen since Trump’s inauguration 100 days ago. It’s also as empty-headed as the 45th president. While Trump confesses the job is harder than he thought—last week’s counterpoint to a multi-trillion tax cut for the already rich and signing decrees opening national monuments and continental shelves to industry—one can only ask, who’s in charge? Who’s driving the colossal ship of state? The federal government is a supertanker that moves slowly, but it still moves.
The answer seems to be, whoever is best positioned to turn public power to their private advantage. It is a bit early to name those winners, as the current federal budget mostly predated Trump (even if the Congress just had to seek new borrowing authority to get to the end of its 2017 fiscal year on September 30). Whatever might be in the next budget is as blurry as Trump’s ever-changing mind (pull Obamacare subsidies; no, don’t! Cancel NAFTA; no, don’t. Trash NATO; no, wait).
The GOP's civil war, epitomized by right-wingers in the House who could not be satisfied with eliminating nearly a trillion in health funding tied to Obamacare, adds another layer of unpredictability to the fog hovering over the federal government. What’s unclear is who is running this circus. It may be no one.
Trump’s ascent appears to be morphing into an open invitation for Washington’s right-wing lifers to get back in the game and take another whack at the same lousy ideas they have been peddling since Ronald Reagan’s presidency. That was Brooks' takeaway, which comforted him. “There’s nothing unusual,” he said. “It looks like any Republican administration that is staffed by the same people whose prejudices were formed in 1984 and who haven’t had a new thought since.”
Funny he mentions 1984. What’s happening now has more in common with George Orwell’s novel of authoritarian excess and state overreach than the jolly days of Reagan. Twenty-first century reality has pressing issues, but they have no place in Trump’s world—or on the desk of whoever’s drafting all the orders he’s signing to unleash the dogs of carbon-burning capitalism or federal police bent on terrorizing immigrants. Creating a new energy economy, healing racial and class divisions, upholding dignity regardless of sexuality, respecting women and reproductive rights—these concerns and their values have no place in the new dystopia.
The mainstream media is trained to respect elected officials and report on their actions in a dispassionate way, to let the public draw its conclusions and do something about it in the next election. But what’s going on is not normal. Few will say that. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman is an exception, noting that Trump’s tax plan—a list of talking points—was not a legislative blueprint. “Let’s not act as if that thing released on Wednesday, whatever it was, was something like say, the 2001 Bush tax cut," he wrote Friday. "Let’s not pretend we’re having a real discussion.”
What’s happening in political circles is not a discussion, but the stakes are all too real. Take the House’s latest Obamacare repeal. The latest amendment from Speaker Paul Ryan allows states to pull the rug out from under the very sick. “We project that if states return to pre-ACA high risk pools in 2019, high-risk pool premiums for people with pre-existing conditions could be as high as $25,700 annually,” the AARP blog, Thinking Policy, said Thursday. That’s $25,700 before deductibles.
It goes further downhill. Republicans from Trump to Ryan are operating in deliberate bubbles. Ryan isn’t talking to Senate Republicans. Nor apparently is he talking to health industry leaders. As Sister Carol Keehan, Catholic Health Association president, told the Los Angeles Times, “To think you are going to revamp the entire American healthcare system without involving any of the people who actually deliver healthcare is insanity.” That assessment wasn’t unique. “They’re not interested in how health policy actually works,” another executive told the LA Times. Another said, “It is totally divorced from reality.”
Divorced from reality is fine for escapist novels, but this has become a real-life dystopia. Part of this domestic fog is the stunning notion held by many of Trump’s working-class supporters that he’s got their backs. Really?
In Pueblo, Colorado, a once-Democratic bastion, Trump supporters told the LA Times that Trump was being picked on by know-it-alls: the press, academics, coastal liberals, and even Republicans in Congress. He must be doing something right if they’re all upset, the supporters continued. The critics are not giving him a chance, they said, adding that they are optimistic that his tax cuts and promises to end government regulations will improve their livelihoods and revive their city’s shuttered factories.
The only thing that’s clear 100 days into Trump’s presidency is that the country has entered a downward spiral and it’s unclear which factions or forces on the right will emerge with either political power or personal fortunes, or both. But politics and capitalism abhor vacuums—even in a deepening dystopia. Wherever this is headed, it has yet to hit bottom.