A Year Has Gone by, But Trump Is Still Here and Even More Dangerous
The friends who surrounded President-elect Donald Trump a year ago have become his enemies. Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, once a stalwart ally, is a "liar," say Trump’s lawyers. Former campaign strategist Steve Bannon, once a political guru, has "lost his mind," according to the president.
The president is not just threatening North Korean leader Kim Jong-un with “fire and fury.” The phallically obsessed Trump now boasts, via Twitter, that his nuclear “button” is "much bigger" than Kim’s.
The real estate mogul in the Oval Office does not just advocate a massive tax cut for the wealthy (as both President Bushes and President Reagan did). He signed a bill that blatantly benefits himself and his family through the special treatment of real estate income under new “pass-through” rules.
The president is not just saying Democratic charges of collusion with the Russians are a “hoax." He is mobilizing his supporters to denigrate, undermine and "purge" the FBI. He has normalized the idea that law enforcement should be weaponized against political criticism.
Trump is not just talking about prosecuting journalists. He is taking legal steps to silence them. On Thursday, a White House attorney sent a cease-and-desist letter to publishing company Henry Holt demanding it stop its plans to publish Michael Wolff’s bombshell book, in which Bannon is quoted as saying the Trump campaign’s meetings with Russia were “treasonous.” (In response, Holt moved up the release date.)
The new year has brought a palpable sense to Washington that Trump craziness has reached new heights—or lows.
“We’re rushing toward the breaking point,” writes liberal Washington Post pundit E.J. Dionne.
“When it comes to Trump and the world, it’s not better than you think," writes centrist Politico editor Susan Glasser. “It’s worse."
“Chaos” and “disruption” are "circling around the administration," says conservative Ohio governor John Kasich.
If Trump’s first year in office confirmed that he is a megalomaniac with authoritarian ambitions, his second year opens with the realization that, as Dionne puts it, “his strategy for political survival is rooted in a willingness to destroy our institutions.”
In the longer view of history, we may have already passed the breaking point. Long before Trump entered the 2016 presidential race, American institutions, from public schools and courts to political parties, had fallen under the sway of the god of free markets.
The rise of Fox News as the propaganda organ of the right wing of the Republican Party, and the takeover of the rest of the national news distribution system by Silicon Valley’s platform monopolies, has debilitated whatever role independent journalism plays in checking unaccountable power.
The result, notes Foreign Policy’s James Traub, “is the loss of the capacity for collective action, the belief in common purpose, even the acceptance of a common form of reasoning. We listen to necromancers who prophesy great things while they lead us into disaster. We sneer at the idea of a ‘public’ and hold our fellow citizens in contempt. We think anyone who doesn’t pursue self-interest is a fool.”
Trump didn’t create this reality. He exploited it. Stephen Colbert had it exactly backwards when he said last summer, “Let’s stop pretending that Trump is a symptom of something; he’s the disease.”
Come 2018, we can see more clearly that Trump isn’t the disease; he’s the symptom. And now, his political survival depends on neutralizing or destroying any independent power center that might challenge his power—on making the disease of democratic decadence worse.
That is true around the world, as well as at home. Like policymaking elites in Washington, America’s allies thought the presence of experienced, if fanatical military men like John Kelly and James Mattis would curb the president.
“The bigger miscalculation on the part of the allies was this sense that, however off base Trump might be on some of our policy positions, the ‘axis of adults’ will always see us through,” Julianne Smith, former deputy national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, told Politico. “The axis of adults, it turns out, are mere mortals, and no, they don’t have superpowers. And that I think has been a rude awakening for a lot of our allies around the world.”
The hope that the American system would be stronger than the man in the Oval Office was misplaced. It isn’t.
If there is any hope in the news, it is that Trump will hasten his own demise and self-destruct. The falling out of scoundrels like Flynn and Bannon indicates that Trumpism might be consuming itself.
One of the less sensational but more provocative passages in Michael Wolff’s book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, is Steve Bannon’s assessment of Trump’s future. In 2016, Bannon was always bullish about Trump’s chances of winning the presidency even when the press and the experts dismissed the possibility.
No more. Wolff reported that when Bannon returned to Breitbart News last summer, he told associates there was a 33.3 percent chance that the Mueller investigation would lead to Trump’s impeachment, a 33.3 percent chance that Trump would resign, “perhaps in the wake of a threat by the cabinet to act on the Twenty-Fifth Amendment,” and a 33.3 percent chance that he would “limp to the end of his term."
In any event, Bannon said, there will certainly not be a second term, or even an attempt at one. “He's not going to make it,” said Bannon. “He’s lost his stuff.”
That may just be Bannon positioning himself (or Mike Pence) for the 2020 election. Or it may reflect a first-hand knowledge that even members of Trump’s own cabinet believe he is not mentally fit to be president, and that Trump himself is wearying of the chaos.
That’s not great cause for hope, but we’ll take what we can get.