Mr Trump’s Excellent Christmas

Trump and Seal Team 5. Iraq, December 2018.

Mr Trump brought his own brand of Christmas magic to US troops serving in Afghanistan this week. As is so often the case, there were complications. Before we address the particulars, we might well take the opportunity of the end of Mr Trump’s second year in office to take stock of his position.

Still smarting from the rebuke dealt to him during the recent midterm elections, and having backed himself into a corner trying to dragoon congress into putting US taxpayers on the hook for his vanity project on the southern border, Mr Trump nonetheless shows no signs of falling from the good graces of his supporters. Yet on the political left in the United States, there is nonetheless a muted optimism that perhaps these crises will portend the end of Trump’s regime.

Such hopes were buoyed by Mr Trump’s Iraq excursion. First, there was the matter of the photo op with Seal Team 5. Mr Trump, being a “pictures or it didn’t happen” sort of guy, immediately sought to burnish his militaristic credentials (always tenuous given his history of untimely bone spurs), by uploading it on to the web. The images of the members of one of most covert elements of US special forces being posted unobscured on the web is a problem. Deployments of the Seal teams are matters of national security for a number of good reasons. Passing over, for a moment, the usefulness of not broadcasting where our covert ops forces are deployed at any given time, it is also the case that any of those guys who happens to be captured by ISIS (or Al-Qaeda or whoever) immediately moves to the head of the queue for televised decapitation.

Perhaps less lethal, but equally illustrative of the nature of Mr Trump’s management style, was the speech that he gave to the troops in which he claimed (falsely) that he had gotten them a 10% pay increase and (also falsely) that this was their first pay hike in “more than 10 years.” There is much here that could be unpacked, but for the sake of brevity, we will limit ourselves to two. First, this is the kind of thing that one says when one never has to bother checking one’s monthly income, either because one has the wealth of Croesus or (as is more likely in Mr Trump’s case) because one is being bankrolled by someone else.

More broadly, this is exactly the sort of easily debunked public fallacy which Mr Trump is wont to utter. It is hardly possible that any of his listeners even believed it as they heard it in real time, either because of the perusal of their own pay stubs or because the actual figures we published in the Military Times (hardly a bastion of muckraking radicalism). This latest moment of Trumpian spectacle was yet another instance of the politics of the ludicrous. Mr Trump says something that he not only knows to be false but that he must also know that everyone who hears it will also know to be so. It is as if the emperor is saying, “Yes, I am wearing no clothes. Let us rejoice that I am fully clad.” The substance of what is said is wholly irrelevant. Rather, this is a metapolitical exercise in the reconfiguration of public facts. The truth is whatever I say it is (cue the backdrop of applauding uniforms).

The is something uncannily reminiscent of 20th-century totalitarianism here. Although in its era totalitarianism was a term with a particular political function (to elide the distinctions between the communist and fascist modes of oppression), it was effective in fulfilling this function because there were some notable similarities, in particular, the tendency to make truth subordinate to what either the leader or the party apparatchiks required at the moment. One is reminded here of the bitter skewering of these practices in the works of George Orwell, and one wonders today if someone similarly talented will arise to take up the cudgels for things as they actually are.

In any case, this is the sort of thing that prompts predictable results in liberal circles. Like a stone thrown into a pond, Trump’s missteps in Iraq, his shambling into a government shutdown, the sad optics of his Tweets about sitting alone in the White House ripple outward in concentric circles in the membrane of the liberal public sphere. Right on cue, we find Jennifer Rubin asking in an opinion piece in the Washington Post, “How low will Trump go before Republican’s flee?” The answer is: a lot lower than things stand right now.

I mention this not to cast aspersions on Ms Rubin, who is certainly a reputable and qualified journalist. But this piece is yet another in an innumerable series in which the question of at what point those at the other end of the spectrum will recognize Mr Trump’s outrageous conduct for what it is (with the very clear implication that they long ago should have).

To be clear, if the available poll numbers are to be believed, we are no closer to any sort of tipping point of outrage than we have been at any other point in Mr Trump’s presidency. According to Nate Silver’s Trump’s approval rating (which has admittedly had some problems in the last couple of years), has oscillated between 47.8 and 36.4 per cent. His current number (41.5% as of the time of writing) is only slightly below average and shows no signs of a precipitous fall.

In the same vein, we find Elizabeth Drew writing in the New York Times that “[e]ven Republicans may be deciding that the president has become too great a burden to their party or too great a danger to the country”. The perception that this line should include as a prefix, “Democrats and other civilized people hope that…” is buttressed by the fact that the article itself contains no evidence whatever that actually existing Republicans hold this view. Of course, this is an opinion piece and does not claim to be anything else. But one cannot help but see it as another reflection of the fact that the liberal mainstream is still living in a cloud cuckoo land in which conservatives actually care about Mr Trump’s wretchedness.

On the Facebook page of the former Secretary of Labor and dedicated Clintonista Robert Reich, we find the following:

“I had breakfast recently with a friend who’s a former Republican member of Congress. Here’s what he said:

Him: Trump is no Republican. He’s just a big fat ego.

Me: Then why didn’t you speak out against him during the campaign?

Him: You kidding? I was surrounded by Trump voters. I’d have been shot.

Me: So what now? What are your former Republican colleagues going to do?

Him (smirking): They’ll play along for a while.

Me: A while?

Him: They’ll get as much as they want – tax cuts galore, deregulation, military buildup, slash all those poverty programs, and then get to work on Social Security and Medicare – and blame him. And he’s such a fool he’ll want to take credit for everything.

Me: And then what?

Him (laughing): They like Pence.

Me: What do you mean?

Him: Pence is their guy. They all think Trump is out of his mind.

Me: So what?

Him: So the moment Trump does something really dumb – steps over the line – violates the law in a big stupid clumsy way … and you know he will …

Me: They impeach him?

Him: You bet. They pull the trigger.”

While still reflecting the ever hopeful Democratic imaginary in which Republicans at some point see the light of reason and agree to return to playing stickball by Canarsie rules, this at least has the virtue of describing an actual train of thinking that might result in the desired consequences, it still is oddly divorced from the world in which we live.

Certainly, there is a faction of Republicans who would prefer President Pence to Trump, since they pretty much get everything they want without all the hoo-hah. But the idea that any significant portion of the Republican congressional delegation would convert themselves into traitors in the eyes of the portion of their base committed to Mr Trump must count as unlikely at best.

The more likely outcome of the current situation is that things shamble on for the balance of Mr Trump’s presidency. The incoming Democrats in the House of Representatives will launch yet more investigations which those who already believe Mr Trump guilty will add to the pile and those who think him innocent will ignore.

Mr Trump has changed the field of play, deemphasizing facts and compelling his opponents to compete on the basis of images and emotion. Much as Democrats wish for the days when the president was merely a garden variety incompetent (à la George W. Bush), there is a new game in town. Hopes and dreams that things might be otherwise, or that they will return to normal through the settled channels of 20th-century political norms have not brought the solution any closer.

Screenshot courtesy of the White House. All rights reserved.