The American Reality Show

Homeless leftist. San Francisco, April 2018.

America prides itself on nothing so much as excellence. This applies as much to political dysfunction as to anything else.

Even Jacob Rees-Mogg reclining like an adolescent on the front benches of the House of Commons during the early stages of a constitutional crisis doesn’t come close to the level we have arrived at in this country.

There have been times (for instance during the Iran-Contra hearings) when the pathologies of American political life seemed likely to result in a life-imitates-art re-enactment of All the President’s Men. That was alarming enough.

The idea that Team Trump might systematically attempt to circumvent the standard political processes of America’s political institutions brought to the fore memories of the Nixon Administration during the dark days in the early 1970s.

This, coupled with the long hangover of the wars in Southeast Asia, afflicted the national psyche with something approximating post-traumatic stress disorder.

In our current circumstances, the prospect of conditions jumping off the screen into the world seems similarly imminent.

The reference points have clearly changed and, depending on from what position one is viewing matters, they run the gamut from Idiocracy to Animal House to The Handmaid’s Tale (with possible options on Mad Max, Blade Runner, or The Road).

Perhaps the defining characteristic of the current administration is its utter inability to control the news cycle.

In the early weeks and months of Mr. Trump’s tenure one could see the press waiting anxiously for a return to conditions of normality. Middle-class opinion always assumes that new leadership will eventually moderate political extremists.

It’s hard to think of a case in which this approach has actually worked. Its most spectacular failure (Adolf Hitler) had catastrophic consequences.

With the passage of time, it has become clear that abnormality is the new normal. We are no longer treated to attempts by the mainstream media to characterise some speech or other public appearance described as “presidential,” as if Mr. Trump has reached some sort of turning point.

The press, especially those in its upper echelons, were used to a particular variety of propaganda. The norms of this kind of messaging were taken to be facts of nature, the sort of thing that any administration worthy of the name would need to master and employ.

It seems to have finally dawned on the major news outlets, even Fox News, that the failure of the Trump Administration to control the news cycle is a feature, not a bug.

In part, this is due to Mr. Trump’s elevation of his own internal monologue into the operative principle of his administration.

To be fair, he received a good deal of positive reinforcement from his dealings as a real estate speculators. As it turns out, in that world, derangement can be an effective negotiating tactic.

In parallel with the expectations of the press, there was a strong body of opinion on social media that held that Mr. Trump’s bizarre and outrageous conduct was simply a complex and highly effective program of misdirection meant to distract attention from his systemic dysfunction.

This reflects a fundamental misunderstanding. For Mr. Trump, the chaotic medium is the message. He does what he does because that’s who he is. Let us review.

Mr. Trump claimed, for reasons only he will know, that a hurricane was going somewhere that it wasn’t.

Having been publicly contradicted by scientists at the National Weather Center, Mr. Trump then held a press conference in which he displayed a map of the hurricane’s trajectory that had very clearly and amateurishly been altered with a sharpie.

When the local branch of the NOAA contradicted Mr. Trump, the national leadership of the NOAA was told by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to toe the line or face the sack.

Responsibility for this goes up the chain as far as White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. Whether responsibility actually goes all the way to the top remains unclear. At this point, it is a little like asking which of the occupants of the clown car has the water-squirting daisy.

More recently, Mr. Trump has made it his business to reverse the standards for vehicle emissions put in place by the state of California. It’s not clear that even the auto industry wanted this.

Corporations, especially large ones, tend to like stable, predictable regulative regimes. The Trump Administration claims that they are putting policies in place that will be uniform and that there will be “very little difference” between those and the stringent standards the state had set.

Mr. Trump also claimed that the new standards would result in cars that were safer and that there would be more jobs in the auto industry as a consequence of the new rules.

At the same time, the Trump Administration is rolling back the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards that mandates increasing fuel economy in new model cars.

However, lest the conviction arise that the administration was wholly unconcerned with the problem of pollution, rest assured that nothing could be farther from the case.

Mr. Trump recently expressed his concern over the level of pollution being produced in San Francisco by homeless people and its propensity to negatively impact the health of law enforcement personnel.

This is part and parcel of Mr. Trump’s bizarre fascination with homelessness in general and in California particularly.

His threats to take action against the homeless in San Francisco seem to suggest that cars create fewer problems than homeless people do.

These are only two instances and many more could be cited. The larger point is that there is no systematic policy informing the administration’s actions.

One of the key reasons underlying his persistently high level of support among Republicans (Gallup reports that Mr. Trump’s job approval rating among Republicans exceeds 90%) is his capacity to mainstream increasingly extremist politics.

How Mr Trump has been able to do that, given his chaotic style, is anyone’s guess. Perhaps that’s the point.  Dysfunctional government is his way of normalising psychosis.

Photograph courtesy of Shelby L. Bell. Published under a Creative Commons license.