Matt Bai’s Political World
Tired of winning yet? You’re not alone.
Matt Bai, National Political Columnist April 5, 2018
Yahoo News photo Illustration; photos: AP, Getty
These should be President Trump’s best days in office. The tax bill that marked his first (and only) real legislative achievement has grown more popular in recent weeks. His blowhard rhetoric toward North Korea appears to have yielded a rare diplomatic opening. He’s revived a couple of his most resonant campaign themes, slapping tariffs on China and threatening to send soldiers to patrol the southern border.
And yet, Trump’s approval ratings seem barely to have budged. According to a series of polls in the last few weeks (leaving aside a single conservative-leaning outlier), four in 10 Americans, give or take, are happy with his presidency.
How can this be?
Trump loyalists will point out that his ratings are several points higher than his all-time low, and that no less revered a president than Ronald Reagan was in the same ballpark at this time in his presidency. But Reagan was battling a prolonged recession; Trump should be riding a wave of recovery.
No, a Trump Malaise descends on the country, and it can only be about one thing, as the president himself surely understands. After all, he warned us it would happen, and now his prophecy has come to pass.
We’re tired of winning already.
We laughed at the oracle when he made this prediction. But we didn’t really hear him.
When Trump first started appearing on our television screens as a candidate, sometimes for hours at a time without paying a dollar for the privilege or being interrupted by any pesky interviewers, America was beset by pessimism.
For decades, we had watched as automation and the rise of foreign manufacturers decimated our industries and hollowed out whole communities. We had seen America’s preeminent role as a superpower shaken by rivals with nuclear ambitions and by zealots living in caves.
“Win the future” had been one of President Obama’s hundred slogans — for about 10 minutes, anyway. The truth was we were fighting the future to a draw, at best, and everybody knew it.
And then along came Trump, like a real-life Music Man with a truckload of fetching red hats. If he became president, Trump said, America would all of a sudden start winning again. Our rural areas and small cities would bounce back. Our borders would be safe. Our government would work for everyone.
There was just one catch. We’d win so much, Trump said, that we’d eventually grow tired of winning. He knew what he was talking about. Because Trump had been winning all his life.
He was born a winner, with a dad who made a small fortune in real estate.
He gambled that fortune on big-city skyscrapers and faux-classic casinos and exclusive golf courses the color of money, and he won again and again, if you don’t count a couple of nettlesome bankruptcies and a huge payout to victims of his scam university. (And, you know, the frozen steaks.)
So Trump understood how empty winning can be. How you think it’s going to soothe all your demons and wipe away all your cares, how you assume that once your team finally wins the championship you will wake up every morning with a smile on your face, but in the end it just leads to a void of disappointment and self-doubt.
And here we are.
Trump’s been pretty much the president he said he would be, even before he seized control of his own administration a few weeks ago and started replacing milquetoast policymakers with like-minded TV celebrities.
He’s told the Europeans and other allies who relied on our leadership for the last century to go figure things out for themselves.
He’s done his damnedest to discredit the entire idea of America as a nation of immigrants who share common values.
He’s responded to the Russian czar’s threat to nuke Florida by congratulating him on his hard-fought fake-election win and suggesting he visit Washington.
Thanks to Trump’s tax cuts and military buildup, we’re now rocketing toward an economic calamity in which just servicing the interest on our spiraling debt, coupled with our other obligations, will push interest rates higher and crowd out almost everything else the federal government does.
Oh, I know what you’re saying: This doesn’t sound like winning at all. But that’s only because you misunderstood what Trump was trying to say.
Trump doesn’t define winning the way you and I do. It’s not about giving back or improving people’s lives; as I’ve written before, Trump has never done that anywhere, unless you count remodeling a skating rink.
Winning, in Trump’s mind, wasn’t about us. It was about him.
It’s about ratings and primacy. Trump wants more than anything to exist outside of himself, to occupy your screens and your emotions. He always has.
Losing, to Trump, is receding from center stage. Winning is finding one way after another to keep us riveted to the show.
So Trump is absolutely delivering on his promise. He’s winning and winning and winning. Every day, it seems, he taps some new well of audacity, willing himself to become the overarching story of our time.
Even the reimagining of an old TV sitcom becomes a national conversation not because of anything that happens on the show itself, but because of what its star says about Trump, in the script and in real life. They should call it “Roseanne in Trumpland.”
Another win for the president.
And yes, we’re winning, too. Because like it or not, America has become the world’s Donald Trump. We’re shameless, unpredictable, outrageous. We’re a never-ending spectacle from which no one can look away. We’re the topic of all conversation, too.
We horrify and fascinate, and then we get up the next morning and somehow figure out how to do it again.
And we haven’t yet seen just how crazy and sordid this whole Russia investigation might become, dragging the country into yet another prolonged legal drama with unbelievable ratings, amazing, like you’ve never seen.
Of course Trump’s idea of winning feels deflating to most of us. It’s exhausting. It’s disorienting. It’s like putting your face up to an industrial fan every hour of the day.
It seeps into our dreams — all this dissembling and smallness and provocation bursting onto our TV crawls and iPhone screens — and when we wake up, we’re not an inch closer to giving our kids the America we promised them.