Every day, the evidence piles up that Trump’s presidency is a failure on its own terms, let alone anyone else’s. And every day, it becomes clearer that this really doesn’t matter at all.
A politically successful policy catastrophe? That’s one way of putting it. Let us count the ways. On trade, we have a record deficit in goods — precisely the opposite of what Trump promised. On immigration, we are facing the biggest crisis since the Bush years — a huge jump in migrants from Central America that is now overwhelming the system. Trump, for his part, is now enabling what he calls “catch and release” on a massive scale. On economic growth, the huge tax cut for the rich has failed. It will not boost growth to levels of 4 or 5 percent — even the president’s own advisers think it’s likely to be a shade less than 3 percent this year and will decline thereafter. The Fed thinks we’ll be lucky to get a little more than 2 percent.
Meanwhile, the budget deficit now looks likely to be more than a trillion dollars annually for the indefinite future, and public debt is hitting new, stratospheric levels. Trump pledged he’d balance the budget. On entitlements, Trump is beginning to backtrack on his promises to protect the safety net. On climate, the denial of reality is exposed almost daily. In just the last week, we’ve seen catastrophic flooding in the Midwest and what could become the Southern Hemisphere’s deadliest cyclone on record.
And what consequences do we see for these massive failures? Staggeringly stable polling numbers. A year ago, Trump’s approval-to disapproval rates were 40.6 to 53.4; today they’re 41.6 to 53.1 percent. Nothing seems to move them. A new survey of Fox News viewers shows that 78 percent of them think that Trump has accomplished more than any other president in history. More than Lincoln, FDR, or Washington, for Pete’s sake. And the enthusiasm of Trump’s base now exceeds that of the Democrats. The usual reassurance — that he’s still underwater, widely unpopular, and easy to defeat next year — is getting less reassuring. When you actually break out the head-to-head polls, you find Trump remains highly competitive. Bernie bests him by just two points right now — and that’s before the GOP attack machine has even gotten started. Everyone else is also neck and neck, although a new poll shows Biden with a ten-point lead. Maybe Biden will save us. I think he would have in 2016. But he failed at both his previous presidential runs, has a huge message-discipline problem, will have a hard time inspiring the grassroots, and looks to be a little too handsy with women for comfort. I’m not saying he cannot win. I’m just saying it’s obviously going to be tough.
And the cult is deepening. For me, the grimmest reality is Congress’s likely inability to override Trump’s veto on wall spending. Here you have a bedrock principle of constitutional conservatism — separation of powers, Congress’s sole power of the purse — and it has been tossed out the window. This is not some minor development. Handing the president the ability to make up national emergencies in order to appropriate funds for purposes Congress has explicitly ruled out — well, it’s textbook authoritarianism. It makes Obama’s attempt to juggle priorities in who gets deported look positively meek.
There is also a collapse in a functioning, accountable government outside the small royal court that has effectively replaced the cabinet. Foreign policy has become a matter of authoritarian whim, or family connection. Yesterday, Trump tweeted — yes, tweeted — an attack on the basis of international law: He recognized Israel’s seizure of the Golan Heights as legitimate and permanent. That piece of land is now, for the U.S., part of “Israel’s Sovereignty.” Reversing decades of policy only took a few seconds.
Trump’s rationale is the idea that the Heights are of “critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel and Regional Stability!” So if a state decides to annex the territory of a neighboring state, because such an occupation helps the strategy and security of the aggressor nation, the U.S. has no problem with that. What principle is left to oppose Putin’s annexation of Crimea? Why did Trump do this? No one really knows, as is usually the case with monarchs of old. Probably he was trying to please evangelicals, support Bibi’s reelection, and nudge along the son-in-law’s harebrained Mideast scheme. (Yes, the mute dauphin who uses his WhatsApp for official business, and hangs out with the Saudi torturer, MBS.
Trump’s dominance routine has also become more effective the longer it has gone on. Look at the miserable examples of Lindsey Graham or Ben Sasse, eunuchs at the Royal Court. Or think of Trump’s Twitter assaults on George Conway, a man pointing out the bleeding obvious — that Trump is so mentally and psychologically sick that he is unfit to run a lemonade stand. And, for her part, Conway defends Trump rather than her husband! This is Stalinesque. Or think of the insane indecency of Trump’s continued flaying of the ghost of John McCain. Yes, some Republicans have demurred. But primarily those whose own careers are over, time-limited, or beyond accountability because their seats are so safe. Mitt Romney is reduced to saying he cannot “understand” why Trump would do this. Again: the former nominee, safe Senate seat, Mormon rectitude, long Republican loyalist. And he pretends merely to be baffled?
Talk about “ripe for tyranny”! And that, it seems to me, is the real salience of the tweets. Trump is showing his foes and friends that he can say anything, abuse anyone, lie about anything, break every norm of decency, propriety and prudence — and suffer no consequences at all. It’s all a dominance ritual. And just think about what he has actually claimed: that the heads of the FBI and DOJ engaged in treasonous and illegal activity; that Russia, despite the unanimous judgment of U.S. and Western intelligence, did not attempt to intervene in the 2016 election; and that the opposition party cannot “legitimately” win an election. The latter — repeated over the years — is a direct assault on liberal democracy, and on the integrity and legitimacy of the entire system. It opens up the very real possibility that Trump will not concede an election he loses. In any functioning democracy, such statements would end any politician’s career. They merely burnish Trump’s hold.
In this post-truth world, where Trump has allied with social media to create an alternate reality, lies work. This week, he approached the press corps simply repeating, “No Collusion! No Collusion!” And he will continue to say this regardless of what the Mueller report may reveal, because it doesn’t matter what actually happened. Whatever Trump says will become the truth for 40 percent of the country, while the expectations of the opposition, troubled by pesky empiricism, may well be deflated. Fox, a de facto state propaganda channel, will do the rest.
This remains a surreal state of affairs, does it not? Life goes on; politics has the forms of democracy, even if the substance is now monarchical; and the economy continues to grow. And how did we respond to his usurping the power of the Congress with an emergency declaration, or his marshaling of the military for an election-eve stunt on the border, or his refusing any cooperation with the House committees, or his two-hour, delusional rant at CPAC, or his response to white nationalist mass murder by pivoting to an “invasion” of the U.S., or the blizzard of simply deranged tweets last Sunday? How did we react when he said, in the context of a fight with Democrats, “I have the military.” For what? Mr. President. What plans do you exactly have in mind?
Yes, we’re numb. Yes, this has become normal. And yes, as far as liberal democracy is concerned, this is an extinction-level event.