Frank Rich: Donald Trump’s ‘Independence’ Is a Complete Farce

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Trump. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today: Donald Trump’s deal with the Democrats, Hillary Clinton’s election postmortem, and Steve Bannon’s 60 Minutes interview.

After President Trump’s decision last week to accept the debt-ceiling deal pushed by Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, shocked conservatives floated rumors that they’d target Paul Ryan’s Speakership to help their agenda, and the Times described Trump as “in many ways, the first independent” in the White House in more than a century. Is this the start of a broader opening for congressional Democrats?
Before this one brief shining moment of “bipartisanship” goes up in smoke, we must relish the sheer delight of watching Trump stiff Ryan and Mitch McConnell in favor of his new besties, “Chuck and Nancy.” It didn’t turn out well for the Vichy collaborators in World War II, and the same fate in one way or another will befall those Republican leaders who abandoned whatever principles they had once Trump occupied their party. History will be merciless to them, but how much fun to watch them reduced to thunderstruck supernumeraries in real time.

Still, this instance of victory for congressional Democrats was a one-off. The new coinage that Trump is somehow an “independent,” with its implicit invocation of the Teddy Roosevelts of American history, is a way of dignifying and normalizing erratic behavior that hasn’t changed from the start. It’s the latest iteration of those previous moments when wishful centrist pundits started saying things like “Today Trump became president” simply because he stuck to a teleprompter script when addressing Congress or bombed Syria. Trump is an “independent” in the same way a toddler is. He jumped at the Democrats’ deal solely on impulse. He remains a drama queen who likes to grab attention any way he can, especially when he thinks he can please a crowd, whether the mobs at his rallies or the press Establishment he claims to loathe but whose approval he has always desperately craved. The most telling aspect of this whole incident was his morning-after phone call to Schumer to express his excitement that he was getting rave reviews not only from Fox but CNN and MSNBC as well.

None of this amounts to a broader opening for congressional Democrats. The deal’s sole accomplishments were to (temporarily) prevent the government from defaulting or shutting down and make a first installment on Hurricane Harvey relief. That this can be greeted by anyone as any kind of breakthrough in governance shows just how low the bar has become for achievement by this Congress and this White House. Yet a Vichy Republican in the House, Peter King of Long Island, declared, “I think this could be a new day for the Republican Party” and a “gateway” to “bipartisan progress.” You have to ask, what gateway drug is he on to spew such nonsense? The Republican majority of which he is a card-carrying member shows no signs of delivering on health care, tax reform, infrastructure, or anything else. All it’s done is kept the lights on in the Capitol for another three months.

But let us cherish the high farce of this moment while we can. Gail Collins at the Times has written some quite amusing columns in which she tries to determine who is the worst member of the Trump cabinet. God knows the competition is stiff, from Ben Carson to Betsy DeVos to Tom Price and Ryan Zinke. (What does it say that Rick Perry can’t even make the short list?) However, last week’s Oval Office showdown is another argument for Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury Secretary whom Trump interrupted and then castrated in his surrender to Chuck and Nancy. Previous to this point, Mnuchin has bolloxed up the debt-ceiling negotiations, made false promises that will never be redeemed on a tax bill, and vociferously defended Trump (as his fellow Jewish cabinet member, Gary Cohn, did not) after the president talked about the “very fine” people among the white supremacists and Nazis in Charlottesville. Mnuchin also offended Republican Congressional leaders by mansplaining the debt ceiling to them in the Oval Office meeting (only in the Trump White House do men mansplain to other men); someone knowledgeable about the gathering described him as “odd and weird” to the Washington Post. Mnuchin and his wife, the actress Louise Linton, previously offended the country — and prompted an inquiry by the Treasury Department inspector general — when they flew to Fort Knox on a government airplane to watch the solar eclipse and hashtag luxury fashion products on Linton’s Instagram account.

As if that weren’t enough, Mnuchin has also indicated that he may not act on the previous Treasury decision to put Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. Perhaps he’ll instead choose Warren Beatty, whose film Rules Don’t Apply he helped finance. Beatty cast Mnuchin and Linton in small roles in that movie; in the transactional Trump White House, there would be no strictures on the Treasury Secretary returning the favor by slapping Bulworth on the $20.

Despite complaints from Democrats that Hillary Clinton has picked the “worst possible time” to return attention to the divisions of her party, her national book tour kicked off in Manhattan with lines reportedly reaching around the block. Is there room for her voice in progressive politics today?
There’s nothing but room. In the aftermath of Clinton’s shocking defeat, the Times has reported that there are as many as 20 potential presidential candidates for 2020, and why not? The more the merrier. Progressive politics needs all the voices it can get and the widest possible debate. Clinton should say her piece; she was at the eye of her own catastrophe, and there’s something to be learned from her afterthoughts.

But for all assigning of often-deserved blame to James Comey, misogyny in general, and Trump’s creepiness in particular, she doesn’t fully recognize that her top-down, consultant-heavy, carefully scripted style of presidential campaign is a relic of a vanishing era, and that some of her policy ideas are too. In What Happened, she writes that it was “a mistake” to give high-ticket speeches to the likes of Goldman Sachs on the eve of a presidential run. Yes, but it’s far from clear that she recognizes the reason she was blind to what she calls the “bad ‘optics’” of those speeches: the Democratic Establishment’s own deference to the financial industry’s policy preferences and donations in both her husband and Barack Obama’s administrations.

In any case, the future does not belong to Clinton no matter what happens or doesn’t on her book tour. The latest NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll, released after Labor Day, found that a record low of 36 percent had “very” or “somewhat” positive feelings of Trump, and even fewer — 30 percent — felt that way about Clinton. (Obama was at 51 percent.) Trump and his claque at Fox News want to believe that she’s still running for president; they persist in re-litigating everything from the emails to Benghazi even as the one-year anniversary of Election Day 2016 approaches. Whatever the masturbatory benefits of this fixation on the right, the fact remains that history is moving on, rapidly now, from all things Clinton.

Steve Bannon began his post–White House media tour with a long 60 Minutes appearance over the weekend, and seems to be supporting it through anonymously sourced articles publicizing his access to the House Freedom Caucus, billionaire Robert Mercer, and the president (who continues to speak with Bannon “every two to three days”). Will Bannon be as much of a political force as these reports would make him seem?
Of course Bannon talks to Trump regularly — the proof is that the dissembling White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, so pointedly denied it after the 60 Minutes broadcast. And he will certainly be as much of a political bomb thrower as he’s always been.

It’s somewhat astonishing, as others have pointed out, that in a long interview Charlie Rose never asked Bannon about his collaboration with Mercer. Their plan to spend Mercer’s money in 2018 to challenge sitting Republican senators whom they see as disloyal to Trump, like Dean Heller of Nevada and Jeff Flake of Arizona, may create serious political havoc for the GOP. And when Bannon promises a “civil war” within the Republican Party over the fate of the Dreamers next year, he has both the media means (in Breitbart) and Mercer’s cash to fan the flames of anti-immigrant xenophobia and make that war as bloody as possible. However much power Bannon does or does not have in the White House, we can be certain that his sway over this president vastly exceeds that of Ryan and McConnell — and maybe even Chuck and Nancy.

Rich: Donald Trump’s ‘Independence’ Is a Complete Farce