The past week was another watershed, it seems to me, in the rising power of Donald Trump. Flake is quitting; Corker is retiring; McCain is mortal. Sasse, Murkowski, Collins, and Paul remain, but the odds are mounting against them. A new slew of Bannonite candidates is emerging from under various rocks and crannies to take their places. The Trump propaganda machine was given a chance to turn the Russia story into a Clinton scandal - lowering even further the possibility of impeachment - and gleefully took it. The FBI is the next target for a barrage of hostile propaganda, since it might expose the Supreme Leader. Mueller is being daily savaged in the right wing press. Outside Washington, Trump’s targets are faltering. The NFL is reeling; a Gold Star widow is attacked; Obamacare is at risk of being sabotaged to death; the EPA is castrated.
This time last year, I warned about an abyss. This is what it looks like.
The Congress is paralyzed, reduced entirely to staffing the judiciary with the far right; it can pass no significant legislation and reach no compromise on anything, without Trump undermining it. The bureaucracy is shell-shocked and demoralized; the State Department is a wasteland; the press has sunk even further into public disdain. The police are increasingly seen either as incapable of error, or morally suspect. The essential civilian control of the military has been weakened, with an embittered general’s honor now deployed as a way to play political defense in front of the press corps. “My generals”, as the president calls them, as if they swear loyalty to him and not to the Constitution. The Republican candidate for the Senate from Alabama, Roy Moore, believes that there should be a religious test for public office. As Ben Sasse blurted out yesterday: “It feels like this party I’m a member of has gone post-Constitutional.”
The discourse has been coarsened to sub-tabloid levels; the courts’ authority has been weakened by their own over-reach and Trump’s refusal to follow core Constitutional norms. The neutral institutions that might be capable of bringing the president to heel, such as the FBI, are now being trashed by their ultimate boss. The possibility of a shared truth, about which we can have differing opinions, has evaporated in a blizzard of web-fueled distraction and misdirection, aided and abetted by a president for whom reality is whatever he wants it to be at any given moment, and always susceptible to change. It turns out that Mark Zuckerberg’s real achievement will be the collapse of a rational public dialogue and the empowerment of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.
Almost all our liberal democratic norms and institutions are much weaker today than they were a year ago. Trump has not assaulted the Constitution directly. He has not refused a court order, so far. But he has obstructed justice in his firing of James Comey, and abused the spirit of the pardon power by using it for a public official who violated citizens’ Constitutional rights, before he was even sentenced. In the most worrying case so far, he has refused to enforce the sanctions against Russia that were passed by a veto-proof margin by the Congress. I fear this is because his psyche cannot actually follow the instructions of anyone but himself. This is also why, after failing to repeal, replace or amend Obamacare, he has not faithfully executed the law, but actively sabotaged it. If he does not have his way, he will either sulk and refuse to do his constitutional duty, or he will simply smash whatever institution or law that obstructs his will. At some point, we may come to a more profound test of his ability to operate as just one of three equal branches of government. I think he’ll fail it.
Yes, the forms of the Constitution remain largely intact after nine months. But the norms that make the Constitution work are crumbling. The structure looks the same, but Trump has relentlessly attacked their foundations. Do not therefore keep your eyes on the surface. Put your ear to the ground.
And we know something after a year of this. It will go on. This is not a function of strategy or what we might ordinarily describe as will. It is because this president is so psychologically disordered he cannot behave in any other way. His emotions control his mind; his narcissism overwhelms even basic self-interest, let alone the interest of the country as a whole. He cannot unite the country, even if, somewhere in his fathomless vanity, he wants to. And he cannot stop this manic defense of ego because if he did, his very self would collapse. This is why he lies and why he cannot admit a single one of them. He is psychologically incapable of accepting that he could be wrong and someone else could be right. His impulse - which he cannot control - is simply to assault the person who points out the error, or blame someone else for it. Remember his excruciating pre-election admission that his foul racist lies about Obama’s birthplace originated with Hillary Clinton? That’s as good as you’ll get and it’s the only concession to reality he has made so far. And do not underestimate the stamina of the psychologically unwell. They will exhaust you long before they will ever exhaust themselves.
But by far the most important development in all this, the single essential rampart, is how, through all this, Trump has tightened his grip on 35 percent of the country. He has done this when he has succeeded but also critically when he has failed, because he has brilliantly turned his incapacity to be president into an asset with his base. No wall? Congress’ fault. Obamacare in place? The GOP’s fault. No tax cut? Ditto. The only way forward? A deeper and deeper trust in him. Only he can fix the Congress by purging it. Only he can fix the Courts through nominees who will never stand up to him.
And this base support is unshakable. It is not susceptible to reason. No scandal, however great, will dislodge it - because he has invaded his followers’ minds and psyches as profoundly as he has the rest of ours. He is fused with them more deeply now, a single raging id, a force that helps us understand better how civilized countries can descend so quickly into barbarism. In a country led by a swirling void, all sorts of inhibitions slowly slip away. Nativism, racism, nationalism: these are very potent catalysts of human darkness. Usually it is the president who takes responsibility when these demons appear to emerge, and attempts to refute, or discredit or calm them. But this one amps them up. That is why we have the astonishing scenario of his two predecessors trying to do what he cannot. They know the fire he is playing with. And they have some sense of responsibility. He has absolutely none.
He is the total master of an enormous mob that, so far, has completely overcome the elites. He achieves this mastery through incendiary oratory, hourly provocations, and relentless propaganda. His rallies are events of mass hysteria and rage. His propaganda machines - Fox News, Limbaugh, Breitbart, Drudge - rarely crack. And there is no one in our political life capable of matching this power. Name one, if you can. And when you look at the Democratic field of 2020, no one seems up to it at all. Among the few responsible Republicans left, what we see is either utter cowardice in the face of an enraged base, or the kind of courage that manifests itself too late to make a difference, which is to say no real courage at all. There are a few exceptions: Senators Collins and Murkowski in particular, doggedly playing their Constitutional roles and not quitting. The rest? The only thing we have to slow this assault is already Congressional roadkill.
What could change this? Maybe a recession - although Trump would probably blame that on the Fed or some other target. Maybe a catastrophe, such as a nuclear conflict in Korea. Maybe, such a massive and impregnable revelation from the Mueller investigation it shakes even the base out of its trance. But the only reliable and sane solution is a massive mobilization of the anti-Trump majority at the polls next year. The huge Democratic fundraising advantage is encouraging; as are the new grass roots organizations that are going in strength. Maybe an unexpected leader from the left or center might emerge. Maybe a strong Democratic message that can somehow keep its minority edge and simultaneously re-engage the white Obama-Trump voters in the midwest. The key is to sustain a sense of the urgency of the moment, a resolute refusal to accept this descent into an illiberal authoritarianism, and a decision to put all our differences aside for a year in order to mobilize a turnout next year that eclipses Obama’s. We have to turn the mid-terms into a presidential election. Sane Republicans need to vote for the Democrat. Leftists have to put aside their divisive identity politics. Liberals need to coalesce around a simple strategy - not impeaching but checking Trump decisively.
We have close to 60 percent of the country with us. We have to mobilize every single one. Or the abyss will open wider.
If I were asked which were the problems that are most overlooked right now, I’d say record levels of social and economic inequality, declining social mobility and a dangerous, unsustainable level of debt. Acquiescence to all three poses a threat to the legitimacy of democratic capitalism. My own understanding of conservatism would be particularly concerned about all three, because conservatives should want to conserve our system of government and support for free market economics.
So what does the ostensibly conservative party in America - the Republicans - propose we do? They propose that we make all of this de-legitimization of democratic capitalism much, much worse. I’m referring primarily to their proposed massive tax cut to the super-wealthy, the abolition of the estate tax, and their bid to add over a trillion dollars to the debt.
How on earth does the GOP defend this? They argue that the US economy desperately needs a boost. This was not a position they held in 2009, as the global economy was teetering on collapse, and as the US economy was close to its worst crisis since the 1930s. The House GOP coughed up one single vote for massive tax cuts at that time … because they insisted that we couldn’t add to the debt, even as a depression loomed. But apparently, debt-fueled growth is urgent now that unemployment claims have hit a 44-year low, the Dow is at a record high, we are still in the longest recovery in history, and the debt is far greater than it was in 2009. This is so perverse it could not possibly be entertained without massive amnesia, extreme partisanship, or a need to have something - anything - to point to in 2018.
The second argument is that the tax cuts pay for themselves through faster growth. Well, they don’t exactly argue this, because they cannot. We know now beyond any conceivable doubt that this is untrue, false, disproven, and unfounded, because every single tax cut of the last thirty five years has increased the debt. Reagan’s tax cut created the first lurch toward insolvency; George W. Bush’s created the second; and the Great Recession - Bush’s last gift to the country - compounded both. In Kansas, we have yet another contemporary case of the demonstrable failure of this supply-side fantasy. For Mitch McConnell to say with a straight face that this time will be different is therefore either madness or cynicism so profound it … well I was going to say beggars belief, but at this point, it seems utterly believable.
Now, there is a credible argument that, given soaring inequality, and globalization’s disproportionate impact on the middle classes and working poor, tax relief for many in the lower half of the earning population is a good idea. I agree. So why not give it to them, rather than the obscenely wealthy? And why not make it revenue-neutral or even debt-reducing as well as helpful to social stability? You could indeed pay for big middle class tax cuts or an increase in tax credits for the working poor if you doubled the estate tax, or adding a new tax bracket - say, 45 percent - for those earning over $1 million a year. This would be a political master-stroke for the Trump administration (which is why Steve Bannon was rumored to favor something on these lines). It would instantly rebrand the GOP. It might even get buy-in from the Democrats. It could pass without using reconciliation rules in the Senate, thus helping entrench it in the system. It would help defuse our dangerous tribalism. It would do a lot to restore generational fairness, and counter the emergence of a rich caste of people who are fabulously wealthy for doing nothing. It would support work rather than privilege, a meritocracy rather than an oligarchy.
If the Democrats were smart, they would propose something like this themselves - and get ahead of the GOP, using it as a platform for 2018. And if the Republicans could abandon zombie Reaganism, they could rescue themselves from the electoral oblivion they so richly deserve. There’s a win-win here for both parties and the country. So why do I suspect it will once again be lose-lose?
Jared O’Mara - the name itself deserves an award - is a 35-year-old new member of the British parliament in the Labour party. He’s from Sheffield in the north of England, calls himself a “ginge” and has cerebral palsy. He won a surprise victory in the last election and used his acceptance speech to talk about the rights of the disabled. He earned a living running a pub in his 20s, and wrote online rock reviews, while volunteering at a local charity for disabled kids. He was so sure he wouldn’t win his election that he didn’t even buy a suit for his acceptance speech. After winning, he got shit-faced in his pub, in true English fashion: “There may have been some refreshments, and I may have gone home at 6am,” he drily informed the Guardian.
In a profile earlier this year, the Guardian explained his appeal: “He comes across as a real person, as opposed to a robot pretending to be one. A 35-year-old Marvel comics geek who loves Douglas Coupland, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (“I worship at the church of Joss Whedon”) and Sheffield Wednesday (the local soccer team), he’s the kind of bloke who likes nothing better than to spend an evening singing drunken karaoke at Dempsey’s, a Sheffield LGBTQ bar. When I ask if he is single, for instance, he doesn’t just tell me that, yes, he is. ‘I’m open to offers,’ he says. “Of his cerebral palsy, he explained: “The entire right side of my body is semi-paralysed or significantly weaker than the left. My main symptom is fatigue. I can’t stand for long, or walk about too much. Mobility is an issue. Some stairs are too difficult if they’re narrow and steep – I need banisters on both sides – and I can’t wear a shirt and tie because I can’t do the buttons. I’m going to be wearing plain T-shirts here [Westminster], which is against the dress code.”
He also has a classic British working-class sense of humor. And that is why he has now been suspended from the Labour party. In his twenties, he used his band’s website “to try his luck with imagined groupies”, as the gossip site Guido Fawkes put it. Asked to describe what he wanted in a groupie, he wrote: “What can I say. I am the front man in the world’s coolest rock band *and* the best looking ginger bloke ever .. any girl that would like to make whopee [sic] with me must be passionate about charity and the fight against social injustice … and have a pretty face.” On another online forum, he described himself as a “dirty perv who dreams of bumming birds … I just wanna get drunk and chase some skirt” He once referred to “sexy little slags”. Referring to a local band at one point, he also wrote it has “a rhythm section that’s tighter than your mother was when I took her virginity all those years ago.” Listening to it was “even better than receiving fellatio from the beautifully pert lips and wet mouth of Angelina Jolie.” He occasionally mocked fat women.
He also opined of Morrissey: “Just cos he writes about gayness and gay issues, doesn’t mean he drives up the Marmite motorway, or for that matter, allows someone else to drive up his… You do mean ‘took it up the ass’ figuratively don’t you?… I just think that this story is much more poignantly romantic than fudge packing Jake or anyone else in a casual manner and I don’t want such a lovely vista to be spoilt. To those of you that are bitter and resentful about being homosexual, maybe you need to take a bit of pride in your gayness, it’s not something to be ashamed of.” In one online fight before a football match with Denmark, he also opined: “Oh yeah I might be a ginge but at least I don’t practice bestiality like all you Danes. Up yours with brass knobs on, pig shaggers!”
For all this, he has been suspended by his party, and subject to a public shaming. Maybe I’m a terrible, horrible human being, but it seems to me almost all of his comments, however sexist, homophobic or racist, were also meant to be jokes. Some of them actually made me laugh out loud as I read. These extended, silly, over-the-top insults are very British. More to the point, they are very laddish jokes - the kind my high-school mates would try to make. They’re massively hyperbolic and largely self-mocking, but part of a male subculture that is already under siege. They were all made before he became an MP. Before the Internet, he would never have been hauled in front of today’s huffy puritans because they would have had no sources, and if they did, they wouldn’t have cared less.
The web was supposed to expand free speech. It has come to constrain it. What appears to be private is eternally public and your sins will be exposed someday. And so the enforcement of correct manners and speech is becoming more and more Victorian by the day, and the cultural police have far more powerful tools to punish and humiliate you. It’s obvious that O’Mara needed to apologize for his past online excesses, as he has. They’re not acceptable for someone in public office. But I see no evidence of real bigotry. The Tories now attacking him are as opportunistic as the usual identity groups pretending to be offended. He’ll probably have to go through a public re-education camp as penance. I understand. Public standards need to be maintained. But if every last shred of bawdy, prejudiced working class humor and extreme hyperbole is scrubbed from British culture, we will lose something that makes life just a little bit more worth living.
And see you next Friday.