Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today: Trump’s 100th day looms.
This weekend marks the end of President Trump’s first 100 days — a chance to evaluate not only his progress (or lack thereof), but how the nation will change under a Trump administration. What are the early signs of the changes he’s brought to Washington, to our understanding of politics and political journalism, and to our sense of civic engagement?
As someone is writing every ten minutes now, Trump’s first hundred days have been marked by no major achievements beyond the successful nomination of a Supreme Court justice. Every other attempt to do something big has been shot down by a Republican-controlled Congress or the courts. Even by his own campaign yardstick his administration is thus far a failure. While the White House busily promotes the sheer number of executive orders the president has signed since January 20, a Washington Post fact-checker found that of the 60 promises candidate Trump made in his self-proclaimed “contract” with Americans, he has kept five, broken five, and taken no action on 34 others. In other words, that “contract” has roughly the same value as a diploma from Trump University: It’s a scam designed to bamboozle a credulous public while he and his family pick its pockets. Kleptocracy — surfacing everywhere from State Department web sites tasked with promoting Mar-a-lago to a tax proposal that benefits Trumps and Kushners über alles — remains the only consistent ideology at this White House.
Here are the dizzying reversals and changing policy positions of Trump’s first 100 days.
It’s good news that Trump thinks governing is as easy as picking up a phone and calling room service at a Trump hotel. The more lazy, ineffectual, and incompetent he is, the less damage he can inflict. The most patriotic act he can perform is to play more golf. But in some ways the young Trump administration is nonetheless a roaring success. For all the attention paid to the president’s historically low standing in the polls, he has nonetheless held on to a unified, intractable base that thinks he’s doing fine. Trump’s approval number in the Washington Post-ABC News survey released this week, 42 percent, may be dismal, but his approval rating among his own voters is 94 percent. Only 2 percent of those who voted for Trump in November regret doing so — even as he shows no sign of creating jobs with a trillion-dollar infrastructure program but every determination to gut those voters’ health care. He could still pull out a gun and shoot someone on Fifth Avenue without losing any of his faithful.
Yes, Trump voters are a minority of the country. But they are a powerful minority that has brought to heel a major political party — the party that holds the most power at the federal and state levels alike. The craven Vichy Republican leadership remains so cowed by these voters that it thinks nothing of abandoning its own most cherished principles — a detestation of government deficits, a hawkish stance toward Putin’s Russia — to curry favor with Dear Leader. Even nominal Democrats collaborating with the administration are reduced to Jell-O by the prospect of accruing more power by proximity to Trump: Witness the humiliating prevarication of the Goldman Sachs alum turned White House economic chieftain, Gary Cohn, as he helped promote the president’s tax proposal in a dog-and-pony show this week.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party remains short of national leadership and anything but unified. The disarray and lack of focus was most recently symbolized — for me, anyway — by a dustup in which some in its ranks took umbrage at Bernie Sanders for answering “I don’t know” when asked by a reporter if Jon Ossoff, the favored Democrat in the Georgia special congressional election, could be called “a progressive.” Really, who cares? Is this the kind of ephemera the left should be debating during the Trump presidency? (Sanders, it might be remembered, doesn’t even call himself a Democrat.) What ultimately mattered is that Ossoff didn’t win the majority vote needed to lock down that Georgia seat in the primary. For all the passion and fledgling power of the Resistance, exemplified by the Women’s March and the raucous town-hall confrontations that shook GOP members of Congress visiting their home districts, that great energy is as yet untethered from a national political apparatus that might reverse Republican rule at the ballot box in 2018 and 2020.
The press, for its part, has shown renewed vigor since the election; the investigative work by the Times and the Post on the administration has been relentless and impressive even if all but 2 percent of Trump’s voters dismiss the findings as “fake news.” But in some corners of the commentariat we are already seeing some grading on a curve: Note the heretofore Trump-phobic pundits who suddenly declared him presidential because he read from a teleprompter without mishap when addressing Congress, or bombed Syria, or manifested inchoate signs of “a learning curve.” (The only thing Trump has learned since taking office, as far as I can tell, is to specifically cite the Jewish victims when talking in public about the Holocaust.) Another form of normalization that’s creeping in could be seen in this week’s White House tax rollout. Almost without exception television journalists and print headline writers reflexively referred to it as Trump’s “tax plan.” It was not a plan: It was a publicity stunt rushed before the public to beat the 100-day report-card deadline — a one-page assemblage of campaign bullet points full of hyperbole, bereft of most crucial details, and tied to no legislation. It too has all the value of a Trump University degree. To label it a plan is a surrender, however slight, to the White House’s propagandistic ambitions. A lot of small surrenders can add up.
Even now, Trump’s effect on our culture — not just our political culture and civic discourse — has been profound. He is nothing if not a brilliant showman. By bombarding us with outrageous statements and policy feints, then shamelessly contradicting those bombshells hours or days later with a new round of outrageous actions or rhetoric, he holds our attention as surely as the cheesiest soap opera. And it’s a soap opera on steroids, with something happening constantly, even in the wee hours on Twitter, to encourage binge-watching — the perfectly calibrated short-attention-span theater for a citizenry with an ever-shorter attention span.
I know people who claim they can turn Trump off and tune him out, and I congratulate them on their self-discipline and mental health. For the rest of us, living through the chaotic first hundred days of his presidency has often felt like standing under an enormous fire hose raining down a nonstop deluge of raw sewage.