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.
Deal or No Deal?
We all knew the Brexit endgame would be a cliff-hanger. But this? Seriously. The United Kingdom, a country known for its punctuality and pragmatism, is on the brink of jumping into the complete unknown. It is paralyzed and yet also in pain. The parliament cannot find a compromise; even the cabinet cannot reach one. And because the square cannot be circled, what we have is the biggest game of chicken the E.U. has ever seen.
It has been perfectly clear for quite a while now that Prime Minister Theresa May’s strategy was to stick to her flawed deal with the E.U. (the only serious compromise on the table) and force the House of Commons to back it at the last minute to avoid the economic disaster of crashing out of the E.U. without any deal at all. And she’s not blinking.
But two interventions have complicated this strategy. The first was from the Speaker of the House, the rather bumptious John Bercow who is as deeply in love with the sound of his own voice as he is with the arcane details of parliamentary procedure. Bercow ruled last week that the Commons would not consider a third “meaningful” vote on May’s deal, because two rejections in one parliament is quite enough.
The ruling — which goes back to 1603 — is based on the nostrum that no government can railroad the parliament, by sending it the same bill again and again until it relents. That kind of executive bullying is what parliament was worried about when it came to a new king, James I, they didn’t fully trust. And so it is four centuries later with the “Weekend at Bernie’s” premiership of Theresa May: no coercion allowed. This matters because if May cannot get a majority vote for her deal next week, the U.K. will be forced to crash out of the E.U.. The Commons has already voted to invoke Article 50, which mandates an exit by 11 p.m. next Friday, and it hasn’t repealed that vote. And it is very hard to see how Article 50 could be revoked altogether without a massive public outcry.
The E.U. agreed last night to an extension only till May 22, if the deal passes by next Friday; if the deal cannot win a majority, the deadline will be April 12 — a swift kick out the door. They’ve left a tiny space for the Brits to come up with something out of the blue, in which case they might grant a longer extension.
If necessary, the French will be the bad cop, and Macron will try to force the U.K. to make a decision. That would, in some ways, be a fitting end to Britain’s E.U. membership. De Gaulle originally vetoed Britain entering what was then the Common Market, and now his successor will veto any attempt to delay an exit. Macron’s Europe minister, Nathalie Loiseau, takes the prize for the best metaphor for how her fellow French see the situation. She said that if she had a cat, she would name it Brexit: “It wakes me up meowing because it wants to go out. When I open the door, it sits there, undecided. Then it looks daggers at me when I put it out.”
The other wonderful metaphor for this ghastly ordeal came from the journalist Hugo Rifkind. He suspects that May’s brinkmanship will work, that even hard-line Tories will balk at precipitating an economic swoon, and that the Labour party will also come around to a version of May’s deal. It’s still a crap deal, as one of his Twitter respondents replied, but “we voted to crap ourselves in 2016 and have to sit in the mess.” To which Rifkind responded, “I fear we may look back on two years of trying to push a shit back in.”
But can they push it back in? I have to say I doubt it. May’s short speech Wednesday night focused on the growing sense of Brexit fatigue among British voters, and frustration at Parliament’s indecision. Just “getting it over with” is beginning to sound better than any possibly endless extension. A brutal, clear Brexit is also quite simply the only way to honor the referendum if the Commons cannot agree on a compromise.
I also suspect that, in a pinch, May would prefer “no deal” to ever more wrangling. I also suspect that the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, may also be fine with a crash out. He has long opposed the E.U. because of its neoliberal economic rules which would hamper a future socialist government’s ability to command the British economy. And with 30 or 40 Tory MPs eager for no deal, it would take a huge shift for Parliament to approve a compromise. I just cannot see that happening — unless someone somewhere suddenly blinks. This weekend, huge marches are planned in London to pile on the pressure. A petition has appeared with a million signatures calling for the U.K. to revoke Article 50 and just stay in. But the mood in the Leave camp is still furious and intransigent. They believe that the shock of a “no deal” Brexit has been hyped. They were told of doom as soon as a referendum passed, and yet unemployment in the U.K. just reached 40-year lows. They want to call the catastrophists’ bluff.
What you’re hearing is the inability of a country to find a workable political compromise in the new populist era. If “no deal” is the result, it will be just as foreboding for America’s future as Brexit was for the 2016 election. It will mean that in a divided developed country, the populist right may well keep on winning.
Truth and Transgender Science
An open debate on transgender issues seems to me vital if we are simply to get things right. The trouble is: Many trans activists don’t want a debate. They believe sincerely that such a discussion will inevitably tend toward the question of whether transgender people actually exist. (This is not debatable — they do.) The other trouble is: Many social conservatives don’t want to have a debate either, and they actually do assert that trans people do not exist. They claim that trans people are lying or are mentally ill, despite mounds of empirical evidence proving that transgender identity is real, and unchanging, if only for a small number of people (as of 2016, 1.4 million Americans — or 0.4 percent of the population — identified as transgender). In the middle of this gulf, the truth certainly lies. And it says something about this moment in our culture that the truth doesn’t seem to matter at all.
Hence the absurd “correction” of a study by Brown professor Lisa Littman published by the open-access science journal PLOS One. It was the result of a second peer review of the article that, in the end, changed not a jot of its data or conclusions. It merely “reframed” the article, and added some more context. Two cheers for academic freedom, I guess. Except that the ordeal sends a red flare up to other researchers: Don’t enter this field. It’s trouble.
The study itself examined how a sudden embrace of trans identity during adolescence (where none had been suggested in childhood) might be a function of peer pressure, Internet exposure to transgender materials, a majority-trans peer group, and withdrawal from parents. Littman proposed a description of Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria, or ROGD:
“[T]hat is distinct in etiology from the gender dysphoria observed in individuals who have previously been described as transgender … The worsening of mental well-being and parent-child relationships and behaviors that isolate teens from their parents, families, non-transgender friends and mainstream sources of information are particularly concerning. More research is needed to better understand this phenomenon, its implications, and scope.”
That’s all Littman was arguing for: more research, please. (And she’s right: her study was limited. Its respondents were all parents, not trans kids; and they were recruited from websites where many families were concerned about a sudden change in a daughter or son. Much more research is needed.)
And it is surely conceivable that trans identity can be, in some cases, mistaken, especially when it seems to come out of nowhere in the midst of puberty. People who detransition later on life absolutely do exist, and they are often unable to reverse permanent alteration of their bodies and endocrine systems. And if teenage trans identity suddenly surges in popularity, it’s surely possible that faddishness or other psychological issues could be at work. The language of “contagion” and “cluster” outbreaks used in the paper does rub the wrong way — because it would seem to imply that being transgender is some sort of disease. But when you think about it more deeply, you realize that the “contagion” is not being transgender but being deluded into thinking you are.
And that seems especially possible given a sharp increase in trans identity among young women, mainly lesbians:
“The adolescent and young adult (AYA) children described were predominantly natal female (82.8%) with a mean age of 16.4 years … Forty-one percent of the AYAs had expressed a non-heterosexual sexual orientation before identifying as transgender. Many (62.5%) of the AYAs had been diagnosed with at least one mental health disorder or neuro-developmental disability prior to the onset of their gender dysphoria.”
What you’re seeing in other words is a big chunk of these women who would previously have become adult lesbians, suddenly deciding in adolescence that they have been male all along. Immediately we are in a zero-sum game: Among these teenagers, transgender identity is replacing lesbian identity. It doesn’t surprise me that some lesbians see this as a form of lesbian and female erasure.
But what truly baffles me is why transgender activists would not want this relatively new phenomenon to be studied. Surely it’s in the interests of transgender people that the diagnosis, whether trans or cis, be accurate — especially when it can lead to permanent, irreversible changes in the physical body: removing genitalia, or flooding a teen girl’s endocrine system with testosterone. And the only way to discover who will or will not be rendered happier by transition is to observe unhappy transitions as well as the liberating kind, to be aware of the mistakes as well as the successes — rather than create an ideological chilling effect, in which we end up learning less. The last thing you want is for there to be a wave of de-transitioning in the future, because so many adolescent diagnoses were wrong. That would set back trans rights a very long way.
My fear is a very old one: that attempts to squelch free inquiry can only, in the end, discredit a good and humane cause, and that when orthodoxy trumps or chills empirical research, we have lost any reliable way to uncover the truth about the world. And, yes, I mean objective, empirical truth.
Some odds and ends. Sorry about missing last week. I had a nasty bout of bronchitis. And I don’t want to let Bret Stephens’s Twitter charge of “lazy and untrue” to stand on the question of my item on aid to Israel. He argues that a comparison between aid to Israel and South Korea does not take into account the armed forces we have in Korea.
First, there is nothing untrue in the item. Its stats come from USAID. No corrections were made because none were needed. Secondly, the money we spend in South Korea is for our own troops and to maintain our commitment at the end of the Korean War to protect the South. Even then, of the $2 billion we spend on defending South Korea and our Pacific allies, Seoul repays us close to $1 billion annually. So even if you concede Stephens’s point, Israel’s near–$4 billion in aid dwarfs South Korea’s net $1 billion. Per capita, it’s not even close.
South Korea, moreover, faces a nuclear enemy in Kim Jong-un, as well as over a million North Korean conventional troops near its border. Israel dominates its region militarily, has no foreign troops on its borders, and has a nuclear weapon in its arsenal, the ultimate deterrent; while its enemy, Iran, has none.
See you next Friday.