Barely two months after his inauguration, Donald Trump’s presidency looks — by any normal and reasonable standard — to be in a state of permanent and deepening crisis. To say that nothing like this has happened before in American politics is already a cliché. But even by the topsy-turvy standards of Trumpian reality, the last week has been astonishing, from James Comey’s testimony on Capitol Hill to Devin Nunes’ desperate attempt to throw the president a lifeline to the crushing, crashing demise of the Republican health care bill meant to replace Obamacare.
Even as liberals high-five each other and hoist glasses of organically produced Prosecco to celebrate Trump’s apparent humiliation across many fronts and the abject failure of Republican “unified” government, it’s worth taking a step back and asking a bigger question: Isn’t chaos and disorder exactly what Trump wants? The obvious catch-22 in my opening sentence is that normal and reasonable standards have never applied to Donald Trump. If they did, I’d be desperately trying to convince you that some catatonia-inducing policy proposed by President Jeb Bush or President Hillary Clinton was an outrageous scandal.
If your agenda, conscious or otherwise, is to demonstrate that representative democracy doesn’t work and that the separation of powers devised by the Founding Fathers isn’t up to the task of Making America Great Again, what better illustration could you offer than March of 2017? On Friday, while trying to spin the imminent demise of the Trumpcare bill, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer observed that in our political system “you can’t force someone to vote a certain way. . . . At the end of the day, this isn’t a dictatorship.” From the Trumpian point of view — which is by no means limited to Trump himself — that’s clearly a problem.
In the immediate aftermath of the health care bill’s abrupt collapse on Friday afternoon, the president spoke by telephone with reporters at both the New York Times and the Washington Post, saying in effect that this was the outcome he wanted all along. (Salon’s Heather Digby Parton has been making that case for some time, and made it again this week.) “The best thing that could happen is exactly what happened — watch,” Trump told the Times.
Trump elaborated further after calling Robert Costa of the Post, apparently on his personal cellphone:
“As you know, I’ve been saying for years that the best thing is to let Obamacare explode and then go make a deal with the Democrats and have one unified deal. And they will come to us, we won’t have to come to them,” he said.
“The beauty,” Trump continued, “is that they own Obamacare. So when it explodes they come to us and we make one beautiful deal for the people.”
Of course, Trump also told Costa he had never promised “to repeal and replace in the first 61 days,” which is a blatant falsehood. But beneath the lies and bluster that are the constant foreground of the Trump presidency, there exists some semblance of a strategy. It’s not exactly a strategy to overthrow what remains of democracy and install a fascist dictatorship — Trump doesn’t think in those terms and wouldn’t use that language. But he believes he can foresee the future, shape events to his liking and dominate others with the force of his superior will, a combo that comes close enough to “fascist dictatorship” as to be indistinguishable.
Trump’s fundamental kinship to Adolf Hitler does not lie in the racial bigotry, the policies of xenophobic exclusion or the persistent undercurrent of anti-Semitism — those things are common to ultra-nationalist movements in many countries. It lies in the peculiar combination of greatness and smallness observed by Hitler biographer Joachim Fest, in the fact that a ridiculous character who faces universal mockery can believe in himself so strongly that he feeds on the scorn of his enemies and overpowers them while they’re still laughing and pointing fingers. Like Hitler, Trump is a third-rate caricature of Nietzsche’s Übermensch: The “will to power” cranked up to 11, without any of the superior intellect, moral vision or aesthetic refinement the philosopher naively assumed would ride along with it.
Despite our would-be overlord’s insistence that he sort of, kind of wanted his own health care bill to fail, I’m not suggesting that Trump is secretly in control of events or that he enjoys every aspect of the turmoil now afflicting Washington. He surely was not pleased to see FBI Director Comey — whom Trump had previously perceived as an ally, and for good reason — tell the House Intelligence Committee what we had all pretty much figured out: Trump’s 2016 campaign is under investigation for its apparent connections to Russian intelligence, and the whole thing stinks.
I think the note of caution sounded recently, in different ways, by Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, Katrina vanden Heuvel of the Nation and Danielle Ryan of Salon is worth echoing. Some liberals and progressive are leaping to the conclusion that all connections between Trump’s inner circle and Vladimir Putin’s government are nefarious by definition, and that the FBI’s investigation is certain to reveal impeachable offenses or at least profoundly damaging dirt. In fact we’re a long way from that, and the FBI’s probe could easily extend for years — into Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign, perhaps — without finding anything definitive.
That said, all the smoke emanating from the White House around that issue suggests that something is on fire. Various people close to Trump are now wreathed in clouds of suspicion, a pattern that has followed him throughout his life in business and politics. But Trump is a proven escape artist with a long history of not getting dragged down by his dubious associates. Even if the names we have heard so far — Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, Carter Page, Michael Flynn — are all convicted of hypothetical crimes and sent to prison, Trump can semi-plausibly shrug his shoulders and say, heck, I never knew them all that well so go figure.
My actual point is that Trump understands he’s in trouble on the Russia question and that despite what you may think at the moment, his counterattack was highly effective. As we ought to have figured out by now, the president has zero command of facts and no ability for rational argument. What he does possess, like the Shadow — a radio-serial crimefighter Trump may recall from early childhood — is “the power to cloud men’s minds.” When he sees his enemies marshaling actual evidence against him, Trump has a remarkable ability to use rhetoric, imagination and lies to turn that evidence upside down or drain it of meaning and significance.
New York and Washington political or media circles were unanimously bemused or outraged by Rep. Devin Nunes’ shameless stunt this week — but at the risk of stating the obvious, they weren’t the target audience. A day after sitting through Comey’s damning testimony, the Republican chair of the House Intelligence Committee scurried to the White House with supposed evidence that, in the flimsiest and most approximate way, was meant to support Trump’s claim that President Obama had “wiretapped” his campaign headquarters. That evidence may actually have been supplied to Nunes by the White House — or at least, when he was asked that question, he declined to answer.
Whatever surveillance Nunes was told about bears virtually no resemblance to Trump’s original Twitter allegations: It wasn’t wiretapping, it wasn’t illegal and it wasn’t ordered by Obama. (And it reportedly occurred during the transition, not the campaign.) Again, none of that is the point. Nunes humiliated himself before the political and media elite in service to a leader and a cause: His mission was to cloud the issue and to create a set of alternative facts (to coin a phrase). One of Trump’s greatest victories has been to convince his followers, in the style of 1980s postmodern critical theory, that there is no such thing as objective reality: There are only stories, and if we don’t like the stories liberals tell, we’ll create our own.
It worked. By week’s end, right-wing websites were loaded with triumphant articles proclaiming that Trump had been vindicated, and pro-Trump PACs were pulling in dollars from red-blooded Americans eager to combat the perfidious forces of the Obama-Clinton Islamo-Communist secret police, no doubt funded by George Soros. (Can we be sure that Benghazi and the birth certificate were not involved?) For the 30 percent or so of the American public who will likely support Trump no matter what — the only audience he cares about — his ludicrous allegations against Obama have been proven, and the assertions by absolutely everybody in authority that they were false have been exposed as fake news, or evidence of the vast left-wing conspiracy to destroy America.
Whether Trump can successfully spin the ignominious downfall of the Republican health care bill as a victory in disguise and as the outcome he wanted all along — despite insisting until Friday afternoon that it was the greatest deal ever — remains to be seen. But don’t put it past him. He’s probably smart enough to understand that the legislation Paul Ryan tried to jam through Congress was a misbegotten mess that might have caused him irreparable political damage. He definitely understands that he’s now free to blame anyone and everyone else for the fact that it didn’t happen: Ryan, the Democrats, the Freedom Caucus, the so-called Republican moderates, the relentless negativity of the media and so on.
Beneath all that lies the looming threat — or to some, a golden promise — that Donald Trump and his followers are groping toward, perhaps blindly: Those enemies and obstacles are just symptoms of the real problem, which is that our system of government is broken. Legislative politics is messy and unsatisfying; judges and their precious Constitution get in the way — we just don’t win anymore! Almost everyone would agree that there is a germ of truth to that critique, which makes it especially dangerous. The great question of the Trump era is whether America’s institutions remain strong enough to resist the long-term drift toward authoritarian rule. In the face of everything that has happened, there is no room to be complacent about the answer.