2017 tested our political norms. 2018 threatens to shatter them

It's going to get worse

Published January 7, 2018 1:30PM (EST)

 (Getty/Brendan Smialowski)
(Getty/Brendan Smialowski)

This article originally appeared on Media Matters.

Media MattersPresident Donald Trump called for the imprisonment of his perceived political enemies, threatened a nuclear war with North Korea, and shamelessly took credit for the lack of global commercial plane crashes during his tenure, all in response to reports he was watching on Fox News. He promised to issue awards to "THE MOST DISHONEST & CORRUPT MEDIA" and urged his followers to watch Fox host Sean Hannity's nightly propaganda hour. Trump’s pick to head Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in an interview that politicians who support so-called “sanctuary cities” should be charged “with crimes.” The president's mediaallies suggested that a criminal investigation into the president's ties to Russia is invalid because there are too many black people on the grand jury. His congressional allies alleged that an FBI probe into Hillary Clinton’s email server had cleared Clinton because biased agents were "taking actions to ensure she wasn’t held accountable,” enabling a presidential push to purge the bureau of agents who are not loyal to him. One media outlet reported that foreign governments are trying to gain the president’s favor through gifts to his company. Another reviewed Trump's foreign policy — based on a year of interviews with top U.S. and foreign officials -- and warned that "it's worse than you think." And that account was published before the president’s tweet about North Korea, which led observers to question Trump’s mental stability.

All of that happened yesterday, the president’s first day back in the White House following an 11-day vacation at his private Florida club.

2017 stretched our political norms to the breaking point. The White House combined a constant stream of lies with vicious attacks on the mainstream press and praise for more sycophantic outlets in an effort to create an alternative reality for its supporters.

An erratic, monstrous, bigoted president rampaged across the political terrain, seeking to wield the power of his office to enrich himself and punish his foes with no care for the damage he was doing to democratic institutions.

Congressional Republicans accepted the president’s graft and authoritarianism as a cost they were willing to pay to achieve their policy goals of hamstringing government and slashing taxes.

The right-wing media figures who began the year as loyal supplicants of Trump spent the ensuing months rallying around the president, defending his every action while castigating those who dared oppose him. Others who had been more cautious concluded the year by pointing to the conservative policy aims Trump had achieved and questioning whether opposition from the right might be foolish.

But if it was possible to consider the events of the year and conclude that the president had been unable to warp the rule of law as he wished, that judgement brings with it little comfort. The incentives for all of the key players suggest that 2018 will be worse, not better, than last year, with democracy itself hanging in the balance.

The president is who he is: a blustering, ignorant would-be tyrant with a penchant for bigotry and corruption, an appreciation for those who bend to his will, a dangerous obsession with the perceived benefits of using nuclear weapons, and no interest in policy nuance beyond how it benefits himself. He will not learn. He will not grow. He will not change. There will be no pivot.

Congressional Republicans have made it clear that they may recognize the president’s instability and manifest unfitness for the office, but they won’t do anything about it as long as the president’s policy agenda largely coincides with their long-held priorities. With drastic cuts to Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security that the GOP has championed for decades on the table this year, who is expecting the party’s House and Senate leaders to take steps against Trump’s corruption? It seems much more likely that they will instead continue to ignore or cover up his malfeasance.

Pro-Trump media are committed. They’ve gotten everything they wanted from a president whose top priority is triggering the libs, and are eager for more of the same. Conservative media moguls, in particular, have been among the biggest beneficiaries of the Trump administration, and can be counted on to rally in support of the president making them ever wealthier. More skeptical conservatives, with a few exceptions who have clearly prioritized criticizing the president’s behavior, are subject to the same siren call of potentially era-defining spending cuts as their congressional brethren.

Diligent reporting throughout the year has exposed a multitude of misdeeds from the president and his administration, and I’d expect to see more this year. But the White House’s effort to delegitimize the press has successfully smeared journalists in the eyes of Trump’s base, if not in the country writ large, making it difficult to see how much more impact the media can have. And, paradoxically — but as we saw during the 2016 presidential campaign — the multitude of negative stories about Trump actually makes it harder for the press to drill down on any single story in a way that breaks through to its audience.

There are some factors that could shake up these structures this year. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation has already led to guilty pleas or criminal charges against several of the president’s former advisers, and no one knows where that probe may lead in 2018 — if it is allowed to continue. That is why so much of the vitriol from the president and his media allies focuses on finding ways to undermine Mueller and raise questions about whether his efforts should be allowed to continue. And Democratic congressional victories in the November elections could restore needed investigative and even constitutional checks on the presidency.

But a lot of terrible things can happen between now and November.

By Matt Gertz

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