If nothing else, the one thing we can say about the Age of Trump is that it’s utterly exhausting – certainly for those of us who observe it, whether as pundit-type professional analysts or simply as news junkies. Just trying to keep up with the soap-opera plot twists, multiple storylines and dizzying reversals in any given week is almost enough to defeat any desire to record it. No better example could be cited than The Week That Was, the last week of July 2017, a time when politicians are normally decamping from that undrained swamp, Washington, D.C. , toward summer recess destinations, and the rest of the country is piling into ungainly recreational vehicles and hitting the American road.
Everybody, that is, except Donald Trump, the 71-year-old Energizer Bunny with the odd comb-forward hair, who occupies the White House (when he isn’t lolling at his Florida pleasure palace, Mar-A-Largo, or holed up in one of his Trump Towers, which he paranoically knows are wiretapped by his enemies). That week, like most weeks, began with tweets.
The tweets were about Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General, former Republican Senator from Alabama, and as hard-line a conservative (or should that be “reactionary”?) politician as can be found in the polarised land. By temperament and record, the president’s bosom buddy, one would think. Somewhere about dawn, the president, having nothing better to do, took to Twitter to denounce his earliest loyalist as a “VERY weak” person and AG. It wasn’t the first time Trump had ragged on his cabinet appointee. He’d been going on most of the previous week about Sessions’ many failings. (Cf., Peter Baker, Jeremy Peters and Rebecca Ruiz, “In Trump’s World, ‘Very Weak’ Sessions Twists in Wind,” New York Times, July 25, 2017.)
We’ve become so inured to this sort of weird behaviour on the part of Trump (calling out his own appointees publicly) that we barely notice it any longer. (By the way, the theme of today’s sermon is how to stay sane while contemplating the unorthodox, amphetamine-paced president.) What tends to get lost in these scenes, while we are rushing off to gather the gossip – will Trump fire the AG? will Sessions take the heavy-handed hint and resign? who’s standing in the wings? – is the issue at stake. In this case, it’s fairly straightforward: Trump is attempting to turn the AG into his own personal attorney and refusing to recognize the elementary democratic notion that the AG’s office is supposed to remain (at least, quasi-) independent and to serve the country at large, which may include investigations into dubious activities by all citizens, up to and including the president himself. Not to understand this is to fail to grasp the very idea of the rule of law.
It’s fairly easy to parse the motives that got Trump to this particular tweet at dawn. Not only had the multi-pronged congressional and special investigations into possible Russian meddling in the 2016 election been going on for months, but in recent weeks a new trail of clues and breadcrumbs turned up in the form of a year-old 2016 meeting that Trump’s eldest son, Donald Jr. — along with son-in-law adviser Jared Kushner and then-Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort — had with a Russian lawyer who supposedly was going to provide “dirt” on Trump’s electoral rival Hillary Clinton. The cosy get-together took place right in New York’s Trump Tower, one floor below the office where Trump himself was twiddling his thumbs, allegedly unaware of this drama of collusion with a foreign (and not friendly) power. And now, a year or so later, during The Week That Was, Kushner and Manafort were slated to testify before Congress.
When Trump woke up that Monday morning, he again fulminated over the lily-livered Sessions who apparently was refusing to use his office to shut down the Russian investigations. What Trump wanted, in his childish way, was for Sessions to fire Robert Mueller, a widely-respected former head of the FBI and now the special counsel who had been named to conduct an independent investigation for the Department of Justice, given that Sessions had recused himself from the issue, because of his own possible conflict-of-interest involvement in it. Trump wanted Sessions to make it all go away. And if the AG was too weak-willed to do so, then he too ought to resign so that Trump could hire someone who would do his bidding. After all, Trump had already abruptly fired former FBI director James Comey back in May for more or less similar reasons.
Brief break for a methodological note: notice that as Trump is sitting bedside thumbing on his smartphone while the lovely First Lady Melania is presumably snoozing away, we are only into the first waking moments of The Week That Was. Notice also how much factual and psychological information you’ve had to absorb to make even minimal sense of what’s going on, and to recognize that the sleep-deprived president is openly seeking to subvert the law. It’s no wonder that when the TV camera crews go down to the local coffeeshop in Crocodile Cove, Florida, to see if the Trump “base” boosters who voted to “Make America Great Again!” six months ago are still as enthused about the leader as they were (they, in fact, are), it’s clear that they have little idea of any of the issues or arguments. It’s all just too damn hard for them to follow. Fortunately, the rest of the country is not as easily mesmerized — the most recent polls, released that week, show the president with about a 35 per cent approval rating, and 60 per cent disapproval grades, the lowest numbers of any president at the 6-month point of his presidency. (In due course, we’ve have to figure out the reasons for this dismal statistic. Spoiler hint: a free press?)
Meanwhile, the POTUS-shamed Sessions is refusing to resign under pressure. The only reason Trump didn’t dump him is that a score of life-long red state conservative legislators put in a public word on behalf of their “beleaguered” colleague. They also hinted they’d refuse to go along with a sneaky “recess appointment” while they were on summer holiday or play nice at a new confirmation hearing. Too many damn tweets, some of them drawled. As for the president, when pestered about his confidence level regarding his AG, he offered little more than Sphinx-like mutterings of, “We will see what happens. Time will tell.”
While the Congress laboured over health care legislation (more about that in a moment), Trump was winging it down to West Virginia Monday afternoon to deliver a speech to the quadrennial Boy Scout Jamboree (it’s a standard presidential chore, given that the nation’s chief executive has been the honorary president of the scout organization ever since it was founded in 1910).
But instead of the boilerplate oration that had been crafted for him –urging the lads to “Be Prepared,” extolling the virtues of knot-tying, and offering some tips on how to earn merit badges – Trump went wildly off-script, and delivered a rambling oration that was all over the pathfinder’s map. (See, Guardian Staff, “Trump’s speech to Boy Scouts: fake news, crowd size and New York’s hottest people,” The Guardian, July 25, 2017.)
There he was, badgering the boys about politics, boasting of his electoral victory (all over again) and the size of the crowds that adore him, denouncing the “Fake News” media (also known as Mainstream Media or MSM), discussing the efforts to pass the health care bill (addressing his on-stage Secretary of Health, Tom Price, “Are you going to get the votes [to pass the legislation]? He better get them. He better get them… Otherwise, I’ll say, Tom, you’re fired!”), and you could see, from a long incoherent anecdote about the “hottest people in New York,” that he was just itching to tell the lads a dirty story. Yes, the tycoon in question, said Trump, “went out and bought a big yacht and he had a very interesting life. I won’t go any more than that because you’re Boy Scouts. I’m not going to tell you what he did – should I tell you? Oh, you’re Boy Scouts, but you know life… So, look at you, who would think this is the Boy Scouts, right?” A kind of raving. As if the president couldn’t wait til the sun went down and the campfire was lit and the scouts had their hotdogs and marshmallows out roasting over the flames. It was as if Trump was inventing a new sub-category of child abuse.
The lowest blow of all was Trump’s reference to his predecessor, President Barack Obama. “By the way, just a question,” Trump goaded the scouts, “did President Obama ever come to a jamboree?” The scouts began booing on cue. “And we’ll be back. We’ll be back. The answer is no, but we’ll be back.” During this cheapest of shots, Trump forgot to mention that one of the reasons Obama didn’t deliver an in-person address to the scouts (though he did send along a best wishes video) is that the then-president objected to Boy Scout policies banning gay scouts and scoutmasters (policies that have since changed, in part, thanks to Obama’s pro-gay stance).
And the sun has barely set on the dilapidated coal mines of wonderful West Virginia. We’re not out of Monday and the president is already thinking of Tuesday morning tweets.
Methodological note: Each time you think it can’t get any worse, any more bizarre… it does.
On Tuesday, while the Trump boys are testifying before various Congressional committees and Senators are trying to cobble together a new health insurance bill to replace the Obama-authored Affordable Care Act they’ve been deriding and promising to “repeal and replace” for the last seven years, the president is meeting the prime minister of Lebanon and holding a little Rose Garden ceremony (I think that’s where he offers his battered AG Sessions a not-so-staunch vote of confidence, in the form of an oracular “Time will tell”) and then flying off to Ohio for a pep rally and to get a little more love from the base.
Procedural note: I almost missed this one completely. The papers and cable news are so jammed to the gunnels with Trump news, that it’s easy to lose some of the more obscure outrages. You have to obsessively scour the Minorstream Media (MSM II) for this stuff. The report from a site called “Share Blue” (presumably, oppositional propaganda) is headlined “Trump calls immigrants ‘animals’ who ‘slice and dice’ young girls, at unhinged rally in Ohio.” (Alison Parker, “Trump calls immigrants ‘animals’…”, Share Blue, July 25, 2017).
“In a highly disturbing display… Donald Trump unleashed a vicious anti-immigrant rant at a rally in Ohio Tuesday night – a campaign event just six months into his presidency,” reported “Share Blue” scribe Parker. “Trump went on a lengthy diatribe about the supposed need to ‘liberate’ cities in the U.S. from undocumented immigrants.” He praised Immigration and Customs Enforcement for their crackdown on “bloodthirsty criminal gangs,” adding that the operation was not being carried out in a politically correct fashion. “We’re doing it rough.,” the president declared.
Okay, cut to the money shot. I’m quoting this verbatim, because you wouldn’t believe a mere paraphrase: “One by one, we are finding the illegal gang members, drug dealers, thieves, robbers, criminals, and killers,” said the president. “And we are sending them the hell back home where they came from. [Applause.] And once they are gone, we will never let them back in, believe me. [More applause.] … And you’ve seen the stories about some of these animals. They don’t want to use guns, because it’s too fast and it’s not painful enough. So they’ll take a young, beautiful girl, 16, 15, and others, and they slice them and dice them with a knife, because they want them to go through excruciating pain before they die. And these are the animals that we’ve been protecting for so long. Well, they’re not being protected any longer, folks. [applause].” To cite the great social media acronym of our time, YCMTSU. And the core fans who have come out to this blood-curdling evening in Ohio are lovin’ it, “believe me.”
By Wednesday dawn, the boss is bored again. He has nothing more spectacular to do that day than have dinner with a couple of broadcast toadies from Fox News and his newly-appointed Director of Communications, a former New York hedge fund financier, Anthony (“the Mooch”) Scaramucci. The previous Friday, after much rumour-mongering and reporting by Mainstream Media about the internal rivalries, power plays and general dysfunction in the White House, Trump, with minimal warning, named Scaramucci the head of White House communications.
That was despite, according to the press, the dissenting voices of Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Priebus, his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, and his Press Secretary, Sean Spicer. In fact, upon the announcement of Scaramucci’s posting, Spicer immediately resigned. “Spicey,” as he came to be known on late night TV comedy, kept his departure polite, murmuring something about giving the new guy a “clean slate” to work with, but it was evident that despite vociferous denials of turmoil within the White House, it was becoming daily more doubtful that the President and All the President’s Men (and his favourite daughter, Ivanka, whom he had appointed as an advisor) had any idea of how to run a peanut stand, much less a government.
Upon his appointment, the Mooch, notwithstanding his lack of any formal communications experience, duly turned up at that day’s televised press briefing, was introduced by newly-named press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and proceeded to show the president some much-needed love. “I think there’s been, at times, a disconnect between the way we see the president and how much we love the president,” he told the ink-and-screen-strained wretches of the press, “and the way some of you perhaps see the president.”
But now it was barely daybreak Wednesday. What to do? How about a tweet? “All the little birdies on Jaybird Street / love to hear the robin going tweet tweet tweet.” Rockin’ Robin, under his birdthatch hairdo, reaches for the device while the First Lady is sleeping the Sleep of the Just. How about… ? How about transgender military personnel?
‘Nother note on method: How easily the Trump narrative lends itself to fiction. I have no idea whether Melania Trump sleeps in in the morning, or where Trump is tweeting from. Bedside? In the bathroom? Does he wander down from the living quarters into the Oval Office, switch on a bank of early, early news TV screens, and then get inspired to tweet away? It’s all so bizarre that you’re tempted to fill it in with naturalistic, mundane details, a la Emile Zola, to give the nutty narrative some plausibility. Does he call the White House kitchen to get some coffee sent over?
Transgender it is, then. “Trump Says Transgender People Will Not Be Allowed in the Military,” ran the New York Times headline an instant after the tweets rolled out. “President Trump abruptly announced a ban on transgender people serving in the military on Wednesday, blindsiding his defense secretary and Republican congressional leaders with a snap decision that reversed a year-old policy reviled by social conservatives,” went the lede. (Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Helene Cooper, “Trump Says Transgendered People…”, New York Times, July 26, 2017.)
I won’t go into the whole transgender-in-the-military thing. It’s its own issue (and anyway, I’m working on a broader essay about the current trans debate). But the short of it is, Trump claimed he was invoking a ban because the military could not afford “the tremendous costs and disruption” of transgender service members. The Fog of Lies machine spewed out product all day: had Trump informed his generals before this move? Were there “tremendous costs” for “gender reassignment” medical procedures? How many transgender people are in the military? Was this a pressing problem? What would happen to transgender people already serving? Would they be instantly discharged? Honorably or not? No, no, dunno, no and dunno, dunno, dunno to the foregoing questions. And what did Secretary of Defense, General Jim Mattis, think about all this? Dunno; he was listed as MIA, AWOL, or simply on holiday, depending on your leaked source. Okay, let’s skip along to something more substantial.
The sun is going down, and Anthony (“the Mooch”) Scaramucci is on his way to a White House chow-down with the president and a couple of right-wing media sycophants. The more substantial dinner table topic is “leakers,” West Wing insiders tipping off the press to various unsavoury acts, a traitorous form of behaviour that sends the president into apoplectic fits. Actually, we don’t know what was said at this intimate dinner or whether the president turned on the bank of TV monitors in the dining room, but if he had he would have learned from a mild-mannered New Yorker magazine Washington correspondent and CNN contributor named Ryan Lizza that the president was having dinner with his new Director of Communications, Anthony the Mooch, and a couple of Fox News cronies (including TV host Sean Hannity), and the ever-gracious First Lady, even though the dinner was not part of the president’s published daily schedule. Now, who leaked that little nugget to the evil press, wondered a hot-under-the-collar Director of Communications. (Oh, speaking of dinners, I just had a memory flash. An old friend of mine, Lawrence Bantleman, now deceased, once proposed writing a satiric novel about sado-masochism to be titled, Intimate Nazi Dining.)
The Communications Director decided to do a little communicating. He phoned Ryan Lizza. What follows next is so odd, that I’ll pause to issue a trigger warning that you may want to turn off the sound before reading further. It’s not that the incident was unusual, but that it resulted in a piece of writing available to the public, to wit: Ryan Lizza, “Anthony Scaramucci Called Me to Unload About White House Leakers, Reince Priebus, and Steve Bannon,” the New Yorker, July 27, 2017.
“On Wednesday night, I reeived a phone call from Anthony Scaramucci,” Lizza began. “He wasn’t happy. Earlier in the night, I’d tweeted, citing a ‘senior White House official,’” to the effect that the Mooch was having dinner, and listing the dinner guests. “Who leaked that to you?” Scaramucci demanded. “I said I couldn’t give him that information. He responded by threatening to fire the entire White House communication staff,” reported Lizza. It escalated from there. “You’re an American citizen, this is a major catastrophe for the American country. So I’m asking you as an American patriot to give me a sense of who leaked it,” said Scaramucci. (Hey, wasn’t that dialogue from Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, when the CIA op asks Tom Hanks to tell him what his Soviet spy client blabbed?) Anyway, since Scaramucci, unlike most communications veterans, didn’t declare this an off-the-record conversation, Lizza kept the tape rolling.
“Is it an assistant to the president?” the Mooch asked, sounding like a cocaine-fuelled imitation of a small-time mafiosi. “O.K., I’m going to fire every one of them, and then you haven’t protected anybody.” Lizza continued, “He was getting more and more worked up and he eventually convinced himself that [Reince] Priebus was my source.”
“I’ll get to the person who leaked that to you,” the Mooch threatened. “Reince Priebus – if you want to leak something – he’ll be asked to resign very shortly… Reince is a fucking paranoid schizophrenic,” Scaramucci told Lizza. Then he channelled Priebus’s voice: “Let me leak this fucking thing and see if I can cock-block these people the way I cock-blocked Scaramucci for six months.” Cock-blocked? In the middle of the meltdown, Scaramucci told Lizza “that unlike other senior officials, he had no interest in media attention. ‘I’m not Steve Bannon, I’m not trying to suck my own cock,’ he said, speaking of Trump’s chief strategist. ‘I’m not trying to build my own brand off the fucking brand of the president. I’m here to serve the country.’” Of course, if you’re not seeking media attention, maybe it’s not such a good idea to call up a reporter around the midnight hour.
Okay, you’ve had enough of this already, right? It goes on for a while, and the potty-mouthed presidential spokesperson continues to think he’s in a mafia movie. As the satirical newspaper The Onion summed it up in a mock “fact check” of Scaramucci’s New Yorker interview utterances: “Get this through your head, you Jew motherfucker, you. You only exist out here because of me. That’s the only reason,” and then the paper added a little whoops!, finding that that statement was “False: Sorry, this is Joe Pesci in Casino. We got confused.”
Time for a penultimate methodological note: Sorting out the trivia from the serious issues, the deflections from the revelations, the claims and interpretations from the outright lies is part of the exhaustion. There would be more of all of the above. Trump ended the week with a Long Island, N.Y. address to law enforcement officials advising that it might be a good crime-stopper technique to rough up suspects. While the police chiefs were crafting a mild rebuke to the Commander-in-Chief (as were leaders of the Boy Scout organization for Trump’s Monday night harangue) and the president was lying about phone calls he’d allegedly received from the scouts praising him for giving the greatest speech in history and one from the president of Mexico about paying for the Wall… wait, we haven’t discussed the famous Wall that Trump is planning to build between the U.S. and Mexico and which he’s going to get the Mexicans to pay for? Oh well, as they used to say on Saturday Night Live, never mind.
In the middle of all this, an actually important issue is being decided. There’s a debate in the United States — although many Americans don’t really know of it or understand it — about health care. The question is: Should health care be a public good to which all citizens and residents have a constitutional right, or should health care be a private capitalist service, sold to those who can afford it? In many capitalist countries in the world — particularly in Europe, but also as close to the American border as its northern neighbour, Canada – health care is regarded as a public good, and some form of what’s known as a “single payer system” or a variant of it is used. The Affordable Care Act or “Obamacare” was a moderate reform bill signed into law in 2010. It resulted in some 20 million-plus heretofore uninsured people now being protected, it prevented the denial of coverage to people with “pre-existing conditions,” and it made it easier for young people to remain covered by their parents’ policies. It wasn’t close to “socialized” health insurance, and attempts to broaden it to include a “public option” proved politically unfeasible.
For some seven years, as Republicans gradually gained control of the House of Representatives, and then the Senate (as well as more and more state governorships and legislatures), the Republican Party made Obamacare its number one political target. It passed dozens of bills attempting to “repeal and replace” Obamacare (though the “replace” proposal was never very clear). With the arrival of the Age of Trump, the Republicans at last had the power to do what they had threatened for so many years. And for half a year, ever since Trump was sworn in, White House departments and Republican legislators worked on a plan. They even passed, by a narrow margin, a bill in the House, but the real action would take place in the senior chamber of the Senate and then be settled in a joint House-Senate conference.
During The Week That Was, the Republican Senators, meeting behind closed doors, without public hearings or real debate, struggled to come up with something that could secure the support of at least 50 of the 52 Republican senators (if it was a tie, the Vice-President ,Mike Pence, as the legal chair of the Senate, could come in and cast a deciding vote).
With summer recess looming, the Republican leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, and a group of cronies worked in haste to cobble together a “replacement.” Two Republican Senators, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Mirkowski of Alaska indicated they were so unhappy with the various proposals that they would vote against even the procedural motion allowing the bills to come to the floor of the Senate and be voted upon. When Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona unexpectedly went in for emergency brain surgery and when it was subsequently announced that the 80-year-old veteran legislator and renowned war hero had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, it looked like McConnell would have to delay the repeal debate until fall. He could only muster 49 votes for the discussion, given the two Republican holdouts, and the absence of McCain. Furthermore, there was a solid wall of 48 Democratic Senators, led by Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer of New York, all of whom unanimously opposed the maneuver to cram some legislation, any legislation, down the gullible American gullet, so the bill(s) seemed stalled.
I’ll leave aside the details of the various Republican proposals, given that they’re complicated, tricky, and incoherent, as the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO), which is charged with “scoring” all legislation for costs and consequences, repeatedly reported. The CBO claimed that the various attempts floated by the Republicans would result in the loss of coverage for some 20-30 million people, and that proposed cuts for health care for the poor and/or elderly would lead to diminished services and increased suffering. To make matters worse, there was the problem of Trump. He appeared not to understand the details of various proposals, and he seemed to be, as with so many policies, ignorant of his ignorance. Though he made phone calls and held luncheons to cajole the Republican Senators, he was regarded as not “engaged.” Trump’s behaviour was in sharp contrast to his predecessor Obama who, in attempting to pass Obamacare, had barnstormed the country, jumped at every opportunity for a press conference to elucidate the policy wonk details, and appeared to be not only in command of the fine points, but emotionally deeply engaged.
In the end, the fatally ill Senator McCain flew in from his sickbed and appeared once more in the the Senate. He gave a speech calling for the Senate to resume its traditional “regular order” (meaning public hearings, greater transparency and a pace that permitted genuine debate). He then cast the critical procedural vote permitting the discussion to proceed.
Then the Republican proposals were defeated one by one – by Republicans. Sometimes it was ultra-conservatives who scuttled the plan, at other times it was the Republican “moderates” like Susan Collins who provided the necessary opposition. The president didn’t help matters, shifting his position from one day to the next. Sometimes he would call for the full package of repeal and replace, at other moments he indicated he would settle for mere repeal, and sometimes he seemed to be saying, the hell with it all, he would just let Obamacare implode and fail, and eventually his opponents would come crawling to him for help. The ideas for repeal and replace became more desperate. It was as though the legislative cooks were boiling spaghetti and periodically flinging a few strands out of the pot to see if anything would stick to the wall.
Finally, the Republicans were reduced to a bill called “skinny repeal” which simply stripped a few features from Obamacare. The proposal wasn’t serious, it was merely a device to produce a subsequent Senate-House committee to come up with, well, something. Even Republicans admitted it was rotten legislation. Still 49 Republicans voted for it, Collins and Mirkowski voted against, and Senator McCain, late at night, strolled to the well where the voting was taking place. He held out his arm and thumb – in a video clip that was repeated dozens of times on TV in the next 24 hours – and then decisively turned his thumb down, voting no. A gasp echoed through the chamber. And that was it. The last fake proposal fell 51-49. That was The Week That Was, more or less.
Subsequently, a group of some 40 or so House members from both parties convened a non-partisan group to talk about how to “stabilize the market,” i.e., how to patch up the weakest aspects of Obamacare for the immediate future. One of the few American politicians who has a grasp of the principles involved in the debate, Vermont’s socialist senator, Bernie Sanders, who had been a Democratic candidate in the 2016 presidential nomination contest, crafted a “single payer” plan to put before the Senate, but its prospects, given the numbers, were dim.
I’ve gone on a bit about the health care debate because it matters. Yet, in the histrionics of The Week That Was its substance was almost entirely lost, or reduced to the icon of a dying Senator turning a Roman thumb down. For the folks in Trump-loyal Crocodile Cove, and elsewhere in the country, it must have been a mystery, a blank spot, a near total eclipse – except for the few of them who had an inkling that the new whatever-it-was might take away their own coverage.
One of the few other people in the country who understands the issue, Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist, Paul Krugman, asked, Why so many years of outrage over Obamacare? Krugman was also one of the few knowledgeable analysts who argued that Obama’s reform had worked pretty well – not perfectly, of course – and had provided millions of people with previously unavailable insurance and had improved healthcare for millions of others, and he regarded much of the relentless criticism as a form of fake news, or at least false interpretation. (Paul Krugman, “Obamacare Rage in Retrospect,” New York Times, Aug. 4, 2017.)
“What was Obamacare rage all about?” Krugman asked. “Much of it was orchestrated by pressure groups… and it’s a good guess that some of the ‘ordinary citizens’ who appeared at town halls were actually right-wing activists.” But why did so many people believe the lies about Obamacare?
“The answer, I believe, comes down to a combination of identity politics and affinity fraud,” Krugman claimed. “For generations, conservatives have conditioned many Americans to believe that safety-net programs are all about taking things away from white people and giving stuff to minorities… And those who stoked Obamacare rage were believed because they seemed to some Americans like their kind of people – that is, white people defending them against you-know-who.”
There was one more bit to The Week That Was: on Friday afternoon the president and his entourage were flying from Washington to Long Island, New York where Trump would deliver a speech to law enforcement officials (the slightly scandalous speech in which the constable-in-chief would hint that roughing up suspects might be acceptable policing practice). But before the speech, in the plane apparently, Trump made a personnel change. He fired his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, pretty much as Anthony Scaramucci had predicted (and connived on behalf of). There was an odd TV shot at the airport. As the presidential cavalcade rolled off, there was a clip of the wet tarmac and a lone SUV, allegedly carrying the abandoned Priebus to wherever it is former White House officials go. The new chief of staff would be former general John Kelly, the secretary of homeland security, who was being tapped to provide some “order” and “discipline” to the West Wing snake pit.
Final methodological note:
How to Stay Sane in the Age of Trump
- A lot of my European friends pretend to a kind of indifference about Trump. As I’m about to buttonhole them with the gruesome details of the latest presidential outrage, they send off a vibe that says, “Boring – I already know all about it before even hearing it. Wake me when the North Korean nuclear war breaks out. On second thought, don’t wake me.” I think that attitude is a mistake. Affecting disinterest in the Trump phenomenon leads toward mere cynicism, and cynicism leads toward despair. For a person with normal political intelligence and interests, keeping up with the Trumps is probably mentally healthy.
- But don’t overdo it. Don’t jump at every rumour, get suckered in by every bit of clickbait, rush to Facebook to post every latest shard of “breaking news.” Don’t become a member of the Trump-is-going-to-resign-next-week-or-be-impeached-or-fall-into-a-sinkhole-on-the-18th-green cult. Settle in for the possible long haul.
- Distinguish between important stuff and not-so-important stuff. It’s okay to be curious and amused by the trivia, but don’t take it too seriously. It matters whether or not people have health care, whether or not Black Lives Matter, whether the U.S. participates in the Paris climate accord. It doesn’t matter so much what happens to a White House minion who’s in or out of the White House dog house on a given day.
- Don’t re-run past elections (especially lost ones) in your head. But do understand the reasons why elections are won and lost. Despite the braggadocio of the winner, the 2016 presidential margin was razor thin. That’s why the rolling polls on approval numbers matter. Trump got 46% of the vote (Clinton got 49%), so if Trump’s numbers remain in the mid-30s, that’s a significnt statistic – it’s the difference between winning and losing elections, including the 2018 congressional mid-terms.
- Consider the possibility that a free press may make a difference. Trump has spent an enormous amount of time playing to his base by calling the media “the enemy of the people” and deriding it as “fake news,” the very thing that the MSM exposes on a daily basis through fact-checking, evidence-based reporting, and a concept of the “truth” (with a small “t”). Trump’s attacks on the free press have boomerranged in a sense, by goading the media to really go out and do its job. Seldom has the media, though greatly weakened under changing internet-driven economic conditions, been more active in finding out what’s going on. Consider those statistics of declining approval ratings for Trump. They don’t affect his loyal base – as Trump himself once pointed out, he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue in New York and his base wouldn’t blink an eye. Since about only half the country votes, Trump’s 35 or so per cent approval tally represents about 15-20% of the population. But how did 60% of the public come to disapprove of Trump’s performance after 6 months? The media had a role. I don’t want to exaggerate the influence of press, TV, and Internet, but the disapproving majority had to find out about Trump and develop a negative judgment toward him through some means – and some portion of those means must mean media. Sure, there’s left-wing and right-wing media, and conspiracy theory media, and ideology-clogged media (mostly on the left, I’m afraid), but the ensemble of MSM may be, in the end, the media that thinking people are most influenced by. Maybe Trump’s hostility toward the media represents some method to his madness.
And finally, don’t forget that ancient rock anthem of the Mamas and the Papas singing group. Because, sooner or later, it’s once again “Monday, Monday… / it was all I hoped it would be / On Monday mornin’, Monday mornin’, couldn’t guarantee / That Monday evenin’, you would still be here with me.” Then it was Monday. General John Kelly, the new chief of staff, was seated in an Oval Office armchair, with the president in the next armchair over, within handshaking distance. Kelly’s first move, as we soon learned that day, was to tell Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci, “You’re fired.” It’s a shame that he couldn’t tell Trump the same thing.
Berlin, August 5, 2017.