In “The Pond-Skater Presidency” Bobo tries to convince us that Trump is like one of those creatures that skim on the surface, having little effect. “Gemli” from Boston will have words about that. Prof. Krugman, in “Living in the Trump Zone,” says we’re in a place and time where childish petulance drives policy. Here’s Bobo:
You’ve got to give him credit — Donald Trump is a lot more adaptable than many of his critics.
Many of them reacted to Trump’s shocking election victory in the fall with the view, which was justified at the time, that Trump represented a unique and unprecedented threat to the republic. He was a populist ethnic nationalist aiming to drag this country to a very ugly place. He was a crypto fascist, aiming to undermine every norm and institution of our democracy.
Many of us Trump critics set our outrage level at 11. The Trump threat was virulent, and therefore the response had to be virulent as well.
The side benefit was we got to luxuriate in that rarest of political circumstance: a pure contest between right versus wrong. Everything seemed to be in such stark polarities: pluralism versus bigotry, democracy versus fascism, love trumps hate.
Trump’s totalistic menace allowed us to stand deliciously on the side of pure righteousness.
The problem is that Trump has now changed and many of his critics refuse to recognize the change. He’s not gotten brighter or humbler, but he’s gotten smaller and more conventional. Many of his critics still react to him every single day at Outrage Level 11, but the Trump threat is at Level 3 or 4.
These days a lot of the criticism seems over the top and credibility destroying. The “resistance movement” still reacts as if atavistic fascism were just at the door, when the real danger is everyday ineptitude. These critics hyperventilate at every whiff of scandal in a way that only arouses skepticism.
If you are losing a gravitas battle to Donald Trump, you are really in trouble.
The Trump threat has become smaller in three ways.
First, it is increasingly clear that everything about Trump is less substantial than it appears. Trump will be the last president who grew up entirely in the TV age, post-print but pre-internet. In the Trump mental framework, everything exists in segments and episodes. Ratings are the ultimate criteria of value.
This means he is the master of the pseudo-event, the artificial happening that exists to generate TV coverage but leaves no lasting mark. This means that everything can change in an instant. Nothing is more weighty or complicated than can be covered in a three-minute news summary. Every policy initiative is actually just pastillage, those brittle sugar sculptures that you see atop fancy desserts that crumble and dissolve at first contact with reality.
Trump’s tax plan is being treated as an actual plan, but it is just a sugar sculpture — 100 off-the-top-of-the-head words on a piece of paper, grappling with no hard issues and with no chance of passing in anything like the current form.
Second, Trump’s competency level has risen from catastrophic to merely inadequate. In the first few weeks, Trump was shooting himself in the foot on an hourly basis. But as time has gone by, he has hired better people and has shifted power within the White House to those who are trying to at least build a normal decision-making process.
His foreign policy moves have been, if anything, kind of normal. His administration has committed to NATO, backed off his China bashing, confirmed Iran’s compliance with its nuclear agreement obligations and exercised some restraint on North Korea.
Third, Trump has detached himself from the only truly revolutionary movement of our time. If the current world order is going to really be disrupted, it will be because a U.S. president taps into the anger seething among the globe’s rural working classes. It will be because the U.S. leads a coalition of the global populist strongmen.
Trump seemed inclined to do that a few months ago, but not today. Sure, he’ll send out a pro-Le Pen tweet, but Trump has mostly switched from being a subversive populist to being a conventional corporatist. His administration-defining motif now is being pro-business — lightening regulations, embracing the Export-Import Bank and offering to lower corporate taxes.
Parts of the Trump economic policy agenda are pretty good — corporate tax rates are indeed too high. Parts are pretty bad — threatening the Paris accords on global warming. But there’s nothing unusual. It looks like any Republican administration that is staffed by people whose prejudices were formed in 1984 and who haven’t had a new thought since.
Far from being a fighter, Trump tends to back off when his plans face resistance, like during this week’s budget showdown. He is the ultimate protean man. He’ll never be deep, because of his TV-shaped attention span, but the style of his superficiality is likely to change radically over the next few years.
Don’t get me wrong. I wish we had a president who had actual convictions and knowledge, and who was interested in delivering real good to real Americans. But it’s hard to maintain outrage at a man who is a political pond skater — one of those little creatures that flit across the surface, sort of fascinating to watch, but have little effect as they go.
And he still has the nuclear football… Let’s see what kind of effect he will have when somebody really pisses him off. Here’s what “gemli” in Boston has to say:
“We’re drowning in water metaphors. First he was draining the swamp, and now he’s skating on a pond. But the country is in the toilet, and we can’t flush until 2020.
So let’s not downplay the importance of outrage. The only reason the so-called president is not getting more of his fever dreams turned into reality is because the Republican majority in Congress is getting an earful from outraged constituents.
Young people are not having any of it. The unfair future-destroying plans of conservative speakers are not being given a fair hearing on college campuses, and conservatives are outraged. They want to tell the young folks that deporting families is good, abortion is murder and their gay friends are defective. Surprisingly, young people would rather demonstrate their outrage than send the message that those views are worth hearing.
Even the people who voted for this boob of a president are starting to squirm and squint when roving reporters visit the heartland ask them how they’re doing. Well, not great, as it turns out. He promised a bunch of things that aren’t materializing. He was going to pull Obamacare out from under many of them, but general outrage at Paul Ryan’s “plan” put an end to that.
We have a right to expect that our presidents are smart, capable and decent human beings. Mr. Brooks thinks that we should be content because the president’s competency level has gone from catastrophic to merely inadequate.
Now here’s Prof. Krugman:
Fans of old TV series may remember a classic “Twilight Zone” episode titled “It’s a Good Life.” It featured a small town terrorized by a 6-year-old who for some reason had monstrous superpowers, coupled with complete emotional immaturity. Everyone lived in constant fear, made worse by the need to pretend that everything was fine. After all, any hint of discontent could bring terrible retribution.
And now you know what it must be like working in the Trump administration. Actually, it feels a bit like that just living in Trump’s America.
What set me off on this chain of association? The answer may surprise you; it was the tax “plan” the administration released on Wednesday.
The reason I use scare quotes here is that the single-page document the White House circulated this week bore no resemblance to what people normally mean when they talk about a tax plan. True, a few tax rates were mentioned — but nothing was said about the income thresholds at which these rates apply.
Meanwhile, the document said something about eliminating tax breaks, but didn’t say which. For example, would the tax exemption for 401(k) retirement accounts be preserved? The answer, according to the White House, was yes, or maybe no, or then again yes, depending on whom you asked and when you asked.
So if you were looking for a document that you could use to estimate, even roughly, how much a given individual would end up paying, sorry.
It’s clear the White House is proposing huge tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy, with the breaks especially big for people who can bypass regular personal taxes by channeling their income into tax-privileged businesses — people, for example, named Donald Trump. So Trump plans to blow up the deficit bigly, largely to his own personal benefit; but that’s about all we know.
So why would the White House release such an embarrassing document? Why would the Treasury Department go along with this clown show?
Unfortunately, we know the answer. Every report from inside the White House conveys the impression that Trump is like a temperamental child, bored by details and easily frustrated when things don’t go his way; being an effective staffer seems to involve finding ways to make him feel good and take his mind off news that he feels makes him look bad.
If he says he wants something, no matter how ridiculous, you say, “Yes, Mr. President!”; at most, you try to minimize the damage.
Right now, by all accounts, the child-man in chief is in a snit over the prospect of news stories that review his first 100 days and conclude that he hasn’t achieved much if anything (because he hasn’t). So last week he announced the imminent release of something he could call a tax plan.
According to The Times, this left Treasury staff — who were nowhere near having a plan ready to go — “speechless.” But nobody dared tell him it couldn’t be done. Instead, they released … something, with nobody sure what it means.
And the absence of a real tax plan isn’t the only thing the inner circle apparently doesn’t dare tell him.
Obviously, nobody has yet dared to tell Trump that he did something both ludicrous and vile by accusing President Barack Obama of wiretapping his campaign; instead, administration officials spent weeks trying to come up with something, anything, that would lend substance to the charge.
Or consider health care. The attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare failed ignominiously, for very good reasons: After all that huffing and puffing, Republicans couldn’t come up with a better idea. On the contrary, all their proposals would lead to mass loss of coverage and soaring costs for the most vulnerable.
Clearly, Trump and company should just let it go and move on to something else. But that would require a certain level of maturity — which is a quality nowhere to be found in this White House. So they just keep at it, with proposals everyone I know calls zombie Trumpcare 2.0, 3.0, and so on.
And I don’t even want to think about foreign policy. On the domestic front, soothing the president’s fragile ego with forceful-sounding but incoherent proclamations can do only so much damage; on the international front it’s a good way to stumble into a diplomatic crisis, or even a war.
In any case, I’d like to make a plea to my colleagues in the news media: Don’t pretend that this is normal. Let’s not act as if that thing released on Wednesday, whatever it was, was something like, say, the 2001 Bush tax cut; I strongly disapproved of that cut, but at least it was comprehensible. Let’s not pretend that we’re having a real discussion of, say, the growth effects of changes in business tax rates.
No, what we’re looking at here isn’t policy; it’s pieces of paper whose goal is to soothe the big man’s temper tantrums. Unfortunately, we may all pay the price of his therapy.