Trump: Anomaly in Continuity

Photo by kellybdc | CC BY 2.0

If its environmental policies are not soon reversed, the Trump administration will do incalculable harm to future generations.  And, as the custodian of America’s nuclear arsenal and Commander-in-Chief of what is potentially the most lethal military force in the history of the world, the harm Trump could do, and seems always on the brink of doing, to persons now living is, if anything, even more grave.  So far, though, what the Donald has harmed most is the office he holds and America’s standing in the world.

That harm is hardly offset by benefits to actual people.  Latter-day versions of Teddy Roosevelt’s “malefactors of great wealth” are doing well, but everyone else is barely hanging on.  Trump’s diehard supporters in the demographic he courts most assiduously, poorly educated and economically dislocated white men of a certain age (and the women who stand by them), are certainly no better off for his efforts — except perhaps psychologically, insofar as they see brown and black people who are even worse off than they are being terrorized and demeaned.

What has held Trump back from doing even more harm to them and to everyone else who is not obscenely rich has been his inability to do anything at all.

We should thank our lucky stars for that.  On that account, were Trump now suddenly to vanish into the ether, or were the present state of affairs to continue indefinitely, the man Kim Jong-un aptly called a “dotard” might actually deserve more praise than blame.

There are always risks inherent in inevitable transformations of world systems.  But, on balance, it would be fair to say that, as the American empire crumbles, a serious diminution of American prestige and influence is more likely than not to be a good thing for the world and for the United States.  Trump’s unintended and inadvertent impotence could help soften the landing.

However, our good fortune is precarious.   All it would take for the situation suddenly to change seriously for the worse would be for Trump to have a bad night or for something in the rightwing media he follows to get his goat.  We cannot count on dodging the bullet indefinitely.

For the time being, however, the main discontents in Trumpland, for anyone who has not completely tuned out, are anomie and the constant awareness that, with a Commander-in-Chief as unhinged and reckless as the Donald, there is almost nothing holding catastrophe at bay.

The reasons for the anomie are not exactly news.  They boil down to the fact that a man upon whom so much power has been bestowed is woefully and willfully ignorant, emotionally immature, and more inclined to act like a playground bully than a leader of “the world’s only superpower.”

Trump’s shortcomings were already obvious before the election season got underway. Since his inauguration, corroborating evidence has been accumulating at breakneck speed.  The “deplorables” (Clinton’s word) still standing by him have to be worse than willfully blind not to notice, or dumber than “moronic” (Rex Tillerson’s) not to care.

Indeed, the situation is already so bad that the line between reputational and material harm is beginning to blur.

Witness, for example, Trump’s response to the devastation in Puerto Rico after the island was hit by two major hurricanes in succession, or the way he has undermined the efforts of American diplomats, not just Tillerson, to negotiate ways to forestall a new Korean War.

Trump’s recovery program for Puerto Rico has been mercilessly slow in implementation, and his tirades against insufficiently obsequious Puerto Rican officials  – San Juan mayor, Carmen Yulín Cruz, most conspicuously – don’t just damage the moral standing of the United States; they endanger its peoples’ lives as well.

And inasmuch as a war with North Korea, even if fought with conventional weapons only, would kill tens of millions of people, many of them American, and because it is foolish to antagonize China unnecessarily, it is hard to see what good could come from Trump dismissing Chinese diplomacy while hurling insults at the “little rocket man,” Kim Jong-un.

The problem with Trump is not just that the policies he favors are vile, or that instead of a coherent political agenda, he has only consistently despicable instincts.  Trump is awful according to all the usual measures, but the bigger problem with him is that he is awful in ways that are, or feel, incommensurable with all measures.

But how anomalous is his presidency really?


As a real estate mogul catering to people with more money than taste, and as a developer of casinos, hotels, and golf-themed luxury resorts, Trump was good at enriching himself.

He succeeded because, thanks to his father and his father’s friends, and to even sleazier characters he fell in with on his own, he was well enough resourced and positioned to rip the “little people” off while gaming the system to his own advantage

Some of his deals and entrepreneurial ventures were zany; some failed immediately or after a short time.   But however well or poorly they turned out, Trump was usually able to come out of them richer for his trouble.

He became a fixture on reality TV as well.  Starting out as a creature of the tabloids, he became a past master at keeping the “vast wasteland” Newton Minnow described long ago supplied with dreck.

Trump honed his political skills in that milieu — dumbing down audiences and making money doing it.

Alarmingly many Americans didn’t have to be dumbed down much to think that the Donald could accomplish wonders in Washington, that he could “make America great again.”  That the rich have powers and abilities far beyond those of ordinary mortals is practically a tenet of the civil religion – or at least of its Low Church variety.

No matter that Trump’s billions were not exactly self-made.   He used his father’s money to make more money.  For true believers, that was enough.

The idea that whoever can make money can do no wrong is nearly as American as the proverbial apple pie.  Trump himself is on board with that.  Why else would he appoint so many incompetent, but hyper-rich, miscreants to his cabinet and to top government agencies?

And why otherwise would a man as ignorant as he, and as unschooled in the ways of national politics – a man who in fact, if not in his own mind, is barely capable of leading even the Trump Organization — think that, as President of the United States, he would not be in way over his head?

Narcissism is surely part of the answer; but wealth worship is a bigger part.

Trump was born rich, but, unlike, say, the Kennedys or the Bushes, who were also born rich, he wasn’t born to rule.  He was born to build and manage apartment houses in the outer boroughs.

Once upon a time, that might have given even a narcissist like him doubts about whether he was up to being president.  But that was before Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush proved that just about anybody could do the job.  A second-rate actor and a dumbass frat boy freed Trump to believe what he was inclined to believe in any case: that there is no office on earth that his occupancy would not improve.

The campaign last year did nothing to alter that conviction.  In the primaries, Trump had Republican loonies for opponents, and in the general election, he had Hillary.  With rivals like these, the motto made famous by Mad Magazine, “what, me worry?” seems eerily appropriate.

The skills of a huckster transfer naturally to presidential campaigns, and the kinds of people Trump was used to taking unfair advantage of were relevantly similar to the kinds he had to dupe in the primaries and the general election.  This is why, in retrospect, it is surprising how surprising his victory over the Clinton juggernaut seemed.

But the skills that put the White House in his grasp don’t transfer to running a country, much less a large and diverse super-power.

To run the government of the United States, as opposed to a real estate operation in Queens or a schlock TV franchise, details matter.  Trump cannot be bothered with such trivia; if it is not about making money, he could care less.  And even if he cared more, it would hardly matter; he has no head for governance.

For presidents before him, even George W. Bush, ignorance and stupidity were not especially disabling.   With a competent staff, capable cabinet officers and agency heads, and a willingness to please the country’s elites, almost any dunderhead can muddle through.

That combination was good enough even for Ronald Reagan, who, as his second term dragged on, became increasingly senescent.

In the pre-Reagan days, there were presidents from whom, as was said of Richard Nixon, one wouldn’t want to buy a used car.  But even the shadiest of them were clever.  Nixon was very clever.

There are some who say that Trump is clever too, but only because they cannot bring themselves to take account of the evidence staring them in the face.  The fact that someone so limited got so far leaves them hopelessly befuddled.

But the fact is that while Trump is every bit as vile and sleazy as Nixon, he is not a tenth as smart.  Nixon had a lot between the ears; Trump has zilch.  With him, what you see is what you get.  In comparison, even Reagan, a certifiable dotard if ever there was one, looks good.

It is hard to see why, but even at this late date, Jimmy Carter’s presidency is considered a failure, while Reagan’s is not – notwithstanding the plain fact that Carter, for all his shortcomings, was the best and least lethal American president in living memory, while Reagan was the most villainous.  It would be almost fair to say that he was not a president at all, just an actor who played one on TV.

He got away with it because he could rely on capable underlings to do the heavy lifting.  Amazingly, there are still commentators and academics who maintain that the Gipper’s “management style,” so far from discrediting him, somehow attested to his genius.  Carter, on the other hand, micro-manage; amazingly, that was, and still is, held against him.

By that logic, Trump is a genius many times over, and really is on a path to glory. Go figure!

Trump’s management style is so much more detached than Reagan’s that even the manufacturers of conventional wisdom deride it.  He gives vague, often contradictory, instructions to underlings, and then goes off to one or another of his golf resorts to luxuriate and chill.  If and when he does intervene, it is usually, as on “The Apprentice,” only to fire people unceremoniously.

That behavior switches on when Fox News or Breitbart or someone inside his bubble – his airhead son-in-law, Jared Kushner, for example, or Stephen Miller — tells him that the doings of one or another of his underlings make him look bad.  Then the offending party must either knuckle under or go away.

To stay on the Donald’s good side, subordinates must be obsequious and mindlessly loyal.  Even then, there are no guarantees that their loyalty will be reciprocated.

In this respect, as in many others, Trump is in class by himself.  In his former life, this character flaw, along with all the others, barely stood out in the circles he frequented.  In his present life, they doom his presidency.

That it has survived as long as it already has is a consequence of the obstacles our vaunted founders concocted in order to minimize popular (democratic) control of the institutions of government, the spinelessness and irrelevance of the Democratic Party, and the stupidity and decrepitude of Republicans who still think that they are more likely to accomplish their nefarious ends with Trump at the helm than they would be with Vice President Mike Pence, a less disconcerting figure who more honestly shares their retrograde values and beliefs.

Each day that the world survives the Donald is, as the godly would say, a “blessing.”  There is no guarantee, however, that the gods will continue to be kind.  Kindness, after all, is not their thing.  Thus, for now, we are their hostages.

The best hope now for quickly ridding the world of the Trumpian menace is that the Mueller investigation concludes in a timely fashion, and breaks right.  Then McConnell and Ryan and the other Republican grandees, smelling blood, might decide to go for Pence, after all.

But it is an open question, even then, whether the GOP will be willing and able to rid the world of the clear and present danger Trump poses.  The far from inconsequential “Freedom Caucus” might decide to defy the Party leadership; they are already fighting a war of attrition against them.  With hordes of unreconstructed Trump supporters backing them up, they could very likely prevail.

Ironically, Democrats of the Pelosi-Schumer type – in other words, most Democrats at the national level — would probably, silently, prefer that they do prevail.  Trump is, after all, a godsend for their fund raising efforts.  But, if Republicans decide that the Donald must be dumped, those Democrats would have no choice but to go along.

Even so, I’d say that it is still more likely than not that we won’t be seeing the back of the Donald before the 2018 midterm elections – and not before 2020, if Republicans retain control of either the House or the Senate.

With Pence waiting in the wings, this might not be such a bad thing.  Because Trump or his advisors wisely picked a Vice President who is about as scary as white bread, the “resistance” will wither away, along with the stirrings of (small-d) democracy now in process.  The disabling “normalcy” we had become accustomed to in the Age of Obama would likely then resume.  Before long, the legislative branch might even stop being as dysfunctional as it has lately become – to the detriment of everyone outside the “donor class.”

This could well be worse even than what we now have.


For good or ill, Trump has demeaned his office and diminished the standing of the United States in the world.

Also, his underlings have continued the awful policies of his predecessors, making them worse in many cases.

And there is the increased likelihood of nuclear war.

As a president, Trump is not just awful in the usual ways that presidents are awful; he is an anomaly.  Even so, there are many continuities joining the Trump administration to the administrations of his predecessors; and few, if any, radical departures.

What we have with Trump is the same old, same old in a version that, in the words of the monotonous children’s song that begins with “ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall,” is just “a little bit louder and a little bit worse.”

The neoliberal turn and the austerity policies that follow from it are as safe under Trump as they would have been had Clinton won the election.  And this is far from the only affinity joining Trump and presidents past.

Of particular salience, in that regard, are the ways that the policies he charges his administration to implement contradict the rationales he and the people who speak for him advance in their behalf.

The disparities are so obvious that it is hard to fathom why so many are so easily fooled.

Needless to say, in Trumpland it is impossible to predict what will be big in the news even in the short-term future; as the tweets keep coming, too many unforeseeable things keep happening.

It is a good guess, though, that tax reform will soon be getting a lot of attention.  Trump needs at least one major legislative achievement to boast about if he expects to keep all but the terminally gullible fooled much longer.

Getting Neil Gorsuch through the Senate confirmation process doesn’t cut it.

Trump fans can count on Gorsuch to do the devil’s work, doing all he can to set progress back decades; and he was nominated by Trump.  But credit – actually, blame – for Gorsuch lies not so much with Trump as with Mitch McConnell, the man Trump now bad mouths every chance he gets.

When Antonin Scalia met his (alleged) maker, Obama, still with many months left in his term, nominated Merrick Garland, a man of the dead center, a man “moderates” could hardly fail to love, to take his place.  With the full support of the Republican caucus, McConnell prevented the Garland nomination from even being considered.  And then he, not Trump, got the same miserable crew to back Gorsuch.  In fairness, Trump was not needed for that – with a ready-made majority already, there was no need to twist arms.  Even so, it was McConnell, not Trump, who did the work.

And so, for the Donald, tax reform is his last best hope for a legislative triumph.  He shouldn’t hold his breath.  If he couldn’t even get Republicans to unite behind measures to “repeal and replace Obamacare,” what chance does he have with a matter on which every interest group in creation has a stake?

It is the details that will do in whatever plan is ultimately presented; and nobody, including the sad sacks charged with writing the law knows yet what those details will be.

What is clear is just that the general guidelines laid down from Trump Tower or Bedminster or Mara Lago or wherever will plainly and shamelessly contradict the rationales that will be put forward in their defense, whatever they happen to be.

Even a moron should be able to see that if the idea is to improve the material condition of workers and, more generally, of persons in, say, the bottom four-fifths of the income distribution, the worse thing one could do is enact a tax code that is even more regressive than the one already in place.

“Trickle down economics” has been a joke since the Reagan years, but, in governing circles, the logic, or illogic, behind that wretched idea has remained an article of faith – not so much in theory as in practice.

Thus when Trump does all he can to make the rich even richer at everyone else’s expense, there will be, sad to say, more continuity than anomaly in his way of going about it.

The way to counter the systemic pressures and contingent circumstances that make growing inequality a large and growing problem, not least for the people who identify most with the Donald, is to tax wealth and impose costs on financial transactions, especially those that are of a speculative nature.

More obviously still, the first order of business ought to be to increase, not roll back, the progressivity of the tax system.  But, of course, what Trump will order his minions to produce is just the opposite.

This will make him the latest in a long line that began in the Eisenhower era, more than six decades ago.

In much the same vein, if the goal really is to defeat Islamist terrorism, the last thing one ought to do is create more terrorists by waging a war against the Muslim world.

Offering total and complete support to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies allied with it is a close second.  They are the principal organizers and funders of Islamist terrorists in the world today.

And giving Israel carte blanche to continue to implement the ethnic cleansing of the parts of Palestine it does not already control, and generally siding with Israel on everything – even to the point of backing out of America’s treaty arrangements with Iran regarding nuclear weapons – is not just morally wrong and politically stupid; it is blatantly counter-productive.

But, in this too, Trump is only continuing what his predecessors have been doing for decades.   9/11 was already blowback.  The Bush-Cheney “global war on terror” raised the ante many times over, and their Iraq and Afghanistan wars broke the Middle East, insuring a ready supply of terrorists for years to come.

And then expanding the theater of operations in the (no longer named) war on terror to Muslim communities in and around South and Southeast Asia, Oceana, and throughout Africa, as Obama, the Nobel laureate did, exacerbated the problem even more; as did his drones and his “targeted assassinations.”

Trump’s Muslim travel ban and restrictive immigration policies are nothing more than odious extensions of what came before.

Trump is, again, just the last in a long line.  Only the racist slurs that accompany announcements of the nefarious and self-defeating policies he endorses are novel.

It is the same with Iran and Korea and every other policy, foreign and domestic, touched on in the Donald’s tweets.

The atmospherics are anomalous and the out of control incoherence that he exudes is unsettling.  But the underlying politics is not new – just a little bit louder (and cruder) and a little bit worse.

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).