Trumpland: Get Ready for the Storm Ahead   

Photo Source Billie Grace Ward | CC BY 2.0

The feeling is palpable: with the Christmas recess coming to Capitol Hill, and then with Democrats about to take over the House, a whole lot of shit is about to hit the proverbial fan.

So far, this is only a feeling. It is anybody’s guess in what form (or forms) it will come, and exactly when to start ducking.

However, the circumstances surrounding the impending shit storm are clear enough, at least in broad outline, despite the miasma Trump and his minions exude.

For one, the Republican Party, especially but not only at the national level, has become the Party of Trump. The party Ronald Reagan fashioned is done for, finished, kaput.

This is not to say that Reaganites have gone extinct like, say, Eisenhower or Rockefeller Republicans. If anything, they are thriving like never before.  But the Grand Old Party is Trump’s, not theirs.

Before Trump, practically anything that diminished the power of the Reaganite old guard was welcome news. No longer.  The Trump Party is many times more odious than what it replaced.

It is stupider, more corrupt, more retrograde, and more lacking in fundamental human decency. Witness the family separations and the tear-gassing of asylum seekers and their children along the Mexican border. Being even worse than, the GOP in the Tea Party -Mitt Romney days is no mean achievement, but there it is.

The pre-Trump and post-Trump GOPs are fruit of the same poison tree – the Southern Strategy, the plan Pat Buchanan and Richard Nixon hatched in the aftermath of the civil rights victories of the 1960s to reconstitute the Solid South of the Jim Crow era within the bowels of the Republican Party.

It is no surprise, therefore, that they would both be contemptible.  But GOP racism and nativism used to be muted; that was the Reagan and post-Reagan style. The Trumpian version rings loud enough to revive the vilest specters of the twentieth century’s inter-war years. Even classical anti-Semitism, all but defunct for many decades, is back.

Had Reaganism gone down with the Reaganite GOP leadership, we could at least credit Trump for having done something useful.  However, under his aegis, just the opposite has occurred.  Trump is in the White House but the dregs of the old order are still calling the shots.

This is happening because Trump is an empty shell of a conman who only wants to work his con – the better to enrich himself and the idiot children Ivana bore him, and to stoke the flames of his own overarching, narcissism-fueled, vanity.

To that end, he seems to have found that, for him, the best, perhaps the only, way to move forward is to put unreconstructed Reaganites in key policy positions, giving them carte blancheto do what they want, so long as they pay him homage.  They run the show, but they serve at his pleasure and dare not cross him.

Thus the actual governing is being done by miscreants who think, as the Gipper put it, that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”   They also think, as Reagan did, that the way to deal with government is to disable it by impoverishing it, to “starve the beast.”

Their miserliness has limits, however; it only applies to those parts of government that serve socially useful purposes.

Abandoning all pretenses of fiscal conservatism, they think that the parts that keep the military-industrial complex in business or that keep all but the hyper-rich in line through the use or threat of force ought to get heaps of money thrown their way.

With admirable transparency, the pre-Trump GOP did its best to starve the beast in plain sight. Democrats were on board with that too. Thus every American president after Reagan followed his lead; they were all Reaganites under the skin.

Indeed, the most Reaganite president of all was Bill Clinton.  No one did more to implement “the Reagan agenda”; not either Bush and not Reagan himself.

Obama rode the Reaganite wave too, making a mockery of what Sarah Palin aptly called “ that hopey changey thing.”

His “drain the swamp” bluster aside, Trump hasn’t broken the mold either, though he did introduce a new wrinkle, making the Reaganite consensus even worse.  Being terminally lazy and having no interest in governance, he accomplished this feat by letting House and Senate Republicans have their way.

Sometimes they indulged their passion for retrograde symbolic gestures, as when they would vote time and again to repeal Obamacare; sometimes they used their power to exacerbate already monumental levels of income and wealth inequality and to sow the seeds of fiscal crises ahead, as when they got massive tax cuts for the rich enacted into law.

And sometimes, spurred on by Mitch McConnell’s villainy, they used their power to pack the federal judiciary with troglodytes.   Because judges hold lifetime appointments, the resulting harm will require generations to overcome.

Trump takes credit for any and all of this, whenever he deems it in his interest.  However, all he has really done is empower others to get their own pet projects through; there is nothing more to the so-called Trump agenda than that.

Like Bill Clinton’s, Trump’s Reaganism is opportunistic.  In Clinton’s case, this often involved traducing his own convictions; in Trump’s, this would be out of the question because the man has no convictions, only mean spirited attitudes and prejudices.  Trump is also lazy.  In the circumstances in which he is operating now, letting dedicated Reaganites have their way is the path of least resistance.

And so, he has fallen into what Fintan O’Toole, writing in the December 6 edition of The New York Review of Books calls “a strategy of incompetence.”

Trump puts second- or third-rate people in charge of government departments and agencies whose missions they oppose, and then, as much as possible in a system in which most federal workers still have union and civil service protections, they go on to staff positions under them with yet more incompetent, similarly minded underlings. Or they leave crucial positions vacant for as long as they can.

At some level, Trumpians seem to understand that what they are doing would be wildly unpopular if honestly exposed.  They realize that the more they starve the beast out of the public’s sight, the better off they, and Trump, will be.

There is an additional benefit for them in taking that route: by making government incompetent, they further undermine the loss of “faith” in it that made Reaganism possible.  It is a vicious cycle that, from their point of view, seems virtuous.

Needless to say, this is not at all what the slogan “Make America Great Again” suggests.

Quite to the contrary, bona fide authoritarians, fascist and otherwise, want and need a strong state — in extreme cases, a totalitarian state.  The non-state, market mechanisms neoliberals glorify diminish the power they crave.

Trump is with full-fledged authoritarians on police power, and on fawning over all things military, especially parades – he is, after all, a little boy in an old man’s body.  He is emphatically not with them, however, on according economic power to the state over market mechanisms; that is for neoliberal ideologues, not Mussolini wannabes.

For reasons that reflect poorly on their moral and mental capacities, this plays well with the Trump base.  It doesn’t even bother them that Trump cannot keep himself from bad mouthing military and veterans’ leaders whenever it comes to his attention that they have failed to pay him the respect he considers his due.

This has been happening a lot lately, because the Donald doesn’t seem to realize that he is doing himself no good.  Or perhaps he just enjoys playing with fire.

Going after judges is even more reckless, but, again, Trump cannot help himself.

It hardly matters that, on this, as on so much else, Trump is often more right – almost always for the wrong reasons — than the mainstream defenders of the old order who deride him for his indifference to longstanding norms of presidential behavior.

Trump’s antics elicit sanctimonious calls for decorum from all quarters.  Even such a generally deferential arch-conservative as Chief Justice John Roberts rebuked him for going after an “Obama judge” in a recent tweet, insisting that there are no Obama or Bush or Clinton judges, just good, hared working, impartial jurists dedicated to administering equal justice under law.

Could Roberts have been channeling the speech to the 2004 Democratic convention that brought Barack Obama to national attention, the one in which he declared that there are neither “red” states nor “blue” states, just United States?  Or perhaps the lesson just is that decorous minds think alike.

Another lesson might be that thinking decorously is not the same as thinking lucidly.

Would Roberts deny that there are now five, highly partisan Republican Justices on the Supreme Court he leads?  How can he not see himself on the same page as them?

And what about the judges Trump and McConnell are in such haste to confirm, and the Trump judges confirmed already?  The differences between them and the others, even those appointed by Reagan or the two Bushes, are not just political.  Trump judges are more pernicious.

No doubt, Trump is counting on them to keep him out of prison.  Even so, attacking the referee, while the game is still in process, is not a wise move, especially insofar as the referees are committed to upholding the dignity of the office they hold.  Roberts plainly is; some of the others surely are as well.

It is not impossible that Trump’s attacks on judges will prove too much even for the two Supremes Trump has inflicted upon us, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, and for other Trump judicial appointees.  If so, the Donald might have inadvertently impeded the illiberal drift of the policies he encourages.  What a magnificent irony that would be!

Trump’s attack on truth tellers and on truth could backfire as well.   To keep his base on board, the conman needs to keep his marks ignorant and confused.  He needs them to think that, when the news about him is devastating, it must be “fake,” and therefore cannot be believed; but that when it is laudatory, it is the gospel truth.  Good luck with that.

Needless to say, not all media are, by Trump’s lights, “enemies of the people.”   Media that glorify him and do him yeoman service are beyond reproach.

The irony, of course, is that Trump is a creature of the media he derides.  He did not get to where he now is just by “starring” in the low-grade reality TV shows dear to viewers in the Fox News demographic.  He got there because “respectable” media report on his antics 24/7, and because, for people whose livelihoods depend on flimflamming the gullible, there is, as P.T. Barnum famously put it, “no such thing as bad publicity.”

Corporate media’s love-hate relationship with the Donald is complicated because Trump is good for the ratings upon which they depend, and because, despite all that he has done to undermine the majesty of the office he holds, people in media still harbor respect for the presidency, even as they despise the president himself.

They therefore report on Trump’s doings as if the whole world revolved around them.  In a way, they do, even though, on the merits, Trump is not worth being taken seriously at all.  However that may be, were there ever to be a final reckoning, CNN and MSNBC would likely be found as culpable for bringing on the Age of Trump as Trump TV (Fox News).

With his “maybe he (MBS, Mohammad bin Salman) did, maybe he didn’t” line on ordering the murder and dismemberment of U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Trump now seems to have reached a new low in fatuous prevarications and abject immorality.

The truth is obvious but inconvenient — for the death merchants and masters of war that comprise our military-industrial complex, for the Trump and Kushner families whose businesses depend on good relations with Saudi Arabia, and for the likes of Sheldon Adelson and Benjamin Netanyahu who salivate at the thought of war with Iran.

After Trump himself, it is practically axiomatic in Trumpland that their will be done!  Trump would therefore have Congress cut MBS endless slack.

Khashoggi was just a journalist, after all, a member of a community that, at its best, purveys inconvenient truths, and is therefore to be despised.

Moreover, he was on the wrong side of conflicts within the Saudi royal family, and we mustn’t cross them.

Is this the kind of thinking that will govern American diplomacy in the months and years ahead?  In all likelihood, the answer is Yes – not so much because de-Trumpification, if and when it get underway, will be a long and arduous process, but also because Democrats vilify truth tellers too.

Much as their Reaganism is less overt but sometimes more effective than the Republican kind, their war on refractory journalists who insist on telling it like it is, even when guardians of the status quo find that upsetting, can sometimes be just as horrendous.

A case in point is the way that MSNBC and CNN go after Russia Today, a purveyor of news and features many times more intelligent and interesting than the Dreck they put on offer, and no more propagandistic.  Even its “production values” are better.

And then there is their relentless vilification of Julian Assange, holed up for years in the Ecuadoran embassy in London, just for revealing information embarrassing to the Obama administration, especially Hillary Clinton.

Rachel Maddow cannot say his name without sneering, and most of the other talking heads, disembodied voices, and feckless scribblers on MSNBC, CNN, NPR, New York Times, Washington Post, and the rest are even worse.  For them, it is beyond dispute, for reasons that only they know, that Wikileaks is the devil’s – or perhaps Vladimir Putin’s – handiwork.

And remember Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning and the other whistleblowers in the Democratic Party’s crosshairs.  Compared to some of them, Khashoggi didn’t get such a bad deal.

The jury is out on the salvageability of the Clintonite – Pelosi and Schumer led — Democratic Party, though, despite a few hopeful signs, the likelihood is strong that, now that the midterms are over, not nearly enough will change to make the Democratic Party good for anything more than not being the GOP.

This should become clear soon enough, but first we have the weeks before Christmas to endure.

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).