Señor, señor/ Can you tell me where we’re headin’?/ Is it Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?
— Bob Dylan, “Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)”
After one year of Trump, where exactly are we headed?
Anyone looking for a governing philosophy or coherent policy program is courting insanity. Although some of the specific facts of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House have been contested, reporters assigned to the White House generally concur on the conceptual framework: The president of the United States is an incurious man who not only doesn’t read but doesn’t listen to his advisors, and whose obsession with the media creates a strange feedback loop where his courtiers leak stories to get his attention. The lurid passages of Wolff’s tell-all reveal what we already knew: The intellect of the person elected as commander in chief of the most powerful nation on earth is a terrifying vacuum. There’s nothing there except the whims of a 71-year-old child whose exercise of power is a function of whatever momentary instinct strokes his ego.
For Trump’s critics, the schadenfreude at the administration’s continuing calamities can only be brief and ultimately unsatisfying. After Trump is deposed, there is Mike Pence, and then Paul Ryan. And more importantly, making one person the repository of evil and folly misses the point: US voters chose Trump over what was considered to be the most qualified bench of Republican candidates in decades, and then over Hillary Clinton.
They chose a transparently dishonest New York real-estate developer and reality TV star because the majority of Americans no longer believe that government positively affects their lives. It’s not just the people on the right who surged into Trump’s camp; it’s the people on the left who didn’t vote because they see the system as rigged in favor of the rich and warped by institutional racism. In a plutocracy where gross economic inequality has corrupted the system, even what passes for progressivism in electoral politics is hopelessly distorted by millions of dollars in campaign cash and armies of lobbyists.
The end product is a politics that is little more than an orchestrated series of gestures. If it’s all for show, you may as well vote for the greatest showman of all.
As James Traub writes in the Dec. 19 issue of Foreign Policy, “A decadent elite licenses degraded behavior, and a debased public chooses its worst leaders. Then our Nero panders to our worst attributes — and we reward him for doing so.” In other words, in a democracy we get pretty much what we deserve.
Trump has governed as a lord of chaos, and that’s exactly what at least some of his supporters bargained for. Many of the reactionary white voters who thrilled to the tune of “Make America Great Again” never expected Trump to deliver on his promise to bring back manufacturing, steel and coal jobs. Their vote was a giant middle finger to elites in the political class, the mainstream media, academia, mainline Protestantism and reform Judaism, Silicon Valley and Wall Street. Mission accomplished.
If Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation winds up taking Trump down for obstruction of justice, many of Trump’s supporters will accept it passively, albeit with deepening cynicism. A small group of far-right militia activists has vowed to resort to arms against “domestic enemies” if Trump gets impeached or indicted. White supremacists like David Duke, who view Trump as “the means, not the man,” would probably be happy to see a domestic crisis precipitate a martial clampdown, with a figure like General John F. Kelly taking charge.
Even if we experience a Democratic tidal wave in the 2018 midterms, we can’t count on a return to normalcy. Regardless of who takes power, we have to stare into the heart of darkness that is us. The Donald Trump who was elected after speculating that Obama was born outside of America and calling Mexicans “rapists” is merely the human vessel of the spiritual rot at our civic core. The United States as a country faces a difficult reckoning. We can depose the president, but we won’t slay the dragon: The fact is that the majority of us are desperately clinging to white privilege; hypnotized by superstitions, conspiracy theories and fake news; consumed by trifling media-entertainment feuds; and more interested in getting over on each other than working out a common good.
For those who see Trump drifting into alignment with the Republican establishment, consider that the president’s break with Steve Bannon is only a moment. A lot of things can change between now and Election Day. There are a number of reasons to expect Trump to bring Bannon back into the fold.
Jeet Heer’s perceptive piece at the New Republic on Jan. 5 raises a question worth considering: “Trump’s electoral victory demonstrated that there is a genuine appetite among Republican voters for white nationalist policies that promise economic redress and to restore the perceived loss of racial status. Trump so far has only kept half the deal, by governing as the avatar of white resentment. That might be enough to keep his fans loyal, but will it draw enough of them to the voting booths to overcome turnout from those whom he demonized?”