It’s hard to overstate the pettiness, the vindictiveness and the sheer vapidity of our current moment. And it is also increasingly difficult to dismiss the gathering storm clouds threatening the core of the American constitutional system of governance.
One instant, we’re reading about the navy disappearing a ship named McCain, so that Trump, while visiting Japan, wouldn’t have to see military hardware bearing the same name as his now-dead nemesis Senator John McCain. The next, the president is ranting on twitter about charging professional law enforcement investigators with treason – yes, the high crime that is punishable by death — for looking into the Trump campaign’s Russian connections in 2016.
This isn’t politics as normal. It’s not politics as near-normal. Frankly, I’m not entirely convinced that it’s even democratic rough-and-tumble politics at all in any understandable sense. This is about rampaging ego and vanity; it’s about a thin-skinned narcissist’s inability to brook anything that punctures his self-image of all-consuming perfection. There’s something increasingly Caligula-like, megalomaniac-like, to this moment. One could see Trump appointing a horse to his cabinet if the horse was willing to kowtow appropriately to the supreme leader. And, unfortunately, in the current climate, one could see the GOP-controlled senate confirming the equine nominee, and the MAGA crowd physically threatening anyone who dared to suggest that, just maybe, the horse wasn’t up for the job.
Last week, Trump was calling himself an “extremely stable genius,” while threatening to open criminal investigations into ex-Vice President Biden – whose name he misspelled as “Bidan” during a tirade in which he called the long-time senator and eight-year Veep “low IQ.” I’m not sure whether that’s farcical or tragic, but I do know it will provide fodder for late night entertainers for some time to come.
This week, after a series of insulting tweets about now-ex-special counsel Robert Mueller, Trump accidentally admitted on twitter that the Russians had helped get him elected, and then immediately reversed himself to declare they hadn’t in any way, shape or form helped him. Like Schroedinger’s paradoxical quantum cat, sealed away in a secure box, which is simultaneously both alive and dead until the moment the box is opened, so the Russians apparently both did and didn’t help Trump win a majority of the electoral college in 2016.
This week, too, it was reported that government agencies will no longer be looking at the long-range impacts of climate change – not because those long-range predictions, through to the end of the century, have magically been disproved, but because, since the impacts of climate change are predicted to dramatically worsen over time, they are politically inconvenient to an administration now aggressively waging a war on the planet’s fragile eco-systems.
Two plus two equals four, except in Orwell’s totalitarian 1984, when the anti-hero, Winston Smith, is tortured until he not only says that two plus two equals five but genuinely comes to believe it. In the Trump universe, time and again five is the answer that triumphs.
This week, as well, Senator Mitch McConnell, who spent 2016 arguing that the Senate couldn’t in good conscience hold hearings for an Obama Supreme Court nominee in an election year, and that the people had to have their say before any new Justice was confirmed, announced that were a Supreme Court opening to emerge in 2020 he would have no problem immediately holding confirmation hearings for Trump’s nominee.
I would have said that probably one couldn’t come up with a more concise example both of hypocrisy and also of 100-proof cynicism. But then Trump proved me wrong by taking to twitter on Thursday to divert attention from Robert Mueller’s latest, public, refusal to state that Trump hadn’t committed obstruction of justice during the Russia investigation; to divert attention from the growing numbers of calls for Congress to begin impeachment hearings against the president.
Seeking to seize the narrative away from Mueller, Trump warned in the darkest possible language that the country was being invaded by illegals, and that he would therefore impose a five percent tariff on all Mexican goods entering the U.S. until the Mexican government somehow, magically, made illegal migration “STOP.” Not content with raising the price of these goods for U.S. consumers by five percent, he threatened an additional five percent tariff each month, until tariffs finally settled at 25 percent.
In invoking these extraordinary, draconian, punitive, and entirely counter-productive emergency powers, Trump risked skuppering the trilateral trade deal his own team had spent months negotiating with Mexico and Canada; nonsensically imposed a de facto tax on U.S. consumers as a way to somehow punish the Mexican government; and further stressed already unnerved global markets, markets which have in recent weeks been reeling from Trump’s decision to ramp up the U.S.-Chinese trade war.
This isn’t how international relations are supposed to work. This is the hijacking of the great levers of state to serve the personal projects and emotional needs of a deeply unmoored individual.
If Trump succeeds in devastating the Mexican economy, as he clearly thinks he can do, he will beggar millions of workers. And at least some of those impoverished, unemployed, laborers will head north, looking for economic opportunity or, simply, enough food to feed their kids. There’s no conceivable way all-out economic war by a country as powerful as the U.S. upon Mexico and the even more impoverished, unstable, countries of Central America, reduces the northward migratory impulse.
That Trump managed through his inane, inchoate, tariffs gimmick, to swiftly change the narrative away from Mueller and impeachment hearings speaks volumes to the moment we are in. In the Trump era, there’s so much fluff thrown up, so much flak in the air, that our attention spans are shredded.
This is idiocracy. It is the triumph of the mediocre, the crass, and the cruel. Trump is acting as a one-man constitutional wrecking ball, pin-balling, with a nod-and-a-wink from McConnell’s Senate, from one manufactured crisis to the next. He is looking to circumvent the legislative powers of Congress and to reshape economic policy, immigration policy, foreign policy on the hoof. He has tried to illegally appropriate billions of dollars, not authorized by Congress, to build a border wall. And, to mitigate the hurt to his farmer constituents that his trade war with China is unleashing, he has promised to somehow find $16 billion, from somewhere, to make those farmers’ hurt go away.
In all of this, the 45th president is personalizing American governance in a way that any historian of mid-century Stalinism or Fascism ought to shudder at.
“The principles of a free constitution are irrecoverably lost, when the legislative power is nominated by the executive,” wrote the incomparable eighteenth century historian of Rome, Edward Gibbon.
Elsewhere in his huge magnus opus The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon wrote of the early Emperors flattering the increasingly irrelevant senators, and talking about the preservation of ancient liberties, all the while consolidating their power until that venerable legislative body was entirely defanged.
“The obvious definition of a monarchy seems to be that of a state, in which a single person, by whatsoever name he may be distinguished, is entrusted with the execution of the laws, the management of the revenue, and the command of the army,” Gibbon noted. “But, unless public liberty is protected by intrepid and vigilant guardians, the authority of so formidable a magistrate will soon degenerate into despotism.”