Why Are We Talking About the Post-Trump Era After Less Than a Year?

Let’s talk a little bit more about that David Brooks column, “The Decline of Anti-Trumpism,” which I basically agreed with, but found a lot less impressive than many people I respect.

The column begins by observing that White House visitors “find that [Pres.] Trump is not the raving madman they expected from his tweetstorms or the media coverage.”  Okay.

Second, people who work there either find Trump to be “a deranged child,” or “merely a distraction they can work around.”  This is the (bad) impression you get from much of the media coverage and the opinion of those who are there regularly, not visitors.

Third is the bit about the administration improving and “imagine if Trump didn’t tweet.”  This was my point of disagreement in my prior posting.  On a policy basis, they found their footing months ago, but those imagining a different Trump are almost as unrealistic as those anti-Trumpers who can’t credit any policy results.

I listed a number of examples of the problem of Trump’s performance, but we got another one almost immediately after the Brooks column ran.  The White House decided to throw cold water on Wolff’s gossipy book by televising Trump’s “negotiation” with Congressional leaders on immigration (i.e., a law to address the status of so-called “Dreamers”).  The damage-control motive isn’t a matter of speculation; the RNC telegraphed it publicly, because Trump and those in his orbit can’t help “monologing” their plans.

At the meeting, Trump’s comments managed to establish that he really didn’t have a grip on what his (or the GOP’s) position was.  Trump had to be reminded of that position by one of the GOP attendees.  And yesterday, Vice-Pres. Pence and other surrogates hit the media to reassure people that the administration wasn’t caving to the Democrats.   It continues to be the case that Trump’s personal involvement in governance tends to be a hindrance to accomplishment more often than not.  Contra Brooks, this isn’t 3-D chess from the White House.

Brooks was correct to note that anti-Trumpers are descending into blowhardism in the way the right already has with figures like Sean Hannity or Dinesh D’Souza.  My prior posting focused on this problem, noting it has a longer pedigree and broader scope than Brooks thinks.  Indeed, neither Brooks nor I delved into the antics of federal bureaucrats and judges trying to “resist” Trump that are potentially more damaging in the long run.

Brooks, however, did address some aspects of the medium- to long-term:

This isn’t just a struggle over a president. It’s a struggle over what rules we’re going to play by after Trump. Are we all going to descend permanently into the Trump standard of acceptable behavior?

Or, are we going to restore the distinction between excellence and mediocrity, truth and a lie? Are we going to insist on the difference between a genuine expert and an ill-informed blowhard? Are we going to restore the distinction between those institutions like the Congressional Budget Office that operate by professional standards and speak with legitimate authority, and the propaganda mills that don’t?

There’s a hierarchy of excellence in every sphere. There’s a huge difference between William F. Buckley and Sean Hannity, between the reporters at this newspaper and a rumor-spreader. Part of this struggle is to maintain those distinctions, not to contribute to their evisceration.”

(Let’s set aside his faith in the CBO, which may have a smart staff but which is asked to have expert opinions on things it can’t possibly know with any degree of accuracy.)

There’s an argument to be made that America is capable of returning to higher standards after Trump.  We did after Nixon.  We did after Clinton.  The question here ought to be whether we are going to try to strengthen our institutions to promote those higher standards and resist future attempts to lower them.  I’m less optimistic on that score.

Take the Brooks comparison of Buckley and Hannity.  The problem is not that we have no intellects in the general tradition of Buckley.  The problem, as noted here and many other places, is that in the internet age, there is no ability perform the gatekeeping function Buckley and National Review once served.  Indeed, it’s much easier to argue that the Hannityesque TV and radio types have more gatekeeping power than the magazines and think tanks; 2016 amply demonstrated that the entertainers will pander for audience share, not educate or gatekeep.

Against that backdrop there are more short- to medium-term concerns.  The anti-Trump forces have descended into blowhardism (or escalated the political stakes in the terms of my prior post).  There is a substantial chance, perhaps greater than 50/50, that the GOP will lose control fo the House in the midterm elections.  The anti-Trump blowhards will largely (and fallaciously) conclude that their blowhardism was the key to victory and make demands upon the Democratic Party, which in turn will have to decide how it wants to respond to that pressure.

We could see a version of what the GOP went through following the 2010 election successes of the Tea Party.  Would the Democrats’ leadership embrace virulent anti-Trumpism (which would create its own problems), or try to deflect it (as the GOP did the Tea Party folks, to bad consequences, eventually)?  Such decisions might reshape the political landscape long before we face the issue of restoring political norms after Trump.

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