In 2008 I applied for a journalism fellowship from the Phillips Foundation. The process included an in-person interview with a panel of judges. One of them was the original “Prince of Darkness,” Robert D. Novak. The great reporter examined my resume and noticed I had graduated from Columbia University. He looked at me quizzically.
This morning I drove to work listening to the new Beatles Channel on Sirius XM. When I arrived at the office I read articles about the fortieth anniversary of Star Wars, and about its eighth sequel, which premieres in December, and skimmed a review of a movie based on a show about attractive lifeguards that ran from 1989 to 2001. On Twitter people were joking about potential plotlines for a sequel to Top Gun, from 1986. I listened to cuts from the soundtrack of a Netflix original series devoted to evoking the sensibility of my elementary school years. Before starting this column I looked up from the computer and watched on television President Trump, a man whose campaign slogan evoked past greatness, whose visage has been associated with wealth and success for decades, who was himself a part of the 1980s culture that we continually recycle.
The man can’t help himself. I’m speaking of course of our president, Donald Trump, whose talents at marketing and publicity brought him wealth and fame and, at the age of 70, the highest political office in the nation. Aggressive, flamboyant, unpredictable, and combative, Trump’s impulsivity has benefited him as a businessman and as a candidate, but not as a president. His desire to convey an image of speed and determination has resulted in executive orders stopped by judicial intervention and a legislature that is quarrelsome and confused. His popping off on Twitter creates scandals that should not otherwise exist, and inflames already high tensions in the capital. His firing of FBI Director James Comey, then his changing explanations of the dismissal, birthed an enemy he does not want to have and alienated a staff whose loyalty he needs.
You hear it all the time: President Trump hasn’t been tested, hasn’t faced a real crisis. The events of the last few weeks, however, have made me want to turn that formulation around. Trump doesn’t face crises so much as manufacture them. In a way he is the crisis, and his presidency is in danger of being defined not by any legislative or diplomatic achievement but by his handling of the multiplying and daunting obstacles he creates for himself.
I do not mean that we are in the midst of a constitutional crisis. Nor are we in a crisis of democracy. Trump was fairly elected, the mechanisms of representative government continue to function, the judiciary and bureaucracy and Congress and media constrain the office of the president.
I thought she’d disappear. I thought if Donald Trump became president Hillary Clinton would recognize her error, would spend more time in the woods. Maybe she’d give some thought to why she lost: How she blindly followed Barack Obama and traded the traditional Democratic message of working-class security for professional-class diversity financed by Wall Street, Hollywood, and Silicon Valley. What Clinton and her lieutenants never realized was that the success of Obama’s message was unrelated to its content. The message worked because of the messenger. And when that messenger changed, when the suave, eloquent, dapper, youthful Obama was traded for a woman who was none of those things, the inevitable occurred. The Democrats capsized.
Let’s reverse angle. The president’s first 100 days in office have been analyzed, dissected, evaluated. Not much left to say about them. What about the opposition? What do the Democrats have to show for these first months of the Trump era?
Little. Trump’s defeats have not come at the Democrats’ hands. Those setbacks have been self-inflicted (over-the-top tweets, hastily written policies, few sub-cabinet nominations) or come from the judiciary (the travel ban, the sanctuary cities order) or from Republican infighting (health care). Deregulation, Keystone pipeline, immigration enforcement—Democrats have been powerless to stop them.
Notes from realignment: A solid Republican district becomes the site of a Democratic resurgence. In the first round of a special election a thirty-something unknown outperforms Hillary Clinton’s 2016 margin. A runoff looms, but the lesson to draw from this result is clear. Lawyers, doctors, managers, educators, accountants, and financial advisers—the professional class of the well off and well schooled is furious at Donald Trump. He embodies everything they loathe. He inherited a fortune (though he turned it into something more), he loves the “poorly educated” (though he graduated from Penn’s Wharton School), he denounces the metropolitan economy of global capital and free trade and open borders (though he’s a lifelong New Yorker whose most influential advisers are Goldman Sachs alumni), his manner is coarse and his language vulgar (though his large family seems devoted to him).