American Politics In a Convex Mirror

Column: Losing perspective—and understanding—in the era of Trump

Donald Trump
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Every so often I hear political reporters gripe that the news has become exhausting, that it is impossible to keep track of all the developments in the nation's capital. And while my reflex is to scoff at the media line du jour, and to observe that journalists have never been so lucky, never had such an incredible and unusual and exciting story unfold before them as the rise and rule of Donald Trump, I confess that the past week has left me unable to catch my breath, too. The commentator in Donald Trump's Washington resembles a tourist in a foreign city, unsure of which way to travel, confusedly searching for directions, standing at the corner, gazing at the scene, mouth agape.

The cacophony of events, the barrage of "breaking news" and "news alerts" and "happening now" graphics and notifications exploding on our television and laptop screens, the daily Twitter outbursts and outrages, the instant and breathless and impassioned analysis and piping hot takes, have distorted the ways in which Washington has typically understood reality and conceived of the way things are supposed to operate. We have left the simple and reassuring rhythms of the progress of legislation, of the White House "message of the day," of the ritualized game of hide and seek between the press and officials elected and appointed, of Republican and Democratic squabbling over the 50-yard lines of majority rule, of debate and discussion in which civility and decorum, manners and deference, are prized above all.

We have left all this and moved instead into a march played at the fastest tempo, in 6/8 time, where a given week brings us the FBI raid of the offices of a presidential lawyer, an impending military strike on Syria ("Get ready Russia!"), the testimony of a Silicon Valley Titan before Congress, the retirement of a Speaker of the House who practically defines not only the establishment of his party but also the supply-side ideology that has dominated its thinking for a generation, hearings for secretary of State, and much else besides. This is a song filled with contradictions, in which porn stars and Playmates haunt the presidency of a man backed by a supermajority of self-identified evangelical Christians; in which a genius innovator and entrepreneur faces his most skeptical questioning from members of the pro-business party; in which a liberal New York crowd erupts in cheers at the mention of Paul Ryan's retirement, without giving even the slightest thought to the politics that might replace him.

I am not saying that the weirdness, the distortion, began with President Trump. This story opens years earlier, with a financial crisis in which those responsible paid no price, with economic stagnation and the rise in deaths of despair in the American interior, with the decline in race relations during the second half of the Obama presidency, with mass migrations of peoples across borders and progressive governments unable or unwilling to stop them, and with sudden bureaucratic announcements that public school restrooms are to be made gender neutral, that the population covered by DACA is to be expanded beyond what the president said was legal just months before, that teachers and principals cannot enforce discipline in the public schools without coming under suspicion of racism.

What Trump has done is heighten the contrasts, deepen the incongruities, to the point where politics no longer can be understood by reference to what came before him. Seventy-one years old, rich and famous and uninterested in personal change, Trump imported his style of life, his habits and predilections and tics, into a Washington that was completely unprepared for and resistant to the style of populism he represents. The routine sackings, the ceaseless flow of personnel, the insults and braggadocio, the improvisation, lack of structure and preparation, willingness to scapegoat, comfort with ambiguity, his operatic ambitions, policy zigzags, running commentary on the happenings not only in the culture but also in the government over which he presides, and the close and careful attention to the wishes, desires, and emotions of the audience—this is exactly how the president wants to operate. He enjoys such chaos, thrives in it, partly because the more unstable things seem, the more heavily dependent events and personalities are on his every move.

Happenings, policies, and staffing decisions that not long ago might have been interpreted and advocated according to the traditional modes and understandings of Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, are now refracted through the lens of Trump's personality to such an extent that some writers oppose moves they would have otherwise applauded, others support tactics and methods they would have otherwise abhorred, and still others are rendered shocked and immobile by animosity and outrage. There is a tendency in situations like these to embrace the most fantastic conspiracy theories, such as the idea that no chemical attack against civilians in Syria took place, or that a massive effort was undertaken by the Justice Department years ago to frame Trump for misdeeds that have not even been identified. Meanwhile, others look back toward the archaic, the reassuring. They embrace nostalgia or ideological abstractions that give them perspective where it might be otherwise lacking.

In this moment, perhaps the most valuable skill we possess is to obtain and assess the empirical evidence of our situation, to try to decipher the facts of the case, view them dispassionately and detachedly, to not lose our heads. And, if we are conservatives, to do this keeping in mind the traditions of constitutionalism and self-government that we seek to perpetuate, and the cause of human freedom we have championed for so long. We might take comfort in the fact that, despite the tumultuousness in Washington and the unconventionality of our presidential wild-child, American life does not seem appreciably different: the economy is humming, the vast majority of people go about their daily lives peaceably and civilly, the political agenda is largely in keeping with the traditions of the party in power, and the precedent of off-year elections, which have seen the last three presidents lose control of Congress at some point in their terms, looms in the background. When one turns one's eyes away from the distortion, a more familiar picture comes into view.

If there is reason to worry it is because President Trump is no longer the sole disrupter in Washington, not the only man warping our field of vision. The competition is named Robert Mueller, who has revealed that he is just as willing to ignore convention and push the boundaries as this president is. Meanwhile the number of foreign crises with which Trump has to deal—from Russia, Iran, and Syria in the Middle East to China and North Korea in the Pacific—continue to multiply. And this combination of national and international uncertainty and volatility is dangerous not only for the president, but also for the millions whose lives will be affected by decisions made in the coming weeks.

Such is politics seen through a convex mirror, as the viewpoints that we had come to consider "normal" are upended, overturned, and no new lines of sight have been established in their place.