Dylan Matthews is right: there’s no big ending coming.
When the president’s lawyer is getting his office raided by the FBI, and his former national security adviser has pleaded guilty to felonies, and his former campaign chair faces up to 305 years in prison, and both a federal special counsel and a state attorney general are conducting ever-widening criminal probes into the president’s business partners, and rumors abound that the vice president and the ambassador to the United Nations are planning to run together in the next presidential race — it’s reasonable for opponents and critics of the current regime to get their hopes up.
In the New Yorker, Adam Davidson compares the present moment to the beginning of the Iraq occupation in 2003 and the start of the subprime mortgage crisis in 2007 — both times that marked the beginning of a calamitous disaster, which one could see coming if one knew where to look. “This is the week we know, with increasing certainty, that we are entering the last phase of the Trump Presidency,” he writes. “This doesn’t feel like a prophecy; it feels like a simple statement of the apparent truth.”
I don’t want to argue with Davidson’s prediction of a dramatic demise for the Trump presidency; Jim Newell and Jeet Heer have thoughtful responses noting that the path is trickier than Davidson suggests. I don’t know who’s right, and I don’t want to make an overly confident prediction only to be proven wrong in a couple months or years.
What I want to argue with, instead, is the broader intellectual tendency — a yearning, really — of which Davidson’s piece is a part. This yearning is for something, anything, to end the death loop that American democracy appears to be trapped in, for a big, dramatic blowup to fix the system’s ills. In the liberal imagination, that blowup typically takes the form of Trump’s removal from office, an event that sets us back to a path of normalcy and sane politics.
By the “liberal imagination” he does not mean elected Democrats or Democratic voters because I know what they talk about, and it is never ever this. (Try to imagine Steny Hoyer on the “liberal imagination”!!! It’s laughable.) Dylan means himself and people like him. So we already know this is not about politics, but about the meta-level of people named Dylan talking to other people named Dylan. Spoiler alert from: Love Minus Zero/No Limit “She knows there’s no success like failure/ And that failure is no success at all.”
What’s more, the desire for a dramatic explosion of the Trump presidency at times seems to blend into a desire for the dramatic blowup of the American political system altogether, a sense that we need some apocalyptic event that will wipe the slate clean and revitalize our democracy in one big revolutionary motion. It’s no accident that the rise of Trump has coincided with fearful but titillated worries about coups d’état, collapses into tyranny, and even a second American civil war or secession. These concerns are partially specific to Trump. But they reflect worries that transcend him too.
So now Dylan is noting that his fellows in the media sound suspiciously like a circle of folks smoking reefer outside a Jill Stein rally.
The reality is that Trump’s removal or resignation from office, while desirable, would not do much to change the trajectory of America’s political institutions. And the mounting desire for something cataclysmic that could change their trajectory strikes me as dangerous. The best we can do, I fear, is to muddle along and try our best to keep things from getting worse. And the less we accept that, and the more we escape into fantasias of collapse and redemption, the harder making those modest incremental improvements will be.
Newtonian metaphor alert! Projectile metaphor: “trajectory of America’s political institutions.” Given the starting location, angle, and force applied, one can predict the exact path a projectile will follow. Political systems behave nothing like projectiles. The point of the metaphor: “You other Dylans should stop hoping for a cataclysm.” Which... yes, I have found people who hope for cataclysm to be anti-social and more than a little annoying. See also, Bernie Sanders. Compare Revolution 1, Lennon/McCartney, 1968.
End the presidency, save the world
Most observers acknowledge that American democracy is in a pretty bad way.
This silly claim is linked with a link to Dylan’s boss, Ezra Klein who says, in graphs, as is his famous (for DC) wont, this:
What does that mean? It means—and I swear to god this is true—that in some ways we disagree more than we used to, in some ways we disagree less, and there’s no consistent pattern to the changes except that old people seem to be losing their minds.
“American democracy is on a bad ‘trajectory’ and the evidence is that old people are increasingly crazy.” Next paragraph...
The sheer number of hurdles that reform legislation must pass through, from filibusters to holds to committee votes, have turned the federal government into a vetocracy that stands paralyzed and incapable of adapting in the face of new challenges. Gerrymandering, nonproportional representation in Congress, and the Electoral College lead to a representative government that isn’t very representative at all.
Are you embarrassed? I am. (But I think he’s trolling Ezra, actually.) Our government is a “vetocracy”?
It’s a “vetocracy” that keeps 22 million elderly Americans out of poverty and shows no sign of stopping.
It can’t solve problems, unless that problem is access to affordable health care, treatment for AIDS, preventing an outbreak of Ebola, universal access to clean water and air, ever expanding national parks and monuments, turning the corner on global warming, bringing gays and lesbians out of the closet and into the House and Senate, what the fuck do you want from the Federal Government, Ezra? Has anyone ever told you that white millenials named Ezra set The Guinness Book World Record for Entitlement, Ezra? Huh?
What do you mean, non representative? You mean like when Mississippi was majority black and run by 100% white people? No, because that was 100 years ago. You mean how every election more women, more black folks and more Latinos win than ever before? You mean how black voters chose a Senator in Alabama last year for the first time since Reconstruction?
Polarization — particularly negative polarization rooted more in hatred of the other party’s members than loyalty to one’s own party — makes compromise and bipartisanship harder to achieve with each passing year.
Until 2015, these problems were mounting but largely faceless. Donald Trump gave them a human form. He illustrates the US’s susceptibility to demagoguery and to the influence of billionaires seeking to deregulate their own businesses and cut their own taxes. He won with the assistance of one of America’s most broken and anti-majoritarian institutions (the Electoral College) with a congressional majority bolstered by gerrymandering and the underrepresentation of left-leaning urban areas.
He shows how America’s thermostatic electorate, constantly responding to one party’s electoral success with a dramatic swing to the other side, can undermine democratic responsiveness by catapulting a party with a deeply unpopular agenda into office. And he shows how dangerous the presidency’s extraordinary war powers can be in the wrong hands.
Son, you got more brains than sense. (Although, again, I think all this throat clearing is aimed at Ezra.) You got a fancy name for the back and forth of national elections? You know what caused that? Reformers with the 1940s version of the name “Dylan” who passed the 22nd Amendment, but don’t you fret about the unintended consequences of your high mindedness.
As for War Powers, explain to me how Trump could possibly be worse than James Madison. Mr. Constitution himself damn near ended this little democracy experiment with his war of choice against a foe that, lucky for us, couldn’t be bothered to give us the annihilation we deserved. You want representative democracy? Try being a citizen of a state with actual sailors voting against a dumb war but helpless to stop it as a bunch of landlocked speculators looking West with greed claimed “impressment of our sailors into the British Navy” as a bullshit reason to invade Canada.
Meanwhile, “compromise and bipartisanship” to what end? Republicans won, but they shouldn’t have. Ok. Life goes on. “Left leaning” is stupidness. What specific problems in “urban areas” are you trying to solve but can’t?
So it’s no wonder that his presidency has proven a breeding ground for fantasies of his regime’s demise that range from the responsible — see my colleague Ezra Klein’s case that Trump should be impeached for being ridiculously bad at his job — to the conspiratorial and preposterous (see Louise Mensch’s claims that Trump’s impeachment and arrest are imminent and that the “Marshal of the Supreme Court” had informed the president his impeachment was coming; or Jamie Kirchick, who even before Trump’s presidency was musing about a military coup unseating him).
Those are the optimistic scenarios in which Trump’s presidency and the forces it represents are turned back. But dystopian thought has been on the rise too. We’ve seen a surge of concern and scenario building premised around Trump’s erosion of American political institutions.
It’s fair to worry about the threat Trump poses to the rule of law and certain democratic norms, but unhinged and wacky dystopias have arisen as well, where the concern is less a gradual erosion of important norms and more a palpable fear that Trump is preparing an Alberto Fujimori-style auto-coup where he seizes full-on dictatorial powers. (Yale historian Timothy Snyder, whose book On Tyranny was one of the first big best-sellers of the Trump era, has declared it “pretty much inevitable” that Trump will attempt a dictatorial seizure of power.)
Concerns about presidential authoritarianism are nothing new, just as desires for a presidency to reach an early end are nothing new. But they’ve taken on new potency in the Trump era. That’s partially because Trump is historically awful. But it’s also because we have a sense that things just can’t go on like this, that the intense dysfunction and corruption of the American system of government has to come to an end eventually, in a big and dramatic and permanent fashion.
The answer is: “Ezra Klein, Louise Mensch, and Alberto Fujimori.” The question: “Who are three people who have never been in my kitchen?”
[yadda, yadda, yadda]
So where does this leave us? Absent a revolutionary shock to create a radically new political order, the best we can do is just muddle along.
[yadda, yadda, yadda]
I agree. It’ll be ok. Because he works at Vox, Dylan can’t point out the two best trends are the coming destruction of the Post War media ethic and the Post War academic model. Soon enough, there won’t be a NYT pretending the GOP isn’t lying in order to provide balance. And soon enough will end the bullshit idea that only some kids are qualified for this wonderful education that has the amazing result of destroying prejudice and making people more inclined to see the whole country as the in-group.