clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Trump-era politics is a surreal nightmare and we can’t wake up


Purim Parade In Hebron Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images

I spent last week in Madison as “writer-in-residence” at the University of Wisconsin. While it was hardly an off-the-grid experience, it did take me out of the daily news cycle for the first time in a while. Diving back in kind of reminds me of Charlton Heston waking from his space travel to discover that he’s on a planet run by orangutans. Except instead of orangutans*, we have the Republican Party.

Here’s what’s been going on:

  • After the White House fully participated in the negotiation of a bipartisan omnibus appropriation bill, up to and including multiple formal statements of administration support, the president tweeted a threat to veto the bill. He then signed it after all at a press event where he also denounced it.
  • At that press event, the president said the only reason he was signing it was that it provided vitally necessary money for the Defense Department. In private, he keeps saying he regrets signing it and really the military should divert money from its account to build a border wall. (This is unconstitutional, FYI, that’s why they write appropriations bills.)
  • The administration retaliated for Russia’s annoying habit of assassinating residents of Western countries by expelling some diplomats. But Trump — who is under intense suspicion of unseemly ties to the Russian government — has said absolutely nothing about it personally, even though that would be an easy way to dispel the rumors he’s being blackmailed sexually by Russian intelligence services.
  • Speaking of sexual blackmail, a porn actress and a former Playboy centerfold have both come forward to say they received covert hush money payments to keep their dalliances with Trump secret. Republicans on the Hill have made zero effort to try to figure out exactly how compromised (and by whom) the president is.
  • Danny Vinik published a devastating exposé in Politico showing that the Trump administration systematically favored Texas over Puerto Rico in the disbursement of hurricane relief. It made basically no impact on the discourse.

To be fair to Trump and to the surreal nightmare he’s made American politics, the other thing that happens if you step away from the news cycle is you see that things are basically fine. During the election, I saw two possible scenarios for a Trump administration. Down one road lay cataclysm, whereas down another road Trump would pleasantly surprise us with his job performance.

Reality has confounded both expectations, with Trump displaying no hidden depths whatsoever, even as life continues to be basically fine for most people. America has its share of problems to be sure: sky-high child poverty rate, unsustainable greenhouse gas emissions, infrastructure woes, childcare woes, prescription drug affordability woes, you name it.

But these are basically longstanding issues that our political system writ large has failed to address. They don’t hold a particularly close relationship to the fact that the president is a racist buffoon who is possibly being blackmailed by the FSB over some sex tapes.

On the other hand, the fact that the president of the United States has literally nothing to say about any of the country’s most urgent long-term problems is itself a fairly noteworthy situation.

The weird patchwork of ideas that went together to form George W. Bush’s “ownership society” concept never really gelled as politics or policy. But having covered Bush-era policy debates, I could explain to you what the White House was trying to do and how it was supposed to relate to external reality.

With Trump, who is prone to doing things like trying to blame Democrats for his own decision to cancel DACA, or leaving his own besieged Veterans Affairs secretary twisting in the wind for weeks before replacing him with a total cipher, it’s impossible to say what’s actually happening.

Everyone — including, seemingly, the president himself — is kind of concerned that the new national security adviser will unravel nuclear diplomacy with both Iran and North Korea and start multiple wars, which is somewhat distressing.

But the (reassuring?) conventional wisdom is that Trump no more selected Bolton for his hawkish views than he tapped Larry Kudlow as National Economic Council director for his trade policy views. The president watches a lot of cable news and appears to view television pundits as his main source of information about an American political system in which he is the central actor.

Bolton and Kudlow are both accomplished television pundits who, whatever the details of their policy views, have always been zealous Trump defenders. In recruiting them to his team, Trump has beefed up his presence in the realtime cable simulacra that seems to be the only aspect of the political system he knows or cares about.

I used to think something would jolt the political system back to reality. But we’ve gotten everything from a stock market crash to Democrats winning elections in Alabama and Western Pennsylvania, and nothing really changes.

We’re living through a weird and disturbing dream and we don’t seem able to wake up. Back in Wisconsin, I spent my time at the journalism and public policy schools. In retrospect, I probably should have stopped by one of the weird postmodern humanities classes that conservatives like to complain about. Maybe they know what’s going on.

Correction: An earlier version of this article implied that chimpanzees ran the government depicted in 1968’s Planet of the Apes and its sequels when in fact political authority was vested in orangutans and chimpanzees served as a kind of scientist and intellectual caste.