A year has passed, and we’re still here.
As hard as it is to believe at times, the country is surviving. Although the Republicans have passed some awful legislation, stolen a Supreme Court seat and pulled out of the Paris treaty, we haven’t, say, started a nuclear war with North Korea, built death camps for undocumented immigrants, surrendered the government to Russian control, or provoked the rest of the world into passing economic sanctions against the U.S. It’s a measure of how low my standards have sunk that this counts as something to be upbeat about.
As I’ve alluded to before, one of the reasons this may be so is the Trump administration’s epic incompetence. We got a glimpse of that this month with the frenzy over columnist Michael Wolff’s new book Fire and Fury, based on a year of interviews with White House staff. Even before it was released, the book had the rare honor of getting under Trump’s skin to the point where he issued a comical legal threat against it.
By Wolff’s account, the White House since the inauguration has been in a perpetual state of chaos. There’s no vision and no policy agenda apart from Trump’s erratic whims, he oscillates back and forth between paranoia and rage on a daily basis, different factions rise and fall day by day, and no one – absolutely no one – has the slightest iota of respect for the president they work for. His own staff hold him in contempt:
“You can’t make this shit up,” Sean Spicer, soon to be portrayed as the most hapless man in America, muttered to himself after his tortured press briefing on the first day of the new administration… Reince Priebus, the new chief of staff, had, shortly after the announcement of his appointment in November, started to think he would not last until the inauguration. Then, making it to the White House, he hoped he could last a respectable year, but he quickly scaled back his goal to six months. Kellyanne Conway, who would put a finger-gun to her head in private about Trump’s public comments, continued to mount an implacable defense on cable television…
In Wolff’s telling, the administration is a revolving door of cronies, bootlickers and opportunists who took White House jobs to boost their careers, only to resign in disgrace when they realize Trump is unmanageable and they’ll only be tainted by association with him. Trump returns the favor by cultivating a bone-deep and bitter grudge against everyone who works for him, with only the possible exception of his immediate family members.
Among competent staff, the carnage is even worse. Veteran diplomats and civil servants are quitting every day in recognition of the moral and practical impossibility of working for this president. It seems all too plausible that, in less than four years, Trump will have become an executive branch of one.
Even more alarmingly, Wolff reports that Trump’s own mental capacity is declining. He’s always had an absurdly short attention span and an utter disinterest in the written word (to the point where “Some believed that for all practical purposes he was no more than semiliterate”) but lately, it’s getting worse:
Everybody was painfully aware of the increasing pace of his repetitions. It used to be inside of 30 minutes he’d repeat, word-for-word and expression-for-expression, the same three stories — now it was within 10 minutes. Indeed, many of his tweets were the product of his repetitions — he just couldn’t stop saying something.
In any case, these anecdotes fit well with what we already know about Trump’s management style and temperament – it’s an open secret. And one of his most shocking revelations is corroborated by other reporting: Trump has basically lost interest in doing the job. He’s holding fewer and fewer meetings, refusing to start work before 11 AM (!) and even at that, taking multi-hour breaks throughout the day to watch television (!!). He’s treating the presidency like a part-time job – or, a better analogy, like a lazy employee who shirks his responsibilities whenever the boss is out of town and spends the day napping and browsing the internet.
In spite of the chaos, laziness and feuding, there’s just one belief that Trump is consistent about. That belief is white supremacy, as we saw in this month’s other big news item: while discussing an immigration deal with lawmakers, Trump referred to countries like Haiti and El Salvador with the epithet: “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?”
And he’s matching words with actions, ending a program that granted protected status to immigrants from El Salvador. This would result in the deportation of 200,000 people.
There was already overwhelming evidence, but this latest hateful remark ought to remove all doubt: the president of the United States is a racist. Many in the media shrink from using that word (preferring to tiptoe around the subject with euphemisms like “racially charged”), possibly out of reluctance to face up to what it would mean for that proposition to be true.
John Lewis said he’ll boycott the State of the Union, and I hope more Democrats do likewise. To attend and participate, even if only to boo, feeds the dangerous illusion that we’re living in normal times and that we have a normal president. We shouldn’t make it easy for anyone to dwell in that complacency. Until this national emergency is over, liberals and progressives ought to act as if the presidency is vacant and the U.S. is adrift and leaderless – which, in truth, it is.