In a strange almost post-modern twist, pointing out how nothing is normal about the Trump administration has become the normal way for the media and punditry to respond to the administration. Although recognizing that the administration is not normal is a good start, many who repeat this mantra don’t always seem to understand its impact. One of the ways we see this is that many of us are still tempted to evaluate the Trump administration on the same criteria that have been used for his predecessors. Similarly, many opponents of Trump hold on to the hope that he will be impeached, largely because his campaign’s relationship with Russia and his own conflicts of interest rise to the level of impeachable offenses, but that is not how politics work anymore in Trump’s America.
Too many in the punditry and political class, including veteran members of Congress like Senator Dianne Feinstein and Representative Maxine Waters, believe that events that would bring down any other president will bring down Trump. However, Donald Trump, or more likely some of the people around him, have worked hard to build a presidency that while not able to pass legislation or govern competently, will not be destroyed even by widespread conflicts of interest and actions that many consider treason.
The debacle around the American Health Care Act (ACHA), known as Trumpcare despite protests from the White House demonstrates how rapidly politics have changed in this regard. Not only is Trumpcare a poorly thought out bill that would create, not solve, problems, but the people hurt the mostby it would be older, rural voters, a group that voted for Trump in 2016. Trumpcare is both bad policy and bad politics, but it also forces the President into a tough spot-either the bill that is now identified with him fails showing him to be a poor legislator, or it passes and his voters suffer, potentially turning against him. At the moment, the former looks more likely.
That analysis is pretty standard and would be unambiguously accurate in pre-Trump America, but today things are different. This is in part because Trump is not governing with the goal of keeping the 45% of the electorate who voted for him supportive and increasing that to a majority. Furthermore, it is axiomatic that he has no intention of governing for all Americans. Rather his goal is to keep his base of roughly 35% of the electorate happy because if support drops much below that, the Republican congress begin to consider questions of criminality and ultimately impeachment. Those voters, even if they suffer from a health care policy that drives up the costs of health care, are unlikely to turn against Trump. After all, these votersget their news from pro-Trump media outlets and live in solidly pro-Trump communities that constantly reinforce their views. They are motivated more than anything else by disdain for the liberals, LGBT people, immigrants, people of colors who they perceive to be destroying their way of life. As long as those groups are angry at Trump, his base will stay with him.
The problem with governing only for the base is it makes passing legislation extremely difficult, but that kind of analysis is also less relevant for Trump. Although Trump, and particularly the Bannonites around him, have an ideological agenda, at this point in the administration, the primary goal of the President is to keep himself, and the gang of kleptocrats and thugs around him, out of jail. Given the breadth of legal problems Trump faced before he even ran for President-remember Trump University-it is possible that may be one of the major reasons he became a candidate in the first place-to avoid legal hassles.
This means that Trump’s motivations and actions must be understood very differently than those of other presidents or politicians. If Trumpcare fails to pass congress it will be a 48 hour story before the media moves on to the next Tweet, blow to American democracy or surreal Sean Spicer press conference. It will, of course, make it more difficult for Trump to pass further legislation, but it is unlikely even the most ardent Trump supporters thought their man was going to be a skilled legislator.
It is not hard to imagine a scenario where Trumpcare does not make it through congress and investigations continue on several fronts, leaving the administration frustrated, but still without the competence or expertise to pass new laws or even engage maturely in the legislative process. Should that happen, the administration will, metaphorically speaking, hunker down and rely on executive orders, administrative policy changes in various agencies and Trump’s madcap and dangerous words and Tweets to set policy and, for lack of a better word, govern. In the short run, that strategy will, given the current political environment, be enough to keep Trump and people in office and out of trouble with the law, but over the long term the impact on American democracy could be devastating.
Photo: cc/Steve Baker