In the first two months of the Trump administration too much of the punditry, most disappointingly the liberal establishment punditry, continue to find themselves at the intersection of naivete and desperation. It is not at all apparent why so many pundits behave this way, but it is clear that this gives the Bannonites in the Trump administration a significant tactical advantage.
The two events around which this trend has become most evident have been the appointment of H.R. McMaster as national security advisor following the resignation of Michael Flynn and, of course President Trump’s recent address to Congress. There is no question that McMaster is a smart foreign policy professional who is well qualified to be the National Security Advisor. Moreover, his views on Russia are very different than those expressed by his predecessor, Michael Flynn. However Tweets like this one from Strobe Talbott, one of the people most entrenched in the Democratic Party foreign policy establishment. “McMaster has a stellar reputation. With Tillerson, Mattis, & superb Intel Community — with POTUS’s support — he can help get back on track,” or headlines in The Hill like “New national security adviser pick marks big change on Russia,” while accurate in some respects, miss a very important point. McMaster, Mattis and possibly even Tillerson are not there to make foreign policy, to move Trump’s policy back to a more conventional view on Russia or anything else of that nature, but to provide cover for an administration where foreign policy is being directed by Steve Bannon, the President and, surreally, Jared Kushner. McMaster was appointed precisely so people like Talbott would send out those kinds of Tweets; and that is exactly what happened. Talbott should not be singled out here, but rather seen as illustrative of much of the larger foreign policy establishment.
The response to President Trump’s recent address to congress was even more appalling as many commentators acted as if he’d just delivered a modern day Gettysburg address with no notes, while riding a unicycle and juggling five objects, instead of awkwardly reading a reasonably well written speech. The most well known and egregious of these comments came from Van Jones regarding the part of the speech when Trump honored a widow whose husband had died in a military operation. That operation, significantly, was one that Trump had not planned well and for which he later refused to take responsibility. Nonetheless, Jones said “He became President of the United States in that moment, period,” David Axelrod, once President Obama’s top strategist, described the speech as “a full-throated populist manifesto, and he lit this town on fire. He made very clear that he believes it’s America first. We’re going to protect our borders. We’re going to protect our jobs. We’re going to draw a line around this country and fight that fight, and he laid down the gauntlet.” Again, these are illustrative examples of a broader trend.
In both these cases the pundits, and political establishment types, including those who do not support Trump, attributed great meaning to one appointment and one speech both because they have trouble understanding the ways in which politics have changed since Trump won the election and because they are desperate to convince themselves this is not true. For example, Trump began his speech with a strong, perhaps even eloquent, denunciation of anti-Semitism. That would have been welcome, and powerful, from a normal American president when confronting a rise in anti-Semitic acts. However, it is indeed naive, desperate and not intellectually honest to ignore the reality that those comments came the same day Trump suggested that Jews are behind anti-Semitism. Similarly, the appointment of McMasters is increasingly looking like a minor tangent in the broader story of just how deep the contacts were between the Trump team and Moscow during the campaign and the transition period. The latest Trump confidantes known to have been talking to Russia during this period include Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Trump’s son-in-law/consigliere Jared Kushner.
The central lessons of the Trump administration have been that it is as bad as we thought it would be and that illusions of normalcy are just that-illusions. The odd decent speech, rational appointment or presidential gesture must be understood as ephemeral and frequently a deliberate attempt to deceive. We would be foolish to expect anything else from a regime committed to rolling back our democratic rights. Sadly, we are also learning that too many who have spent their lives in and around politics at the highest levels, even if they are generally critical of Trump, are too deep inside that world to understand this.