For about past six weeks or so, a sense that the president’s staggering ineptitude would be his undoing began to gather steam, as did a recognition that maybe the system was supple enough to ride out the Trump team’s machinations. You could feel the left quietly backing down from its posture of permanent emergency as the multipronged Russia scandal hogged the news cycle, federal courts nullified both versions of the Muslim ban, and Obamacare repeal died an embarrassing death.
Then last week happened.
The crowning ignominy was the vote to confirm Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court seat that had been sitting in limbo for 14 months, after Republican intransigence deprived President Barack Obama from filling it. Mitch McConnell nuked the filibuster to install a fifth right-wing justice on the Supreme Court, and now Democrats in the Senate are effectively as powerless as their counterparts in the House.
As controversies go, it’s far too dry and procedural-sounding to incite lasting outrage. But the facts are the facts: A president who lost the popular vote and faces historically unprecedented disapproval ratings so early in his term nominated a controversial pick to fill a stolen seat, then had the senator whose wife serves in Trump’s Cabinet change the rules to make it happen. And who’s to say the Republicans won’t attempt to reinstate the filibuster when it suits them? This is just another reminder that our constitutional crisis is odorless and invisible, like carbon monoxide, and that everything is extraordinarily detestable.
About those historically unprecedented disapproval ratings: Donald Trump stanched the bleeding by launching missiles at a Syrian air base, ostensibly in retaliation for the government’s use of chemical weapons. They warned the Russians in advance — and also left the base’s runway intact, allowing Bashar al-Assad’s government to continue striking against rebel-held territory, including the same town where his forces had deployed poison gas — but even progressive-leaning MSNBC fell all over itself crowing about Trump’s newly “presidential” bearing.
Let’s refrain from any armchair psychoanalysis over why so many Establishment commentators, almost always male, lose any pretense to adversarial journalism and glorify the leader at the first signs of American military might. Take a fawning Brian Williams, quoting Leonard Cohen to wax poetic about the explosions. Or, as Jeremy Scahill said of Fareed Zakaria, “If that guy could have sex with this cruise missile attack, I think he would do it.”
Instead, let’s focus on the inconvenient fact that we have been down this road before, and it did not end well. If only the same dozens of editorial pages that declined to endorse Trump’s presidential campaign would speak out against his foolish, illegal airstrike against Syria and the lack of any discernible strategy behind it. But no. Jingoism is simply too appealing, no matter the human (and financial) cost of our last several imperial misadventures. Even dispassionate outlets like FiveThirtyEight.com couldn’t resist normalizing Trump with mealy-mouthed, finger-on-the-scales talk about optics and standing, in lieu of any data-driven analysis about the costs, moral as well as economic, of war in the Middle East.
As with so many things, it’s largely the opposite of Trump’s campaign promises. (His rhetoric against Islam was always strident, but he also roasted Hillary Clinton’s warmongering tendencies.) I’m glad the alt-right’s white nationalists and neo-Nazis feel betrayed that, when cornered, the president revealed his hawkish nature — just as I’m glad that the rivalry between Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon turned into open warfare. It’s easy to root against Bannon, a rumpled goblin looking to usher in a golden age of chaos, and feel relief he was booted off the National Security Council (where he had no business being in the first place). In hindsight, it’s clear that a president who trusts no one and who cannot be trusted would eject him at the first sign of trouble and draw in his son-in-law instead. Trump had already sidelined the State Department, filling the vacuum with family. Now Kushner’s managerial portfolio has expanded further to cover the Middle East peace process as well as the task of streamlining the federal bureaucracy. No one can do all that. The likeliest outcome of giving an untested newbie so much responsibility is that only the Trump family businesses will come out ahead, and that’s far from ideal. So even the week’s silver lining looks more like a wash.
Things move too quickly to frame any given week’s events in terms of turning points. And a country accustomed to 16 years of war might be too jaded to give Trump’s numbers anything beyond a temporary boost. But it looks like the steady implosion that characterized the last month-and-a-half has righted itself, and the result is that Trump is now a normal president like any other.
I hope people saved their energy in the interim. We are definitely going to need it.