Friday, May 12, 2017

Listen: Trump and the power of appearances.

Who are you going to trust?  Me, or your lying eyes?
 -- Chico Marx in Duck Soup

The president does not appear to know much about policy.  With few exceptions -- most notably real estate and construction, for understandable reasons -- he seems to be wholly ignorant.  Even worse, he doesn't seem to care about his ignorance, believing that everything boils down to his nebulous skill of "deal-making."  To Trump, every disagreement comes down to the displays of dominance that guide his approach to conflict.  Why bother learning anything if everything is the same?

In other words, outcomes don't seem to actually matter to the president.  Only appearances matter.  The question is only: how true is this for the rest of America?

The ignorance has been obvious from the start, of course, even to Trump's supporters.  Unwilling or unable to study the basics facts of foreign policy or domestic policy, he spoke throughout the campaign in broad generalities.  He relied on bluster and the charity of others to muddle through.  His health care policy was always some formulation of we're going to get rid of the lines around the states and we're doing to do great deals.  Challenged on specifics, like the inherent problems of selling insurance across state lines (an immediate race to the regulatory bottom), Trump would just scoff and assert that it would be so easy to come up with better care for less money.  And sure enough, the Trump White House has proven not to have any actual position on healthcare -- they just let the House write out without offering any input, and endorsed the result.

What is he going to do about NAFTA?  Well, he's going to make a great deal.  What about infrastructure?  It'll be a great deal.  A huge, massive, great deal.  And then he segues into complaints about poor negotiators from years past, or obstruction, or the "mess" he was left, or distracts by talking about something unrelated.

Obviously, his strategy has often worked.  It got him elected, after all (in addition to unscrupulous attacks on Hillary Clinton, James Comey's poor judgment, hyperpartisanship, and the intervention of a foreign power).  Many folks are entirely willing to fill in the gaps for themselves, or to assume that there's substance behind Trump's bluster, or just not informed enough to see the problem.  But where is the limit?  How far can it take him?

This is one of the big things that has worried me this year.  It's a fascinating question, really: is it possible for an administration to convince its supporters to accept their narrative instead of the reality around them?

The economy is the most prominent example.  Presidents are capable of badly damaging the economy, but any positive contributions are minimal and long-term.  It's pretty easy to screw the economy up, and pretty hard to boost it.  But after spending years attacking the "fake" unemployment numbers and job growth during the Obama administration, this president is forced to abide by his own fiction.  Thus, a sudden reversal: the White House extravagantly praised the February jobs numbers, when the economy added 235,000 jobs, even after scorning an even higher number in December of 2012.

Reporters laughed.  Democrats cried hypocrisy (and also pointed out that these numbers couldn't conceivably be the result of any Trump policy).  But Trump supporters... "GREAT AGAIN! February Jobs Gains Rocket to 235,000 as Unemployment Ticked Down."

This has been a serious concern of mine.  I have always thought that it will all be okay, but Trump would be able to do significant damage if he just managed to hold his base -- and blithe falsehood might be the way to do it, especially when combined with showmanship.  Turning on a dime and claiming that the exact same mediocre economy is suddenly doing well is hypocritical, but your own tribe can turn a blind eye.  Dropping a very big bomb and bragging about it is play-acting machismo, but machismo does impress some people.  Bullying one company into keeping its factory in America might not stem the slow ebb of manufacturing in the country, but it's very flashy.

Can it work?  Can style win over substance in this country?

Comfortingly, the early evidence seems to indicate that it will not succeed.  I had hoped that the divergence between reality and spin would become too great to ignore, even for Trump's supporters, but I worried that the process might take years.  Instead, it's taken months.

Example #1: The American Health Care Act (AHCA) is a terrible bill.  It also directly contradicts some key campaign promises by the administration, since it cuts Medicaid, endangers people with pre-existing conditions, and has no hope of lowering the actual cost of care.  The administration put all of its weight behind the bill and tried to sell it as "terrific" and a "great bill" that would "take care of everybody."  And it didn't work.  The AHCA remained unpopular with Democrats and Republicans.  It's still unpopular today, even after its passage through the House.  The blustering ignorance that led Trump to endorse such nonsense was not able to overwhelm the reality of the bill or the threat it poses.

Example #2: The president's termination of FBI Director James Comey was a horrific breach of ethical norms (even though he deserved it) since it took place during an investigation of the administration, especially since even the president has admitted that his desire to curtail the investigation was a factor.  But more than half of Americans -- 54% -- think it was inappropriate.  That number must include a sizable chunk of Trump voters who aren't buying the administration's incompetent spin.  The attempt to control appearances and make this look like decisive dominance is overwhelmed by the facts about the context.

Most Americans are not buying the style, but instead are looking at the substance -- and they are making these judgments in such numbers that it is apparent that even some of the Trump base are peeling away.  The showmanship isn't working.  People have their eyes open and are looking at reality.

And folks, let me tell you something: reality is not Trump's friend.

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