Trump Diary 8: Pseudonormalization Prevails

How far we are from a month ago. One of the reasons I started writing these entries, and probably the main reason, was because I was certain the high emotions and crisis mentality of the election and inauguration would not endure in the same form for long and would quickly turn into something else. Some aspects of the dominant narrative (on all sides) would fade into the background, while others would be decay into more stable forms like radioisotopes. I wasn’t sure which, but I wanted to take my own snapshots of the world in its highly unstable form.

Sure enough, I look back at the early Trump Diaries and they read like missives from a different world. The seething paranoia bred by the travel ban has died down. There have been no mass mobilizations like the one spurred by the initial travel ban, which was the moment the shoe dropped and Trump had to make a decision on whether or not to flinch. Trump flinched.

Fewer people are concocting conspiracy theories about Trump consolidating power in a “coup,” especially with Steve Bannon’s apparent marginalization. Bannon was reduced to allying with his sworn enemy Reince Priebus in order to retain influence, after Trump’s other advisers became disgusted with the Priebus House Republican faction (over the health care bill disaster) and Bannon (over all the other disasters). The supposed Bannon quote, “I love a gunfight” looks like embarrassing posturing now. I assume the people who leaked the quote knew it would, just like leaking that Bannon called Jared Kushner a “globalist cuck” signals that Bannon is no smarter than the idiots who thought Trump would give them a white ethno-state.

In money terms, Robert and Rebekah Mercer (Bannon’s biggest backers) are out, and the Koch Brothers (who back Bush/Romney-style corporatist Republicans) are back in.

Trump is tweeting a lot less, having given up on the inauguration crowd size and mass voter fraud windmills. Putin and Trump are no longer BFFs. (The Syria strike put a definitive end to that.) Trump now likes NATO. Trump has either abandoned or sidelined his most radical anti-establishment stances, to the open dismay of his core. The narrative of narcissistic megalomania has been replaced with the narrative of incompetent failure, at all levels.

I said in February that Trump would not want to give the establishment the satisfaction of admitting they were right:

To stop the flood of leaks and trash talk, all Trump would have to do is to give in and agree to do things their way (that is, the way they’ve been done since Eisenhower, loosely speaking), but because he believes he’s suffered injury at the hands of the CIA, the State Department, the news media, the Democrats, most Republicans, and more or less anyone who’s ever had to deal with him, he doesn’t want to give them the satisfaction.

I also said in February that Trump was doomed to lose his battle against the establishment, because he could not amass allies for that battle. He lost. So the flood has stopped. With the sidelining of Bannon, at the urging of nearly everyone else in the administration, the number of stories about White House dysfunction has severely dried up.

I am certain that there is still great dissent within the ranks. You can’t get rid of sentiments like these so quickly:

Politico: “The various warring fiefdoms and camps within the White House are constantly changing and are so vast and complicated in their nature,” said one former Trump campaign aide, “that there is no amount of reporting that could accurately describe the subterfuge, animosity and finger-pointing that is currently happening within the ranks of the senior staff.”

What has happened, I believe, is that White House staffers now have an incentive to keep their mouths shut and not talk to reporters. And I think that’s because there is no longer quite the constant stress of random chaos imposed by (a) Trump’s going off message on Twitter and elsewhere, and (b) Steve Bannon. They now feel they have a chance of survival, and they are more willing to bury hatchets and stick together. They’re still miserable but they are engaging in less friendly fire.

In the place of civil war is a very familiar combination of (a) corporatism and (b) the military-industrial complex, one which has been with us since Reagan and to a lesser extent since Truman. The military-industrial complex side is represented by National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster, who replaced Michael Flynn. McMaster consolidated power quickly. Though Trump promised Flynn deputy K. T. McFarland that she could stay on with McMaster, it wasn’t long before McMaster got her fired and replaced her with the ultra-establishment Dina Powell. McMaster also kicked Bannon off of the National Security Council, instigating Bannon’s subsequent fall.

The corporate side is represented by Gary Cohn (Goldman Sachs), Dina Powell (Goldman Sachs), Steve Mnuchin (Goldman Sachs), and Jared Kushner (Goldman Sachs) himself. Cohn, Mnuchin, and Kushner are Jewish, while Powell (née Dina Habib) is an Egyptian Coptic. Predictably (well, I predicted it), Trump’s white nationalist fans are complaining of a “Jewish coup.” Sorry, racists: if you wanted to dislodge Goldman Sachs, you should have found a brighter revolutionary than Steve Bannon and a more loyal demagogue than Trump. Trump ultimately had to side with the people who were nominally capable of doing their jobs. Bannon brought nothing but losses.

Just as I feared excess paranoia in the early days of Trump, I now fear excess normalization. I think we are going to see an increasing number of “Trump has been tamed” editorials from the right, which will be tacitly accepted by the mainstream. Trump will still be awful, just as George W. Bush was awful, but he won’t be the walking constitutional crisis he’s been portrayed as for the last year. Too many people are looking to escape that narrative, because it’s exhausting and unsustainable. When we heard this after Trump bombed Syria–

Fareed Zakaria, CNN: I think Donald Trump became President of the United States last night.

It was an exercise in wish fulfillment. It was because Zakaria wanted Trump to become President of the United States. It was because Zakaria wanted things to return to normal and to sanity.

So expect a lot more of this:

Ed Rogers, WaPo: Yet, a lot of left-wing commentators are saying don’t try to normalize Trump, he is not normal, and there must be resistance to his presidency and anyone working in his administration. Well, bad news for them: The normalization of Trump’s presidency may be happening on its own as reality and a sense of responsibility seeps into the Oval Office and those around it.

Rogers is an old-school Republican politico, but on the very same day (April 13), we have this from two of the Post’s own reporters:

WaPo: Donald Trump campaigned as an outsider who would upend years of Washington orthodoxy in matters of both war and peace — an approach that helped him assemble the unconventional coalition that ultimately won him the presidency. But in recent days, the president has done an about-face and embraced many of the policy positions he once scorned as the trappings of a foolhardy establishment. Trump voiced support for NATO, which he called “obsolete” during the campaign. He walked back his pledge to label China a currency manipulator and ­endorsed the Export-Import Bank, which he had opposed. These and other recent flip-flops have soothed the nerves of many Republicans who worried he was looking to upend too much of the status quo. “I would say this is looking more now like a more conventional Republican administration,” said Elliott Abrams, who served as a foreign policy adviser in the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations. “To me, that’s a very good thing.”

The reason for this normalization is that much of the anti-Trump narrative, from the right as well as from the center-left, was less about Trump’s actual policies than about his anti-establishment tone, boorish personality, and agonistic tactics–as well as the constant chaos emanating from such. What was ideologically permissible from Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Mitch McConnell, and Dick Cheney was not permissible from Donald Trump. Ultra-establishment Republican Peggy Noonan (who just won the Pulitzer Prize) made a telling point at the end of March, after Trump lost his showdown with the Freedom Caucus over the healthcare bill:

WaPo: Once you use the stick, it is hard to start handing out carrots again. If the Freedom Caucus caves at this point, they will look weak. Trump has become the boy who cries wolf. If he doesn’t follow through after drawing this red line, his words will seem hollow. Bluster works better in business than politics. Peggy Noonan argues artfully in her column for Saturday’s Wall Street Journal that Trump’s mishandling of this Obamacare fight, including the latest attacks on the Freedom Caucus, shows that he really doesn’t understand who makes up his base or how to pass legislation. “Whenever I used to have disagreements with passionate pro-Trump people, I’d hear their arguments, weigh their logic and grievances. I realized after a while that in every conversation we always brought different experiences to the table,” Noonan writes. “I had worked in a White House. I had personally observed its deeper realities and requirements. Their sense of how a White House works came from … TV shows such as ‘House of Cards’ and ‘Scandal.’ Those are dark, cynical shows that more or less suggest anyone can be president. I don’t mean that in the nice way. Those programs don’t convey how a White House is an organism demanding of true depth, of serious people, real professionals. A president has to be a serious person too, and not only an amusing or stimulating talker, or the object of a dream.”

Noonan’s implicit point here is that The West Wing is the standard, not House of Cards. And indeed, no administration could survive the level of melodrama portrayed on television. But not being House of Cards does not make you The West Wing, just as not being Chicken Little doesn’t make you Pollyanna. Anyone who lived through Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld should realize that. When it comes to gravitas, It’s not professionalism, or seriousness, or depth that matters, but having the right connections and speaking the right language. FEMA, the CDC, and the EPA may have turned into a joke under Bush, but Bush could not be dislodged from being “serious.” Noonan, without realizing it, is making the classic elite argument: Donald Trump cannot be president, but George W. Bush can. I do not find this especially reassuring. There is a similar irony in the fact that David Frum, the coiner of the “Axis of Evil,” is now being elevated by The Atlantic as the principled conservative warning of Trumpian autocracy. (In fact, he called it the “axis of hatred” and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson dubbed it the “Axis of Evil,” but I think my point stands.)

So we have the Trump administration going through a false normalization. Jeff Sessions will still quietly be rounding up more immigrants; the EPA will still be gutted; neocon hawkishness is re-ascendant (with bipartisan backing). The administration, if not Trump himself, is speaking the language of DC better. 39 out of 47 major newspaper editorials supported the Syria strike. (See the breakdown here. Was it a good idea? I, like the authors of these editorials and like Trump himself, do not know.)

So these dismaying trends will not seem egregious in the way that the travel ban did, which makes them that much more likely to succeed and endure. There will probably be few legislative atrocities due to internecine Republican warfare; Trump’s largest impact will be through the executive branch.

Two major differences remain, however.

First, the administration is wildly understaffed and non-functional, with only 22 political appointees confirmed, another 60 in the pipeline, and nearly 500 positions without even a nomination. (Trump is not behind most presidents in confirmations, but he is way behind on finding actual candidates.) HUD, Interior, State, Agriculture, Labor, Interior, Energy, Education, and of course the EPA all look to be running ghost crews for some time. It’s hard to measure the effect this is having, and whether it’s resulting in Obama-era continuity or actual stasis. Either way, though, the overall effect will be entropic. In the absence of leadership or direction, things will stop getting done. They will be little things, but they will add up. It will be hard to assess the consequences directly, unless mid-level staffers leak, but I believe the overall result will be a notable decrease in government functionality and efficiency, without any decline in its cost. With it looking less likely that Trump will get his major government funding cuts, the federal government may just become sclerotic for the next few years. The difference will be most noticeable in times of crisis: FEMA, for example. A repeat or two of Michael Brown’s performance during Hurricane Katrina seems inevitable. But I think the overall damage will be far greater than under Bush.

Second, there is Trump himself, hobbled, humbled, and humiliated, but still defective and unpredictable. For now he seems to be guided by Jared Kushner above all in his desperate turn toward Goldman Sachs and McMaster, but when this turn fails to yield him love and success, as it will, it’s difficult to predict what will come next. At the center of the Trump administration remains the void himself, reluctantly allowing himself to be remade in the establishment mold, but still fundamentally incompetent and narcissistic and stuck in the midst of a party at war with itself. If he goes with the flow, the elites may begin to ignore this fact, especially with his tweets seemingly drying up. But what if he changes his mind?