It can be hard to keep one’s wits about oneself during the Age of Trump. Our president is like the ringmaster of a circus, and the American people are his enthralled spectators. It seems as if we cannot get enough. Love him or hate him, he remains at the center of our public consciousness.
It is hard to meditate on anything about politics these days without one’s passions being inflamed by Trump. Case in point, Jeff Flake’s appearance on State of the Union Sunday afternoon. CNN reported:
Flake said he was “puzzled” by the White House’s intense focus on former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe and disagreed with Trump declaring McCabe’s firing “a great day for democracy.”
“I think it was a horrible day for democracy,” Flake said.
This is how the Trump effect works. He says something ridiculous — in this case, that the firing of Andrew McCabe was a “great day for democracy.” Flake, in disagreement, says the opposite. No, it was a “horrible day for democracy.”
How about: Neither great nor horrible? How about: The quality of our democracy does not hinge on whether some relatively obscure government official receives his pension?
Temperamentally, the American people have often tended to millenarianism — a great hope that the world is on the cusp of some massive transformation, which hinges on this generation. It is amazing that this predominantly Protestant expectation has managed to remain part of the civic consciousness, even while the United States has become less and less religious.
Trump brings this impulse to the forefront in the way he communicates with the nation. He frames just about everything in hyperbolic terms, and those who disagree with him seem compelled to do likewise.
This has long been Trump’s rhetorical strategy. In The Art of the Deal, he wrote:
The final key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration, and a very effective form of promotion.
This is a great way to become the main character, be it the hero or villain, which is exactly what Trump has managed to do. But if we move outside his orbit for a moment, it’s easier to appreciate how we have become detached from reality. Elections are still scheduled for November 6, 2018 — McCabe’s dismissal notwithstanding. Maybe Trump interferes with Robert Mueller’s investigation; maybe he doesn’t. Maybe Mueller finds something big on Trump; maybe he doesn’t. Either way, the people will have multiple opportunities to register their views on Trump between now and January 20, 2021. And to judge from his job-approval rating at the moment, he is in deep trouble with the voters.
When we fret about how Trump has corrupted democracy, or the republic or whatever, we overlook how easily he has manipulated our civic discourse. That seems to me to be a much bigger problem. While we are all talking about Trump Trump Trump — whether you like him or hate him, want to #MAGA or #RESIST — we are shunting aside substantive issues that are more worthy of our attention.
I’m reminded of one of my favorite passages in The Semisovereign People, by E. E. Schattschneider:
Political conflict is not like an intercollegiate debate in which the opponents agree in advance on a definition of the issues. As a matter of fact, the definition of the alternatives is the supreme instrument of power; the antagonists can rarely agree on what the issues are because power is involved in the definition. He who determines what politics is about runs the country, because the definition of alternatives is the choice of conflicts, and the choice of conflicts allocates power.
Public opinion is supposed to be sovereign in a republic, but it can be a benevolent sovereign only after the people think, converse, and argue with one another on the issues that are important to the general welfare.
This, to me, is the real power of Donald Trump — and the real problem. He has reoriented politics around himself. To some degree, every president manages to do that; it’s in the nature of the bully pulpit. But opinions on the president are usually proxies for positions on larger issues that matter, such as taxes or social welfare spending. With Trump, it often comes down to what you think of the man himself. He is the center of gravity around which politics orbits in 2018.
This has a more subtly negative effect on democracy. Public opinion is supposed to be sovereign in a republic, but it can be a benevolent sovereign only after the people think, converse, and argue with one another on the issues that are important to the general welfare. If the people cannot deliberate on anything except Trump, they are not thinking about those issues. So public opinion on matters of substance remains inchoate or poorly formed, undermining the sovereignty that the Constitution grants the people.
In my view, this is a much bigger problem than McCabe, the Mueller probe, or whatever. With Trump living rent-free in everybody’s head, there is no room for us to think about anything else and for the people to influence the course of public policy in a beneficial way.