In one respect, it seems to me, the presidency of Donald Trump has been remarkably successful. In 17 months, he has effectively erased Barack Obama’s two-term legacy.
I don’t want to say or face this. I still want to believe my colleague, Jonathan Chait, whose thesis is that the changes Obama made in his difficult but tenacious eight years in office are too great to reverse. And there are a couple of shifts that do indeed seem to be as permanent as anything is in politics: marriage equality and legal cannabis. But neither, one recalls, was a signature goal of Obama. He began as an alleged opponent of marriage equality, even though, of course, he was bullshitting. He wouldn’t touch the marijuana issue in his entire term and even at one point dismissed it as trivial. As for the rest, in specific policy terms, Trump and the Republican Congress have succeeded in undoing Obama’s work to an extent I barely anticipated.
In economic policy, Obama’s slow winnowing of the deficit even in times of sluggish growth has been completely reversed. We too easily forget that the biggest accomplishment of Trump’s term in office so far — a massive increase in debt in a time of robust economic growth — is the inverse of Obama’s studied sense of fiscal responsibility. Nothing in modern fiscal history can match Trump’s recklessness — neither Reagan’s leap of faith nor George W. Bush’s profligacy — and it’s telling that the Democrats and the liberal intelligentsia have accommodated so swiftly to it. Nothing is so unfashionable right now as worrying about debt.
The fiscal vandalism is also a massive U-turn in terms of redistribution. If Obama managed to shift resources, ever so incrementally, toward the middle class and the poor (by allowing Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy to expire, by bringing millions of the working poor into health insurance), Trump has done the opposite, by doubling down on unprecedented economic inequality, and borrowing unimaginable sums to disproportionately benefit the unimaginably wealthy. On trade, Trump ended Obama’s central initiative in Asia, the TPP.
On the environment, the issue I suspect that will loom far, far larger in retrospect, Obama used his executive regulatory powers in an attempt to nudge and coax the economy away from carbon. Almost all of that regulation has now gone out the window, thanks to Scott Pruitt’s diligent fanaticism. Yes, there is no undoing of the deeper market and technological trends that are making renewable energy more affordable; but if you take the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change seriously, even Obama’s energy legacy was insufficient to the scale of the task. The window for keeping the planet from ecological catastrophe was only barely ajar in 2016; the Paris Agreement was the most minimal of gestures toward keeping it open; now, it’s all but sealed shut. Trump’s championing of environmental destruction, his active reveling in it, his plan to open up the Alaskan wilderness to oil drilling, his near-religious fealty to fossil fuels: Unless some technological miracle occurs, the odds of restraining, let alone reversing, climate catastrophe are vanishingly low.
In foreign policy, Trump has been even more effective. In less than two years, he has wrecked an Atlantic alliance that every president has defended and advanced since the Second World War, and that Obama nurtured. No European government can or should trust America from now on: They know they’re on their own. And then there is the volte-face in the Middle East. Obama’s core achievement in foreign policy was to shift America from embattled enmeshment in the region to a more offshore balancing role. By getting out of Iraq, and reaching out to Tehran, as well as maintaining our links to Jerusalem and the Saudi theocracy, the U.S. increased its options and leverage, while bringing Europe into the mix through the Iran deal. There was even, believe it or not, an attempt at first to restrain the Greater Israel lobby, to use what leverage the American president has to restrain the settlements project.
Now look where we are: a U.S. policy clearly committed de facto to the Israeli goal of annexation of the entire West Bank, and of intensified apartheid. The “peace plan” is essentially a way to force Palestinians into ever tighter Bantustans in an ever-more theocratic and authoritarian Jewish state. And the U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action has more deeply entangled the U.S. in the Muslim religious war, by throwing in our lot completely with the Sunnis. We are now committed to a permanent presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, if only to resist Iran’s proxies and the Taliban. Yes, our forces are smaller. But if an avowedly isolationist president has accepted an unending presence in the countries we invaded in 2001 and 2003, we are there forever. Torture? With Gina Haspel as CIA director and Mike Pompeo at the State Department, we have again placed it very much on the table. Obama believed he could draw a line under torture, leave the CIA alone and somehow quarantine the barbarism. Haspel’s ascent — enabled by key Democrats no less — reveals just how blurry that line has become.
Health care? Again, we’d like to believe that the Republican failure to repeal Obamacare means that Obama wins in the end. In fact, he loses. The GOP would have had to face electoral calamity if they were clearly seen as the party gleefully throwing tens of millions off their insurance. They somehow ducked this form of accountability (despite themselves), and were yet able to so cripple the ACA afterwards that it is now headed toward a death spiral they will escape the blame for. By ending the individual mandate, by allowing for more bare-bones insurance policies, and by narrowing the time window to apply for Obamacare policies, Trump has rendered the ACA unstable and unaffordable.
More profoundly, Trump has managed to shift our cultural politics. He has baited the left to occupying new territory, thereby cementing his triumph. What drives Trump is racial essentialism, a rage at the post-racial, integrative center that the mixed-race Obama represented. Nils Gilman has an insightful piece on this in The American Interest. He sees — rightly, I think — the 2008 Jeremiah Wright speech, “A More Perfect Union,” as the high-water mark of racial liberalism after the civil-rights era:
Obama began his speech by noting the “nation’s original sin of slavery,” but declared that the aim of his campaign was to continue “the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America.” Although “we may have different stories, we hold common hopes,” Obama averred. “We may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place,” he continued, “but we all want to move in the same direction.” That there might exist people in this country who desire very different things from a racial perspective was out of the question; instead, Obama observed everywhere “how hungry the American people were for this message of unity.”
Nothing could be further from the left’s current vision, which is that the very concept of post-racial integration is an illusion designed to mask the reality of an eternal “white supremacy.” Today’s left-liberal consensus is that Obama, however revered he may still be as president, was and is absurdly naïve in this respect: that there is no recovery from the original sin, no possible redemption, and certainly no space for the concept of an individual citizenship that transcends race and can unite Americans. There is no freedom here. There is just oppression. The question is merely about who oppresses whom.
The idea that African-Americans have some responsibility for their own advancement, that absent fatherhood and a cultural association of studying with “acting white” are part of the problem — themes Obama touched upon throughout his presidency — is now almost a definition of racism itself. And the animating goal of progressive politics is unvarnished race and gender warfare. What matters before anything else is what race and gender you are, and therefore what side you are on. And in this neo-Marxist worldview, fully embraced by a hefty majority of the next generation, the very idea of America as a liberating experiment, dissolving tribal loyalties in a common journey toward individual opportunity, is anathema.
There is no arc of history here, just an eternal grinding of the racist and sexist wheel. What matters is that nonwhites fight and defeat white supremacy, that women unite and defeat oppressive masculinity, and that the trans supplant and redefine the cis. What matters is equality of outcome, and it cannot be delayed. All the ideas that might complicate this — meritocracy, for example, or a color-blind vision of justice, or equality of opportunity rather than outcome — are to be mocked until they are dismantled. And the political goal is not a post-racial fusion, a unity of the red and the blue, but the rallying of the victims against the victimizers, animated by the core belief that a non-“white” and non-male majority will at some point come, after which the new hierarchies can be imposed by fiat. When you read the Jeremiah Wright speech today, it seems as if it is coming from a different era altogether.
If Trump has destroyed Obama’s substantive legacy at home and abroad, the left has gutted Obama’s post-racial cultural vision. And those of us who saw him as an integrative bridge to the future, who still cling to the bare bones of a gradually more inclusive liberal order, find ourselves on a fast-eroding peninsula, as cultural and political climate change erases the very environment we once called hope.
I have to say that before I read Stephen Greenblatt’s new book on Shakespeare’s megalomaniacs, Tyrant, I’d never thought of Trump and Richard III as analogues. The comparison doesn’t work in every respect, of course. Richard is a much more sympathetic figure, because the core of his tyrannical soul is shaped from his very birth by physical deformity and social rejection. Born prematurely, his back hunched in a coil, his arm withered, he sees himself, from the very beginning of his life, as alone, unloved, unlovable, spurned even by his mother. There is a self-awareness about this that Trump lacks:
I, that am curtailed of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time
Into this breathing world scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them.
Why I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time.
He seeks power, domination, and control as a way to salve this fathomless void of self-hatred and natural injustice. Trump has no such introspection or excuse. Perhaps, Greenblatt ponders, Trump’s somewhat distant mother had the same emotional impact as Richard’s did on him — “He is my son, ay, and therein my shame” — but it is also clear that in his very childhood, Trump was a sociopath, bully, and coward. He pelted a neighborhood boy with stones at the age of 5; he vowed to break any cadet who transgressed him at military school. He always sought out the weak in order to stomp on them. And there is a pathos to Richard — along with a strategic cunning and wit — I cannot see in Trump. There is even a dark humor, a sophistication beyond the president’s grasp.
What they have in common, however, is striking. They both emerged in a political culture deeply and equally divided into two camps: York and Lancaster, red and blue. Shrewdly navigating this divide, they were both also profoundly underestimated. For Richard’s contemporaries, it was unthinkable that such a creature might actually want the crown, let alone believe that he deserved it. And those in the elite around him in Shakespeare’s play keep being shocked by what Richard is prepared to do, by his shamelessness in his violations of norms and decency. This combination of collective incredulity and individual ruthlessness effectively destroys England in five acts.
Richard cannot obviously obliterate any standards of justice and decency, have an esteemed contemporary and brother, Clarence, drowned to death, and get away with it, can he? He surely cannot intend to murder two innocent, imprisoned children, and successfully place the blame on others, can he? He cannot kill Lady Anne’s husband and son and then try to seduce her, can he? And succeed? And then kill her too? And yet he does all of these things, quite openly, as everyone around him enables him or denies what is in front of their eyes or is, in the end, destroyed by him. And we, the audience, are oddly transfixed by the spectacle.
Richard invades the dreams of others, just as Trump insinuates his sickness into our unconscious. There is no escaping him, no force as powerful as his will to lonely power. And as it slowly dawns on people that there is nothing Richard won’t do in his attempt to fill the void within, their psyches buckle. Richard never apologizes, always lies, and thereby almost paralyzes those who could, if they ever took a real stand, oppose him. He makes them accept his reality. When he accuses a rival of deploying magic to wither his arm — an arm everyone knows was bequeathed him at birth — and proposes to execute him for it, his advisers somehow assent to the logic. Some think they can benefit by siding with Richard; others simply keep their heads down — “I will not reason what is meant hereby / Because I will be guiltless from the meaning”; others still are scared they’ll be next on the chopping block. And so the murders mount, and Richard’s power grows.
Once this dynamic unfolds, Shakespeare seems to say, there is no undoing it from within. The tyrant is not in full control of himself, and has no real idea of what to do with power when he gets it — except purge his ranks and dispatch his rivals in an endless cycle of insecurity. No one lasts for long in Richard’s orbit, or Trump’s. He rages forward blindly, and his only constancy is his paranoia, loneliness, and willingness to cause collateral damage to anything around him. The only way to defeat him, Shakespeare implies, is from outside the system itself: via an invading army, led by an exile. Even then, the damage is deep and lasting. Richard’s reign is just two years long; but the scar is indelible.
And this is indeed the kernel of what I fear: that if Mueller at any point presents a real conflict between the rule of law and Trump’s ego, the ego will win. If Trump has to fire his attorney general, and anyone else, he will. If he has to initiate a catastrophic conflict to save face, he will. If he has to delegitimize the Department of Justice, empty the State Department, and turn law enforcement against itself, he will. If he has to unleash unspeakable racial demons to save himself from political oblivion, he will not hesitate to do so. If he has to separate children from parents, describe humans as animals, and turn Christians into pagans, he will not blink. This is what a tyrant does.
What we have, of course, unlike early modern England, is a constitutional system designed to prevent such a person from coming to power, and, if that fails, to restrain him when he does. We have a tyranny currently wrapped in a democracy. But what Shakespeare shows us is that the will of the tyrant can be more powerful than any collective resistance, can leverage the masses to assent and even empower his will, can violate every single norm, and will never rest, and never, ever concede. There is an irresistible logic to this — driven by a particular form of psyche.
Trump, it seems to me, has established this tyrannical dynamic with remarkable speed. And what we are about to find out is whether the Founders who saw such a character as an eternal threat to their republic have constructed institutions capable of checking him without the impact of an external intervention, of a disaster so complete it finally breaks the tyrant’s spell. Watching what has transpired these past two years, seeing how truly weak the system is, and how unwilling so many have been to recognize our new disorder, I see no reason to be optimistic. The play is a tragedy, after all.
‘The Weight of This Sad Time’
If you think of the movies as a form of escapism, I urge you not to see Paul Schrader’s new movie, First Reformed. I saw it at a screening with the director last Wednesday night, and found myself shocked by its unflinching refusal to look away from our current reality. I’m still absorbing it.
It’s about a minister in a remote but historic church in upstate New York, with merely a handful of congregants, who is desperately trying to sustain some kind of faith. God cannot reach him, as he staggers through a desert of isolation and doubt. The words of Scripture are ashen in his mouth, his marriage is over after the death of a child, and his journal marks a slow and painstaking drift into despair. In all this, he becomes involved in the life of a young woman, pregnant, whose husband, an environmental radical, wants an abortion. The husband cannot in good conscience bring a new child into being when the Earth is headed toward climatic disaster and political strife. And it is the faithless minister who is asked to persuade him to have hope. [Spoilers ahead.]
He fails. And the father-to-be decides to kill himself instead, and the priest is lured to the body, lying in a snowy woodland, the head blasted to a bloody pulp by a rifle. This suicide awakens the minister to a deeper realization of the sincerity of the man’s environmental conscience, and radicalizes him to do what he can to save an unsavable Earth, even as desperation envelops his soul. The Christian in me kept wishing for some kind of peace for the man, some element of divine grace to descend and point the way forward. But nothing comes. And so you watch as the priest begins to wander sideways into madness and self-destruction, diagnosed with cancer, and longing in some way for his own extinction, quietly drinking himself into oblivion, kept alive solely by the resilient figure of the pregnant young woman, her refusal to give up on the life within her, and the remote possibility of love as a form of salvation in the here and now.
As I watched this mercilessly bleak story, two friends either side of me decided to get up and leave. In fact, there was a steady pace of exits in the crowd — in front of the director himself. “I can’t take this anymore,” my friend whispered as she ducked out. And it was indeed hard to endure. Schrader gives the audience no signals to interpret what we’re seeing. There is no music. There is no comic relief. There is instead a picture of an etiolated Christianity, a ghost of faith, kept alive only through the lies of the Prosperity Gospel or the cheap techniques of entertainment disguised as spirituality. And behind it all, the menace of environmental death, the warming of the planet, the wiping out of so many species, the eradication of a future which looks anything like the past.
“Are you in despair?” I asked Schrader in the conversation after. Not quite, he explained. He posited that there is a distinction between optimism and hope. He cited Camus in evoking the choice to believe, the act of will to see a future worth living, even when all the evidence around us, and the withdrawal of God from our lives, renders that choice seemingly quixotic. And I understood what he was saying. I have read Camus. I have also clung to the words of Thomas Merton, as the priest does. It is just that I could not summon the will, as I listened to Schrader, to make that choice myself.
“The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”
See you next Friday.