Good Friday Morning! It’s been one of those weeks in the Trump presidency. Napoleon Bonaparte had a saying, “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.” Donald Trump and that piece of advice have never been caught in the same room. He always does the opposite.
House Democrats are in absolute disarray. There’s constant infighting, sniping over Twitter, and the makings of a Civil War that threaten to rip the party to shreds before a second debate. Liberal journalists couldn’t believe their eyes. Conservatives were in schadenfreude overload. And instead… Donald Trump stepped in and made everything about himself. The press, already terrified of infighting on the left, happily obliged the President’s desires.
Yes, I agree that what he said was racist. There’s no way around that. It was also idiotic and remarkably stupid. I know he’s claiming that he’s playing 3D chess — but this is also the same man who can’t even cooperate with own administration. We’ve had umpteen infrastructure weeks, and they’ve all been disasters. He said something terrible, and now he’s trying to project strength.
It may work, it may not. The natural play here was to let Democrats destroy each other and enjoy a bump in your approval ratings. Instead, we’re back to square one: Ilhan Omar still hates Jews and compares Israel to the Nazis, and Trump is tweeting stupid things. Nothing has changed.
This week I’m writing about reactionary politics and some thoughts I’ve had reading Tim Alberta’s new book: American Carnage. Links to follow.
Where you can find me this week
The left flank Pelosi is fighting is one that she created.
The left is creating their own moral truth, and it’s affecting everything.
The ever-widening reactionary gyre
I’ve spent some time this week reading Tim Alberta’s new book, American Carnage. I mentioned it last week as one of the first historical looks at the Trump Presidency from the perspective of various insiders. Alberta has written deep dives on Republicans in the past, and the stories are always gripping. He’s not without his biases, but the information and quotes he gets from his sources, all attributed, are incredible.
From what I can tell so far, Alberta is painting the story as one of disconnect between the Republican establishment and the grassroots. Those on the outside are angry at their leaders for not listening to their demands, and Alberta points to some explicit racial overtones.
Alberta begins his blame with where the GOP went wrong in the ’90s with the Newt Gingrich revolution. This time also happens to coincide with his arrival in Washington DC, so take that observation with a grain of salt.
He sees a series of mistakes by Republicans on reigning in racist elements on the right (which no doubt exist). He paints with a broad brush to explain and describe Trump voters. What I see are a series of decisions that had a more significate outcome than we knew at the time.
I see a series of inflection points — decisions made by leaders that dramatically altered the direction of the country. Alberta sees a set of actors who were blind to their actions and how those built up over time to result in Trump. I see big decisions that dictated events in their wake.
Alberta spends time early describing the failed McCain candidacy, to get to Sarah Palin and her importance in pushing the tea party movement. Alberta sees McCain’s misfire on Palin as the reason not just that he lost, but also introduced a new, dark, populism into politics that changed the country.
I see it differently. McCain lost that race because there were two unpopular wars and we were in the middle of the Great Recession. Two votes matter above all else in the Bush administration: the Iraq war vote, and the TARP vote (that very likely saved us from a cataclysmic economic failure). Bush made decisions that he thought were best, regardless of the politics, it was both his strength and weakness.
The Iraq war helped lead to Democrats taking over in 2006, along with GOP excesses. As a result, a far more radical Democratic Party got elected. By the time Obama’s inauguration rolled around, the heavy lifting on saving the economy had already taken place through Bush’s TARP program. The Obama stimulus spending was another animal. And where Iraq cost the Democrats when they wiped out anyone who voted in favor of it, TARP did the same to Republicans — excessive spending angered the Tea Party right.
I also don’t see a way you can change either of those decisions by Bush. The vote on the Iraq war showed there was strong bipartisan consensus we needed to invade. Anyone saying anything else is memory holing that vote. The same goes for TARP. Republicans set aside free-market beliefs because they were convinced that without TARP, the economy was set to implode.
Where you find the dividing line for current polarization, leading to Trump, starts in the Obama administration. I agree with many that the seeds for the present moment began earlier — but the crystallization happened with Obama.
The first vote was TARP, which anger conservatives in the Republican party. What helped radicalize this sentiment, however, was Obama. As Alberta deftly notes, early on, Obama came into office talking of bipartisanship and taking Republican ideas seriously. Both John Boehner and Mitch McConnell were terrified that Obama would seek to pull moderate Republican votes in the House. If Obama was successful in that gambit, Republicans expected to be out of power for a generation.
McConnell and Boehner set a political trap. They gave President Obama five suggestions for the stimulus package, mostly dealing with tax cuts. They left out one thing: infrastructure spending. The expectation was that the stimulus bill would pump out lots of infrastructure spending, and each Rep would take some money back home to their district. Democrats strangely didn’t focus on it. Republicans stayed quiet because that spending was vital to breaking the Republican coalition.
Obama never reached out. And Democrats never expanded the infrastructure spending. The result, just months after voting on TARP and other emergency measures, the House GOP rejected Obama’s stimulus package unanimously. Instead of governing in a bipartisan way, Obama chose the partisan path. That gave McConnell and Boehner what they needed to build towards 2010 and the midterm elections that “shellacked” the Obama administration.
Alberta details that whenever the Republicans were scared of Obama zigging, he always zagged, which helped them maintain party discipline.
To repeat, I view politics as a series of decisions that have consequences. Occasionally though, there are more significant decisions that cause an inflection, where nothing is the same after that decision. Bush had four major inflection points: 9/11, the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq, and the bailouts. Obama also had four: the stimulus package, Obamacare, his Syrian redline, and his immigration catastrophe in 2014.
The stimulus package I’ve explained. Obamacare is also easy to explain because it unleashed a volcano of anger from the right. Obamacare allowed Republicans to win a special election Senate seat in Massachusetts — that’s how cataclysmic Obamacare was politically-speaking. The Syrian redline and the 2014 immigration crisis (which we’re still dealing with) directly explain the rise of Trump because it showed immigration as a net negative in the news.
Many people point to the Iran deal, but it’s really that Syrian red line. When Obama didn’t intervene in Syria, it caused a massive outflow of migrants from Syria across Europe. Obama even tried to accept some Syrians into the United States. But the migration caused an enormous backlash across Europe, giving fuel to right-wing parties who hated immigration. I think there’s a fascinating alternative history of if Obama intervenes in Syria, does Brexit happen? I tend not to think so…
I’m not judging Obama’s decision as right or wrong. I’m also not particularly interested in a war in Syria. But the decision had consequences that reverberated across Europe and the United States. And that decision played in the 2014 immigration debacle, which gave the Senate to Republicans, and continues to impact us today.
Does this mean Alberta is wrong in his assessment of Republicans playing into fear and resentment? No, I don’t think so. But I’d couch it differently: Republicans moved from conservatism into reactionary politics. Instead of holding to principles, they began reacting negatively to anything Obama did because he was highly partisan.
The only way to cool reactionary politics is to starve it of something to feed on at the moment. Obama never calmed those tensions, and several of them fed the reactionary right. Obama is one of the most skillful politicians we’ve ever had at running an election and getting elected — his electoral skills are unrivaled. His political instincts of how to deal with his opponent are among the very worst.
Trump will also have significant decisions. Because he is fundamentally a reactionary President, he prompts a reactionary response from his opponents. Whereas Obama fed the reactionary forces because he had the political instincts of a rock, Trump revels in poking his reactionary foes. Obama poured fuel on the fire. Trump cranks open a fire hydrant and throws the wrench away.
Until reactionary politics get broken, the momentum will not get stopped. I’m reminded of a Yeats poem:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Some decisions are inevitable. Bush had to answer 9/11 with Afghanistan, and he had to try and save the economic system. Some are not. Reactionary politics tend to be avoidable; only we choose to flow with them because it’s easier. Breaking that flow means not reacting and not allowing events to control us.
It’s easier said than done. But until we do, we’ll watch an ever-widening gyre.
Links of the week
The Democratic Tea Party They Said Wasn’t Possible Is Here: Democrats aren’t immune from the forces of history. – Noah Rothman, Commentary Magazine
Are Democrats Now the Party of Open Borders? – Kevin Drum, Mother Jones
On Gratitude and Immigration – Charles C. W. Cooke, National Review
Unauthorized immigrants face public backlash in Mexico, survey finds – Scott Clement, The Washington Post
BBC Accepts Iran’s Demand Of Blackout On Its Persian Sites Amid Regime’s Attacks On Press: A deal to not share reporting from Iran on BBC Persian has angered staffers who see it as complicity with a government that imprisons, tortures and kills journalists. – Yashar Ali, The Huffington Post
Black Leaders Rally In South Bend: Mayor Pete, ‘Stop Trying To Avoid Us’ – John Hasson, The Daily Caller
Was Chris Pratt Criticized for a ‘White Supremacist’ T-shirt? Not Really: A handful of dumb tweets do not a story make. – Robby Soave, Reason Magazine
Notre-Dame came far closer to collapsing than people knew. This is how it was saved. – Elian Peltier, James Glanz, Mika Gröndahl, Weiyi Cai, Adam Nossiter and Liz Alderman, The New York Times
Here Is The Unpublished Playboy Interview with Candace Owens – Art Tavana, Medium
The Status Anxiety of Pussyhat Moms: They enjoy their wealth, coddle their children, worship multiculturalism. Then they try to get their snowflakes into college. – Gilbert T. Sewall, The American Conservative
Pentagon Contractor Allegedly Threatened to Kill Congresswoman Over Vaccine Bill: Feds charged Darryl Varnum in late June after he told a member he was ‘gonna kill your ass if you do that bill.’ – Lachlan Markay, The Daily Beast
The Anti-Semitic BDS Movement Advocates Illegal Discrimination – David French, National Review
Where the Bodies are Buried: In 1910, East Texas saw one of America’s deadliest post-Reconstruction racial purges. One survivor’s descendants have waged an uphill battle for generations to unearth that violent past. – Michael Barajas, The Texas Observer
Their Family Bought Land One Generation After Slavery. – Lizzie Presser, ProPublica
Under the knife: Exposing America’s youth basketball crisis – Baxter Holmes, ESPN
Twitter Thread(s) of the week
Satire piece of the week
Trump 2020 Campaign To Simply Air Unedited Footage Of Democrats Talking – The Babylon Bee
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Trump campaign has unveiled its 2020 campaign strategy of airing unedited footage of speeches and press conferences by far-left Democrats like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and that other one.
GOP commercials will air the footage around the clock. The speeches will not be edited in any way. Rather than pushing their own policy proposals, Republicans will just remind the nation of just who it is they’re running against.
“We were pretty concerned when Trump was tweeting those racially charged things the other day,” said one campaign strategist. “But now we’re in the clear again. I mean, he’ll say something problematic again soon. But we don’t even have to defend it. We just have to show people the Dems tripping over themselves to say something even crazier.”
Thanks for reading!