As far as the prestige media in the United States are concerned, Donald Trump is irredeemable. Within the ranks of our journalistic elite, the 45th president of the United States represents a secular version of the antichrist. Apart from permanently retiring to Mar-a-Lago forthwith, there is nothing that Trump can do that will find favor with the New York Times, the Washington Post, and likeminded journalistic enterprises both large and small.
On the one hand, I’m OK with that. Trump is an incompetent buffoon. The sooner he’s gone from American public life, the better.
On the other hand, obsessing about Trump – the ongoing compulsion to find fault with everything that he says, does, or touches – prevents us from appreciating dark truths that Trump’s presidency reveals about contemporary American politics. That those revelations are inadvertent does not make them any less valuable. For those willing to set aside their prejudices, the Trump presidency is a civics lesson of unparalleled richness. Trump lays bare for all to see the smelly little orthodoxies of American politics – the smugness, cant, and pervasive corruption.
Not least among Trump’s distinguishing qualities is his refusal to act the way that American statesmen in the 21st century are expected to act. He won’t recite the standard clichés – or if he does it’s when reading off a teleprompter without even a modicum of sincerity. Whether on diplomatic missions or in dealing with the other branches of government, he routinely violates standard protocols. He cares not one whit for precedent. To anyone he dislikes, a category including all Democrats, more than a few members of his own party, and virtually the entire Fourth Estate except for Fox News, he doesn’t even pretend to politeness or respect.
To Trump’s supporters out in the hinterland, his bull-in-a-china-shop behavior only adds to his appeal. They find his animus toward Washington elites altogether refreshing. With Ringling Brothers now out of business, Donald Trump’s twitter feed has become ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’.
To Trump’s antagonists, his rude and crude actions offer further evidence of his unfitness for office. Recent examples – questioning the apolitical nature of the judiciary, casting doubt on the CIA’s assessment regarding Saudi complicity in the assassination of Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi, and ordering US forces to guard the southern border – only confirm the obvious: This guy has no business being president.
True enough: He doesn’t. Yet upon closer examination, Trump’s recent bout of intemperate actions and pronouncements invite us to reflect on the underbelly of American politics.
Consider the judiciary. Last week Trump complained about an ‘Obama judge’ interfering with his administration’s asylum policy. Chief Justice John Roberts immediately fired back: There are no Obama judges or Trump judges or Bush judges or Clinton judges, he wrote, ‘only dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them’.
Yet no one in Washington actually believes that. Both parties and their sympathizers firmly believe that the judiciary is highly politicized, hence, the partisan considerations that pervade any and all discussions regarding the makeup of the Supreme Court. The controversies surrounding the recent confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh offer a vivid reminder of that fact. So too does liberal determination to keep Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the court, regardless of her age and frailties, lest Trump have the opportunity to appoint another ‘Trump justice’.
Trump’s assertion that the opinions of a judge appointed by Obama may carry a partisan taint undermines a fiction that the political establishment finds it convenient to indulge. That is his sin. Yet however unintentionally, he thereby invites attention to the implications of sustaining that fiction.
As for Trump’s raising doubts about the CIA’s conclusion regarding the Khashoggi affair, there are, to put it mildly, ample grounds to question the competence and credibility of the US intelligence apparatus. From the Iranian coup of 1953 to the Bay of Pigs debacle of 1961 to the ‘slam dunk’ of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and the resort to torture after 9/11, the CIA has accumulated a remarkable record of recklessness, bungling, and disregard for basic moral principles.
In this instance, Trump may or may not be correct. Yet the willingness of Trump’s critics, especially members of the Washington press corps, to accept the CIA’s judgment at face value testifies not to the Agency’s proven record of veracity, but to their own willingness to subordinate all other considerations to their animus against Trump. If a president – any president – questions conclusions reached by the CIA, so should the rest of us, at least until ample evidence to the contrary is presented. We’ve been suckered too many times not to do so.
Finally, let us acknowledge that Trump’s deployment of US regulars to protect the southern border against an invading horde of refugees just prior to the midterm elections did nothing to enhance national security. It was indeed a political stunt. Yet this stunt merely offers a particularly egregious example of long-established practice. US presidents routinely exploit their role as commander-in-chief for political purposes. Recall George W. Bush’s infamous 2003 appearance on the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, a notably vivid but hardly unique example of a president using troops as props in what was, for all practical purposes, a televised campaign rally.
There are countless other examples of US military members being exploited to create photo ops that cast presidents in a favorable light. Without exception these events divert soldiers from their assigned duties, while wasting their time and taxpayer dollars. We should find any such misuse of US forces unacceptable, but not merely when Donald Trump is the offender.
The preposterous Trump presidency has much to teach – but only for those sufficiently open-minded to learn.
Andrew Bacevich is the author most recently of Twilight of the American Century.