I have a naïve hope. Since we’re caught in an endless loop of action and reaction, perhaps the reaction to Donald Trump will produce not just a president who is unlike him in every way (Barack Obama was certainly that), but a politics less gripped by idiocy.
Trump could be a cautionary tale, a spur for all of us, whatever our ideology, to be a little more mature, a little more thoughtful, a little more reasonable. Trump, in this fantasy, has shown us what we should not be, and we would be wise to learn this lesson.
It hasn’t happened yet. So far anyway, our politics is no less dumb than it ever was. I’d like to take a look at one variant of that stupidity, which says that this vaguely defined thing called “Washington” is broken, and what we need are more elected representatives who will channel our rage at it.
You’d think that after fifteen months of the Trump administration, voters might begin to think that when a politician says “We need an outsider to come in and change the way they do business in Washington,” we ought to be a bit skeptical. So let me refer you to the first ad aired by cartoon villain and Florida governor Rick Scott in his campaign for Senate:
“In Washington, they say term limits can’t be done. That’s nonsense.” No, that’s not what they say in Washington, because no one has bothered talking about term limits for 20 years. It’s a particular kind of dumb idea, the kind that doesn’t solve the problem you profess to care about but creates a whole set of new problems, like legislators who don’t have time to understand how the process works and so end up relying inordinately on staff and lobbyists.
What Scott is actually trying to communicate here isn’t about what the optimum tenure for a legislator is. It’s “I hate politicians just like you do!” And it’s not just Republicans who say that. Here’s Democratic senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, in the first ad of his reelection campaign:
“Washington sucks,” Manchin says in the ad, not for the first time. “This place sucks,” he reportedly told Democratic Senate leaders before reluctantly agreeing to run for another term. What’s he going to do about it? Not much, other than to keep saying it sucks.
But let me be a bit kinder to Manchin, because there’s actually something he can do about how Congress sucks: He can win reelection. Manchin is the only Democrat who could hold that seat, and if he does, it makes it much more likely that Democrats will take the Senate, which will go a long way toward reducing the volume of suckage in Washington.
I say that not because of the ideological differences I have with Republicans, copious though they may be. I say it because in recent years, the GOP has done everything in its power to make things in Washington work as poorly as possible. Never before has the old saying that Republicans say government doesn’t work and then set out to prove it when they get power been more true. Whatever else you might think about Democrats, as the party of government they have a sincere desire to see it operate effectively.
But the Republicans? Just the opposite, none more so than their leader in the Senate. When the history of this era is written, Mitch McConnell will be understood as one of the great villains of our time, a man of utterly boundless cynicism who was willing to shatter any norm, walk over any precedent, and twist any rule if it meant that he and his party could win and retain power, whether it was filibustering every bill more important than the renaming of a post office, causing one shutdown crisis after another, or simply refusing to allow the president to fill a Supreme Court vacancy, just because he could.
Through the Obama years, McConnell and other Republican leaders paved the way for their party to elect Donald Trump in a spasm of rage by promising things they knew they could never deliver as long as there was a Democrat in the White House. A narrative of betrayal then took hold among the GOP base, in which “the establishment” in Washington was the source of all ills and only a cro-magnon in a comical coif could set things right.
And quite frankly, that base seems too dumb to realize that even with Donald Trump rampaging through the White House, “the establishment” is doing just fine, if you define it as the economic elite that so skillfully works the system in Washington no matter how dysfunctional things get. In fact, the establishment has never had it better.
And get this: in deep-red West Virginia, those Republican voters may well choose to challenge Joe Manchin none other than Don Blankenship, the soulless coal baron who spent a year in prison after being convicted of conspiracy to violate mine safety laws in the Upper Big Branch mine explosion that killed 29 people.
So instead of asking who might be able to protect them from people like Don Blankenship — by, I don’t know, having a government that cares about worker safety — West Virginia Republicans could well send him to the Senate, where he’ll fulminate about big government getting all up in your business while he works tirelessly to transfer wealth upward. And the next election will see a bunch of new Republican candidates (and a few Democrats too) saying “I’m not a politician, I’m a businessman,” or “I’m not a politician, I’m a veteran,” or “I’m not a politician, I’m a mom,” as though the only way to fix a system you think is broken is to elect a bunch of people who have no idea what they’re doing.
Just to be clear, I’m not saying there isn’t plenty to criticize about Washington, or that there aren’t enormous improvements that could be made to the way the political system operates. There is and there are. But the people who shout the loudest about how “Washington” is the problem almost never offer anything resembling a useful idea for how to improve things. They dish out pablum like “We need more common sense” or “We need to bring [insert your state here] values to Washington,” either because they think that’s all voters need to hear or they simply don’t have any better ideas.
Alas, my dream of the example of Donald Trump lighting the way toward a less fatuous politics will probably not come true. But at least if Democrats win in November they might limit the extent to which Republicans will be able to validate the claim of everyone who ever said that Washington doesn’t work.