Half or a quarter of the way through this interesting experiment with an incessantly splenetic presidency, much of the nation has become accustomed to daily mortifications. Or has lost its capacity for embarrassment, which is even worse.
If the country’s condition is calibrated simply by economic data — if, that is, the United States is nothing but an economy — then the state of the union is good. Except that after two years of unified government under the party that formerly claimed to care about fiscal facts and rectitude, the nation faces a $1 trillion deficit during brisk growth and full employment. Unless the president has forever banished business cycles — if he has, his modesty would not have prevented him from mentioning it — the next recession will begin with gargantuan deficits, which will be instructive.
The president has kept his promise not to address the unsustainable trajectory of the entitlement state (about the coming unpleasant reckoning, he said: “Yeah, but I won’t be here”), and his party’s congressional caucuses have elevated subservience to him into a political philosophy. The Republican-controlled Senate — the world’s most overrated deliberative body — will not deliberate about, much less pass, legislation the president does not favor. The evident theory is that it would be lèse-majesté for the Senate to express independent judgments.
And that senatorial dignity is too brittle to survive the disapproval of a president not famous for familiarity with actual policies. Congressional Republicans have their ears to the ground — never mind Winston Churchill’s observation that it is difficult to look up to anyone in that position.
The president’s most consequential exercise of power has been the abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, opening the way for China to fill the void of U.S. involvement. His protectionism — government telling Americans what they can consume, in what quantities and at what prices — completes his extinguishing of the limited-government pretenses of the GOP, which needs an entirely new vocabulary. Pending that, the party is resorting to crybaby conservatism: We are being victimized by “elites,” markets, Wall Street, foreigners, etc.
After 30 years of U.S. diplomatic futility regarding North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, the artist of the deal spent a few hours in Singapore with Kim Jong Un, then tweeted: “There is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.” What price will the president pay — easing sanctions? ending joint military exercises with South Korea? — in attempts to make his tweet seem less dotty?
By his comportment, the president benefits his media detractors with serial vindications of their disparagements. They, however, have sunk to his level of insufferable self-satisfaction by preening about their superiority to someone they consider morally horrifying and intellectually cretinous. For most Americans, President Trump’s expostulations are audible wallpaper, always there but not really noticed. Still, the ubiquity of his outpourings in the media’s outpourings gives American life its current claustrophobic feel. This results from many journalists considering him an excuse for a four-year sabbatical from thinking about anything other than the shiny thing that mesmerizes them by dangling himself in front of them.
Dislike of him should be tempered by this consideration: He is an almost inexpressibly sad specimen. It must be misery to awaken to another day of being Donald Trump. He seems to have as many friends as his pluperfect self-centeredness allows, and as he has earned in an entirely transactional life. His historical ignorance deprives him of the satisfaction of working in a house where much magnificent history has been made. His childlike ignorance — preserved by a lifetime of single-minded self-promotion — concerning governance and economics guarantees that whenever he must interact with experienced and accomplished people, he is as bewildered as a kindergartener at a seminar on string theory.
Which is why this fountain of self-refuting boasts (“I have a very good brain”) lies so much. He does so less to deceive anyone than to reassure himself. And as balm for his base, which remains oblivious to his likely contempt for them as sheep who can be effortlessly gulled by preposterous fictions. The tungsten strength of his supporters’ loyalty is as impressive as his indifference to expanding their numbers.
Either the electorate, bored with a menu of faintly variant servings of boorishness, or the 22nd Amendment will end this, our shabbiest but not our first shabby presidency. As Mark Twain and fellow novelist William Dean Howells stepped outside together one morning, a downpour began and Howells asked, “Do you think it will stop?” Twain replied, “It always has.”