Contemporary politics is less a formal party system, organized around substantively different sets of beliefs, and more an emergent schism between doomsday prophets who can agree that America is in decline and freedom is fast slipping away, but lay the blame for impending cataclysm at the feet of their rivals. Political identity is subsumed by end-time beliefs; the operative variable is whether one believes the president or his detractors are the agents responsible.
The prophets of doom have always had a place on the fringe of American politics; there is nothing quite so effective to getting-out-the-vote as implying that one’s continued existence depends on the success or failure of a particular ballot initiative. Populism, progressivism and conservatism all, to varying degrees play to the fundamental fear of individual ability to survive; they paint a dichotomy between the self and an external power whose actions, usually directly malevolent, directly threaten to snuff out one’s way of life. This can be a threat to cultural and social identity, or to economic security. In rarer cases, it is directly tied to bodily survival, as in Lyndon Johnson’s infamous Daisy ad, which implied that the election of Barry Goldwater would result in nuclear holocaust.
Hysteria in politics clearly predates the age of Trump, but the prominent role it plays in the administration and at the forefront of political discourse is somewhat novel. Previous invocations of death as a consequence of political choice occurred largely on the campaign trail. Attaining power has a way of dampening rhetorical histrionics, as the reality of governing effectively came to the forefront. Legislating is a process which requires the volitional participation of a diverse group of actors and it is hard to cajole opponents into a cooperative frame of mind when they’ve been branded murderers.
But defaming the motives of political opponents has become so ingrained in political discourse that one could be mistaken for coming away with the impression that modern partisanship is something of a death cult. The alacrity with which politicians and pundits leap to the conclusion that their opponents’ actions are either motivated by a desire to harm others or are callously indifferent to suffering in which their policies must result makes one suspicious that those who level the charge derive a certain amount of glee in doing so; there is a certain degree of revelry in the smug superiority of one’s morality in such a politics. It also abrogates responsibility for action, or lack of it.
If Republicans were, as Democrats charged, welcoming mass death through their healthcare reform efforts, the failure of Obama to deliver upon his much-touted utopian fix to insurance markets was rendered meaningless. If Democrats, as Republicans charge, are so driven by hatred for President Trump that they’ve become fixated on carrying out an unprecedented putsch against a legitimately elected leader, then the right is not to blame for its lack of a policy agenda.
Compounding the bizarreness of this government-by-hysteria is the crude thespian deportment of actors in the West Wing. Between the obsequiousness of acolytes and the very public shaming of officials who cross the president, the White House on most days seems to be enacting a pantomime that might be amusing, despite its heavy-handedness, were the stakes not so high.
It’s as if the United States has stumbled into some shadow world where Magna Carta was never signed and the idea was never advanced that there should be some empirical standard for determining justice and the appropriate standard of government action beyond the vacillating whims of the king. Trump’s mercurial relationship with Jeff Sessions is eerily like the ill-fated bond between Henry II and Thomas a Becket. Indeed, the Twitter lashings which Trump dispenses to those who cross him also bear a marked resemblance to the infamous temper tantrums of England’s first Plantagenet king.
The overwhelming impression given off by the current administration is one of perturbation. It is not just that the president demands loyalty and craves flattery; this is a cheap kind of vanity which has been the downfall of many leaders, many of whom ultimately stayed within the bounds of their power. What is particularly concerning is the lack of any objective standard for success, not only in the executive branch, but in the legislative branch.
For better or worse, the executive has taken on the characteristics of an imperial power. Congress, despite nominally being an autonomous, coequal branch of government, is expected to defer to the president’s preferences for setting a timetable for legislation. Yet, Trump waffles from day to day on what course he wants Congress to pursue. He feted the House’s passage of the American Health Care Act, then called it mean. When the Senate’s Better Care Reconciliation Act failed, Trump downplayed its impact, saying Congress needed to let Obamacare fail. Now, he is publicly flogging Mitch McConnell through social media. This is troubling for several reasons. The most obvious is that it is hard to know how Congress, which does bear the responsibility for failing to advance policy, is expected to act when they do not know whether a particular action will invoke the wrath of the president. Second, Trump does not engage in constructive criticism; he lashes out indirectly, through a medium that is not conducive towards a dialogue that would result in the improvement of the legislative process.
Ultimately, though this dysfunction is certainly stress-inducing, the seriousness of its impact is hard to gauge. On the one hand, the bluster from the West Wing is largely just that. It is posturing, distasteful and disturbingly medieval in its tone, but not followed up by the kind of punitive action that would seriously make one wonder whether Trump is turning into a dictator.
But on the other hand, America’s political culture is such that there are few social problems for which citizens do not look to the federal government for resolution. Given the extremity of the rhetoric and the quickness with which partisans are already willing to accuse each other of the most heinous motives, the impression of instability coming from the current government bodes ill.
But perhaps most concerning is the role that impressions play in issues of efficacy and voting choices. For the most part, voting rationales are not constructed as a result of deeply ingrained ideology or partisan loyalty forged by belief in a party’s platform. Voting is often more of an instinctual reaction to culture and its most prominent actors.
In politics, the cliché that perception is reality is elevated to a fundamental tenet. This is why the apocalyptic rhetoric and sense that the Trump administration is floundering without a rudder in the quagmire of governmental process may be significant. There may or may not be organizational stability behind the scenes, both in Congress and in the West Wing. But the president’s public front is one that seems to have little concern with policy beyond what it does to promote his image. And Congress seems bent on promulgating the idea that all public policy is devastating to some sector of the population or another. All in all, this is an unseemly and discomfiting politics. And that may be enough to turn the electorate.
Also published on Medium.