After six months of chaos, it has become apparent that we have entered a terrifying political realm where the leader of the country operates in his own reality and constant turbulence is the order of the day. Let’s call it “Trumpworld,” a place where the man and his ill-considered tweets and statements are everywhere, absorbing media attention and distracting everyone else. His outrageous behavior may not be presidential, but it derives from his personality. He is not going to change.
This presents a problem for democrats and other opposition forces who are struggling to find political traction. On the one hand, Trump’s behavior appears to be more-or-less for the benefit of his most ardent supporters. They welcome his brash, offensive style and will likely stick with him for his entire term. On the other hand, there is little value to scrutinizing every Trump misdeed as his support is already very low and is unlikely to fall much farther. To condemn him is only to draw more attention to him; to play on his field. At the same time, it is extremely difficult to ignore outrageous statements and actions by a sitting president. All of this makes it nearly impossible to make political headway in the media storm that Trump kicks up almost every day. What are democrats and progressives to do?
After many months of the election campaign, followed by the transition and the first half year of Trump’s presidency, there is a lot of fruitless wishful thinking and wasted energy in opposition efforts and in the press. The same memes reappear day after day. Trump is a crazy, is a loud-mouthed, ignorant, narcissistic buffoon, etc. etc. But, this constant drumbeat of revulsion–as understandable as it is–only plays into Trump’s hands. By stirring up these feelings and generating harsh, emotional responses, he is putting himself front and center in our collective consciousness time and again. Everything is about him, which is exactly how he promotes his brand (see Naomi Klein’s new book and this recent interview). More importantly, it obscures the destructive actions of others such as the EPA, the Justice Department, and the republicans in Congress.
This may not be Trump’s intention as he has seemed naive in the ways of Washington for much of his tenure in the White House and has actually undermined several of his own initiatives. But perhaps not. In some respects, his actions have been quite effective. By accident or intuition, he has fashioned a different kind of politics where the daily chaos creates opportunities for other actors to do extremely nefarious things, mostly under the radar. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency has made many damaging decisions about protecting natural areas and reversing initiatives to hold polluting corporations to account, with minimal press and public scrutiny. Just in the past week, the director has started making noises about creating opposing teams to “debate” the science of climate change while, at the same time, removing hard science from public-facing websites at the EPA.
Yes, these actions have been covered in the press, but there is relatively little discussion. In fact there cannot be substantive, wide discussion of such important matters while everyone is paying so much attention to the latest scandalous tweets by the president. What would normally be huge scandals, generating fierce opposition, get lost in the noise generated by Trumpworld. Congress and other parts of administration do their dirty work in the relative dark.
There is no easy solution to this problem because the press simply cannot look away from this train wreck of a presidency, which is also a ratings machine. But by not widening their collective gaze to look at the entire picture of what’s going on, they are missing many important stories that will have lasting, deleterious effects on lives of millions of Americans, our democracy, and the global climate. How can this change? The answer is not simple, but progressives can do two things to help change the channel.
The first step is to make the press a target of the resistance. In addition to contacting their senators about healthcare and other important legislation, liberals and progressives should be calling the national broadcast networks and their local outlets to insist that they deal with the many other issues that are on the national agenda.
Special attention must be paid to the rank dishonesty of the Fox network. It is nothing less than a propaganda outfit that must be taken on directly, not just through calls and letters, but also through boycotts of their advertisers. This has already occurred in the campaign to oust Bill O’Reilly, demonstrating that Fox is sensitive to getting hit in its pocket book. But there needs to be a long-term campaign to pressure the network and to expose it as a propaganda arm of our society’s most reactionary forces.
Second, it is crucial for progressives and liberals to undertake a conceptual shift. Instead of the constant obsession with Trump and exerting all-too-much energy in trying to figure out how to remove him from office as soon as possible (hint: it’s not likely to happen), the resistance needs to start with a more fully-developed understanding of the dangers we are facing. Donald Trump, as many have already observed, is merely the symptom–okay the apotheosis–of an extremely reactionary political force that has taken root in our country. Dark money, corporations, ultra-conservative think tanks, right-wing media, neo-confederate white nationalists, and much of the republican party form the core of this force. All have to be taken on, but there is a narrower target–what we can call the Trump-GOP regime in Washington, that deserves special attention.
When Trump rises early in the morning to tweet one or more outrageous statements, they tend to become the leading news item of the day, sometimes for several days running. For the most outrageous of these tweets, GOP members of Congress sometimes stir themselves to comment that the president really should not have “gone there.” But this tepid opposition is as far as it goes. In terms of the legislative agenda, Congress and the president are generally in lockstep. As Congressional leaders have been quoted as saying, they don’t necessarily have to agree with the president on all things. But they know that he will sign anything they pass and send to him in order to be able to crow about “big wins,” no matter how little he may actually understand what he is signing or how damaging such “wins” might be for ordinary Americans.
As long as Trump will wield the pen for them, they are happy to continue along this path no matter how unpresidential he may act, how much in bed with the Russians he may be, or how disastrous his policies are for the place of the US in the world. As conservative columnist Michael Gerson writes about Trump’s conservative supporters: “Their sycophancy enables a sickness.”
This Trump-Congressional nexus, then, is a crucial target that democrats and progressives should be hammering. Instead of being ensnared in Trumpworld by obsessing about his every ridiculous statement or figuring out how he might be compelled to leave office before the end of his term, they should be holding his collaborators in Congress accountable for supporting him. Whenever Trump states a clear untruth, makes an outrageous statement, or commits a diplomatic faux pas, Congressional democrats need to pressure their republican colleagues to disavow the president or, even better, to hold hearings and undertake other substantive actions. More generally, republican lawmakers need to be closely identified with Trump’s abhorrent antics and policies.
Progressives must do everything they can to make sure the public understands that the GOP in Congress is fully in bed with Trump and just as responsible for the disasters he is inflicting on the country. Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell and their caucuses cannot be allowed to stand aloof from the destruction they are helping the president to visit on American society. By hitting the GOP in Congress for Trump’s follies, progressives can shift the focus and improve their electoral chances in 2018.