This week’s New York Times interview with Donald Trump was horrifying, yet curiously unsurprising. Yes, the world’s most powerful man is lazy, ignorant, dishonest and vindictive. But we knew that already.
In fact, the most revealing thing in the interview may be Trump’s defense of Bill O’Reilly, accused of sexual predation and abuse of power: “He’s a good person.” This, I’d argue, tells us more about both the man from Mar-a-Lago and the motivations of his base than his ramblings about infrastructure and trade.
First, however, here’s a question: How much difference has it made, really, that Donald Trump rather than a conventional Republican sits in the White House?
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The Trump administration is, by all accounts, a mess. The vast majority of key presidential appointments requiring Senate confirmation are unfilled; whatever people are in place are preoccupied with factional infighting. Decision-making sounds more like palace intrigues in a sultan’s seraglio than policy formulation in a republic. And then there are those tweets.
Yet Trump’s first great policy and political debacle – the ignominious collapse of the effort to kill Obamacare – owed almost nothing to executive dysfunction. Repeal-and-replace didn’t face-plant because of poor tactics; it failed because Republicans have been lying about health care for eight years. So when the time came to propose something real, all they could offer were various ways to package mass loss of coverage.
Similar considerations apply on other fronts. Tax reform looks like a bust, not because the Trump administration has no idea what it’s doing (although it doesn’t), but because nobody in the GOP ever put in the hard work of figuring out what should change and how to sell those changes.
What about areas where Trump sometimes sounds very different from ordinary Republicans, like infrastructure?
A push for a genuine trillion-dollar construction plan (as opposed to tax credits and privatization), which would need Democratic support given the predictable opposition from conservatives, would be a departure. But given what we heard in the interview – basically incoherent word salad mixed with random remarks about transportation in Queens – it’s clear that the administration has no actual infrastructure plan, and probably never will.
True, there are some places where Trump does seem likely to have a big impact – most notably, in crippling environmental policy. But that’s what any Republican would have done; climate change denialism and the belief that our air and water are too clean are mainstream positions in the modern GOP.
So Trumpist governance in practice so far is turning out to be just Republican governance with (much) worse management. Which brings me back to the original question: Does the appalling character of the man on top matter?
I think it does. The substance of Trump policy may not be that distinctive in practice. But style matters, too, because it shapes the broader political climate. And what Trumpism has brought is a new sense of empowerment to the ugliest aspects of American politics.
By now there’s a whole genre of media portraits of working-class Trump supporters (there are even parody versions). You know what I mean: interviews with down-on-their-luck rural whites who are troubled to learn that all those liberals who warned them that they would be hurt by Trump policies were right, but still support Trump, because they believe that liberal elites look down on them and think they’re stupid. Hmm.
Anyway, one thing the interviewees often say is that Trump is honest, that he tells it like is, which may seem odd given how much he lies about almost everything, policy and personal. But what they probably mean is that Trump gives outright, unapologetic voice to racism, sexism, contempt for “losers” and so on – feelings that have always been an important source of conservative support, but have long been things you weren’t supposed to talk about openly.
In other words, Trump isn’t an honest man or a stand-up guy, but he is, arguably, less hypocritical about the darker motives underlying his worldview than conventional politicians are.
Hence the affinity for O’Reilly, and Trump’s apparent sense that news reports about the TV host’s actions are an indirect attack on him. One way to think about Fox News in general, and O’Reilly in particular, is that they provide a safe space for people who want an affirmation that their uglier impulses are, in fact, justified and perfectly OK. And one way to think about the Trump White House is that it’s attempting to expand that safe space to include the nation as a whole.
And the big question about Trumpism – bigger, arguably, than the legislative agenda – is whether unapologetic ugliness is a winning political strategy.