WASHINGTON – The most corrosive aspect of Donald Trump’s presidency is its rousing success in making our politics ridiculous.
The political class (yes, including columnists) is obsessed with his most unnerving statements, especially on Twitter. These are analyzed as if they were tablets from heaven or the learned pronouncements of a wise elder.
Various kinds of strategic genius are ascribed to Trump. He’s getting us to focus on this because he doesn’t want us to focus on that. He’s shifting attention away from a Republican health care bill that breaks a litany of his campaign vows. Maybe he posted that video of his imagined wrestling match with the CNN logo because he realized that in attacking MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough, he strayed from his central, anti-CNN message.
No matter how idiotic one of his tweets might be, there will always be commentators who see it as a shrewd way to charm his “base.” Although Trump’s core supporters constitute a static or even shrinking minority, the punditry often endows them with a hallowed status enjoyed by no other demographic.
Anyone who doesn’t “get” Trump’s appeal is said to live in a “bubble.” This means that a substantial majority of Americans are bubble dwellers, since Trump’s disapproval ratings have been hovering between 54 and 60 percent in Gallup’s most recent surveys.
The cost of all this is very high. Our political discussion is being brought down by Trump’s self-involvement, his apparent belief that he can only win if he identifies an enemy to attack, and his refusal to make extended and carefully thought-through arguments about anything of substance. Spectacle drives out problem-solving. Our national attention span, never one of our strongest suits, follows Trump down to a level that, in fairness to children, cannot even be called child-like.
The health care debate is the obvious example. The Republican Congress spotlights “repealing Obamacare.” But this is simply a slogan. What Trump and his party said they’d create was a better health care system – “something great,” he enthused. The actual bills under debate add more than 20 million people to the ranks of the uninsured, which is not exactly great.
A functioning democracy would grapple in a bipartisan way with how to cover everyone more cost-effectively. This is not happening. Trump will declare anything the GOP pushes though – no matter how many of the people who voted for him lose insurance – as a “win.” That is all that matters to him.
If there was anything useful about the Trump campaign, it was the extent to which it forced Americans who live in thriving parts of the country to notice how badly other regions are doing and how angry many of the people who live in those beleaguered communities are.
But where are the practical remedies to help those workers find better-paying jobs? What they get from Trump are mostly symbols – and even these aren’t what they’re cracked up to be. For example, to great fanfare in December, Trump announced that thanks to his intervention, a Carrier plant in Indiana would keep at least 1,100 jobs in the United States. But last month, Carrier announced it was cutting 632 jobs from an Indianapolis factory and moving them to Mexico. It’s not clear what Trump accomplished – or if he cares.
And, by the way, employment in the nation’s auto plants is down from a peak of 211,000 last year to 206,000.
When it comes to broader plans for assisting workers, Trump’s critics at the Center for American Progress note that his budget cuts could cost more than 5 million American workers access to job training, job-search assistance and career-development programs.
In the brief intervals when he is not distracting us with wrestling videos, comments on Brzezinski’s appearance and the like, Trump can offer decent talking points about “workforce development” and apprenticeships. But his policies regularly undermine his promises. Nothing should be more important to Trump’s presidency than keeping his commitments to workers in states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. But these don’t fascinate the president nearly as much as his vendettas and his role as a cable news critic.
The media have to cover what Trump does, but let’s stop pretending that his undisciplined fixations are a form of brilliance. And Republican politicians who still spinelessly defend or minimize Trump’s bizarre antics should realize that they are enabling a degeneration of politics. This enfeebles our efforts to solve problems at home and embarrasses our nation before the rest of the world.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.