Ninety thousand people. That’s how many people are affected by the travel ban. Ninety thousand is a significant number. There are ninety thousand trained pediatric professionals across the whole of America. There are approximately ninety thousand local governments in the United States. Ninety thousand is the number of businesses in America with 100 to 499 employees. There are ninety thousand motorcycle accidents in America, every year.
Change is a drunken relative: he always arrives too early or too late, and you never know what he’ll do. If I were to list all the zany ambitions of this Presidency during the last week and a half, it would sound like the preposterous blathering of a man knee-deep in the angel dust: “Abandon Constitution—keep the oil—Yates—disloyal?—won the popular vote—Obamacare repeal—HERE COMES THE WALL—National Security Council—Bannon—a thousand of years of whiskey in human shape—makes sense.”
If I type the words “the mind reels,” I am borrowing a past cliché to establish present truth. Trump may exhaust the federal treasury and international goodwill; he has already ransacked the vault of language. How many ways are there to say “This is so messed up it is making me feel intoxicated?” Words like “Orwellian,” while appropriate, are a ragged quilt of catchphrase thrown over the moment.
Twelve days in: twelve days of fires, botched hires, of bans on sea and marches on land; of orders from White Houses and mysterious low dealings in the halls of power. Just twelve days is all it took. It’s enough to make you want to dip your hands in glue and broken glass so you can punch your way out of this reality.
How did it come to pass? You might as well go back to the source, the rise of the Orange Presidency, and his right hand, Steve Bannon, the power behind the throne.
THE ROOM WHERE IT HAPPENED
The country, and the left particularly, have been in a long series of rage seizures since Trump took office. This dovetails with the fall-through of neoliberalism as legitimate philosophy or practice. Since Clinton came up short in November, the left part of the political scale has been divided, in the style of the Law and Order intro, into two separate, yet equally important groups.
Group one: the neoliberals, who thought they could—in the immortal words of Samuel L. Jackson—”Talk your way out of this shit.” Group two: the left, who were still gauging their own strength, but wanted to resist. Almost exclusively, the leaders in the councils of state were neoliberals who’d long ago made their peace with “respecting the process,” whatever in the sunny Valhalla that is supposed to mean. That was how it sat on the Dem side. Everyone rational accepted they would be in for a long fight.
Meanwhile, old-timey Republicans were, in the secretest chamber of their hearts, displeased. Conservatives are people who prefer that the kids turn down the music, but find civil war in dreadfully poor taste. They had a bone to pick with Trump: their best true knights had attempted a dozen times to ride in and save the conservative movement. Yet it was all for naught: every single political pawn rendered up to the Orange Moloch was burned in the inferno of Trumpism: a living rebuke to the claims of a wise Providence. Even after Trump won, the greybeards were still fretting.
This is not to give the Right a pass; the Republican Congress has been Trump’s pack-mule in all of these great affairs. Now that we’re really in danger of climate-changing the world into some first-class blue-ribbon Castlevania garbage, the GOP Establishment decided to dance with him who bought them. This meant suffering through the political equivalent of an all-caps YouTube comment. This Orange dunce, with a minority of support, had taken the White House. He had been able to do so because the Republican elites were too hapless, and the Democrats too spineless, to fight back. Trump wasn’t just a horse’s ass made into consul, à la Caligula; he was proof that the politics of the Republic had gone the way of the dodo.
And so it was that after one hideous folly after another—the nomination of DeVos, the hit-back about crowd sizes, more zany tweets—Trump fell upon his travel ban. The word came down on Friday, and there has been protest since then—perpetual outrage and fear, not just from his political opponents and the world, but from the fence-sitting sort who were watching to see if the seat of power would benefit his character. Of course it hasn’t.
Trump is not an ordinary man lifted to executive mightiness; he is a man who has always had power, and now has more of it. Authority does not better him. He childs as America wisens. It’s why the supreme burdens of the Administration seem to fit him so poorly, and why they will continue to overwhelm him. It’s helpful, in a way: the processes and stances required to combat such a man are well-known and proven by past example. The Orangeman is unpredictable in his policy, and utterly regular in his reactions.
DEGRADED MAN, PERSON MAN
Regarding the travel ban, what else explains Trump stumbling so badly? There are several possibilities.
A) This is all part of a huge, thought-out, master plan. This incompetent bumbling is merely a clever device to lull us into a false sense of security.
B) This is Trump moving from issue to issue without much thought.
C) This is a combination of Trump’s impulsivity, campaign promises, and co-President Bannon’s blitzkrieg effect.
B and C seem the most likely. There is no master plan, just reactionary butterfingering since November. Where there is any strategic touch at all, Bannon is probably behind it. The reason is simple: Trump seems to have no set beliefs beyond self-glorification. This ban—the nationalism of it—smacks of Bannon, who does have positions he wants enforce.
The Administration released a series of confused and contradictory talking points after the protests. But these are deceptive. We can study the history of other countries; we know how other political factions like Trump’s operate. We know what Bannon and Stephen Miller, the spooky wingnut drafting Trump’s ban, think. We know all of this.
EVERYTHING RIGHT IS WRONG AGAIN
So much for the ban; now for the man. Gallons of ink and hours of thought have been spent asking just why Trump would release an order in this manner. Why, for instance, would he not try to pick up the pieces of power in a wiser way? Why would he deliberately alienate all those centers of authority; those institutions which even the strongest President must recruit in the early days of an administration? Despite the smaller popular vote, Trump has a majority in both houses and a divided Supreme Court; his party controls most of the statehouses. Frankly, if he had been smarter than this, or a little more patient, or said the right words, he probably could have gotten away with this.
But that would not be Trump. He would not be here, period, if he was capable of tasteful judgment. To be a successful politician, you must pass two tests: you must know how to get power, and then how to use it. These sound the same, but they are not.
Diane Contu, writing in the Harvard Business Review:
No one can lead who does not first acquire power, and no leader can be great who does not know how to use power. The trouble is that the combination of the two skills is rare. The temperament and behavior of the ambitious, cynical player adept at amassing power is often at odds with those of the daring and imaginative visionary able to achieve great things with that power. This tension is as real in business as it is in politics. Students of business leadership, such as Dan Ciampa and Roderick M. Kramer, have described cases, often in the pages of this magazine, of successful senior managers who have stumbled on the last rung of the ladder or failed at the top because they could not make the switch from ambitious executive to corporate leader. They did not know what to do with the power they had so expertly accumulated. Without a vision beyond their own advancement, they were almost paralyzed once the goal had been achieved.
One set of skills tends to occlude the other. If you cut throats too easily, you cannot build coalitions. Trump got where he is precisely because he would say what nobody said, and do what nobody did. Prudential women and men who race after power are judicious about what they say and do. Trump had the luxury of not needing anyone else. His unfettered access to a universe of alternative facts, and his willingness to spew lies, didn’t come from calculation; they emerged from his mouth because he has emotional issues and has been always been protected from negative consequences by wealth and fame. Normally, this combination wouldn’t have worked in American politics, but in 2016, the conditions were right for stormy weather.
Add to this to the fact that his surrounders and supporters demand quick, bold action, and you have the recipe for the shining sample of Big Dumb you are witnessing now, when a President of the United States might actually be impeached in the first month of his Administration. Every time Trump should pull back or clearheadedly manipulate the press or opposition, he doesn’t.
What works as a backbencher and campaigner fails and fails hard in governing. It’s not a matter of “You don’t know how bad you look.” It’s a matter of not having the technical expertise to handle your office; of lacking the skill to persuade masses of people to support, and then enact, your policies. Trump is failing in this game, and has no idea how to president. All of that talking, and not a bit of trying.
THE HEAT IS ON
The reaction to the travel ban was spontaneous. The travel block had the effect of striking at dormant feelings. Even those in the Beltway discovered moral agency; living waters could still spring from stone.
With Trump, like with Nixon, it was the reaction, not the deed itself, that really clobbered him. It’s a strange phenomenon, in politics and elsewhere, that the doom which sinks the world never arrives with the first strike: the break-in or the ban. It’s the second stroke: the lie or the cover-up, that drowns the ship. Behavior is habit, and habit is always patterned. It’s why there is a road to hell, and not a single step. Trump’s firing of Yates didn’t seem like the necessary reaction of a Presidency, but a reenacting of the Saturday Night Massacre of forty years ago, when Nixon tried to save himself from legal doom by leaning on the Justice Department to fire the special prosecutor.
The ongoing constitutional crisis is due not just to Trump’s cruelty against refugees, but to his refusal to deal equally with the judiciary, who sent word to the airports that detainees ought to be returned to the light of day. When the Customs and Border Patrol responded to Congress-people, reporters, and attorneys with sentences like “Talk to President Trump,” the words seeped with the practiced oily patter common to authoritarian states. You could imagine them slipping into “The Leader is in command now, you must appeal to him … ”
Trump and Bannon’s ban could, by a generous mind, be read as callous, delusional grasping. But their refusal to obey by the Separation of Powers implies sinister agency and dictatorial ambition. This cannot, must not, and will not stand.
Which brings us to the very brink of now. Every day brings new hopes; odd, to think that in the depth of the Orange Presidency, anybody progressive could find much warmth. Yet in an odd way, Trump embodies hope. To the left, he is the last dragon, the final form of noxious reaction. Beat him, and beat back the far right for a generation. That means hope.
And to his supporters? A notable subgroup of Trump voters gave Obama their vote in 2008 and 2012. The same heady brew that Obama offered to everyone, Trump offers to a few people: the possibility of change in an unjust order, a system which has become so corrupt and plutocrat-favoring, that any consensus we once had about it is breaking down. A great reshaping arrives. To them, that indicates hope. Trump and Bannon want hope for some; their opponents want hope for all.
Either way, a reshaping of the nation is at hand. I can feel it in my bones. Perhaps you feel it in yours. As Matt Christman said, one way or another, in six months we will be living in a very different country. Will Trump be impeached? Will he be declawed? Is this the beachhead that Trumpism breaks on? And just as importantly, the reaction to Trump suggests the birth of a new left movement, of organizing and protesting on a scale and with a passion that nobody has seen since the Sixties. In the air, in the earth, in the water: the old season is yielding. As the man once said, a change is going to come.