Lordy, there's no such thing as a vacation when you live in Trumpville. OK, it's partly my fault -- no one ordered me to keep the TV set on while I stayed away from the newspaper to get some things done on the homefront for a few days. But with the waft of the new Watergate Summer (CNN had John Dean and Carl Bernstein on their set for about 16 hours a day, in case you were still missing the connection) blowing through the TV room window like a salty ocean breeze, it was impossible to avoid the sight of Jim Comey declaring, in so many words, that once again there is a cancer on the presidency.
Watching President Trump's web of deceit slowly unravel (without the pressure of having to race to a keyboard and write about it) should have been a moment of quiet satisfaction -- a feeling that despite America's divisions, there is still a pathway for the truth, and that it's taking less than a year for nearly 60 percent of Americans (an LBJ-sized landslide) to agree that the 45th president cannot be trusted. But #ComeyDay didn't bring any real satisfaction. Instead, with a week off just to watch -- and think -- the overwhelming sense I felt was one of America digging in, that if the fight for this nation's mortal soul is anything like World War I, that this is September 1914 and few of us know how bad it's really going to get in those newly dug trenches.
Here's the problem. I don't think the forces of common sense -- the people who truly get the science on global warming, who want America to show some moral leadership in the world and can't figure out the benefits of stripping 23 million people of health coverage -- have figured out yet that that is a battle fought not on one front but on two.
On one front is Trumpism, a movement of one man who stands for nothing and who knows next to nothing -- except how to use the power of 21st Century media and the politics of resentment to whip up a base that will never desert Donald Trump as long as Trump is despised by the people that they despise: Liberals, college professors, Hollywood and the media.
The other front is a more familiar one: Modern Republicanism, which for the last 50 years has striven -- with up and down results -- to hold together a middle-class electoral majority on social issues and a kind of "identity politics" of the white suburbs -- even though its ruling agenda was mainly just to benefit the millionaire donor class through tax cuts and killing those pesky rules that call for things like safe drinking water.
The twain should never have met. After all, Trump was a center-left registered Democrat little more than a generation ago -- pro-choice, pro-universal health care -- who saw the GOP as his path to the White House but still has no feel for, or interest in, conservatism. Smart, veteran conservatives loathe Trump's buffoonery and his non-stop lies.
But these strange bedfellows desperately need each other. After the failure of actual Republican policies -- the boondoggle in Iraq, the near collapse of the global economy in 2008 -- only the us-vs.-them staged drama of a reality-TV ringmaster like Trump can hold the GOP's base together. And by writing Republicans a blank check to keeping doing its dirty work on taxes and regulations, Trump has guaranteed that he can't be impeached -- which is the only thing that could actually stop this authoritarian egomaniac who could give a flying you-know-what about "appearances."
And so they've accidentally stumbled into the most unholy alliance in U.S. political history -- one that is destructively powerful in spite of an increasingly preposterous Trump and a Republican agenda that has almost no support outside of corporate boardrooms.
The insanity surrounding Trump's five-month presidency isn't a bug -- it's a feature. Last week's #ComeyDay captured this in a nutshell. It was impossible to watch the fired FBI director's down-to-earth, lordy-aw-shucks testimony and not conclude there's a strong case -- at least politically, if not legally -- that the president of the United States tried to obstruct justice by asking Comey to shut down the probe of ousted foreign policy adviser Michael Flynn. But whose mind was changed at this point? Instead, right-wing talk radio and Trump's partisans clung to the tiniest nuggets -- that now-private-citizen Comey funneling his personal recollections to the New York Times somehow made him a "leaker" (Journalism 101 spoiler alert: It doesn't) or the fact that he criticized one story in the Times, even as he validated scores of other articles. They grasped onto this -- and to their worldview that if Trump drives liberal and TV pundits into a froth, he must be their guy.
So not only did Comey actually rally the Trump troops -- despite the actual damning content of what he to say -- but the entire affair did something else: It provided cover for those regular Republican forces who are steadily advancing on the other front. Around the clock, as I drifted in and out of the TV room last week, I heard talking heads of every size, shape and color droning on about the True Meaning of Comey, finding 97 different ways to ask the same question: Who do you believe, Comey and the president?
The Comeypalooza crowded out any and all other news, including this: With little debate and even less fanfare, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would crush the regulations that were put in place to prevent a crash of the world economy like the one that happened the last time one of their fellow Republicans was in the White House. The dangerous bill that would undo the so-called Dodd-Frank consumer protections has a good chance of getting out of the Senate -- and Trump would certainly sign it. This may be the best example of how Trump has destroyed the normal rules of political physics. A Nixonian level of scandal is no longer something that crushes the legislative agenda of the president's party. To the contrary, Trump's power of mass distraction is allowing the GOP to push through its unpopular agenda while few are looking.
Every day, it seems increasingly likely that congressional Republicans are going to be able to squeeze through a health care bill that literally no one was asking for, that is wildly unpopular with the American public, and which would have the inhumane effect of taking health insurance away from 23 million working-class people. Not only that, but the more recent effort to get a version through the Senate is being carried out in violation of every democratic norm that once separated America from unstable banana republics -- a race to pass a bill being crafted in complete secrecy, with no debate. The latest is that the gaggle of all-male, all-white senators drafting the health care legislation will even get a Congressional Budget Office (ClBO) score without the American people knowing what's in it. An unnamed Senate aide told the Axios website: "We aren't stupid."
They aren't -- even though they apparently think the American people are. Two months ago, the initial push to repeal Obamacare had high-profile backing from Trump himself, got massive media coverage -- and died amid its rising unpopularity. But now they've learned that that media -- and to some extent, the public -- is happy to instead chase the shiny yellow ball of Trump's Twitter wars. On Capitol Hill, Republicans are obliterating the American Dream in virtual silence, and getting away with it.