That meteorologist who invented the term “bomb cycle” to describe the mushroom cloud of weather hell that’s been unleashed over the East Coast this weekend surely had no idea that he also coined the ideal term to describe the perfect storm of political and existential chaos currently swirling around 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in our nation’s capital. Last week’s hopes for a more tranquil and, to steal the word of the moment, “stable” 2018 seemed to vanish in the haze as soon as President Trump returned to the West Wing, whipped out his trusty Apple device and opened his Twitter app.
Indeed, exactly one week into the new year (only 51 more to go!), the hardest part about writing a column about the escalating political bombogenesis in Washington is choosing which of the many dangerous thoroughfares to go down. The Trump White House, and to some extent the entire Establishment, is in full meltdown mode over questions about the president’s mental capacity and fitness, as well as a GOP pushback to rescue Trump’s presidency that is threatening some of our most cherished democratic norms. Those two stories — especially the first one, fueled by the over-the-top, gossipy and yet devastating portrait of Trump in Michael Wolff’s new exposé The Fire and the Fury — are getting much of the ink, so I’m here to remind you of the third crisis, which few folks are talking about.
Let’s quickly review. It’s impossible to understate the peril to the nearly 242-year-old American Experiment right now — the greatest since …Watergate, Vietnam and urban unrest of the 1960s and ’70s? The Civil War? It’s hard to say because America has never had a commander-in-chief quite like Donald Trump, nor was such an unsuitable man fully anticipated by the Founding Fathers. In recent days, the portrait of presidential inadequacy that should have been clear from the very first moment that orange hurricane of hair descended the Trump Tower escalators in June 2015 has now come into full, horrifying focus.
There are serious, legitimate questions about whether Trump has the mental capacity to serve as president. The questions about Trump’s personality – his extreme narcissism, his inability to focus in meetings, his refusal to read or to understand the basics of how American government or even the presidency is supposed to work — and whether, at age 71, his mind is showing signs of deterioration have gone from a whisper to a scream with the publication of the Wolff tome. Trump’s Twitter defense that he’s a “stable genius” who is “like, really smart” only made matters worse.
It’s especially noteworthy how many Trump insiders describe POTUS 45 as a “moron” or an “idiot,” with an f-bomb for good measure. The veteran political observer James Fallows wrote a great essay about how Trump’s fundamental incapacity is now called “an open secret” — just like the predatory abuses of Harvey Weinstein and others in Hollywood — and, yet, even with the secret out of the bag, America seems incapable of action. This despite the growing awareness that Trump’s rash and impulsive actions — such as his latest Twitter taunts of a nuclear-armed Kim Jong-un — could spark World War III.
Rather than address Trump’s unfitness, GOP leaders (and Trump) are plunging America into banana republic-style authoritarianism. Remember those hazy, crazy days of 2015-16, when the most alarmist of the Never Trump crowd were warning that putting The Donald in the Oval Office would lead to Hitler Lite (or maybe not Lite) moves like banning books or siccing the state apparatus on his political opponents? Over the top and out of line, right? But less than a year into Trump’s presidency, moves in those dangerous directions are already underway.
The push by Trump to hire power attorneys to try to squelch the publication of a book (Wolff’s) because he doesn’t like it probably falls into the Hitler Lite category, but any move at all toward book banning by the president of the United States is beyond alarming. What’s more, we’ve learned just in the last few days that — paralleling the wishes of Trump and his “Lock her up!” supporters — the FBI has reopened a probe into the Clinton Foundation linked to the president’s election opponent, even after its agents found in 2016 that the allegations lacked merit. And that’s only part of a sweeping Republican effort to denigrate the FBI, its former director James Comey, career prosecutors in the Justice Department — essentially anyone who poses a threat to Trump’s hegemony. With the allegations still swirling about Russian interference in the 2016 election — potentially the biggest scandal since Watergate — GOP senators are responding by making a criminal referral against the investigator who worked to expose the conspiracy. This is transparently authoritarian stuff that would embarrass even the worst tinhorn dictator in its brazenness — a real constitutional crisis.
But here’s the thing. The understandable drama over the potential threats posed by Trump’s presidency — nuclear war with North Korea, or a brand of neo-fascism here at home — tend to ignore the very important third leg of this stool. Despite all the seeming dysfunction at the White House, the current administration is churning out actual policy changes that are unpopular at best and, at their worst, will cause very real harm.
Let’s look at a few things that have happened just since New Year’s Day:
Offshore drilling. After the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, which spewed somewhere on the order of four million barrels of oil into one of North America’s environmental treasures, creating problems that persisted for years, the Obama administration took some steps aimed at trying to prevent another such accident. The moves — including new regulations updating the technology that prevents spills, and restrictions on drilling in environmentally sensitive areas of the Atlantic and Pacific — seemed like common sense and in fact have been criticized by some environmentalists as too tepid. Yet the Trump administration saw them as extreme.
As part of a seeming crusade to reverse any regulation with “Obama” branding, Team Trump is undoing the anti-spill regs and has unveiled a plan to allow offshore drilling pretty much everywhere in the United States — upsetting not just the usual suspects but Republican governors and lawmakers from Florida to New Jersey who know that a spill could destroy tourism and their local seafood industry. When the second Deepwater Horizon happens — and that just became much, much more likely –the crude will be on President Trump’s tiny hands.
Marijuana. Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, after a lifetime devoted to “states rights” when it comes to stuff like black people voting, now supports sweeping federal authority to upend marijuana legalization in states like Colorado, Washington and now California that, coincidentally, voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. It’s understood that Sessions is probably sincere in his lifelong conviction that marijuana is a destructive drug, but his move isn’t just petty but bad policy, which could divert government attention from the very real opioid crisis and resume the mass-incarceration regime that has been so destructive in so many communities.
Segregation in public housing. It’s shocking that we’re even still talking about this issue — on the 40th anniversary of the passage of the landmark 1968 Fair Housing Act, in the aftermath of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination — but on Friday the Trump administration announced a delay in an Obama-era rule (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) that would have strengthened efforts to prevent racial segregation in public housing, something that Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson considers “a failed socialistic experiment.”
The harm caused by these Trump policy reversals isn’t hypothetical but real — and proof that, even as Trump himself chugs Diet Cokes and spends much of his day watching the Fox News Channel, he has still managed to install ideological zealots creating disasters that will take years to undo, especially since the soonest that a new Congress and new president could reverse these moves is January 2021. When I called these policy reversals “insane” in the headline, it’s not just because they threaten things like public health and the nation’s social fabric, although there is that.
These policy moves are also wildly unpopular. More than six out of 10 Americans want stronger environmental protections and restrictions on oil drilling — the polar opposite of what has happened under Trump. And do you want to know what’s even more popular? The legalization of marijuana. It’s backed not just by 64 percent of Americans, but even by a majority of Republicans. Simply put, we have done the opposite of what the Founding Fathers intended for this country. We have managed to install a government that is operating contrary to the will of the American people. Whether they can get away with it for three more years, or longer, will determine whether the American experiment has indeed failed.