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Donald Trump’s Twilight Zone

One year in, we still haven’t learned how to escape the Trump news cycle

By Matt Taibbi | Rolling Stone Magazine | January 23, 2018


January 2018. We’re trapped in an intellectual prison from which there is no escape. The modern American experience has been reduced to a few grim lines: President Donald Trump says something crazy; we freak out. A leak comes out; we obsess over it. Someone gets fired; the deck chairs on the sinking ship of state get rearranged a little. Trump says something crazy again. Rinse, outrage, repeat.

It’s a fatal mind loop worthy of an early Twilight Zone episode, and if you think about it (although the next presidential tweet will likely pre-empt that possibility), we’ve been riding in this same moronic circle for more than two and a half years. Cycling through the Twitter opinions about the president’s latest brain belch has become an irresistibly shallow national ritual. It’s clearly a monster distraction from something. But what, exactly?

At the one-year anniversary of his inauguration, several crises seem to have quietly worsened under the cover of Trump’s insanity. A big one is the continuing collapse of the two major political parties – particularly the Republicans, whose dysfunction now seems beyond terminal. With characteristic myopia, the GOP establishment spent most of the past year trying to rid Washington of alt-right icon and former chief Trump strategist Steve Bannon, instead of worrying about the larger problem, i.e., the voter rage that put Trump in the White House.

An intense inside game of leaks targeted the self-proclaimed Lenin of the alt-right. Bannon was blamed for the violent neofascist-march fiasco in Charlottesville and booted from the White House in response to it, despite being the only staffer to correctly predict the boss’s inability to believably denounce Nazis in public. Then Bannon was chucked from Breitbart by Trump’s billionaire pals, the hedge-fund Mercers. That was after sleazebasket wallflower author Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury depicted Bannon dumping on Trump’s “treasonous” Large Adult Son and Fredo-esque ex-bed-wetter, the embarrassing Donald Jr.

This was typical Beltway thinking, imagining that eliminating the person eliminated the problem. But by sidelining Bannon, the party overlooked who put Trump in power in the first place: millions of fist-shaking angry white guys who spent 2016 screaming kill-the-Beltway-bastards epithets like “Drain the swamp!”

Moreover, the final wipeout of Bannon came at roughly the same time Trump was helping the GOP elders pass a tax-reform bill that was shepherded through by infamous Goldman Sachs heavy Gary Cohn and was, predictably, a massive giveaway to the rich. After all that anti-establishment Sturm und Drang, in other words, Trump in just a year had been reduced to a dumber, louder version of what he spent the entire 2016 race running against: a patrician Republican toady. The Trump-voter mob was still out there, furious, but the swamp avenger they sent to Washington no longer existed even in theory.

Gary Cohn, the director of the U.S. National Economic Council, center and Jared Kushner, senior White House adviser, right, at a Cabinet meeting with Trump in November  | Photograph: Al Drago/Getty

Throughout 2016, it looked like the major consequence of Trump’s run would be the destruction of the modern Republican Party. Then he won, temporarily papering over deep schisms that had opened, really, on both sides of the political aisle. Democrats in the past year have at least had the illusion of being united by opposition to the Orange One.

Republicans have been forced to try to rule while being consumed from within by cancerous divisions, a spectacle that’s grown more gruesome and unseemly with each passing month. Watching this schizoid administration try to rule in spite of itself has been like watching the world’s worst comedian die onstage, only not for 15 minutes, but for a year, and counting. What could possibly be left of the party at the end of this nightmare?

Pre-trump, the gop was a brilliant if unlikely coalition – a healthy heaping of silent-majority racial paranoia, wedded to redundant patriotism and Christian family values, in service of one-percenter policies that benefited exactly the demographic the average Republican voter hated most of all: Richie Rich city dwellers who embraced globalist economics, read The Economist and may even have been literally Jewish. In other words, Jared Kushner.

Just 12 months later, all of those groups are now openly recoiling from one another with the disgusted vehemence of a bunch of strangers waking up in a pile after a particularly drunken and embarrassing keg party. Polls show that conservative Christians, saddled with a president who pays off porn stars and brags about grabbing women by the pussy, are finally, if slowly, slinking away from the Trump brand.

Yacht-accident victim Rupert Murdoch and other GOP kingmakers are in a worse spot. They’ve watched in horror as once-obedient viewers shook off decades of Frankensteinian programming and went rogue. Since 2016, the audience has turned to the likes of Breitbart and Alex Jones’ InfoWars for more purely distilled versions of the anti-government, anti-minority hysteria stations like Fox once pumped over the airwaves to keep old white people awake and agitated enough to watch the commercials. An October Harvard-Harris poll showed 61 percent of Republicans support Bannon’s movement to unseat the Republican establishment.

Worse, the star-chamber brains of the old GOP, the National Review “fiscal conservative” crowd that once enjoyed being lectured on grammar by William Safire just as much as it loved conning pro-corporate votes out of flyover-country hicks, spent much of Trump’s first year fleeing the party en masse. Warmongering Bush-era neoconservatives like Max Boot, Bill Kristol and David Frum, as well as TV hacks like Joe Scarborough, all loudly left the GOP in an effort to build alliances with centrist Democrats, who in an even weirder twist welcomed them with open arms.

A year into this presidency, in other words, the Republicans have become a ghost ship of irreconcilable voter blocs, piloted by a madman executive who’s now proved he’s too unstable to really represent any of them, and moreover drives party divisions wider every time he opens his mouth. House Speaker and noted anti-deficit fetishist Paul Ryan literally yelled in delight when the GOP tax bill passed. But in a broader sense, his legislative triumph was self-defeating, and only made mainstream reconciliation with voters lost to Trump in 2016 more impossible. The bill was a classic Beltway-insider lobbyist-crafted hustle, the antithesis of the “drain the swamp” election-season cry that was the last thing – apart from straight-up race-baiting, of course – to genuinely galvanize Republican voters in any direction.

From a distance, it looked like the bill’s passage meant the GOP establishment had at least temporarily regained control over both Trump and the party. But a closer look at the past year shows that, electorally speaking, the Republicans are in an even more hopeless place than in 2015. Then and now, they’re staring down a rageful electorate whose hate for the party establishment is somehow growing at an even faster rate than disappointment in their blabbermouth anti-establishment champion, Trump.

The tax-reform bill after being signed by Trump in the Oval Office | Photograph: Smialowsk/AFP/Getty

The statistical anomaly of Trump’s insoluble support has been another consistent feature of our Phantom Zone imprisonment in the Trump news cycle. With each new stupid thing he says and does, Trump’s approval rating finds a new floor. But it also always creeps back up in between scandals, and ultimately is propped up even further by the electorate’s more intense hatred of other actors. On the day of his election just over a year ago, Trump had only a 37.5 percent approval rating. And throughout the past year, despite some of the most embarrassing behaviors and statements ever made by an elected leader, his approval rating has remained steady. For the likes of Ryan and Mitch McConnell, Trump’s immovable numbers have been a riddle and an ongoing heartbreak. A hundred Trump scandals later, it’s still true that no conventional Republican can survive a primary without the mad king’s blessing.

If a vote were held tomorrow, necrotizing fasciitis would likely outpoll (at least among Republicans) GOP “centrists” like Bob Corker, Jeff Flake, Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins and McConnell, who’ve all seen massive drops in net approval rating in the past year. McConnell, whose overall approval rating has dropped to the teens in his home state of Kentucky, saw a bigger net drop last year than any senator apart from New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez, who spent most of the year on trial for corruption.

The inability of Republican Party favorites to make any inroads with Trump’s “angry common man” voter has already resulted in losses in 2018. Incumbents like Corker and Flake have announced retirement after dying on the cross of Trump criticism. In the House, at least 29 Republicans have announced they’re leaving early for various reasons, rather than run for re-election.

The Grand Old Coalition is broken. Conservative intellectuals have gone from faux-praising the ordinary Joe to arguing that too much democracy is a bad thing when dumb people are involved. And the family-values set has not only been stuck with an oversexed thrice-married pig as president, but left to watch in horror as they’ve been replaced as national moral censors by the Social Justice Warriors of the Internet. In the Harvey Weinstein era, the Christian right doesn’t even have a monopoly on bashing Hollywood mores anymore.

The nightmare scenario for the GOP being whispered about across Washington goes like this: Republicans will lose the House but not the Senate, and Democrats will use whatever emerges from the Mueller probe (which will be extended by any means necessary through November at least) to fuel impeachment proceedings not likely to succeed in Congress, but are perhaps better designed to cripple Trump at the polls in 2020. This sounds great to anti-Trumpers, but such a plan means we’re facing two more years in the mindless purgatory of the Trump news cycle, after which we get to relive the joys of 2016 all over again.

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