President Trump in January on Air Force One for the first time. Credit Doug Mills/The New York Times
You’ve got to give him credit — Donald Trump is a lot more adaptable than many of his critics.
Many of them reacted to Trump’s shocking election victory in the fall with the view, which was justified at the time, that Trump represented a unique and unprecedented threat to the republic. He was a populist ethnic nationalist aiming to drag this country to a very ugly place. He was a crypto fascist, aiming to undermine every norm and institution of our democracy.
Many of us Trump critics set our outrage level at 11. The Trump threat was virulent, and therefore the response had to be virulent as well.
The side benefit was we got to luxuriate in that rarest of political circumstance: a pure contest between right versus wrong. Everything seemed to be in such stark polarities: pluralism versus bigotry, democracy versus fascism, love trumps hate.
Trump’s totalistic menace allowed us to stand deliciously on the side of pure righteousness.
The problem is that Trump has now changed and many of his critics refuse to recognize the change. He’s not gotten brighter or humbler, but he’s gotten smaller and more conventional. Many of his critics still react to him every single day at Outrage Level 11, but the Trump threat is at Level 3 or 4.
These days a lot of the criticism seems over the top and credibility destroying. The “resistance movement” still reacts as if atavistic fascism were just at the door, when the real danger is everyday ineptitude. These critics hyperventilate at every whiff of scandal in a way that only arouses skepticism.
If you are losing a gravitas battle to Donald Trump, you are really in trouble.
The Trump threat has become smaller in three ways.
First, it is increasingly clear that everything about Trump is less substantial than it appears. Trump will be the last president who grew up entirely in the TV age, post-print but pre-internet.
In the Trump mental framework, everything exists in segments and episodes. Ratings are the ultimate criteria of value.
This means he is the master of the pseudo-event, the artificial happening that exists to generate TV coverage but leaves no lasting mark. This means that everything can change in an instant.
Nothing is more weighty or complicated than can be covered in a three-minute news summary. Every policy initiative is actually just pastillage, those brittle sugar sculptures that you see atop fancy desserts that crumble and dissolve at first contact with reality.
Trump’s tax plan is being treated as an actual plan, but it is just a sugar sculpture — 100 off-the-top-of-the-head words on a piece of paper, grappling with no hard issues and with no chance of passing in anything like the current form.
Second, Trump’s competency level has risen from catastrophic to merely inadequate. In the first few weeks, Trump was shooting himself in the foot on an hourly basis. But as time has gone by, he has hired better people and has shifted power within the White House to those who are trying to at least build a normal decision-making process.
His foreign policy moves have been, if anything, kind of normal. His administration has committed to NATO, backed off his China bashing, confirmed Iran’s compliance with its nuclear agreement obligations and exercised some restraint on North Korea.
Third, Trump has detached himself from the only truly revolutionary movement of our time. If the current world order is going to really be disrupted, it will be because a U.S. president taps into the anger seething among the globe’s rural working classes. It will be because the U.S. leads a coalition of the global populist strongmen.
Trump seemed inclined to do that a few months ago, but not today. Sure, he’ll send out a pro-Le Pen tweet, but Trump has mostly switched from being a subversive populist to being a conventional corporatist. His administration-defining motif now is being pro-business — lightening regulations, embracing the Export-Import Bank and offering to lower corporate taxes.
Parts of the Trump economic policy agenda are pretty good — corporate tax rates are indeed too high. Parts are pretty bad — threatening the Paris accords on global warming. But there’s nothing unusual. It looks like any Republican administration that is staffed by people whose prejudices were formed in 1984 and who haven’t had a new thought since.
Far from being a fighter, Trump tends to back off when his plans face resistance, like during this week’s budget showdown. He is the ultimate protean man. He’ll never be deep, because of his TV-shaped attention span, but the style of his superficiality is likely to change radically over the next few years.
Don’t get me wrong. I wish we had a president who had actual convictions and knowledge, and who was interested in delivering real good to real Americans. But it’s hard to maintain outrage at a man who is a political pond skater — one of those little creatures that flit across the surface, sort of fascinating to watch, but have little effect as they go.