Populists and Plutocrats Unite!

by Michael Liss

7-11-used-gamesI was in a 7-Eleven last Sunday morning for a restorative post-jog donut, when a big, late-middle-aged man with a MAGA hat and a matching red face came in. He grabbed a few tall-boys and a bag of ice, and made his way to the check-out line. To my reasonably educated eye (and nose) those particular tall-boys weren't going to be the first of the day.

In all the kaleidoscope of images from the first two weeks of Trump's reign, there is something about this man that I cannot get out of my head. To say he seemed out of place in my 83%-for-Hillary Congressional District would be an understatement—but there he was. Wow—a perfect specimen of a stereotypical Trump voter as if drawn in an editorial cartoon! Obviously, I wasn't actually going to interact with him, but this rara avis had somehow wandered into my cloistered neck of the woods and even allowed himself to helped by the Pakistani staff in the store.

I know this sounds idiotic, like the crowing of a rock-hound who found a really exciting piece of quartz. But I'm a politics junkie, and I had just finished reading Barron's Magazine's annual Roundtable. Several of the ultra-wealthy panelists were absolutely giddy about the possibilities of a Trump Presidency. All they could see was the banquet of tax cuts and regulatory rollbacks and unlimited drilling, without those nasty environmental rules. In my naiveté, I expected some concern about international trade agreements, immigration, engagement with Europe, relations with China and Russia, and just "Presidentialness," but these shrewd businesspeople seemed quite blasé. Trump was going to be good for the balance sheet, and everything else was irrelevant.

Pitchforks and pince-nez's. Key parts of the minority coalition that make possible Trump's unprecedented grasp at power. All demonstrative of a critical point: Getting on the Trump Train isn't purely ideological. For many it's not even comfortable. But it is purposeful, with an expectation that Trump will reward and punish in a way that satisfies.

To keep this unique piece of machinery together, Trump has to feed the beast. To date, he has done this exceedingly well. First, the carrot—he's acted on deliverables: Walls, regulations, immigrants, terrorists, gays, religion, Planned Parenthood, national right-to-work, the Supreme Court—each designed to please one or more groups of supporters. Second, the stick—complete ruthlessness, even to the point of recklessness, both in policy initiatives and enforcement. Buck him, be you humble or mighty, and you will be flayed, drawn and quartered, with your remains left for the public to see.

The magnitude of Trump's complete dominance is hard to grasp. His reach is seemingly everywhere. Congressional Republicans have learned that some of their own staffers have been secretly communicating with the White House on policy issues, even as they themselves have been frozen out. Presidential mouthpiece Sean Spicer has made it clear that career diplomats "either get with the program or they can go." Apolitical is out and even "committed Republican" isn't really valued. Trump and Bannon appear to be tearing down the "Deep State" and building one of their own with people selected for loyalty to them.

Just how Imperial will Trump's Imperial Presidency be? What's to stop this runaway authoritarian train?

Clearly, it is not going to be the Democrats, who are running about like chickens without heads. First of all, they just don't have the bodies (with or without heads). While numerically they are stronger in Congress than the Republicans were, following the 2008 election, they lack organizational skills, a deep leadership bench, and a killer instinct. At the state level, they are completely hopeless. Second, they are in the middle of their own internecine conflicts, still sorting out blame for November's result, and divided over the best tactics to oppose the regime. What little leverage they have is in the Senate, but with several of their own Senators endangered in 2018, they have to be ultra-careful. The best they can do is let Schumer (surprisingly clever, despite the New-Yawk-ness) try to interest McConnell in a deal—some principled (but not terminally obstructive) Democratic opposition now for some reciprocity later on. But that's the best he can do. A full scale assault, no matter how emotionally satisfying, would be suicidal. McConnell will just do away with the rules, as he did last week in considering several Cabinet nominations, and everything will become straight party line.

It is also not going to be the Federal courts, at least not in any comprehensive way. Trump is a shotgun, and the courts are old-fashioned bolt-action rifles. We tend to think of the Federal Court system as a thing of grandeur, with a broad sweep, but the reality is different. Even if you can find a sympathetic judge, and the ruling survives on appeal, we should remember that the courts are more likely to define the outer boundaries of what Trump can do, rather than what he should do. Bad judgment and even malevolence does not mean overstepping Constitutional boundaries. Couple that with the very real possibility that Trump craves a confrontation (there are reports that the CBP at Dulles Airport refused to honor a court order during "immigration weekend"), and we could end up with a Constitutional crisis. One thing we do know is that Trump has zero respect for the rule of law and even less for any "so-called" judge who disagrees.

That leaves us with the Republicans, and before you attempt to stifle that snicker, perhaps I should try to refine this more. Right now, Trump has them where he wants them. They crave the goodies. For years, they have waited for this moment to transform the country into a conservative paradise akin to Franco's Spain—a government serving Business, the Military, and Religion, and doing it with a heavy hand. Trump can deliver. So, whatever their doubts, whatever a David Brooks or Michael Gerson might be saying about Faustian bargains, there's also a Mitch McConnell and a Paul Ryan telling them that unity is essential, and, if it's a choice between eternal salvation and the Keystone Pipeline, go for the gas.

And yet, there is a catch. They don't want to be the second Mrs. Trump (technically, the fourth one), so they are pretending he's sui generis, that there is a distance between the type of man he is, and the less sybaritic, more thoughtful and sober "Pence-people" they are. But they know this won't hold—the Trump brand will define them, possibly for decades, if they don't extricate themselves and reclaim the manhood they have put into a blind trust.

The problem for them is to determine when. When do they stand up and intervene? Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), speaking about ACA Repeal and Replace, said something quite revealing, "We'd better be sure that we're prepared to live with the market we've created…That's going to be called Trumpcare. Republicans will own that lock, stock and barrel, and we'll be judged in the election less than two years away."

There it is: if you want to get a politician's attention, talk to him about the jobless rate—his own. Apply McClintock's formulation more broadly: When will Republicans own it, and what happens to Trump's (and their) base when the hard work of governing really begins? When will the Caligula Act, the rantings, the baseless accusations, the threats, and the outright lies grow thin?

In the short term, the MAGA-Tall-Boy crowd have Trump's back. They love the eruptions. And the plutocrats will happily clip their Trump coupons. But you can only do bread and circuses so long. At some point the populists are going to look for cold, hard cash, and they are likely to find that it's not in their pockets—it's with the suits. And the suits…. Trump and the GOP will continue to shovel money and favorable legislation at them, but the disruption in trading relationships, the loss of talented immigrants for the high-tech industries, and the possibility of international incidents will finally demonstrate a harsher reality. There will come a time when Trump-love won't be in season.

Is that the moment Republicans pull back from over-reach? Isn't that already too late, for them, and the rest of the country? Every excess, every violation of a norm, whether it's by Trump, or by Congress pushing aside the rules in its quest for the ultimate high, moves us closer to a form of national government with which no one is familiar. Even the Koch brothers, who stand to profit enormously, understand and have been expressing concern about the risks of concentration of power. The more Trump and the GOP weaponize the authority of the State to pursue an agenda, the greater the possibility of abuse—and payback, if the Democrats ever regain control. We don't want a Rodrigo Duterte, or a Hugo Chávez.

But it's easy to look the other way. Easy to tell yourself it's just noise and he isn't serious. Easy to let yourself be convinced through some strained analogy that the other guy did it, so there's precedent. Easy to say to yourself it's better to wait–let's just pass a few more bits of legislation. Easy to loosen your grip, for just a moment, and let it slip through your fingers.

A close friend forwarded to me, and provided the translation for, a quote from the centrist Suddeutsche Zeitung:

"Autokraten lügen nicht, weil sie an die Lüge glauben, sondern um Unterwerfung zu erzwingen. China ist für diese missbrauchte Sprache ein wunderbares Beispiel. Wenn es schlecht läuft, könnte Amerika bald auch eines werden."

"Dictators don't lie because they believe the lies. Instead they require submission. China is an outstanding example of this abuse. If it should go badly America can soon be one of these."

Submission shouldn't be in the American DNA.