Whatever you think of comedian Bill Maher, you have to credit him for his apt description of the Donald Trump presidency: Maher, along with others, is calling it a slow-motion coup.
A coup that, as he asserted several weeks ago, Donald Trump is winning.
On his home turf, Trump is indeed winning. He’s not a terribly popular president; his ratings have languished in the low-40s. But recently they have leveled out and show signs of rising. And he gets a very high rate of approval in his own Congress-controlling party, edging up toward 90 percent.
Establishment Republicans who aren’t enthusiastic about Trump — Sen. Bob Corker, Sen. Jeff Flake, Rep. Paul Ryan, Sen. John McCain — are being edged out or marginalized. And primary elections last week in Virginia and South Carolina portray the peril of opposing Trump. Moderate Republicans are being pushed aside in favor of candidates who vigorously support the president.
It’s not at all preposterous to suggest that Trump now owns his party.
And he’s put his growing power to use. In the May 21 issue of the New Yorker, Evan Osnos describes an extensive, systematic and effective campaign to nudge out the experienced, non-partisan civil servants who work in our nation’s bureaucracies and replace them with Trump loyalists. This often results in inactivity, incompetence or the ill-considered reversal of policies inherited from the Obama administration.
And whether you think that’s a good thing or not, there’s no question that, for Trump, it represents winning.
Trump is winning on the road, as well. The alienation of our best long-time allies at the G-7 meeting in Canada would be a fiasco in ordinary times, but it inflicted no harm to Trump’s support among his base.
In any case, the G-7 was quickly eclipsed by the Singapore summit. Even though that summit accomplished very little, if anything, memories of the pageantry and the warm glow of diplomacy should last at least until the midterms.
“So much winning,” as Trump promised during the campaign.
I am not assuming that you think that all of this winning is a bad thing. Almost 63 million Americans voted for Trump and many of them are still deeply committed to him.
Still, many other Americans have misgivings about Trump that reflect the legitimate political differences that are customary in a healthy two-party system. How do we confront climate change (yes, it is, indeed, real) with an administration that either denies or ignores it? How do we fund legitimate government enterprises (or at least keep the debt under reasonable control) when the essential principle of our governing party is tax breaks for the rich? How do we deal with the daily firearms carnage in our country?
These are tough practical issues, but they’re unlikely to be resolved as long as Trump is doing “so much winning.” But my own misgivings are more philosophical, and they’re embodied in two related questions:
First, how did we become the country that thinks that everyone else is out to get us? Even though we’re clearly the strongest country in the world and among the most prosperous, somehow everybody else has been taking tremendous advantage of us for decades.
Second, why have so many of us so casually relinquished our willingness to think critically about things that are true and things that are not true?
The answer to both these questions resides in Trump’s powerful personality. His life is informed by a sense of persecution, complaint and grievance. Everything is always someone else’s fault.
And, as his impromptu press conference on the grounds of the White House last Friday clearly demonstrates, he is simply wrong about many, many things.
What should worry us is that these two elements — a real or imagined sense of grievance and an unwillingness to take a critical attitude toward facts — are essential to the rise of fascism and autocracy.
And in our country both of these elements, along with Donald Trump, appear to be winning.
Oh, and the rise of autocracy at the expense of democracy requires one more essential element: complacency.
John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Georgetown, Texas, and can be reached at email@example.com.