All Commentary
Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Palace Is in Turmoil but the Country Is Not

Trump once said that the nation-state “remains the true foundation for happiness and harmony.” Not really.

Technology (“Hey Google, what’s the news?”) and the wildly entertaining events in the Beltway have turned me into something of a news hound. Last night, I was focused on finishing up my piece on neoliberalism for several hours, during which time I had noticed the latest earth-shaking revelations from the Belly of the Beast.

Trump, despite every intention, has given the “mainstream media” a second and third life.The headlines were blaring yet again. Comey has a memo! He will soon tell all. Special prosecutor! I devoured these revelations. For me, this stuff has become more delightful than gaming, golfing, or pro basketball. It even bests bird watching.

The media that Trump has been demonizing since early in the campaign is loving every minute. They too are businesses and need public interest that translates to traffic and advertiser dollars. It’s how they stay in business, and good for them. Trump, despite every intention, has given the “mainstream media” a second and third life. They have been hoping for a new Watergate for forty-plus years. It’s their template for success, respect, and profits. 

What Crisis?

But beware of one line about the unfolding soap opera in D.C.: the claim that the country is in crisis. Just this morning I read that the nation is becoming “incapacitated and paralyzed” and because its center is “tumbling toward entropy.” Vanity Fair speaks of the “demise of the American experiment.”

Don’t believe it. A palace crisis is not the same thing as a country crisis. Your interest in this topic – if you are interested – is not the same as the country’s interest. And truly, it turns out that most people are not paying much attention, and for good reason. They long ago wrote off national politics and White House shenanigans as not worth their attention.

The president is not what keeps the country together.My mom is a solid example. Before I was born, she was a Goldwater girl. Something happened between then and now to cause her to lose all interest. It might have been Watergate actually. It took up too many evenings. Nixon eventually resigned and Ford took over and he was eventually replaced by Carter and then Reagan and life unfolded rather normally thereafter.

After too much watching of endless Watergate hearings, and realizing that her interest didn’t matter in the slightest, she became non-political, which is to say that she carried around a general hope to be left alone by all these causes, people, and political affairs. She is far more concerned about normal things: friends, home, family, and so on.

I’m not sure for whom she voted this time around. She realizes that politics is mostly theater, and there is no reason to watch if it is not what you enjoy. She certainly has no civic obligation to care about that which she cannot control.

In any case, she called me last night. I immediately started in on the latest news. I finished breathlessly and she said was glad because it gave her the chance to talk to me about why she called in the first place, which had nothing to do with all this nonsense. So far as she is concerned, there is no crisis in the land. There is only some kind of silliness happening in Washington. She’s been there, done that, and won’t do it again.

She intuits what many people in the media do not want to admit. The president is not what keeps the country together, if it is or ever was “together” in the way the civics texts say it should be. Not even the government generally is the reason our lives work well. For the most part, society works around government, not because of it.

The Beat Goes On

The media proclaims a crisis of democracy. But I look out the window and I see most everyone going about normal life, headed to work, school, shopping, and picking up their favorite snack from the fast food window. Admit it: nothing has really changed. And nothing will change, no matter how this mess is resolved. For most everyone who cares, D.C. antics are just solid entertainment. After all, this is why Trump is president. He engaged our interest more than his competitors.

As with Obama before him, Trump’s most dedicated supporters during the election had wildly overblown expectations for the glorious things this “God Emperor” will do for the nation and world. As with Obama before him, he was glad to puff up those expectations as high as they could go. Now is the time of their demoralization. It appears that this administration will be mired in palace intrigue for a very long time, so that neither nirvana nor apocalypse will happen anytime soon.  

The founders literally overthrew government control, not just one part of it but the whole of it, with no plan for what might happen after.But you would never know this from the wild panic you read in the press these days. You would swear that if someone doesn’t do something drastic and fast, all systems will fail. And truly, if your worldview is such that you believe government is the reason for all life goodness and the force behind civilization itself – and the so-called “leader of the free world” is the reason for it – then you probably might panic. The center is no longer holding!

If you accept a more realistic view, it is a different matter. An example of this would be the framers themselves. They were part of a generation that literally overthrew government control, not just one part of it but the whole of it, with no plan for what might happen after. They said: down with the tyrant, and that was the end of the story.

The government they put together after the American Revolution was hardly a government at all, and it served them well for a peaceful and prosperous decade before the Constitution was ratified.

The Power To Impeach

After which the US installed a Constitution, which included something rather radical: the power to impeach the president. This power belonged to the legislature, which is to say to the representatives of the states and the people. Alexander Hamilton said at the time that the impeachment power was crucial to distinguishing our system from a monarchy.

“The President of the United States would be liable to be impeached, tried, and, upon conviction of treason, bribery, or other high crimes or misdemeanors, removed from office; and would afterwards be liable to prosecution and punishment in the ordinary course of law. The person of the king of Great Britain [in contrast] is sacred and inviolable; there is no constitutional tribunal to which he is amenable; no punishment to which he can be subjected without involving the crisis of a national revolution. In this delicate and important circumstance of personal responsibility, the President of Confederated America would stand upon no better ground than a governor of New York, and upon worse ground than the governors of Maryland and Delaware.” ~ Alexander Hamilton, Federalist 69

Now, if the framers believed that the president was so crucial to life functioning, they wouldn’t have made it possible for the legislature constantly threaten the person with losing his job. You get the sense from reading the Federalist Papers that they expected that impeachment would happen fairly regularly and be threatened constantly. This was never true under monarchy (unless a portion of the public disbelieved that the correct sovereign was in power).

True, the powers of the presidency were far fewer in those days but this too should be a wake-up call to people left, right, and center. If the threat of impeachment really is that destabilizing to life itself, it is probably the case that the presidency needs radically to have its power and authority reduced.

Even today, if there is a crisis, it is not because government is losing credibility; it is because we have customarily attributed to government far too much credibility.

The Markets

Now, part of the cited evidence for why this D.C. drama is more than entertainment concerns the financial markets. They have been under pressure at home and abroad ever since the revelations of all sorts of White House perfidy. Why is this? Most likely, the prices of financial assets have soared since Trump’s election due to the expectation of tax and regulatory cuts. A crippled presidency and Republican party make those far less likely.

It’s just us. And that’s a great thing to realize.For me, this is very sad. Call me naive, but I actually believed that this might be one source of good to come from this administration, amidst much rightly denounced bad. I even hoped for health care reform. These are not to be, not any time soon. We are once again back to confusion, distraction, and inaction in government. 

I can think of worse fates. Some very bad ideas – trade wars, drug wars, the rebuilding of the prison state, trillion-dollar infrastructure, and so on – might also be stopped. 

Perhaps this is a good time to regroup, reset, rethink. For anyone who depends on a finely tuned policy and governing apparatus to be the reason for the good life, it might be time to prepare for a new way of thinking and living.

Which might be a silver lining to emerge from this political season. If the D.C. intrigue inspires the American people to prepare for life without help from Washington, it might all be worth it.

Trump once said that the nation-state “remains the true foundation for happiness and harmony.” Not really. It’s just you, me, our friends and family, our communities, our trading relationships, and so on. It’s just us. And that’s a great thing to realize.