A recent opinion piece written by an unnamed senior official in the Trump administration calls out the obvious and terrifying failings of the president, while assuring Americans that "adults in the room" are limiting the damage. Both the piece and President Donald Trump's impetuous, adversarial and petty response torched a furor among the commentariat. Once more talk of removing Trump through the 25th Amendment revived; talk shows probed the motives of the author; Trump fed the story further by launching a public search for the "treasonous" writer. But the op-ed is more a trap than a boon for Democrats: The narrow focus on Trump's odious zaniness distracts from the true destructiveness of the course pursued by the administration and the Republican-led Congress.
This fixation on the Trump circus provides a perverse setup for Republicans, as illustrated in their virtually universal reaction to the unnamed op-ed. They express dismay at Trump's personal idiosyncrasies, and then pivot to touting the results of the policies. As Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, put it, "My approach is to ignore the political circus and focus on substance. And on substance, we're getting an enormous amount accomplished for the American people." The anonymous senior official echoes that, praising the administration's "bright spots" of "effective deregulation," "historic tax reform" and money for a "more robust military," while assuring Americans that "adults in the room" – not the "deep state," but the "steady state" – are working to blunt Trump's craziness, particularly on trade, Russia and foreign policy.
This outrageous assertion, rather than Trump's tired antics, deserves more attention. What the author calls "effective deregulation" is really packing departments with corporate lobbyists busily rolling back worker, consumer and environmental protections. Leading targets for these appointees have included gutting the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, slashing the Environmental Protection Agency enforcement budget and weakening civil rights enforcement across the government.
"Historic tax reform" refers to massive tax breaks larded on corporations and the rich, while the promises that workers would see raises turned out to be a predicted and predictable ruse. The money that Trump promised would be used to rebuild America went instead to comfort the already very comfortable.
Lavishing more money on the Pentagon – the largest source of waste, fraud and abuse in the federal government and already by far the most expensive military in the world – won't make us more secure.
Meanwhile, the so-called adults in the room are frustrating a number of Trump promises – to move to balanced trade, build a working relationship with Russia, and get the troops out of Afghanistan and Syria – that actually made sense.
When Trump was elected, Luigi Zingales, an Italian-born professor and a close observer of the smarmy Italian tycoon and politician Silvio Berlusconi – in my view, the closest modern-day parallel to Trump – advised Democrats not to focus on the man or his personality or the latest scandals. Doing so would only reinforce Trump supporters' views that the discredited establishment was trying to frustrate their champion. Instead, Zingales said, the opposition should probe the forces that brought Trump to power and expose the big lie behind his fake populist posturings.
As Zingales argued, demagogues such as Trump come to power because people are alienated and angry – often justifiably so. The demagogues behave repugnantly, but when the opposition focuses on that awful behavior – as Hillary Clinton did in the election campaign – it is playing a losing hand. The more the elite go after Trump, Zingales suggests, the more people think, "He's one of us." Reflecting on this, David Leonhardt of the New York Times concluded, "The successful strategy . . . is to treat the demagogue like a normal politician who is failing to deliver. . . . Democrats need to cast [Trump] more like a plutocrat and feckless president and less like a buffoon and a cartoon villain."
Last week, former president Barack Obama returned to the fray and got it mostly right. The backlash against change, he argued, didn't start with Trump: "He's a symptom, not the cause." Obama wasn't about to admit that the backlash has roots in the failure of both parties' establishments, but he was right to sayit is used by "the powerful and the privileged who want to keep us divided and keep us angry . . . because that helps them maintain the status quo and keep their power and keep their privilege." He then indicted the Republican-led Congress for opening the sluice gates to allow billionaires to corrupt our politics; systematically working to make it harder for the young, minorities and the poor to vote; handing out tax cuts to the rich; slashing the safety net; working to take health insurance away from millions of Americans; rejecting science and common sense on climate change; subsidizing corporate polluters and more.
The instability of the commander in chief is frightening. The circus that is the Trump White House is constantly titillating. But Democrats would be wiser to focus not just on Trump's inanities but also on the real damage that he and his Republican allies are doing to our country.
Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor and publisher of the Nation magazine.