There has always been a subset of American pop music for the pessimists – songs of loss and resignation. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote one that was a big hit for Peggy Lee in 1969 – Is That All There Is?
Yes, Peggy, that’s all there is. All the big deals in life turn out to be ordinary dreary disappointments. Don’t even bother killing yourself. That will be a disappointment too. Break out the booze and have a ball, if that’s all there is – and so forth and so on. The popularity of that song may have had something to do with the end of the idealistic sixties and the election of the mean and dour Richard Nixon.
Then it was Send in the Clowns – written by Stephen Sondheim for his 1973 musical A Little Night Music – his take on Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night – but made popular by Judy Collins in 1975 and again in 1977 for some reason. No one knows why. Her version was a bit excruciating – she had pitch problems – Auto-Tune didn’t come along until 1997 – but it was pessimistic enough. The lyrics are all about loss and resignation. The woman had spent her life amused at the lovable foolishness of other people. They fell in and out of love. They did foolish things. They were clowns. They made her smile – and then things go wrong for her. Damn, she’s one of them too. Send in the clowns? Don’t bother. They’re here.
That’s a song for the Trump years. There’s that anti-Trump bumper sticker – ELECT A CLOWN, EXPECT A CIRCUS – but no one expected this. The Washington Post’s Paul Waldman rants about that:
Eight months into the Trump presidency, it has become clear that never in our history have we seen so many Cabinet officials who are fundamentally opposed to the mission of the department they’ve been chosen to lead.
What is happening now goes far beyond the standard Republican desire to cut government and restrain regulation. It is nothing less than a war waged on governing itself from inside the executive branch.
Send in the clowns? Don’t bother. They’re here. There’s Scott Pruitt, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator:
He has utterly and completely rejected the premise that the role of the Environmental Protection Agency is to protect the environment. Just the opposite, in fact – everything Pruitt is doing seems designed to produce more pollution and a dirtier environment. He has now turned himself into a roving pollution advocate, trying to undermine environmental protection wherever it might be going on.
Before you say, “Well, what did you expect?” remember that this isn’t how previous Republican presidents have done things. They were never fans of the EPA, but even if they were trying to loosen environmental regulations in a variety of different ways, they’d usually find some moderate Republican to put in charge at the EPA, at least for show if nothing else. George W. Bush appointed Christine Todd Whitman, one of a dying breed of northeastern moderates. His father appointed William Reilly, who had been president of the World Wildlife Fund. The worst EPA administrator up until now was undoubtedly Ann Gorsuch (yes, Neil M. Gorsuch’s mother), but even she didn’t do the damage Pruitt is attempting, and after scandal engulfed her, Ronald Reagan replaced her with William Ruckelshaus, who had been the agency’s first administrator and was a strong environmentalist.
Waldman goes into the details of all that, but many others have, and there’s that other guy:
Many assumed that if Republicans failed to destroy the Affordable Care Act through legislation, the administration would put some effort into making it work properly, since they’re now responsible for it and will be held accountable for whatever problems there are in the health-care system. But just the opposite has happened. In fact, the Department of Health and Human Services under Tom Price has undertaken a positively breathtaking campaign of sabotage. It is no exaggeration to say they are doing everything they can to create a death spiral in the individual health-care market, trying to discourage as many people as possible from getting insurance so that the only ones who do are the sick and the old, which will drive premiums ever higher until the market completely melts down.
They have threatened to withhold cost-sharing payments from insurers, which has already driven premiums up substantially. They cut the open enrollment period in half. They slashed the budget for advertising to encourage people to enroll by 90 percent, and used some of what was left to create videos meant to discourage people from getting insurance. They canceled contracts with community groups that assist people in the sometimes complicated process of signing up. And in a particularly creative move, they’ll be shutting down healthcare.gov on all but one Sunday during open enrollment, for “maintenance.”
Waldman didn’t expect this:
I have truly never seen anything like that in all my years of observing politics. This is the agency that is mandated by law to implement the Affordable Care Act, which includes taking all the steps it can to maximize enrollment, proclaiming that it has no intention of doing so. It’s mind-boggling.
This is a circus, but we did elect a clown:
I’d contend that this is a direct result of Trump’s personal style and approach to government, which is in large part about not bothering to pay lip service to commonly-held norms of behavior or even explicit rules. Trump doesn’t bother to pretend that he cares about Americans who didn’t vote for him, or that he has a commitment to foundational democratic principles, or that there’s something wrong in using the presidency for personal financial gain. Every element of his repugnant personality and utter lack of morality is right on the table; there is nothing hidden or subtle about him.
Just as his railing against political correctness gave his supporters permission to let their hate flags fly, his naked contempt for anything resembling integrity in government gives his appointees permission to be open about their intentions.
And that explains the rest of the clown show:
There are other Cabinet officials who are waging their own wars on their departments. There’s Rex Tillerson, who can’t seem to figure out why the State Department exists. There’s Ryan Zinke, who acts as though the purpose of public lands is to be nothing more than a receptacle for fossil fuels that private companies should extract at their will. And there’s Betsy DeVos, who leads the Education Department despite having devoted her adult life to the destruction of public education in America.
Send in the clowns? Don’t bother. They’re here, and Waldman ends his much longer rant with this:
There’s an old saying that Republicans claim that government doesn’t work, then when they get control of it they set about to prove themselves right. But Trump is going much further than Republicans have before. And who knows how long it will take to undo the damage.
That’s a righteous rant, but Damian Paletta doesn’t see malice here. Paletta sees a president stuck in his ways:
After eight months of negotiations, White House officials and Republican leaders last week arrived at a secret, hard-fought compromise: They would push to lower the corporate tax rate to 20 percent.
On Sunday, President Trump walked alone to a group of reporters on a runway in New Jersey and told them his preference for the corporate tax: 15 percent.
It’s indicative of an approach Trump has employed throughout his presidency: He has taken a hands-off approach to working out policy details, keeping clear of granular discussions and declining to take a stand on the thorniest questions. When plans are almost ready, he has – again and again – demanded that they be, in vague terms, better.
He seems bored with the details of policy, and ignores them, and that has worked well for him, and now it’s killing him:
The approach was successful as a presidential candidate: It allowed Trump to promise his presidency would yield big benefits for his supporters. But by not laying out details of how he planned to deliver, Trump left his opponents with little to latch onto.
As president, however, it has yet to yield a major legislative victory – despite Republicans controlling both the House and Senate.
“It’s the chickens coming home to roost,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former Congressional Budget Office director who advised Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) during his 2008 presidential run. “This operating style I don’t think serves the process very well, and I think he got trapped into it by not being specific enough on the campaign.”
So we get no more than an oddly foolish clown show:
Now, Trump and congressional Republicans are getting another chance to claim a big victory – an opportunity to rewrite the U.S. tax code for the first time in three decades. So far, Trump has shown no signs of modifying his approach.
After dozens of closed-door meetings and public hearings, the White House and GOP leaders have still not sorted through many of the most vital details of Trump’s promise to deliver the largest tax cut in U.S. history.
There is, in short, no hammered-out tax plan, only a nine-page framework of GOP goals that have yet to be filled in or agreed to. Lawmakers now plan to clash over the details, with the White House staying in touch but giving them room to negotiate.
They stuck with the 20 percent tax-rate target in the “unified framework” released Wednesday, but some people close to Trump fear he might waver again.
No one knows what he will say next, as a new ultimate goal, but no one should be surprised:
On health care, infrastructure, the deficit and a range of other issues, the Trump administration has stopped short of specifying its platform.
On Tuesday, Trump told a handful of Republicans and Democrats in a White House meeting that he was now opposed to public-private partnerships for infrastructure programs. He cited the example of a toll road in northern Indiana that fell into bankruptcy.
“He dismissed it categorically and said it doesn’t work,” said Rep. Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.), who brought up the issue with Trump at the White House. “And in fact, pointed to Vice President Pence and said they tried in their state and it didn’t work.”
Senior administration officials were flabbergasted. They had spent months designing a $1 trillion infrastructure plan that centered on the idea of privatizing roads, air traffic control systems and other networks. On Wednesday, they were still trying to sort through whether Trump had misspoken or changed policy.
Who knew? But this is all part of an ongoing clown show:
Trump vowed to roll back the Affordable Care Act on his first day in office, but the White House never advanced a single substantive health-care proposal, relying instead on Congress, which failed multiple times to enact changes into law. When the House passed a bill in June, Trump said he supported it and hosted a Rose Garden celebration with dozens of lawmakers.
He later complained to Senate Republicans that the bill was “mean” and said they needed to change it. He didn’t specify how.
Similarly, he has cast about for ways to construct a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico, but the Trump administration has not settled on any approach, and key decisions keep getting postponed.
His budget proposal was so sparse on details that the Congressional Budget Office said they could not adequately review it, adding that “the proposals are in many cases not sufficiently specified,” and in some cases found the White House’s economic claims would “not be achievable.” There is not a complete White House plan to eliminate the deficit or expand access to health care, things that Trump has promised voters.
This isn’t malice. This is indifference to the boring details of policy. Donald Trump likes the general idea of this or that, until he doesn’t, until he does again. Others can work out the details. That results in a clown show of a different sort – but it’s still a clown show.
There is, however, a constituency for that, as Steve Kornacki explains here:
Roy Moore’s easy victory in Alabama’s Republican Senate runoff says something about President Donald Trump, who tried and failed to sell Moore’s opponent to the party base. But it says a lot more about the toxic disconnect between the GOP’s Washington establishment and its grass-roots voters.
Those are the folks who want a clown show:
Moore’s win is best viewed in the context of a series of uprisings within the Republican Party that began during Barack Obama’s presidency. The circumstances have varied, but the pattern is consistent: candidates who would once have been easy to dismiss as marginal figures knocking off impeccably credentialed men and women of the establishment in primary elections.
The first wave of them began in 2010, with Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, Joe Miller in Alaska and Rand Paul in Kentucky. Two years later, it was Richard Mourdock in Indiana and Todd Akin in Missouri. There were others, too, and not just in Senate races.
The turmoil was traumatic for national Republicans. The insurgents complicated the party’s prospects in major races, and in some cases handed victories to Democrats. They also injected fear into GOP incumbents – they might be the next victims of what was labeled the Tea Party rebellion.
In short, there was no way to handle these clowns:
The establishment scrambled to understand the anger. If its leaders could just translate it into a legislative program, then they’d restore order within their party.
The task looked simple enough. Tea Party rallies were attacking Obama’s stimulus and health care programs and highlighting the rising national debt. The movement seemed to have a libertarian bent, animated by the size of government and a sense that Republicans weren’t doing enough to contain it. So Republicans in Washington redoubled their opposition to Obama and his programs and pushed for spending cuts.
The 2014 primary season was calmer, but there was a glaring exception: Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, was ousted in a surprising primary upset in his Virginia district. The party establishment was doing a better job fortifying itself with the traditional tools of politics, but deep grass-roots restiveness remained.
The clowns were taking over, and then they won it all:
It was that restiveness that Trump rode to the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. His platform, to the extent he had one, violated much of the conventional wisdom about the Tea Party movement. He wasn’t fixated on the size of government and talked of protecting Social Security and Medicare. He advocated repealing Obamacare, but separated himself from the GOP field by insisting government did have a role to play in protecting people. He also showed protectionist instincts on trade.
His overlap with the GOP base was on cultural grounds – the wall, the Muslim ban, thumbing his nose at “political correctness.” And there was his posture of antagonism toward the party establishment. He did nothing to cultivate support from elected officials, and didn’t receive his first endorsement from a member of Congress until after he won the New Hampshire primary. Even then, they only trickled in. More than that, Trump reveled in provoking the establishment, and conveyed indifference to its disgust at his culture-war politics.
The term Tea Party was fading out, but he’d cracked its code.
At least he got that right:
The power of his appeal was not rooted in policy or ideology. He was offering, as David Brooks wrote this week, “to shred the dominant American culture and to give voice to those who felt voiceless in that culture” – and not to give a damn about the party establishment or the conventions of politics along the way. It got him the GOP nomination and just enough converts in the Rust Belt to eke out an Electoral College win.
That, however, had its price:
This is why his presidency has produced no meaningful legislative feats. The commitment of the Trump base to doing away with Obamacare is mainly attitudinal. The legislation Republicans have come up with has generated, at best, a lukewarm response from GOP voters – and wide disapproval from the rest of the electorate. Trump himself has seemed detached from and uninterested in the process, as if he senses that legislative sausage-making might rebrand him as exactly the kind of politician he ran against.
Meanwhile, Trump throws himself with abandon into culture-war battles, as he’s now doing with the NFL, and he accuses the GOP’s congressional leaders of failing him. It leads pundits to scratch their heads. How will he ever rack up actual accomplishments if he’s alienating the legislators he needs to pass bills?
The Trump base doesn’t seem to want those kinds of accomplishments.
No one knows what he wants. Maybe he doesn’t know, but this is trouble:
It could be a moment of reckoning for the leaders of Washington’s Republican establishment. For nearly a decade, they have strained to channel the base’s energy into a unifying platform. But it may be that all the base has ever really wanted was for them to be gone – all of them.
Fine, and then what? No one knows, but Josh Marshall sees this:
Last spring I said the Trump phenomenon was a product of what I termed “nonsense debt”. Republicans had spent years pumping their voters up on increasingly extreme and nonsensical claims and promises. This worked very well for winning elections. But it had also built up a debt that eventually had to be repaid. Concretely, they were making claims and promises that were either factually ridiculous, or politically unviable, or unacceptable to a broad swath of the voting public. Eventually, you get elected and need to produce. By definition that’s never really possible: both because the claims and promises are nonsensical and unviable but also because a politics based on reclamation, revenge, and impulse is almost impossible to satisfy through normal legislative politics.
A lot of what Trump in 2016 did was to hijack an opening created by this buildup of nonsense debt.
Marshall described that in February 2016.
This crystallized for me after the last GOP debate when Trump told Chris Cuomo in a post-debate interview that the IRS might be coming after him because he’s a “strong Christian.” Set aside for the moment how this unchurched libertine was able to rebrand himself as a “strong Christian.” What about the preposterous claim that he is being persecuted by the IRS because he is a devout member of the country’s dominant religion? Republicans simply aren’t in any position to criticize this ludicrous claim because they have spent years telling their voters that this sort of thing happens all the time – to Christians, conservatives, everyone the liberals at the IRS hate. And this, of course, is just one example of hate and nonsense debt coming due. Shift gears now and they’re “RINOs.”
That’s what mattered:
Now we have all of this coming home to roost in a far more explosive way. Republicans were never going to be able to turn back Obamacare and its death panels while Obama was President. That was straight-up obvious. Anyone should have understood that. But it really should have been possible for them to do it when they controlled the entire government. They clearly can’t. That same pattern has played out across the whole legislative landscape. But it’s not really a matter of two groups battling each other. It’s the fallout of a conservative movement engaging in massive resistance against the rest of the country and the inevitable cycle of extremity and betrayal that goes with that…
The core of Trumpism was a revolt against social change in America driven overwhelmingly by white voters outside the major urban centers. There are myriad ways to describe this dynamic, sympathetic and unsympathetic. It is the condescension of the urban elites and coastal America against “middle America.” Or it is white, non-urban America in revolt over the eclipse of white privilege? Regardless of the interpretation, there’s broad agreement over the dynamic itself: it is a tactically aggressive but strategically defensive action by people who feel they are being overrun and losing what should be theirs…
The same pattern remains: an inflamed core of voters who feel they are on the losing side of change and, in Bill Buckley’s phrase, standing athwart history and yelling STOP. A mix of partisan polarization, the built-in electoral advantages enjoyed by rural America, hyper-efficient gerrymandering and the concentration of Democratic voters in urban enclaves all give Republicans and the Trump base power significantly greater than its numbers. In the House and the Senate, Democrats can easily get more votes and remain in the minority. A GOP nominee can lose the popular vote and become President. It’s happened twice in the last five elections. So while I expect 2018 and 2020 will go quite badly for Trump and the Republicans, it is not at all impossible that they will get a minority of votes and retain all power.
In short, this clown show will continue:
That is disastrous for Democrats and the country. But it doesn’t change the essential dynamic of early 21st century conservatism, an infinite loop of inflammatory and engaging promises, claims and demands which are mostly entirely unrealizable, creating a permanent cycle of establishmentism and grassroots’ betrayal which continues spinning forward even as the players in each category change.
That means that American politics is now just like that song – “Isn’t it rich? Are we a pair? Me here at last on the ground, you in mid-air…”
Send in the clowns? Don’t bother. They’re here. We elected one and got our circus. And maybe we got our new national anthem.