Today is day 100 of the presidency of Donald J. Trump. And we’re all still here. While it’s a pretty silly exercise to try to evaluate the effectiveness of an administration in a hundred days, the last three months or so have certainly given us some things to think about. It’s a bit like the first drive of the Super Bowl. It’s not going to determine the outcome. But you get a sense of what the team with the ball thought was a good idea. And if they were able to do it.
To that point, it’s pretty clear that the Trump administration had a few ideas about what running the federal government was about. It’s clear that they thought that executive orders were something you just got to do as the executive. As were offensive military actions. And it’s clear that they didn’t really grasp the actual mechanics of things like judicial review or the need for military action to actually be more materially successful than the costs they exact. Those are all things that you can file fairly quickly into the category of growing pains I guess. And maybe not something to be too concerned about. Unless of course you’re any of the people that got killed by those military actions. Or any of the people whose lives have been made materially worse by those executive orders, even if they weren’t entirely executed.
The President tipped his hand a bit this week in an interview when he said being president was “harder than he thought it would be.” Which was met with incredulity by many a critic. I actually didn’t mind the comment. It’s what every president has ever said after they left. He just blurted it out a little early. Trump style. Why not, right? Other people’s confidence has never really been his thing anyway. He’s got enough of his own for everyone. It’s just another bizarre thing we’ve gotten used to already.
There is something to note about the last 100 days that’s actually pretty material though. It was subtle at first. But as each day goes on, it’s becoming clearer. And it’s actually a little bit, well, normal. It’s that Donald Trump is in fact, a Republican president. Or more accurately, he’s a Donald Trump version of a Republican president. Which is to say, grossly exaggerated, undisciplined and entirely unencumbered by any need whatsoever to appear decent or principled. And there’s something actually counter-intuitively comforting about that. Not because it will be effective. Or because I agree with it politically. But because it appears, at first glance at least, like most of the 1930’s Germany style campaign shenanigans, and the alt right white supremacist awakening, was mostly campaign bullshit.
Now, before you mistake this for me saying that everything is ok and we should all relax, please realize, I’m really saying that it appears that we likely elected a strange and so far not super effective Republican president when many originally feared we handed the keys to Hitler. So, yes, I’m relieved. But only in the way I’d be relieved that I drove my car into a lake instead of off a cliff. It still doesn’t make me feel great about the direction of our government.
In hindsight though, with a few months of distance behind us now, if you think what Donald Trump did during the election was something directionally different, I’d challenge that. The velocity and veracity of it was new. But it was, in effect, the same old Republican campaign message. I lost it a bit in the insanity of the delivery. But it was the tried and true strategy of winning the electorate by linking the Dixie Block Nations, as Colin Woodward calls in his fantastic chronicle of American cultural history American Nations, with the Appalachian thread of the midwest through the common values of white superiority and religion. And since Trump was light on religion, though he did make a miraculous conversion, he knew he could stir the pot of latent white resentment to solidify a movement. Which has been the Republican way to win elections since the Civil Rights Act. For the record, Woodward wrote his opus in 2011, years before anyone took Trump seriously. Like I said, it’s not new.
Now that Trump’s in Office, you can see the well-worn conservative path materialize even more clearly by triangulating the Trump campaign rhetoric with the first hundred days in office and the Trump exaggerated circus multiplier (trademark to follow?) and it’s near mathematical. Historian Thomas Franke lays out the eerily similar conservative blueprint in What’s the Matter with Kansas in 2005 when he attempted to describe how his home Appalachian state slowly swung from working class Democratic to staunch Republican. Note the date. It was before anyone even knew who Barack Obama was. Franke’s description of campaigns transitioning into governance seem as if they were written on a cocktail napkin that Steve Bannon slid over to the Donald at a fundraiser:
“Vote to stop abortion, receive a rollback in capital gains taxes. Vote to make our country strong again; receive deindustrialization. Vote to screw those politically correct college professors; receive electricity deregulation. Vote to get government off our backs; receive conglomeration and monopoly everywhere from media to meatpacking. Vote to stand tall against terrorists; receive Social Security privatization. Vote to strike a blow against elitism; receive a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever before in our lifetimes, in which workers have been stripped of power and CEOs are rewarded in a manner beyond imagining.”
Which brings us back to that same place we were, when we were left with the poor choices that got us in this mess. Donald Trump may learn a few things and get his administration together and actually accomplish things that may turn out to be good things for our country. But we’ll be forced to ask the question. Was it worth it? Was it worth ceding the norm of personal decency and opening up the old wounds of racial politics to get a weird, marginally effective, Republican president?
I would imagine that for many Americans that President Trump was willing to target as the enemy during his campaign to gain power, that answer is no. And I don’t have to imagine, as an American that cares about them, my answer is the same.