The Democratic Party isn’t righteous, exactly. It isn’t particularly good either. It isn’t disciplined or organized or brave, but to hear them tell it, none of that matters, because the Democratic Party is smart, and you’re smart to be in it. For 30 years, as the Clinton era became the Dean era became the Obama era and any pretense of serious ideological difference with the G.O.P. gave way to a generation of Democrats mumbling half-heartedly about how yes, they love small business owners too, and yes, the War on Terror is deadly serious of course, and no, our energy corporations must be allowed to extract and monetize their corpses from beneath the skin of our dying world (how else do we create jobs? We, the Democrats, also love jobs!), this has been the party’s central pitch: We’ll do everything the G.O.P. can do, but better. Because we’re open to evidence. We’ve got better charts. We are slightly less racist, nevermind the prisons and the poverty and the drones. Now, as the sound of Donald Trump screaming at his television drifts out daily over the Rose Garden, the Democratic pitch has never sounded better.
Replacing ideological politics with a politics predicated on knowledge asymmetries, with Democrats as the wonk-heroes required, of course, the reinvention of the Republican Party as well. The trouble with our opponents, said Democrats, is not that they’re evil. We’re all Americans here, after all. We all believe in America. The trouble is that these guys are dumb as hell, and the Democrats don’t know what to do with them.
Reagan ended the “era of big government,” and Clinton confirmed it — his welfare reform was smart. John Kerry would grind Iraqi bones into irradiated dust as well anyone — but he’d be strategic about it. Obama, famously, didn’t do “stupid shit,” and his drone war, his banking policies, his plagiarized Heritage Foundation health care plan all reflected this: the point was not what Obama did, it was how clever he seemed doing it. If there was a shred of pretense to moral superiority left, it was abandoned entirely by the Hillary Clinton campaign, where competence and experience, from economic advisor Michael Shapiro (a 29-year-old whose primary qualifications appeared to consist of being Chuck Schumer’s son-in-law and a Yale alum in good standing) to “good friend” Henry Kissinger (a drooling, jowly vampire whose primary qualification appeared to be the capacity to sleep at night), could stand in as an excuse for any kind of depravity.
John Kerry would grind Iraqi bones into irradiated dust as well anyone — but he’d be strategic about it.
What these woke dupe-servants of capital stood against were not devils, but zombies. Reagan was an actor and a fool, George W. Bush was the ur-hick, misunderpronounciating his bi-partisan genocide in the Middle East. As this account of the G.O.P. filtered out into the mainstream, into DailyKos blogs and Daily Show clips, the blathering dumbass account of politics came to consume Republican voters. It did not matter that the G.O.P. routinely defeated Democrats at every level of government, that they imposed their will with a discipline and energy that liberal reserve for earnest 100-post responses to every Trump tweet, or that these idiots managed to drag the entire country to the right over the course of a few decades and despite the resistance of almost every intellectual and demographic current.
Even the ostensible moral concerns of Republican leaders and voters were swallowed up by pedantry: If you were pro-life, or pro-gun, or a bigot, the trouble wasn’t that you were evil, the trouble was that you hadn’t read the right studies yet. You were factually incorrect about your own religion. “You have the vote of every thinking person in this country!” an admirer didn’t really shout to Adlai Stevenson during the 1956 presidential race. “I’m sorry ma’am, but we need a majority!” he didn’t really shout back. You can hear Toby Zeigler telling this story, and you can hear everyone you ever knew with an internship at O.F.A. repeating it. The arctic permafrost is melting, the ghouls of long dead viruses are emerging from the ice, carried up on methane vapor to spread across the unsuspecting earth, and this is the state of our politics.
Trump keeps telling us he doesn’t know what he’s doing, and nobody, it seems, will listen.
Until it wasn’t. After the election Trump, who during the campaign had been pilloried with the same look-at-this-idiot routine (he doesn’t even know how to start a land war in the Middle East right), found himself suddenly transformed into an evil mastermind. Trump was a fascist, carefully plotting his consolidation of power. Shadowy counselors like genius Steve Bannon (who was once seen reading a whole book in an airport) were plotting to bring America to its knees with post-Leninist theory. The whole scheme was being orchestrated by the Russians, our classically devious foe. When the White House announced the sudden firing of FBI Director James Comey on Tuesday, liberal pundit Chris Hayes tweeted, “The White House has made the calculation that however bad this looks, it’s better than letting Comey continue to supervise the investigation.” The story has been the same all year: everywhere, Trump’s White House is staying one step ahead of the best sleuths in the business, setting up back channels and secret deals, making astute calculations like cackling laser villains in a James Bond movie.
This is a curious development, mainly because Trump really is a dumbass. He is profoundly stupid. This is obvious. He is as stupid as liberals pretended George Bush to be, probably even dumber than that. He appears before us on a million television screens as a sputtering child, choking half-remembered words out from a drooping chin asphyxiated by daddy’s tie. He has spent his whole life being stupid, failing upward through a business world that celebrates the terminally idiotic, unable-to-distinguish anymore between himself and the man he has played in so many versions on television. The trouble is not that he doesn’t read white papers, it’s that he has spent his entire life belching the alphabet and if it worked, and it did work, he’s as shocked as anyone. “I loved my previous life. I had so many things going,” the president told Reuters last month, “This is more work than my previous life. I thought it would be easier.” If Trump is a wise man, he is only wise in the Socratic sense: he keeps telling us he doesn’t know what he’s doing, and nobody, it seems, will listen.
This is a curious development, mainly because Trump really is a dumbass. He is profoundly stupid. This is obvious.
To compound the country's political situation, Trump is an idiot surrounded by idiots. Jared Kushner jets around the world in his designer Kevlar vest, screeching that he’s not a cuck. Steve Bannon gurgles half-remembered race slurs through alcoholic bile, fumbling for the light switch in the Oval. Sean Spicer goes out wide-eyed and empty to the press corps, a salve for anyone who has ever worried that they aren’t quite up to their jobs, and tells them that Hitler never gassed anyone in his life. The incompetence of the Trump administration is not just a matter of cosmetics. Say what you will about George W. Bush, but an immigration order from his office would have been vetted by every top-notch torture memo writer in the building, with national guard units stationed around the airports for the big day. Trump begins his march to fascist power with a series of uninterrupted, humiliating defeats at the hands of judiciary and legislative branches controlled by his own party. History is filled with men who have managed to be evil and stupid at the same time, but if we have learned anything these past few months, it is that there is a stupidity so deeply planted that evil trips over it on the way to the store.
It does not even matter, really, whether or not Trump’s election was the result of an elaborate, multi-year Kremlin plot to install the guy from The Apprentice in the West Wing. If it was, then it is the most ineptly covered up conspiracy we have ever seen: every half-bit sleuth online isn’t figuring this out because the administration is being subtle. But there’s also a simpler explanation for all the too-good-to-be-true evidence: These people are idiots, and assholes, and no matter what Chris Hayes says, they’ve never made a “calculation” in their lives.
Say what you will about George W. Bush, but an immigration order from his office would have been vetted by every top-notch torture memo writer in the building.
For 30 years, the Democratic Party sold itself as the last bulwark against slightly dumber managers of our imperial decline. Now, faced with a real incarnation of that fantasy, a Republican leader who even Aaron Sorkin would rewrite for lack of subtlety, they have transformed themselves into underdogs, racing to save the world from an evil genius.
The reasons for all of this become far clearer when you recall that, of course, nobody in a position of power in Washington really gives a shit about the Russians. They really don’t. Beyond vague feelings that undefined tampering in our elections is bad, nobody can tell you what, precisely, Trump has done or even could do on the level of material policy that benefits Vladimir Putin, except those things that the Republican Party was going to do anyway. He hasn’t even lived up to expectations. We’re bombing Syria. NATO is “good” again. Yes, rolling back environmental protections is excellent for a petro-state, but it’s difficult to imagine President Jeb! Bush throwing his full weight behind the Paris Treaty.
The objection, after all, cannot be to outside electoral influence in principle. Powerful entities have always had interests that run contrary to those of the American people, and those entities have routinely used their financial power or public relations outfits to meddle in our electoral process. It’s only that these entities are ordinarily multinational corporation, and the principle difference between the meddling of a multinational corporation and the meddling of Russia is that I can tell you precisely what a multinational corporation gets in policy concessions and regulatory kickbacks when they help elect an unpopular political candidate. And this really, is where this whole strange Democratic shift starts to becomes clear: This was supposed to be their game.
When the Democrats began their transformation into the part of smarter, kinder reactionaries, they abandoned what flimsy claim they had left to a natural base within the country. The savagery of the G.O.P. helped a bit, but the smarter-manager pitch was never meant to appeal to voters. It was meant to appeal to money. For decades, the Republican Party had been plied its advantage with our financial masters, losing the more populist House but winning nearly every presidential election in the second half of the 20th century by aligning itself with the true source of American power. The Democrats upended this with a simple plea: We’ll do your bidding, but we’ll do it better. We’ll sigh while we vote to authorize the next war, we’ll shake our head over what a shame it is that we must destroy the welfare state. The planet will shriek and howl in pain, and we will promise market-based solutions, based on the latest research, with all indications suggesting that nothing significant will have to change for your grandchildren to be obscenely wealthy too. The ploy worked. When Barack Obama and then Hillary Clinton managed to capture the advantage in Wall Street money and support, Democrats celebrated their success.
Now Trump, who knows nothing, has stolen the cynical con right out from under them. In their hearts, they know he didn’t even try — Vladimir Putin, the probable richest man on Earth, just stepped in and did it for him. Game recognizes game. Trump didn’t even have to sell his platform or his soul. Democrats wanted to fight the idiot Republican Party, the one that chased rubes in the country. But the new Republican Party, with its choking, spitting figurehead, has beat the best number-crunching managers of hell at their own game. My God. He must be some kind of genius.