Beware the Coming "Trump Isn't So Bad" Narrative: Take 2

by Neil H. Buchanan

There is a rather large difference between the two following, very similar-sounding statements:

"Trump is not turning out to be so bad, right?"

"Trump has not been as bad as he might have been, I guess."

The most important difference between the two is that the former expresses some measure of optimism -- guarded optimism measured against well warranted pessimism, to be sure, but still optimism -- while the latter expresses a sense of relief without imagining that the big picture has improved.

Count me in the second group.  The first group is not merely misreading the situation, but they are affirmatively worsening it by encouraging everyone to ignore evidence and instead simply to hope for the best.  It is OK, they suggest, to let our guards down, because Trump is not the danger we thought he was.  As Trump would say: Wrong!

Even worse, people in the first group could try to say that those of us in the second group have admitted that they are right.  "You're just saying the same thing we said, which is that we're pleasantly surprised that the world hasn't ended, like we all thought it would by now.  So you admit that he hasn't been so bad!"  But that would seriously miss the point.

The 100-day mark of this presidential term has brought forth an almost uniformly negative assessment of Trump and what exists of his administration.  The incompetence, the lying, the failure to govern, the horrible executive orders, the bigotry, the disdain for the rule of law.  This is easily visible to people who are not willfully blind.

The best summary that I have read -- and I am not saying this because it was written by my co-blogger, Michael Dorf -- warned us to "beware the coming 'Trump isn't so bad' narrative."  It was so good, in fact, that I hereby invoke the editorial equivalent of the legal concept of "incorporating by reference" the content of Professor Dorf's column.

He makes five key points:

(1) The news cycle requires new news, and much of Trump's worst aspects are not news in the journalistic sense; (2) Trump benefits from low expectations; (3) That nothing terrible has happened yet to most people is taken as an "all clear" signal; (4) Journalists are bending over backward to "balance" their reporting about Trump with imagined positives; and (5) Trump's gaffes and scandals are somehow mutually canceling rather than cumulative.

Again, I completely endorse that analysis.  My goal here is to add some further thoughts about how and why we have already started to see some Trump revisionism, and to push back against it.

One prime example of the kind of op-ed that Professor Dorf predicted was written by -- no surprise here -- David Brooks of The New York Times.  Brooks concluded his piece (which managed to be a superficial essay about Trump's supposed mere superficiality) as follows:
"Don’t get me wrong. I wish we had a president who had actual convictions and knowledge, and who was interested in delivering real good to real Americans. But it’s hard to maintain outrage at a man who is a political pond skater — one of those little creatures that flit across the surface, sort of fascinating to watch, but have little effect as they go."
Brooks's piece is an article-length illustration of Dorf's third point, which is that comfortable people who are not directly threatened by the most newsworthy things that Trump has done can be lulled into thinking, "Hey, we had good reason to think that he would have been impeached or a dictator by now, but I haven't had my land confiscated by alt-right brigades, and I haven't been exiled or sent to re-education camps.  All in all, I guess I was worried about nothing."

Yes, economically secure older professional white men like Brooks (and Professor Dorf, and me) have not seen anything happen thus far that should induce existential terror, at least regarding our immediate personal situations.  But we are a distinct and fortunate minority.  It is not just Syrian refugees who have seen bad things happen.  Most Americans are now worse off than they were on January 19.

The white supremacist basis of Trump's campaign has manifested itself in real-world policy decisions by his administration, even at this early stage.  Although we can feel some sense of comfort that the courts have thus far succeeded in stymieing the various attempts to implement Trump's Muslim ban, that does not mean that nothing bad is happening for people of color in this country.

Trump has unleashed federal agents to round up immigrants, in a "gloves are off" approach that has raised terror even among U.S. citizens whose skin happens to be brown or black (or white, depending on how "foreign" one's last name sounds).  The "sanctuary cities" fight is an important one that has not (yet) been lost, but that is a matter of whether local law enforcement directly participates in the crackdown that is already happening at the federal level.

That state-versus-federal issue was at the heart of the disturbing decision by Attorney General Jeff Sessions (a sequence of four words that still makes my heart sink) to "review" -- that is, stop enforcing -- Justice Department consent decrees that had tried to reform city police forces.  For fans of the all-time great television drama "The Wire," we can expect to see the Western District Way in action again without restraint.  That means "beating heads" in poor and minority neighborhoods.

FBI Director James Comey might have a complicated relationship with the politicians in this country, but he is on the record as agreeing that the so-called Ferguson Effect is harming law enforcement.  Explaining why that claim is not backed up by evidence is too far afield from the subject of this column, but we can at least say confidently that Comey's independent streak is not going to save the day when Sessions's orders are carried out.

So nonwhite people have already seen their lives become worse because of the new president and his appointees.  In thousands of neighborhoods around the country, then, this most certainly does not look like an ice-skater administration.  What about everyone else?

The Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a labor-supported think tank that provides some of the best policy research available, provided a nice summary of Trump's first 100 days, detailing the ways in which Trump has made workplaces more deadly as well as the many ways in which employers will now find it easier to violate labor laws (such as wage-theft prohibitions).

These moves by the Trump Administration have already affected plenty of Trump's voters, especially the now-mythologized working class white people who flocked to Trump's rallies.  But even non-unionized people should be worried, including people who prefer not to think of themselves as "labor" at all.

Most prominently, Trump has ordered a "review" of the Fiduciary Duty Rule, which was promulgated by the Obama Administration.  Sound boring?  As EPI explains, that rule "simply requires financial advisers to provide what most clients likely believe they are already receiving—advice about their retirement plans free from conflicts of interest."

This means that, in what should not have been a surprise (but somehow was to many people), Trump is siding with Wall Street over everyone else.

Your retirement savings (if you are lucky enough to have any) can be bled dry by financial advisors who profit by telling you to put your money into high-fee, low-return investment vehicles.  How many middle-class -- or even upper-middle-class -- people have ever thought to negotiate over fiduciary duties when hiring a financial advisor?

The list of moves by the Trump Administration that have already harmed real people is far too lengthy to summarize, and that is part of my point.  We do not remember all of the moves that temporarily made the news but then were crowded out by the next outrage du jour (Professor Dorf's fifth point), and many of these things do not even make the news in the first place.  But that does not mean that people are not already being harmed.

Moreover, the "He's not so bad" approach simply ignores the fact that there has to be some delayed effect for most of the bad things that Trump is doing.  The very real danger of Trump starting a nuclear war somehow makes people think that only immediate damages count against Trump.

But lung cancer caused by unnecessary exposure to beryllium (which will continue, thanks to one of Trump's executive orders) takes some time to develop.  Lowering wages and robbing people of their retirement savings takes time.  The destruction of the rule of law takes time.  That the explosions have not yet all happened does not mean that the fuses have not been lit.

One of the more bizarre versions of the "Trump is not turning out to be so bad" narrative is that he is "growing" in the job.  To his credit, even Brooks does not rely on that nonsensical argument, but others do.  Apparently, the idea is that Trump is climbing a learning curve, so we should be patient while he overcomes his own incompetence and becomes a decent president.

This is a variation on the story that we heard again and again during the campaign in 2015 and 2016.  Trump would "grow," once the seriousness of his situation dawned on him.  He would stop his side-show antics when the primaries began, or when he locked up the nomination, or at the convention, or during the debates, or after his non-majority victory.

Even as late as the day before the inauguration in January, I saw a Trump spokesman (a businessman who chaired the inauguration committee, if I recall correctly) saying that when Trump put his hand on the bible the next day, the enormity of what was happening would cause him to change.

We all know what happened next.  Tweets that Obama went so far as to "tapp my phones" ought to raise the prospect of impeachment, but Trump refuses to back off.  Even this past Sunday, Trump simply walked off the set when a CBS interviewer tried to ask Trump about his outrageous accusation.

Perhaps more significantly, that interview up until that point had been a perfect example of the kind of chummy non-confrontational journalism that the press had supposedly set aside in the new political reality of Trumpworld.  The process of treating Trump's abnormality as if it is normal continues apace.

But the more important point is that saying that Trump is learning on the job requires a followup question: "Learning to do what?"  Trump's deeply bigoted motivations have been in plain view all along, and his desire to redistribute income upward has become more and more obvious.  Moreover, he has no foreign policy strategy other than "whatever I think I want to do today that might make America look strong."

If Trump is on a learning curve (and, despite his obtuseness, he would have to be), then we can only assume that he will soon develop some ability to turn even more of his worst impulses into policy.  That makes any statement that "he hasn't been so bad so far" a cruel joke, because "so far" is only one hundred days out of what could be thousands.

Finally, the "not so bad" narrative also comes with a dollop of scolding from self-professed liberals.  Not everything is apocalyptic, we are told, so we should not act as though it is.  A particular ridiculous version of this came from Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who recently instructed Democrats to "avoid Trump Derangement Syndrome."

What does that mean?  Somehow, Kristof immediately tried to tie it to a survey of Dartmouth students, which found that 45 percent of Democratic students reported that they would feel uncomfortable with a conservative roommate whereas only 12 percent of Republican students said the same about living with a liberal.

This is among the most bizarre forms of false equivalence that we have yet seen.  What counts as conservative in the U.S. today, where the entire Republican Party in Congress has fallen in line behind Trump (some reluctantly, but still reliably), frankly should scare people.  The quoted statistics mean nothing, for a variety of reasons, but if Kristof is trying to use them to prove that Democrats are being too rigid in rejecting Trump, then he is seriously off base.

Yes, resistance is exhausting.  Yes, we can be relieved that it has not been even worse than it actually has been.  Yes, Trump can occasionally read a speech without going off-script, and he can make hawks happy with ineffective missile strikes.

But no, none of that is a reason to think that Trump is not really so bad.