(Times) While the president stokes outrage, his government is remaking America.
I have many friends who hate Donald Trump. Most are liberal, academic types who hate him the way their parents or grandparents once hated Richard Nixon. Their hate is tempered by the fact that Trump is not currently bombing or invading a foreign country. Remember, it was the anti-Vietnam movement that elevated hating Nixon above the realm of party politics. (Even though Nixon insisted he was trying to end a war that Democrats had started, they never believed him.)
Far more visceral in their hatred of Trump are the “Never Trump” Republicans. Many of them are or were neoconservatives, so pacifism is not one of their defining characteristics. Indeed, I sometimes think that if Trump declared war on someone — ideally Russia, but they’d settle for Iran or Syria — they’d forgive him everything.
Never-Trumpers hate Trump for very different reasons from my liberal friends. Liberals hate Trump because they think he’s a sexist, a racist, a crook and a buffoon. Never-Trumpers don’t much like those things about him either, but they hate him because of his foreign policy. They believe in free trade. He’s a protectionist. They want to spread democracy. He likes authoritarians. In particular, he likes Vladimir Putin. Having come of age in the Cold War, Never-Trumpers loathe the former KGB agent Putin. In 2016 it was neocons, not liberals, who were the first to spot that something fishy was going on between Trump’s campaign and the Russians.
One of my Never-Trump friends frequently emails me articles from the publications he reads. They all say essentially the same thing: that Trump is the worst president in the history of the US.
Last week, in the aftermath of Trump’s meeting with Putin, his email subject lines said it all. “The moment called for Trump to stand up for America. He chose to bow — The Washington Post.” This was followed by: “What hold does Putin have on Trump? — The Atlantic.” Next came: “After Helsinki, any responsible member of Trump’s national security team must resign — Slate.” And: “Trump summit betrays his country for Russia in plain sight — New York magazine.”
For the first time in my life, I began to feel sorry for my poor, pummelled inbox: “The most bizarre part of Trump’s disastrous press conference was his deference to Putin — Slate”; “Trump is a sad, embarrassing wreck of a man — The Washington Post”; “Is this Trump’s most ridiculous denial yet? — The Washington Post”.
Finally, the coup de grâce: “The stench from Trump’s execrable performance grows ever more putrid — The Washington Post”.
Not since Jane Austen has a truth been so universally acknowledged: the Helsinki summit was an utter, unmitigated disaster. Even Newt Gingrich had to admit that Trump’s comments in Helsinki were “the most serious mistake of his presidency”.
It would certainly take the hide of a rhinoceros and a neck of solid brass to defend the president’s declaration in Helsinki on Monday that he was more inclined to believe Putin than his own director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, on the question of Russian interference in the 2016 election. But why bother doing so? By Tuesday, “I don’t see any reason why it would be [Russia]” had been amended to “I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia”. Cue fresh outrage from liberals and Never-Trumpers alike.
How much outrage do people have left? I predict they will run out of outrage before Trump runs out of double negatives. They forget that this kind of utter, unmitigated disaster is a key part of Trump’s modus operandi. Remember Charlottesville? The statement that seemed to play down the role of white supremacists? The grudgingly contrite statement taking the original statement back? The statement undermining the contrite statement? That was 11 months ago. Remember Access Hollywood? Remember all the other utter, unmitigated disasters of 2016 that somehow didn’t prevent this man from becoming president?
Having no shame means that you don’t mind saying outrageous things and then contradicting yourself, and then contradicting yourself again. It’s one of Trump’s tried-and-tested techniques for maintaining his total dominance of the global news cycle. This is so complete now that there is almost no other political news. We are all Thai boys, trapped in a cave called Trump. The difference is, there are no rescue divers coming.
As long as the media accept that he alone is the story, the following two things are true. First, no one pays any attention to what any other branch of government does. The Supreme Court? The Federal Reserve? The Department of Defence? Does anyone actually know or care what these bodies have been doing in the past week?
Second, if no one pays any attention to the rest of the government, it can quietly get on with the substantive judicial, economic and strategic change for which the Trump presidency will eventually be remembered. While you were all obsessing about Trump, the Supreme Court was moving decisively to the right, the Fed was trying to cool down a galloping economy and the Pentagon was getting a complete overhaul under James Mattis, the defence secretary.
Future historians will mention Helsinki, but — if they are any good — the question they will ask is: what did Trump and Putin actually discuss in private, with only interpreters present? If I know Putin, it will have been the big-picture geopolitical stuff. Let me hazard a guess at what was said.
VP: What is the point of our constantly being at odds, Donald?
DT: Beats me.
VP: These sanctions are the work of your corrupt Congress. They are pointless. I am not giving back Crimea, and you know it.
DT: That’s a fact.
VP: True, I occasionally try to liquidate my political opponents, sometimes in foreign locations such as Salisbury, sometimes unsuccessfully, but your CIA has been doing that kind of wet job since time immemorial.
DT: There’s no denying it.
VP: Who are our real enemies?
DT: The Chinese. The Iranians. I’m kind of sick of the Germans too.
VP: You’re talking my language. I don’t much like those guys either. Here’s the way I see it. If you and I can work together, I can help you and you can help me. We cut a deal in the Middle East. We screw the Iranians — I don’t need them any more in Syria. We put the squeeze on the Chinese before they take over the world, including my back yard in central Asia. And we remind the Germans how much they fear us and need you.
DT: I like it.
VP: But just one thing, Donald.
DT: What’s that?
VP: No one must find out what we just agreed. So when we do the press conference, make sure you play your usual game with the press.
DT: Leave it to me.
VP: You know what the historians will call you and me one day, Donald?
DT: No — what?
VP: The Double Negatives.
DT: I don’t see why they wouldn’t!
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford