The Trump-Republican Legacy: Institutional Capture And Degradation

There might be some disputation over whether the Donald Trump-Republican Party unholy alliance is politically effective in terms of the consolidation of executive power or actual legislative activity–seasoned political observers consider the Trump administration to have been an utter failure on both fronts–but there can be little doubt about the extent of the damage the combination of the Trump administration and the Republican Party have done to American political institutions. They have done so in two ways: first, they have systematically captured components of the electoral and  legislative process, exploiting their structural weaknesses and their dependence on good-willed political actors (which the Republicans most certainly aren’t); second, they have engaged in a wholesale rhetorical condemnation and ridicule of central and peripheral political institutions like the judiciary and the press.

In the former domain, we find a bag of dirty tricks that includes gerrymandering of state electoral districts, wholly fraudulent investigations into voter fraud, repression of voter registration, filibusters, supermajority requirements to call bills to vote on the floor, the stunning refusal to vote on a Supreme Court nominee following the death of Antonin Scalia, and so on. In the latter domain, we find the ceaseless vilification of judges who do not align their votes in the ideological dimensions preferred by Trump, an utter disregard for all manner of ethical proprieties (c.f. the absence of any sensitivity to the non-stop conflicts of interest that are this administration’s trademark political maneuver), and a wholesale rejection of any standards of truth or evidence in the making of substantive factual political claims.

The American polity will be rid of the Trump administration via resignation or electoral rejection soon enough; perhaps it will even remove the Republican Party from power  from all three branches of government. It will not, however, be rid of the damage caused to its political institutions any time soon; it will take a long time to for this damnable stain to be removed, if at all. Cynicism about political institutions and practices is as American as various species of fruit pies; it is the natural result of a systematic effort by the political class to bring about widespread disengagement with national and state-level political processes, thus clearing the field for those seeking greater control over them. That effort has been spectacularly successful over the years; low voter turnout is its most visible indicator. The efforts of this administration and the Republican Party, aided and abetted, it must be said, by the Democratic Party, have pushed that cynicism still further, into realms where the abdication of political responsibility and the loud proclamation of moral bankruptcy has come to seem a political and intellectual virtue.  So overt has the abuse of the political system been that a collective weariness with politics has prompted an ongoing and continuing abandonment of the field; better to walk away from this cesspool than to risk further contamination. That abandonment clears the way for further capture and degradation, of course; precisely the effect intended (see above.)

Hillary Clinton On The Reagans’ AIDS Legacy: Anatomy Of A ‘Triangulation’

Here is my take on what went wrong with Hillary Clinton’s ‘the Reagans started a national conversation about AIDS‘ statement (for which, after a ginormous shitstorm on social media had broken out, she apologized.)

In preparation for her remarks, Clinton must have been briefed–by not very competent people–that Nancy Reagan‘s funeral was a good opportunity to ‘reach out’ to, say,  ‘Reagan Republicans’ and ‘Reagan Democrats’ (the ‘Reagan Republican’ is a mythical creature more moderate than today’s flecked-with-spittle and foaming-at-the-mouth Republican types.) She could do this by acknowledging the Reagans’ ‘legacy’ in a domain of interest to Americans–hopefully crossing ‘political divides’–and show herself to be continuous with that American political tradition, which does not denigrate America or its greatness, or see anything fundamentally wrong in its social, economic and cultural polity that cannot be fixed by ‘more of the same.’ She would, at once, show herself concerned with public health issues, and also, by saying nice things about iconic Republican figures, perhaps ensure a softer reception for herself in the Republican demographic at the time of the general election.

Hillary Clinton was not prompted to give the response she did give by a Reagan-sympathizer questioner, who artfully used a leading question like “And what do you think about the Reagans’ starting a national conversation about AIDS at a time when no one else was interested in doing so?” To which, Clinton, in an awkward attempt to avoid saying “What are you on, crack?”–might have said instead, “Yes, it was a good thing.” Instead Clinton volunteered the response she did make, and moreover, she explicitly did it as a way of making the point that the Reagans were an outlier in an atmosphere that was not conducive to their efforts to begin a ‘national conversation.’ Clinton’s mistake might have seemed more genuine had she simply said something like “Nancy Reagan worked on many public health initiatives like those for stem-cell research, Alzheimers, AIDS, and other deadly diseases.” Then, she could plausibly say that she had mistakenly included AIDS in that list. But she did no such thing. Instead, as noted, she set the Reagans’ ‘work’ on AIDS apart from an otherwise dominant attitude towards the disease.

Most reasonably competent students of American politics and history know about the shameful chapter that is the Reagan administration’s response to the AIDS crisis. A supposedly liberal politician, one as experienced as Hillary Clinton, should know much better. (The interview linked above shows that Clinton has fairly detailed knowledge of that period at her disposal; she invokes the Brady Bill and stem-cell research as examples of ‘unpopular’ political positions Nancy Reagan took on.) Did she somehow imagine that this aspect of American history has been forgotten? Even more problematically, and this is where a cynical politics becomes acutely visible, did Clinton act on the basis of a calculus that suggested it was perfectly allright to anger the gay community while reaching out to Reaganites? Clinton might have, of course, thought that the folks who were activists in the 1980s had simply died off, leaving no traces of their battles with an uncaring presidential administration. All of these calculations would be very peculiar for a candidate to make in the America of 2016, one which has legalized same-sex marriage.

On a purely electoral reckoning, this incident shows, yet again, an uncomfortable truth: Hillary Clinton is not a very good politician. On a moral reckoning, this is cynicism, pure and simple.