The growing gap between dramatic and extreme
I'm writing this on the last day of 2017 – a day on which many Americans are screaming "good riddance" to this past year. We are a different country now; or, at least, different than we thought we were. With the deluge of political and policy news fire-hosing out of Washington, it's difficult to distinguish the dramatic events (ugly, but politics as usual), from the extreme (over-the-top by U.S. standards, and unusually harmful).
Dramatic: Tax law favouring the rich and corporations while gutting programs that help the poor and struggling middle class.
Extreme: The increasing tendency to rely on party-line votes to get stuff done in Congress. The level of partisan-based decision-making has been increasing for the last 25 years, and isn’t specific to this administration. But it is exactly this tendency towards mindless partisanship that allowed a dangerous narcissist like Trump to get elected.
Dramatic: Naming cabinet members and other officials the other party can't stand.
Extreme: 180-degree turns in international policy, like our increasing isolationism in pulling out of the Trans Pacific Partnership and the Paris Climate Accord; threatening NATO'S stability; demonstrating overt hostility toward allies and overtures toward non-allies like Russia. After half a century of making alliances the United States has, due to one man's whims, turned to insulting foreign heads of state and sticking a thumb in the eye of crucial allies. In this increasingly interconnected world, this is not self-help. It is suicide.
Dramatic: The parade of high officials quitting or being fired.
Extreme: Many of these officials seem to have been doing troubling things like lying to the FBI, colluding with foreign governments to influence our elections, or committing fraud. Yes, a lot of powerful political operators are shysters, but most do adhere to the letter (if not the spirit) of the law for the most part, if only because they know it's essential to their long-term career interests. Members of this administration have behaved like short-con grifters, in the game solely to make a quick buck.
Dramatic: A new ultra-conservative Supreme Court justice.
Extreme: Nominating a raft of unqualified judicial appointments. Of the 58 judges Trump has nominated, an astonishing number have been political appointments rather than professionally qualified candidates. The American Bar Association, which by tradition vets these nominees, has very rarely disapproved of a candidate. In fact, there hasn’t been a candidate declared unqualified in ten years, until 2017, when there were four, and many others were deeply questionable. In approving unqualified nominees for what is a lifetime appointment, Congress is ignoring its responsibility to check the president's excesses, and marring the credibility of our supposedly neutral judiciary - which means courts may no longer function as a non-partisan check on the president and Congress, especially when they are both dominated by a single party.
Dramatic: New administrations establishing pro-business or pro-law-enforcement policies.
Extreme: Encouraging neo-nazis by retweeting extreme and racist images and videos, endorsing racism by characterizing Mexicans as rapists and criminals, accusing black protestors of attacking "America" and disrespecting "the flag," treating all Muslims as dangerous, etc. Most presidents see the wisdom in acting as unifiers; the “chaos president” sees himself personally benefiting from division. If everyone is off-balance, he perceives rightly, then many will rely heavily on him. But while he personally benefits, the country is descending slowly into crisis.
At this point last year, myself and other political scientists were exhibiting our tweedy version of hair-on-fire panic about the upcoming year as Trump's desire for authoritarian control was clear. A year later, we're both wearier and wiser. Our institutions, especially the courts and the press, have held up, and in some ways, better than we hoped. The courts have consistently held the president accountable to the parts of our law that bar discrimination, from attacking transgender people in the military to targeting Muslims with immigration policy. And the newly energized voting public has been a relief and a revelation. Voters have voted between 12 and 20 points more Democratic than they did last year -- not because the public has suddenly turned blue, but because they appear horrified by Trump's overreaching, insults, and power grabs.
Other institutions, like Congress and an expertise-based presidential Cabinet, have shown an inability or unwillingness to stand up to Trump's widely acknowledged excesses as long as their partisan interests were served. Make no mistake, the slow grind of undermining norms is still a grave danger to our democracy. Normally, we'd wish for a more peaceful 2018. This year, we must hope for the opposite. Let's hope the citizens of the U.S. continue their surprising and reassuring pushback. And may we all sleep soundly in 2019.