The grow­ing gap be­tween dra­matic and ex­treme

The Victoria Standard - - Commentary - HE­LEN DELFELD

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.

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