Most of the things Trump does as President are not likely to outlast him. Tax bills go in one direction under Republican Administrations and then go in the other direction under Democratic Administrations. Environmental regulations can be rolled back even as some of the changes do not even get implemented because Scott Pruitt’s EPA staff is so inept. The Federal Judiciary will, however, be impacted for a generation, but who cares how the North Korea negotiations go? They won’t move the yardstick very far no matter what happens and the next Administration can start all over again. The Europeans know that they can just outlast this Administration and the long term, bipartisan policy towards Europe will be back in place. What has changed, however, are some basic perceptions about the political culture, and I want to talk about two of those, one which is very overt and discussed, and the other not so.
Presidential lies are greeted with denials even when acknowledged as such by all those MSNBC commentators who are amazed, just amazed, that the President is caught once more in one of his lies, though by this time that is no surprise, Trump known to lie about everything from the weather at his Inaugural to what he said to Lester Holt of NBC about firing Comey because of Russia. It is still extraordinary to think of a President as being a bald-faced liar. When Obama’s worst critics said he lied about everyone getting to keep their insurance coverage under Obamacare, that was generally understood to be an exaggerated way of saying that Obama had, in fact, painted a rosy picture about how the transition to Obamacare would go, Obama not knowing that insurance companies would cancel the kind of low payment-low coverage contracts that they had previously provided and so people would indeed have to go to the insurance market for a new policy. Rather, for the most part, people thought that a President would not lie about something really important. FDR had going an undeclared naval war against Germany by the time of Pearl Harbor but he did not deny it even though he didn’t declare it, but by that time it was clear that we wanted the Nazis to be defeated and that we would do what we could to further that end. And noone wanted to believe that George W. Bush had lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq even as his minions were making up the stories they pedalled to the papers so that they could point to those news reports as evidence of their claims. George W. Bush was pictured as just mistaken in that he trusted to bad intelligence and so he was able to get himself reelected.
And so now too commentators reinterpret lies, even when they are opponents of the President, as not being that or as part of a policy to confuse the North Koreans, for how can we evaluate a policy without presuming it to be a policy? Either we are trying to move North Korea in our direction rather than simply to a meeting site after which Trump can declare himself to have triumphed, there never having been any attention paid to the facts of what was accomplished, It seems to be merely cynical to treat Trump in this way, as if the mechanisms of government were not being used for some grand purpose, but that is because it is difficult to fathom what it means to have a liar in the White House, not someone who is merely not circumspect or guarded about what he says so that what he says can be relied on as sober and considered.
While lies are denied or made unimportant, trust is something that gets shifted away from the White House in an era when the White House is not the repository of trust. MSNBC treats federal prosecutors, both ordinary and special, as the source of objective and unequivocal findings of fact, but I am not so sure. I remember that the FBI was led for fifty years by J. Edgar Hoover, who placed a recording device under Martin Luther King’s bed so that he could send the recordings of bedroom groans to Coretta Scott King. The FBI still works out of a building named after J. Edgar Hoover. I would think it more important to change the sign on that rather than to remove Confederate memorials. And Comey, despite all his interviews, has never satisfactorily explained why he twice stepped in to shift the election away from Clinton--once by calling her reckless and the other by announcing he had reopened the investigation because of Andrew Weiner’s laptop--but never found the need to reveal that the Trump campaign was also under investigation. There is a lot of politics going on behind the scenes of which we only get glimmers. What deals are now being struck? Why did Rosenstein write that memo on Comey that, for a while, Trump said was his basis for firing Comey?
So where to move our locus of trust, to what institution of government that will defend the Constitution without partisan favor? It is hard to say. Certainly not the United States Supreme Court, which has proven once again, in the past few days, to be a collection of mental klutzes who can’t see the logic of anything clearly, not gun control, not Gore v. Bush, and now not the case of the bakers who didn’t have to create a wedding cake for a gay couple because of their religious beliefs. In the old days, the New Jersey white barber who claimed that he didn’t know how to cut the hair of Black people was ordered to do so because of the Equal Accommodations Act. Nowadays, he could argue that barbering was an art and that he thought the Bible told him not to mix with Blacks, and that would override the law. Religion should not override law in such matters, but now it does. The best construction to put on the matter is that the Court was kicking the question down the road by saying the Colorado commission was hostile to religion, when what it said was merely accurate: that religion can excuse anything and that only in very small areas, such as whether Indian tribes can use peyote, should the Courts defer to religion, not on such a weighty question as to what constitutes full citizenship.
The “Establishment” of the Republican Party has decided not to stand up to Trump, either because they are so passive that they will wait for the midterm elections to do the work for them, or else because getting the tax bill they wanted was reason enough to put up with him, or because they aren’t really opposed to his positions against immigration and an at least verbally belligerent foreign policy. They just oppose his level of crude bluster, many of them wishing they could manage the same. Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer may represent Democratic rectitude but have no power other than to block or slow down legislation.
So where does that leave us? The Constitution needs protectors because, however many checks and balances the Founding Fathers put into it, the Constitution cannot protect itself. For it to survive, there may have to be a measure of popular virtue, something Montesquieu in the Eighteenth Century suggested was required in a republic but not in a monarchy, So it is up to the electorate and what they do in November. This is a weak reed considering that they voted for Trump in the first place and that congressional races are so gerrymandered. This election is important, but then so are they all. Keep your fingers crossed.