A funny thing happened to Donald Trump in recent weeks. He had an encounter with reality—and reality won.
It is one thing to dwell in your own reality during the campaign and to persuade your true believers that real is fake and fake is real. But when you actually try to govern, there is a reality to reality, and it pushes back.
It turns out that the budget, and the Syrian civil war, and the North Korean nuclear ambitions, and relations with China, and with Mexico, and with the E.U. are, like health insurance… complicated.
As Trump put it so well, who knew? Evidently, everyone knew but Trump.
And it turns out that the United States can’t just insult China willy-nilly because maybe we need China’s help to contain North Korea. It turns out that there is a direct connection between the Syrian civil war, the refugee crisis, and the looming collapse of the E.U.
It isn’t that NATO got real about the refugee crisis and Russian aspirations in the Baltics and in Ukraine because Trump made a few disparaging comments. The NATO alliance was there all along. Who knew?
Trump also discovered that he could not govern by whim and by decree. The Constitution held.
He realized he could not defy court orders on immigration. He could not compel Republicans in Congress to support him by threatening the likes of Rep. Mark Meadows, head of the Freedom Caucus: “I’m coming after you.”
Meadows had his own electoral base over which Trump had no leverage. Who knew?
And he discovered that if he puts forth a budget completely disconnected from reality, even Republicans are going to push back. It was Republicans who pronounced the Trump budget “dead on arrival.”
Steve Bannon was basically right about the Deep State, otherwise known as the U.S. Constitution and the permanent establishment.
Once Michael Flynn self-destructed, leaders like National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis also began injecting an overdue dose of reality into the Trump presidency.
The defense establishment is part of the Deep State. So are the courts. So is the reality of separation of powers.
Likewise the fact that the FBI and the CIA, whatever their other missteps, are not about to become Trump’s private secret police. They are part of the Deep State, too
Of course, even if we are spared a Trump dictatorship or an impulsive Trump nuclear war, Trump will do immense damage, by appointing cabinet figures such as Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and HHS Secretary Tom Price. These are not quite white-nationalist, they are just corporate far right. But that’s damaging enough. And he will do immense damage by appointing far right judges.
And while financial industry figures such as chief economic adviser Gary Cohn and Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin are reigning in Trump’s nuttier impulses on the economy, they are of course both from Goldman Sachs. And the permanent lock that Goldman has on the Treasury Department and on catastrophic financialization of the economy is also part of the Deep State.
So, the good news/bad news net-net looks something like this:
Good news: Reality and the Deep State stop Trump well short of fascism.
Bad news: We have, instead, a conventional, far-right Republican presidency, led by a stunningly incompetent sociopath.
Good news: The Republican Party keeps fragmenting, into Tea Party and Main Street factions on domestic policy and Putin-apologist and Putin-abhoring factions on foreign policy, and between white nationalist factions and Wall Street globalist factions on economics. That can only weaken Trump.
Bad news: Despite Trump’s faux populism, the Wall Street lock on the political economy has never been stronger. One face of fascism is political dictatorship; the other is a corporate state.
Good news and bad news: Nothing that Trump is likely to do is will change the economic situation of the downtrodden middle and working class Americans who voted for Trump out of disgust with the status quo.
Whether Trump’s failure to improve that reality leads to a progressive form of populism or to deeper frustration and white nationalism depends on whether Democrats rise to the occasion—whether they can shed the Wall Street captivity that pervaded both the Clinton and Obama presidencies, and the Hillary Clinton campaign.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School. His latest book is Debtors’ Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility. http://www.amazon.com/Debtors-Prison-Politics-Austerity-Possibility/dp/0307959805
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