We're only 15 months into the Trump era, but it already feels like we're trapped in a simulation running a program modeled on Friedrich Nietzsche's concept of the "eternal return of the same."
Yes, news breaks at a furious, exhausting pace. It can seem impossible to keep up with the flood of new and alarming information that rains down on us weekly, daily, hourly. But patterns have already begun to emerge, and they repeat themselves with remarkable regularity. Think of them as epicycles of elite opinion, turning and returning forevermore — or at least until Donald Trump ceases to be the sun around which we orbit every minute of our conscious lives.
1. Salvation from a magic bullet. The first recurring theme of the Trump era is the liberal search for a way to rid the country and the world of President Trump without having to wait until January 2021 or having to do the work of defeating him at the ballot box. Adam Davidson's much-praised essay in The New Yorker, arguing that with the FBI's raid on Michael Cohen's home and office we've entered the "end stage of the Trump presidency," is just the latest example.
What distinguishes contributions to this genre is the absence of any specificity at all about the mechanism by which Trump will supposedly be made to vacate the presidency. Sometimes impeachment is mentioned, but usually only in the vaguest terms, without any acknowledgment that reaching the threshold for removal from office (a two-thirds vote of the Senate) is so high that it has never been reached in the 231 years since the Constitution was ratified. In a tweet responding to (appreciative) critics of his essay, Davidson heightened the contradictions typical of the genre by conceding that, although his "presidency is, already, in some ways, over," Trump might not be impeached and might even manage to get re-elected more than two and a half years down the road. Now that's what you call an extended end game! Which leaves plenty of time for many further rounds of soothing anti-Trump fan fiction.
2. Overlooked signs of recurrent coupish behavior. If some liberal writers like to entertain fantasies of Trump magically ceasing to be president, reality itself seems to be sending repeated signals that Trump isn't the president at all. It's easy to understand how we got here: The president is ignorant, angry, and impetuous — and some of his positions on policy clash loudly with the preferences of the leading members of his own party. That produces an unnerving situation in which the Trump administration pursues an agenda that explicitly contradicts the views of the man who's supposed to be in charge.
The most recent example concerns the apparent desire of factions within the administration to punish Russia for its alleged use of a nerve agent against a Russian national living in the U.K. and for staunchly supporting Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad — and the president's staunch resistance to doing anything that might antagonize Russian President Vladimir Putin. Now maybe Trump really is so unfit, so incompetent, and so compromised by corruption that we should hope that such extraconstitutional actions continue for the rest of Trump's presidency. But we (and certainly those who fret about the dangers confronting free government in the United States) shouldn't delude ourselves about what this means, or what it portends for the future of American politics. Once such coupish acts become routine, it will be very hard to rule them out of bounds, even once the Trump administration has departed the scene.
3. Trump is a disaster, except when he's launching missiles. We saw it last April and then again this past weekend, when the U.S. (along with Great Britain and France) fired several dozen Tomahawk missiles at Syria to punish the Assad regime for using chemical weapons in the country's interminable civil war. However savagely critical Hillary Clinton-supporting Democrats or Never Trump Republicans may be of the current resident of the White House, they instinctually cheer on the use of military force against a bad guy several thousand miles away from American shores. Suddenly the illegitimate ignoramus is doing the right thing, acting presidential, and improving on the passive and prevaricating foreign policy of the Obama administration. Watch for more of this response, any time the embattled president opts for a show of force, gratuitous or otherwise.
4. The ever-shifting blame game. Perhaps the most frequently recurring theme in the Trump era is the effort on the part of Democrats to identify the True Cause of Hillary Clinton's defeat in 2016. Right after the election, it was FBI Director James Comey, and especially his decision to re-open, less than two weeks before Election Day, the investigation into her handling of classified information on her private email server while she was secretary of state. Then it was Putin's meddling in the election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign. And journalists for devoting far too much time to the email story. And racism, sexism, and the many other deplorable opinions held by American voters. And Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. And now, it's Comey once again.
Hovering over it all is the promise that Robert Mueller's investigation will eventually yield a report that finally and definitively settles the matter by casting blame where it belongs — which is anywhere but the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee. But until that report appears, we can look forward to more deflection and more pivots to new villains who deprived the country of its rightful president.
Another day, another week, another set of stories to leave us stupefied and stunned — but also certain we've seen something very much like them before.