Donald Trump said a lot of things about a lot of people on his journey to the White House. He mocked a war hero for getting captured. He accused a rival’s dad of consorting with President Kennedy’s killer. He likened another opponent — soon to be a member of his Cabinet — to a child molester.
But nothing Trump unleashed during the campaign reverberated through Washington’s vast governing apparatus like the 14-word sentence released by his transition team this week, after intelligence agencies issued their finding that the Russians had tried to intervene in our election — a charge that Trump, betraying more than a little insecurity, dismissed as “ridiculous” and politically motivated.
“These are the same people,” the statement read, “that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”
Oh. That again.
Capital insiders were horrified that Trump would brutalize the nation’s top spies in the same way he went after Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz — and this after refusing to sit for intelligence briefings. They shouldn’t have been.
Because all Trump did, really, was to acknowledge the subtext of his own political ascent. If there’s one thing that enabled his assault on the country’s governing and media establishments, it’s the calamitous series of events that began in September 2001. Trump could never sail on with such impunity were it not for the invasion of Iraq and everything that followed.
By now it should be clear: He is the vehicle of our reckoning.
There was a time, not long ago, when it was possible to believe that no one would pay a very steep price for that cascade of failure during the Bush years, when just about every trusted institution in American life seemed to collapse of its own dereliction.
Disgraced pundits kept on pontificating. The CIA kept right on stonewalling — successfully — to keep its history of torture sealed off from public view. The parties in Washington kept on fighting like spoiled brats. The bankers kept on making money and loaning it out.
A decade passed, and American voters seemed to have settled into their cynicism, in the same way baseball fans still filled the stadiums after the steroid debacle and Catholic parishioners still lined the pews after coming to terms with chronic abuse.
But politics is like that. The larger the shock to the system, the longer it takes for the effects to surface. Pain and resentment ricochet through the years, rattle around in the culture, until all at once the ground beneath us opens.
You can see now how the assassination of John Kennedy and the plunge into Vietnam in the 1960s touched off a series of events — the Great Society, civil unrest, a conservative backlash — that ultimately culminated in the Reagan Revolution of 1980.
As I’ve written, the full effect of Watergate wasn’t apparent until more than a decade after Richard Nixon resigned, when, seemingly overnight, our presidential campaigns became almost entirely about character and morality.
So it was with the searing events that followed the turn of the century — the terrorist attacks of 2001, the ill-advised invasion of Iraq in 2003, the implosion of Wall Street in 2008. Historians will note the improbable rise of Barack Obama and the revolt of the tea party — both representing historic challenges to their party establishments — as tremors before the quake.
The ground was no longer stable, but those of us who spent our lives around politics were too familiar with the landscape, too informed by our own experience, to really feel the shift.
Trump was not.
And so, right from the start, he was willing to trash the powerful institutions of our civic life in a way that none of us thought survivable. The more he did it, the baser and cruder he became, the stronger he got.
Generals were stupid. Judges were biased by their ethnicity. Bankers were venal. His own party was weak and pathetic.
Trump understood how little respect any of these institutions still engendered. He understood that when he turned the debate stage into a coarse reality show, mocking his rivals’ faces and boasting about his genitalia, he was essentially breaking the fourth wall of our politics. He was signaling to the viewers that he knew what they knew, which is that this whole business of governing was third-rate performance.
Of course, Trump at least tepidly backed the Iraq War too, no matter how much he now says he didn’t. He benefited mightily from the housing bust. And every time he lied outright about that or something else, we jumped up and down and shouted as if the place were on fire. Surely this was the end.
But Trump had figured out that no one really believed the elite media anymore — the same media that said Iraq was an existential threat, that the banks had to be saved, that Obama would transform our dysfunctional politics. The same media that nightly featured a cavalcade of smug morons whose only qualification to opine on TV was an almost pathological shamelessness.
The Bushes, history’s last heirs to the 20th century Republican establishment, can hole up in Texas and Florida and shake their heads at all of this, disgusted by the assault on institutions that once were sacrosanct. But it works only because George W. imperiled those institutions to the point where Americans couldn’t care less how much you abuse or disregard them.
Does Trump really share in the vast contempt he channels? Apparently not. If he really thought generals were stupid, he wouldn’t have chosen three of them for his Cabinet (and it probably would have been four, if that hadn’t seemed, even to Trump, too close to a junta).
If he really disdained Wall Street, he wouldn’t have picked the president of Goldman Sachs to advise him on the economy, along with another firm alumnus to run the Treasury Department.
If he really thought the media was so irrelevant, he wouldn’t rush to his computer at night, when he’s supposed to be planning for the hardest job on the planet, so he can tweet: “Just watched NBC News — So biased, inaccurate and bad, point after point. Just can’t get much worse, although @CNN is right up there!”
No, Trump is a pure opportunist, a pitch-perfect crooner of whatever note resonates. And my guess is that he’ll keep on with all of it — the indictments, the insults, the demonstrably false narratives — until someone proves there’s a cost.
Because this is what he learned from his first-ever campaign experience — that if you pit yourself against powerful agencies or politicians or a corrupt media, people now will believe almost anything. Or maybe they won’t really care what you’re saying, as long as it’s infuriating to the so-called experts.
All of us in Washington can find this appalling and scary, but we created the opening through our own negligence. And looking back now, it was crazy to think we’d somehow get away with it.
Trump is our collective failure, played back endlessly on a loop.