Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019 | 2 a.m.
An Ernest Hemingway character once said that he went bankrupt two ways: “Gradually and then suddenly.” That may also be how President Donald Trump’s administration finally melts down.
We are now two years into the Trump presidency. Think back to how unnerving it was, a little more than 100 weeks ago, when Sean Spicer gave his fuming Baghdad Bob news conference insisting, falsely, that the crowd at Trump’s swearing-in was “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period!” Americans were still capable of being surprised, in those innocent days, at being asked to put the lies of their new president above the clear evidence of their senses.
Imagine if you’d known then how far we’d fall. The government has been partly shut down for nearly a month. Around 800,000 federal employees are missing their paychecks. Thousands of low-income people — largely seniors and the disabled — may soon face eviction due to lack of funds at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Food and airplanes are both going without routine inspections.
There’s no permanent attorney general or secretary of defense. (The acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, is alleged to have helped a company currently under federal investigation for fraud intimidate its critics.) The national security adviser is John Bolton, and he seems to be trying to provoke a war with Iran. An Associated Press story contains this deadpan line: “White House aides expressed regret that the president did not more clearly and forcefully deny being a Russian agent when asked by the usually friendly Fox News host.”
To be clear, we’re very far from a worst-case scenario version of a Trump administration. Last year, the president sent nearly 6,000 active-duty U.S. troops to the border based on racist propaganda about a migrant caravan, but there haven’t been tanks in the streets. The administration winks at foreign governments who kill journalists, but its own threats against the media are mostly empty. I feared, at the beginning of this administration, that Trump would try to exploit American intelligence capabilities against his personal enemies, but instead he gets his intelligence from Fox News. The fact that so many high-level Trump associates have pleaded guilty to crimes is a sign of his corruption, but it also shows he hasn’t corrupted our entire system.
Trump has turned out to be the Norma Desmond of authoritarians, a senescent has-been whose delusions are propped up by obsequious retainers. From his fantasy world in the White House, he barks dictatorial and often illegal orders, floats conspiracy theories, tweets insults and lies unceasingly. But much of the time he’s not fully in charge. He has the instincts of a fascist but lacks both the discipline and the loyal lieutenants he’d need to create true autocracy.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the country isn’t coming undone. Trump’s bumbling incoherence, coupled with his declining political fortunes since the midterms, makes him seem less frightening than he once did. But, two years in, the jaded weariness many of us have developed might obscure how bad things are. We’re living through an unprecedented breakdown in America’s ability to function like a normal country.
The shutdown throws our crisis into high relief. For the first two years, Trump destroyed American norms, standards and conventions. Now he’s cavalierly destroying American lives.
As of this writing, the president has rejected every way out of the government shutdown save full capitulation by House Democrats. Last week, he stormed out of a meeting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. On Monday, he rejected a proposal by his Senate ally Lindsey Graham to open the government for three weeks while the two sides negotiate immigration legislation. For the moment, he’s backed off from the idea of declaring a national emergency, perhaps because many conservatives are afraid of the precedent it will set. Senate Republicans could end the shutdown tomorrow, but Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refuses to stand up to Trump.
The shutdown, then, continues. Air travel, already a mess, will grow more chaotic as more unpaid TSA agents call in sick or quit. Food stamp benefits — which pay for about 10 percent of American groceries — are being paid through February, but no one knows what happens if the shutdown drags into March.
FBI agents aren’t being paid and the agency is being forced to triage investigations. Most immigration courts are closed, and according to The New York Times, court dates that fall during the shutdown could be delayed as long as four years. NBC reported on a federal worker rationing her insulin because she’s not being paid. Native Americans have seen their access to health care curtailed. HuffPost described domestic violence shelters cutting services and planning layoffs.
How long can this continue? One lesson of the Trump era is that things can feel unsustainable yet drag on interminably. But for two years, most Americans who don’t live in Puerto Rico have been protected from the material consequences of White House disorder.
That’s changing. Maybe Americans can tolerate uncertainty about whether the president is a traitor. Uncertainty about their next flight, next paycheck or next meal is another story.
Michelle Goldberg is a columnist for The New York Times.