The latest revelations in the ongoing Trump-Russia saga confirm what most sentient beings have long understood: that there is more than an adequate basis for investigations into the relationships between important figures in the Trump presidential campaign and the shady underworld of people tied (tightly or loosely) to Russian business and government.
Reactions to the latest news follow the established patterns. Diehard Trump supporters are doubling down on denial, entrenching themselves in conspiracy thinking and otherwise constructing an alternate reality. Trump’s most embittered Democratic foes are counting the days until impeachment, and constructing fanciful scenarios that include Vice President Pence’s resignation after the 2018 midterms put the Democrats back in charge of the House, so that as Trump is forced out, Nancy Pelosi becomes President of the United States.
Meanwhile the press hunt for smoking guns and Pulitzer scoops continues, and much of the country’s available bandwidth continues to be consumed by the scandal.
At Via Meadia, we are disappointed but not surprised by the whole sorry spectacle. On the one hand, it is good news that, despite the overwrought fears of the anti-Trump zealots, the American Constitution and our basic institutions continue to work. President Trump can neither block the investigations or silence the press. We continue to live in a republic of laws.
But otherwise, the scandal is a disaster and whatever the implications legal and otherwise for the Trump campaign and its key operatives, it emphasizes America’s divisions without overcoming them. And it distracts the news media and the intelligent public opinion on which this country ultimately depends from underlying problems that grow more urgent. For both the Left and the Right, the ever-Trumpers and the never-Trumpers, the scandal is a bright shiny object that distracts. Our national house is on fire, and we are all focused on a particularly challenging level of a hot new video game.
The national disaster that the 24/7 scandal frenzy distracts us from isn’t that President Trump may have colluded with the Russians. It is that our national life is in such a state that tens of millions of voters voted for Trump in the spirit of lobbing a grenade into the national establishment. President Trump has his die hard supporters, those who think he is a genius or that he is being guided by God to deliver America, but that group was not large enough to give him the Republican nomination, much less put him in the White House. The critical mass of support for Trump came from those who saw many of the defects which energize his opponents—but who nevertheless believed that this man, with all his flaws, was a better choice than any of the slick nonentities and earnest wonks who would labor to maintain the status quo.
Too many Democrats think that the Trump scandals, pushed to their logical conclusion, will bring an end to troubles that have seen the party sink to its lowest national ebb since the 1920s. By personalizing the problem, by thinking of Trump as a uniquely unscrupulous, uniquely insightful, but also uniquely incompetent demagogue, Democrats construct a reality for themselves in which his impeachment, or at least his humiliation, will leave upper middle class technocrats back securely in control of the regulatory state, the haute educational establishment and the media that really count. The rebels, abashed at the demonstrated unfitness of their leader, will disperse, the districts will demobilize, the Hunger Games will relaunch, and life in the Capital will go on as before.
Perhaps unfortunately, life is not that simple. The problem the Democrats face has never been the Republican Establishment, the Tea Party, or the Trump insurgency. The Republican disarray of 2017 is nothing new; Republicans do not know how to fix health care or to solve the fiscal problems of local and state governments without raising taxes or cutting services anymore than Democrats do. What drives Republican success isn’t public confidence in Republican policy ideas, but a public belief that given a choice between a party committed to the status quo and a party open at least to reforming it, dumb reformers are a better choice than clever custodians of the status quo.
Back in 2004 I wrote that the choice between John Kerry and George W. Bush was a choice between a good driver who offered a smooth ride towards a direction in which the public did not want to go, and a bad driver who had a propensity to drive into the ditch, but would at least face the car in the direction more people wanted. To a depressing degree, this is still where we are. The core political problem in America today isn’t that evil Democrats in collusion with an all powerful MSM are crushing noble Republicans with brilliant governing ideas. It isn’t that evil Republicans are colluding with Russians, gerrymandering elections and suppressing the vote to prevent wise and humane Democrats from building utopia. It is that our politics and our public sentiment oscillates between two parties that, between them, do not really know how to govern the United States under our current conditions.
If there is a single basic guiding insight here at Via Meadia that shapes our coverage overall, it is this: that the basic social model of post World War Two America, the model that shaped our key economic, educational, social and political institutions, is functioning less and less well as the world moves away from the mid-twentieth century conditions that enabled it to flourish. The Information Revolution is disrupting our stable post-war social order the way the Industrial Revolution disrupted societies all over the world.
Democrats by and large remain committed to defending and extending a governance model and social order that no longer fits the conditions of our time. Republicans, who were never as happy with the post-war order as the Democrats were, have been quicker to understand that the old world is passing away but have not yet developed the ideas that can guide us to a new form of social organization that will enable us to surf the disruptive waves of the Information Revolution rather than being pounded and smashed by them.
Trump’s election from our perspective was both a manifestation of this underlying deadlock and an escalation of the political and social tensions that result from our society’s inability to navigate the currents of our changing times. Our society is becoming more dysfunctional; neither Democrats nor Republicans have real answers, so our politics is becoming more embittered, and quackery flourishes in the absence of serious reform.
Meanwhile, we note with alarm that more and more of America’s energy goes into the endless process of two year presidential campaigns immediately followed by nonstop relitigation by scandal. We now cluster around our screens to catch the latest scandal mini-scoop the way we used to look at Iowa polling numbers before the caucus. Our intellectual and political energy is being consumed by the ephemeral at ever greater rates even as we run low on time to address genuinely vital issues. We are thinking about horse races, not the historic challenges that the United States faces at home and abroad.
Via Meadia was born out of a belief that journalism can do better and indeed must do better in times like these. We have tried to focus on the big picture—on issues like the growing challenge to world order posed by a potent mix of revisionist powers and western illusions; on the growing and increasingly insupportable costs of failing American systems (education, health, state and local government, among others) that are ill equipped to meet the needs of 21st century society; on the tragic mismatch between the policy vision of the green movement and the needs of the environment, and on the struggles of the younger generations on whose shoulders all these problems are falling.
We will not and cannot ignore the Trump scandals completely, but our coverage will continue to reflect our conviction that one of the worst consequences of these scandals, and of the underlying behavior that gave rise to them, is that it increases America’s distracted polarization at a time when we need to think hard and think deeply about the most comprehensive and consequential challenges to world peace and American order since the 1940s.