Last night in Orlando, President Donald Trump promised to “Keep America Great”… And to cure cancer, “eradicate AIDS”, and guarantee that American astronauts land on Mars. This comes from someone who could barely muster enough support in a Senate controlled by his party to pass his 2017 Tax Plan, and from someone who couldn’t get them to pass any version of legislation to repeal the previous president’s signature health care law.
Nonetheless, Trump has managed to accomplish some things during his 17 months in office. For one, he’s (ab)using his executive powers to wreak havoc in policy realms where he can’t get Congress to agree with him. Furthermore, he’s forcing us to reassess “American greatness” and what it will take for us to stop making the same mistakes again.
First, some backstory on Trump (and my past four years of covering him)
[Editor’s Note: This is one of those columns where adult language is used. Reader discretion is advised.]
Once upon a time, I did my best to abide by certain journalistic norms, such as not making the story about myself. I often still do when appropriate and necessary. But today, for this story, I’m in “zero fucks mode” and merrily “going gonzo”.
I’ve been covering Trump for nearly four years. When I first laid eyes on him, he rambled about his love for himself, his hate for immigrants, and his justification of running on a crypto-fascist platform while campaigning at a libertarian conference here in Las Vegas. Oh, and by the way, that was when he took a question from Russian spy Maria Butina and accidentally gave us a glimpse into the Russian government’s campaign to influence our presidential campaign and ultimately penetrate our halls of power.
In the months and years since then, it’s largely been the same. At subsequent Trump events I covered, it was the usual mix of thunder and blunder: grandiose promises of “greatness”, “humble-brags” with all brag and no humble, attacks on his opponents in the same manner he’s done since his days of shopping his own gossip to the New York tabloids, and Kremlin-friendly foreign policy chatter.
Even after he took office in January 2017, Trump hasn’t changed. Despite initial hopes that he’d somehow “rise to the office” and “become more presidential”, he’s stuck to the same improv act, as I (again) witnessed myself at a Republican campaign rally last September and at the Republican Jewish Coalition leadership meeting this past April. Trump may have run on the promise of change in 2016, but he himself can’t and won’t change.
Next, let’s fact-check Trump’s latest round of thunder and blunder.
This is why I’m not surprised at all by Trump’s signature thunder and blunder in Orlando last night. Yes, he actually said, “We will come up with the cures to many, many problems, to many, many diseases—including cancer and others and we’re getting closer all the time.” And yes, he actually said, “We will eradicate AIDS in America once and for all and we’re very close. We will lay the foundation for landing American astronauts on the surface of Mars.”
Here’s a reality check on all that: None of that can happen when the federal government shuts down (again) and defaults on its debt. Yes, it’s a real possibility again. The White House and Congressional Republican leaders can’t even agree amongst themselves on a spending bill, let alone reach a longer-term budget deal with Democrats. Many federal civil servants are still struggling to clean up the damages from the last shutdown, and another shutdown coupled with federal debt default would likely accelerate our economy’s fall into recession.
Here’s another reality check: None of Trump’s grandiose promises are possible under Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney’s preferred fiscal austerity regime. Even if Congress finds a way to avoid the shutdown/default worst-case scenario, any budget deal that’s close to the terms Mulvaney is demanding likely means the federal government will have no additional funds for space exploration and medical research. Rather, the Trump administration has been demanding budget cuts for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other social safety net programs, contrary to Trump’s own promise never to cut the nation’s social safety net.
Is past prologue?
If Trump is serious about "making America great again," he should start by making his products in America.https://t.co/1VVoUbgAn3
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) August 3, 2016
As we discussed last week, “electability” is a vague concept that may be based on poll numbers that can easily change. In 2016, Hillary Clinton and her campaign projected “electable” confidence based on poll numbers and “models” that showed her winning more than enough Republican crossover votes to comfortably defeat Trump.
In a move that still baffles my mind to this day, Clinton’s campaign only briefly ran this ad that features footage of comedian David Letterman calling out Trump’s hypocrisy on “American manufacturing” on his late night TV show in 2012. Instead, they focused more on touting high-profile Republican endorsements and pointing out Trump’s long list of “not saying nice things”.
Some two-and-a-half years after that consequential miscalculation, and just seven months after Democrats recalibrated their way into a “Blue Wave” midterm victory, one would think Democrats have since learned what works and what doesn’t work in running against Trump. And indeed some of the Democrats running for the right to challenge Trump next year, such as U.S. Senators Kamala Harris (D-California), Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), and Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), are offering “big dreams” and “speaking truth” alongside actual policies that address the root causes of Trumpism.
Say it ain’t so, Joe. (How many more times will I have to type this?)
And then, there’s former Vice President Joe Biden. At a private fundraising event in New York yesterday, Biden spoke to a room full of Wall Street financiers and Democratic Party insiders. For whatever reason, he waxed poetic about the good old days of “getting things done” with segregationists in the U.S. Senate some 40 years ago: “At least there was some civility. We got things done. We didn’t agree on much of anything. We got things done. We got it finished. But today, you look at the other side and you’re the enemy. Not the opposition, the enemy. We don’t talk to each other anymore.” Again, Biden was talking about the ideological forefathers of the white nationalists who proclaim solidarity with Trump today… And they didn’t even get all that much done in Congress during the 1970’s.
While Biden’s praise for certain Senate segregationists is drawing plenty of attention (as it should), I also want to draw your attention to something else he said at that fundraiser. While speaking about the economic inequality crisis, he seemed to call for action, but not too much action. According to Biden, “We can disagree in the margins but the truth of the matter is it’s all within our wheelhouse and nobody has to be punished. No one’s standard of living will change, nothing would fundamentally change.”
Talk about missing the point. As the ongoing shutdown shitshows on Capitol Hill tell us, the era of “getting things done” via magical bipartisanship are long gone. And as the failure of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign should have told the Democratic Party, attempts to convey “electability” aren’t surefire ways to actually get elected.
Oh, and by the way, Donald Trump, Jr., mocked Biden’s “moonshot initiative” to cure cancer just hours before his father promised to cure cancer. And instead of apologizing for joining with North Korean autocrat Kim Jong-un to mock him, the White House is doubling down on spreading Kremlin-approved propaganda targeting Biden. And thus far, other Republican leaders are refusing to break with Trump and defend Biden on either count. Some folks may never change, though this should serve as a reminder of our dire need to change.