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Tomgram: John Feffer, Say Goodbye to the Guardrails of Governance

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It's been quite a time for, in the phrase of the moment (which TomDispatchregular John Feffer wields particularly effectively today), "the adults in the room." We're talking, of course, about the very Washington insiders whom a "senior administration official" in an anonymous op-ed in the New York Times patted on the back for saving us all from Donald Trump. Recently, as Hurricane Florence swamped North Carolina, I thought about that state's version of those same adults. You know, the ones in the Republican-dominated legislature who insisted, not so long ago, that a climate-change-induced rise in sea level, expected to drown parts of that state's low-lying coast by 2100, was essentially a hoax. They even passed a thoroughly adult law -- H.B. 819 -- in 2012 that, as the New York Times reported, "effectively ordered state and local agencies that develop coastal policies to ignore scientific models showing an acceleration in the rise of sea levels." The result: a wave of new building and yet more development along that same endangered coast -- of structures some of which have only recently been boarded up and whose fates, now or later, will likely spell disaster for insurance companies and others. And keep in mind that Florence was only the beginning of the "hoax" to come as intensifying storms, crossing ever-warmer ocean waters, bring yet more drenching rains, while sea levels continue to rise.

As we know, updated versions of those 2012 "adults" in North Carolina now dominate all environmental and climate-change policy-making in Washington. They are the only "adults" in the (heating) Trumpian room and they are now doing their damnedest to heat it further. Think about that as you consider Feffer's distinctly dystopian vision -- what other kind could there be? -- of Donald Trump's new normal in Washington and the so-called adults in that room with him. (And then, if you're in the mood for a little dystopian fiction, rather than fact, pick up his riveting novel, Splinterlands, which focuses on the potentially grim fate that awaits this planet or, if you've already done that, pre-order his newest Dispatch Book, Frostlands, number two in his series about how we are, in fact, changing everything. It's coming in November.) Tom

Trump's New (Non-Democratic) Normal
What Happens When the Adults in the Room Are as Scary as the Crying Baby?
By John Feffer

During a lifetime of make-believe, Donald Trump has never pretended to be a conventional politician. When he finally decided to make a serious bid for office, he built his presidential aspirations on the flimsiest of foundations: a wild conspiracy theory about Barack Obama's birthplace. His leadership bona fides were equally laughable, having presided over bankrupt casinos and failed real-estate projects, fabricated the persona of a lady-killer, and created a reality TV show about a tin-pot entrepreneur.

It wasn't difficult to predict how all this would end up politically. Plenty of oddballs had run for president, from Jello Biafra to Roseanne Barr, and gotten nowhere. The guardrails of American democracy were set up to prevent just such outsiders from making it anywhere near the Oval Office. Donald Trump's three presidential qualifications -- money, name recognition, and unbounded arrogance -- were obviously not enough to overcome his lack of sway with party bosses. Seasoned politicians and backroom operators, the putative "adults in the room," had spent years ridiculing the blowhard with the bad hair banging on the door and demanding red-carpet treatment.

And then, of course, he won. In the 2016 presidential election, the guardrails of democracy collapsed. The Electoral College, designed to weed out all those with what Alexander Hamilton had once called "talents for low intrigue and the little arts of popularity," delivered a victory to a candidate who had talents for little else. As Jeff Greenfield wrote at Politico immediately after the elections,

"The blunt fact is that many of the guardrails that were supposed to protect the world's oldest functioning democracy have been shown to be perilously weak, as vulnerable to assault as the Maginot Line was in the face of the German army some 75 years ago."

In the wake of The Donald's upset victory, journalists and pundits hastened to recommend a slate of advisers who could inject some gravitas into the new administration and restore an approximation of that Maginot Line. Under counsel from such grey eminences as former national security advisors Henry Kissinger and Condoleezza Rice, the new president brought a bevy of such "adults" into his administration, including ExxonMobil oil executive Rex Tillerson as secretary of state and active duty Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster as national security advisor. Two "adults," Republican Party grandee Reince Priebus and retired Marine Corps General John Kelly, have similarly tried, as White House chiefs of staff, to manage Trump. Recently, a New York Times op-ed written by an anonymous "senior administration official" suggested that a "steady state" of "adults in the room" has been covertly ensuring that President Trump doesn't blow up the country or the world.

In response, President Trump has done his best to fire or at least ignore all such adult supervisors. After the departures of Tillerson, McMaster, and economic adviser Gary Cohn, the New Republic lamented that Trump was "systematically removing the guardrails in his cabinet" (which proved no more effective than the electoral ones). In fact, after the latest "crazytown" revelations in the bestselling new book by veteran Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward, perhaps it's time to retire those creaky metaphors of American politics. No more "guardrails," no more "adults." They represent thinking that has proven woefully inadequate for understanding Donald Trump's rise to power or the America of this moment.

Forget Donald Trump for a second and just think to yourself: Who's responsible for the last 17 years of never-ending American wars that have convulsed the planet? Babies? Teenagers? Grown men acting like babies? Let's face it: perfectly sober adults, including the man who left ExxonMobil to become secretary of state, have long seemed intent on ensuring the flooding, burning, and general destruction of this planet. And don't forget that the adults in the Republican Party, backed by their deep-pocket funders, were responsible for getting Donald Trump over the hump and into the Oval Office. Ultimately they, and not the policy-ignorant president, are to blame for the devastation that followed.

As for those guardrails, they represent, at best, the most imperfect of metaphors. Despite all the actual guardrails on American highways, traffic fatalities have risen to more than 40,000 a year and cars are now the top killers of Americans between the ages of 15 and 24. Guardrails may prevent the occasional drunk from driving into a ravine, but they obviously don't stop a significant portion of the population from committing autocide.

The truth is: those guardrails of democracy were faulty long before Trump came along and some of the adults in the room are scarier than the squalling infant. Such metaphors, in fact, make it increasingly difficult to see what Trump and his babysitters are really doing: not just destroying a culture of civility or undoing the accomplishments of the Obama administration but attacking the very pillars of democracy.

Moving the Guardrails

Donald Trump, The Washington Post concluded a year after his election, had broken through"the guardrails of presidential behavior."

Given the sheer number of lies he's spewed in his tenure in office -- more than eight mistruths a day and rising -- the Post's conclusion seems incontrovertible. However, when it comes to wrongdoing, Trump has plenty of presidential precedents, from the high crimes and misdemeanors of Richard Nixon to the torture policies of George W. Bush. Trump is as crude as Lyndon Baines Johnson, as ill prepared as Ronald Reagan, as sexually predatory as Bill Clinton. All of these presidents prepared the American public for a leader who, like some super villain in a comic strip, would combine the worst qualities of his predecessors in one explosive package.

Trump broke through no guardrails (a feature of highway safety that he once disparaged in a Wall Street Journal interview as the "worst crap"). Rather, generations of politicians and operatives incrementally moved them to such a degree that his behavior became acceptable to enough Americans to elect him.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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