The human mind can focus on only so much, and President Donald Trump has been exploiting this truism to his advantage since taking office.
Each week in this highly unconventional presidency, scandals, missteps, policy incoherence and sheer incompetence have made it difficult to focus on what is really important. In the last week alone, the administration reignited a broad trade war on aluminum and steel with our closest allies; broke off and then restarted negotiations for a summit with North Korea, the outcome of which no one can predict; dangled pardons for political hacks and a TV personality who were convicted of federal crimes; tried to blame the Democrats for the inhuman policy of separating children from their mothers who were seeking asylum at the border; and continued a disinformation campaign that would have made the Soviets proud, alleging that the previous administration placed spies in his campaign during the 2016 election.
Because each of those stories requires careful attention, all of them get lost.
Most Americans have little appetite for politics. They pay attention (not enough probably) at election time and then tune out the rest of the time. They focus on their day-to-day lives: Is my job secure? How are my kids doing in school? Will I be able to afford to retire someday?
Most people don’t read a newspaper every day and spend more time on sports and human interest stories than on politics and public policy. They watch TV — but only a tiny minority watch cable news, and most who do already have set political opinions, which they reinforce by choosing Fox News Channel or CNN or MSNBC. As a result, the broader public has only an impression of what goes on in Washington, and that impression is highly manipulatable. Trump has used this widespread indifference to details and facts to his advantage. He comes up with memorable words and phrases that substitute for knowledge in describing complex issues — drain the swamp, build the wall, no collusion, the Russia witch hunt, make America great again.
Trump divides Americans into those who are on his team and everyone else. But unlike in sports (or politics in the past), those not on the team are not just rivals but enemies. The media are the “enemy of the American people.” Anyone who served in government in the past is part of the “swamp.” Anyone who isn’t a Trump appointee (and even some who are, if they cross him) is in the “deep state.”
The danger to democracy, of course, is that rivals win or lose elections but enemies must be vanquished, destroyed. This is the path to authoritarianism.
Does anyone doubt that if he thought he could get away with it, Trump would carry out his taunt to “lock her up” — and not just Hillary Clinton but others he sees as a danger to himself? His affinity for Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Rodrigo Duterte and even Kim Jong Un centers around his admiration for their strong hand in dealing with opponents and troublemakers.
Democratic institutions may still be strong enough to prevent Trump from carrying out his wishes, but he is eroding those institutions by the minute.
Meanwhile, he jeopardizes the American economy with his protectionist, xenophobic policies on trade and immigration, all the while promising those in his white working-class base that he’s saving their jobs. He antagonizes our allies, whom we will need if we are to have effective policies on Iran, North Korea and China. He signals he will use his pardon powers to reward friends and his prosecution powers to punish enemies — even children, if they come from countries he derides as “s—holes.”
But worst of all, he convinces his supporters he’s “winning” while the rest of the country figures it will all work out in the end. Don’t bother with complicated questions of public policy, and don’t worry if you’re not current with the latest administration scandal. It will all change next week anyway.
Linda Chavez is chair of the Center for Equal Opportunity and a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center.
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