I’ve got a problem. As I sat down to write my annual New Year’s column, which is usually a wildly hilarious — OK, moderately humorous — romp through the year just passed, I realized there was absolutely nothing funny about 2017.
Even things I thought were funny at the time — like Bill O’Reilly getting fired and covfefe — don’t seem funny any more.
Even the Mooch doesn’t seem funny any more.
We’re in a fix, stuck in the midst of a good-news-bad-news joke in which there is absolutely no good news. And that’s not even the worst of it. Because if you’re even slightly tempted to bid 2017 a fond farewell, you have to take into account that 2018 is going to be worse. Much worse.
This was Year One of Trump Madness, the setup season in which we meet all the characters and begin to grasp the various plot lines. Like the Russian probe, which will only grow more intense. And the North Korea crisis, which includes actual nuclear bombs. And the 2018 midterm elections, which promise the chance for a happy ending, not that you’d want to bet your entire tax break on it.
There will be more natural disasters — in Puerto Rico, where Trump gave his efforts an A+, nearly half of those remaining on the island still lack power — and more Trump jokes about cold weather and global warming.
But the main disasters won’t be natural or probably even imaginable.
I mean, who imagined in 2017 that Trump would find “very fine people” marching alongside neo-Nazis or that he’d trade playground taunts with an ICBM-armed nuclear strongman or that his Twitter account (gosh, I can remember a simpler time when we were advised to simply ignore Trump’s Twitter rampages) would become the epicenter of both domestic and foreign policy?
There’s more, of course, as we careen from one crisis point to the next. You can guess the roll call. The discovery (invention?) of the deep state. The running feud with those in the “fake news.” The extreme dysfunction within the White House and the special counsel lurking at the door. Putin. Roy Moore. Pocahontas. NFL kneelers. NATO shirkers. Jim Comey. Don Jr. Robert Mueller. Jeff Sessions. Paul Manafort. That guy from Montenegro. And crooked Hillary, always Crooked Hillary.
We have no idea how Trump will react if/when any of these plot lines — or the plot lines yet to appear — move toward a climax, only that one or more will and that Fox & Friends will be there to give Trump the news. It’s how the narrative works. What if the son-in-law is indicted? What if Trump gets up early one morning and instead of tweeting decides to take out North Korea’s nukes? Or, if he’s really in a sore mood, cans Mueller? Can you have a Tuesday morning massacre?
What we can guess is that whatever happens, Trump will remind us how many electoral votes he won, and call the Russia probe a Democratic ruse while violating much of what we used to naively call presidential norms.
If you read Trump’s rambling, stream-of-consciousness interview Friday in The New York Times— and you should — you come to the inevitable conclusion that Trump is entirely unprepared for whatever comes next. As Vox’s Ezra Klein put it, and not jokingly, the president of the United States is not well.
What’s certain is that as the pressure increases, and it will, Trump’s approval numbers will continue to fall, his cabinet meetings will grow ever more dear leaderish, and Mike Pence will reach new depths in toadyism.
Meanwhile, let’s guess that China will continue to export oil to North Korea, which could launch a trade war or which could launch another round of Trumpian reveries at his China reception — about which Trump likes to say that President Xi “treated me better than anyone in the history of China.” For those keeping score, that’s about 3,500 years of recorded history.
The temptation is to say the great lesson of 2017 is that we learned nothing at all. I mean, a year into the madness, we still argue whether Trump’s tweets are a strategic distraction (I never believed this) or whether they reveal the inner Trumpian demagogue. Or both. Or neither. And does it matter?
But, in truth, we learned a lot.
We learned the true depths of Trumpian narcissism and the flattery world leaders will use to exploit it. We learned to live with chaos as a constant. We learned that keeping track of all Trump’s lies, and the depth of those lies, has absolutely no impact on the next lie.
We learned that Trump was right when he said his base would never desert him, even if he were to shoot someone on 5th Avenue. And that most Republican politicians wouldn’t desert him even if he trafficked with white nationalism and supported a homophobic, bigoted, mall-stalking U.S. Senate candidate who had allegedly sexually assaulted a 14-year-old.
What we haven’t learned is what do about it. The #resistance seems to be working, but it’s a slow-moving, not-so-good-for-TV-visuals-since-the-women’s-march kind of movement. The hot prescriptive comes in a Washington Post op-ed written by Andres Miguel Rondón, a Venezuelan writer who sees Trump through the prism of another faux populist, Hugo Chavez.
Rondón notes that Americans seem puzzled by the fact that Trump seems impervious to scandal, but explains that “scandal is no threat to populism. Scandal sustains populism.” And with each scandal, Trump supporters rally around him and, more importantly, against the so-called elites who, he insists, are the ones keeping them down.
But Rondón doesn’t really offer a way out, not that he doesn’t try. He argues that outrage is useless and that we need to find a way to understand Trump’s supporters and their grievances in order to convince them that we are not the enemy. To which I say, good luck with that, and have you watched Fox News lately.
To everyone else, I’ll just say Happy New Year and wish I could actually mean it.