Black Hole Politics

The following article was originally published in The American Conservative on April 3, 2017

Black holes are strange formations in outer space where gravitational forces millions of times greater than the sun’s swallow light and can even bend the flow of space and time. Because of this, observing the facts of what is happening inside of them is nearly impossible with existing technology.

Since Donald Trump’s election, we’ve observed a similar phenomenon in politics. The disruptive force of his candidacy has rendered traditional metrics useless while the forces unleashed by his confrontational agenda are warping longstanding party alliances. Meanwhile, the psyche of American politics remains elusive, cloaked in the darkness of a black hole’s gravitational field. But if we study the wrinkled fabric of space-time radiating outward from the White House, we can see some remarkable trends emerging in our two parties

Republicans Are Still Adrift in Space But Far From Lost

One of the least reported but most important aspects of the Trump presidency is the extent to which Republicans have jettisoned decades of ideology to hitch a ride on his coattails. Some of this is thanks to the awesome power of the presidency, an office that has the celestial authority to illuminate key policy issues and darken others. But it’s also due to the rank-and-file GOP’s hunger for power and their fear of punishment from a voting base that’s sent some very confusing signals this past year.

Consider the competing tensions: Republicans built a majority on Capitol Hill by harnessing a conservative backlash against President Obama. The standouts from the Tea Party waves of 2010, 2012, and 2014 were people like Sens. Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, and Rand Paul. Love them or hate them, all of these men are light-years right of center. There is no mistaking them for anything other than conservatives.

But the 2016 election produced a distinctly different candidate: Donald Trump, whose first Joint Address to Congress was one of the strangest displays of party unity ever. There, Trump spent an hour laying out an agenda that sounded distinctly un-conservative, calling for trade barriers, extended paid family medical leave, a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill, and an end to unilateral military leadership. He basically trashed everything Republicans have stood for since Reagan—and he did it to thunderous applause from his own party.

But has the Republican Party actually fallen into Trump’s orbit, or is it now on a divergent course of planetary drift? Look, for example, at the conservative mutiny against the Trump-endorsed American Health Care Act (AHCA). This revolt, led by the Freedom Caucus, a band of diehards in the most extreme reaches of the Republican solar system, shows that ideology is not a settled question among Republicans. But perhaps more interesting is the manner in which the right wing chose to object. It calls into question how strong that drift actually is.

The night before his cadre killed the AHCA, Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) said that “the president will get a victory,” and that he was “desperately trying to say yes,” while his compatriot figurehead Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) deflected by saying that “the responsible thing is to keep working at this [health care] because it’s an important issue for the American people.” It’s hard to read that and not think that even as these rogue Republicans drift away from their party’s gravitational center, they are looking for a path back into the president’s favor. Consider this: when in recent memory have extreme conservatives publicly apologized for being extremely conservative? Is Trump turning the Republican Red Badge of Courage into a Scarlet Letter?

The answer lies in a political force much larger than ideology. That force is fear. And fear is what Republicans feel when it comes to defying Trump. They know it was their voters who flocked to his beacon in the sky, and they don’t want to test those voters’ loyalty now. Trump knows this, which is why he still hits the road to hold rallies where his supporters can demonstrate their enthusiasm for him. He’s also using Twitter to go on the offensive; he tweeted after the health-care debacle that “Democrats are smiling in D.C. that the Freedom Caucus, with the help of Club For Growth and Heritage, have saved Planned Parenthood & O[bama]care!” Every GOP politician remembers Trump taking down “Little Marco,” “Low-Energy Jeb,” and “Crooked Hillary,” and they don’t want Trump focusing on them.

Finally, as we stand on the edge of Trump’s black hole, a place where logic and reason are swallowed into unknowable darkness, we see another dimension-hopping warp of political force: Trump’s failed health-care bill made him his most unlikely of allies, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). During the campaign, these two men strained to say anything positive about each other. So should we conclude that the health-care blowup has mended fences between Ryan and Trump’s divergent wings of the party? Probably not. It’s safer to assume that these two meteors happened to be tumbling toward the same planet when they gathered force, collided, and then ricocheted off its atmosphere, half as strong as when they started.

Liberalism Is Becoming a Totalitarian Movement

If we were to peer into the cosmos of the American left, what we’d see isn’t a black hole but rather a nebula left behind after Barack Obama’s star expired. And judging by recent events, this messy solar dust is forming a new star—the kind that burns twice as hot, twice as bright, and half as long. That star is The Resistance, the core of anti-Trump anger that has galvanized the Democratic Party since Trump’s victory in November.

What’s most interesting about The Resistance is that its worldview is curiously totalitarian. It judges all actions against one thing: the regime. In North Korea, the law (or what passes for it) scrutinizes every person according to his or her loyalty to Supreme Leader Kim Jung-un; in The Resistance, it’s the opposite. There, the modern Democratic Party demands unconditional opposition to anything that Donald Trump even touches. We saw this on display in Trump’s address to Congress. He laid out an agenda that owed as much to liberal thought as conservative, but when he rattled off a list of longtime Democratic priorities, it was the Democrats who sat on their hands, quite literally in an act of silent protest.

This blanket disapproval of Trump is reminiscent of a joke Lyndon Johnson once told about the contentious Vietnam era that he governed in: “If one morning I walked on top of the water across the Potomac River, the headline that afternoon would read: ‘President Can’t Swim.’” That’s an accurate description of the landscape that Donald Trump finds himself in today, with one exception: in 2017, the sub-headline would add, “Trump will not enter water because of Muslim bathers, prefers to be on Vladimir Putin’s yacht.”

This perception in the liberal nebula that Donald Trump is a Russian puppet driven by hatred of Muslims is crystallizing into an alternate reality. Look no further than the apocalyptic stance that the New York Times and the Washington Post have taken with their new taglines: “The truth is more important than ever” and “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” What exactly do those phrases even mean? Are they implying that the truth is one-sided? Reading the New York Times for the last 15 years, you’d certainly think so. And who said that democracy was dying? If you ask people in rural areas and economically depressed suburbs, you’d actually get another story—that democracy is more alive than ever, thanks to a president they elected without the backing of a major party, a donor base, or any campaign infrastructure to speak of.

The apocalyptic marketing of America’s two preeminent left-of-center publications makes a point about those who live in the liberal nebula. After all, the whole point of advertising is to sell merchandise: L’Oréal pitches beauty to sell skin cream, Ford pitches durability to sell trucks, and now, in 2017, the New York Times and Washington Post are pitching the apocalypse to sell newspapers. And they’re doing it because that’s what their customers want. Those are the stories Democrats want to read.

Take, for example, the recent headline that, after learning about his “secret meetings” at the White House, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called for Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) to recuse himself from investigations of Russian interference in the election and illegal CIA leaks about Trump cabinet members. In other times, Nunes’s trips up Pennsylvania Avenue would be an example of prudent intragovernmental exchanges of national-security information, but with Trump in the White House, Pelosi and House Democrats can’t help but jump to the conclusion that it’s proof of a widening conspiracy to protect Putin’s puppet.

In a totalitarian world, the state is religion. And so it is for many on the left, where hating Trump is the new church, anger is the new forgiveness, and “Democracy Dies in Darkness” is the new Nicene Creed. It’s a mindset that’s patently illiberal—unless it’s directed against the regime.

It’s said that nebulae are the nurseries of stars. And at the end of the day, that’s what will save the Democratic Party—a new star around which to orbit and organize, and that will illuminate portions of the galaxy that Trump has left behind. Until then, expect more chaos amid the fragments of shattered stardust.

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