Does anyone remember Bob Woodward's Fear? Or the anonymous New York Times op-ed signaling an internal "resistance" inside the freewheeling Trump administration? It was just a month ago! But it might as well be ancient history.
We must fight the inclination to forget and move on. America has a lazy, half-crazy ignoramus at the helm of our nation-state. An alarming vacuum still exists at the center of American power.
Really. You still should be alarmed.
But lately, at campaign rallies and in an unusually frequent number of press avails, the president appears brimming with confidence. As the kids say these days, he's got the swag back.
It appears likely, though far from inevitable, that Republicans will lose control of the House of Representatives. Any hope of moving significant legislation through Congress next year would vanish (unless Trump plans on cutting deals with Democrats). Both his administration and his family-run business would be scrutinized and investigated like never before. Special Counsel Robert Mueller could eventually drop the hammer. If Trump is sweating any of these possibilities, it doesn't show.
One clue to Trump's newfound serenity can be found in his recent 60 Minutes interview with Lesley Stahl. The economy is good. He's had a streak of "wins" on trade policy. He has delivered to conservatives their dream of a Supreme Court majority. More important than those momentary victories, I think, was Trump's description of his overall demeanor on the job. "I very much feel like POTUS," he said. "I feel very comfortable, yeah."
Translation: He's got this thing licked. Being president, while intimidating at first, isn't so hard.
Now, it's long been central to the ethos of conservative intellectuals that presidents shouldn't work too hard at the job. That's for tryhard liberal presidents — those earnest pretentious professorial busybodies who scheme and dream, day and night, of new and ever-more-intrusive ways of running your life and enlarging the state. George Will's January 1989 column celebrating Ronald Reagan's eight years in office is paradigmatic:
Reagan is not only upright at the final bell, he is bouncing on the balls of his feet. He has proven that the presidency is not such a destroyer after all. … The most common, indeed jejune criticism of Reagan is that he did not properly allow the presidency to fill his days, let alone his nights. His immediate predecessor, Jimmy Carter, proudly, even ostentatiously, made the presidency seem crushing. It was Jefferson's "splendid misery" without the splendor. Reagan made being president look a little too easy for some tastes. He drained it of the aura of melodrama that journalists relish. [George Will]
Or the famous story of the "Great Delegator" opting to watch The Sound of Music rather than pore over a briefing book: This, for many conservatives, is a feature rather than a bug of executive leadership.
Trump, as George Will would no doubt agree, is different. He does fill his days and nights with the presidency, just not in a way that any of us, liberal or conservative, would recognize as overly laborious. He takes the Randy Bachman approach to the presidency. Surely you know the song "Takin' Care of Business," one of the most ubiquitous and misguidedly employed songs in the history of political rallies, with its line about loving to "work at nothing all day"? That's the approach Donald Trump has taken to the job of the U.S. presidency: He shows up for "work." In its way, it is physically exhausting. But at the end of each working day — whether it begins with "executive time" and an early-morning binge of Fox & Friends or a visit to a Trump-owned golf course — it's not at all clear what something Trump actually works at.
Trump has reimagined the presidency as a species of performance art. He tweets, therefore, he is. Reportedly one of his favorite publicity stunts was letting cameras into a bipartisan meeting about gun violence. He spoke, he listened, he appeared to be running the show (a show, at any rate). Nothing was decided. Nothing of substance has occurred since then. It was a perfectly vaporous event.
Trump's has been a presidency of endless noise and apparitions. Things have happened, even things of consequence. His allies on Capitol Hill managed to ram through a major piece of tax legislation. He signed it. He signed a passel of executive orders. Regulations have been cut. Judges have been appointed and confirmed. On the world stage, Trump has verbally bullied and cajoled. And since he's nominally in charge of the largest and most important economy in the world, occasionally people have knuckled under to his demands. He has held many meetings — with corporate executives, world leaders, survivors of shootings, narcissistic rappers. He speaks, he listens, he appears to run a show.
Yet it's clear that during those same interactions, Trump is lied to, ignored, manipulated. Sometimes his own subordinates steal things from his desk! He has managed to remove many of the internal impediments to the illusion that he is, as he says, the POTUS. But there will be a reckoning one day. I don't when it will be or what it will look like. Like an unsustainable economic trend, the Donald Trump presidency will continue until it can't.