America Is Ruled by the Bluffing President, and He's About to Get Called

The art of the bluff.

Politics Features Donald Trump
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America Is Ruled by the Bluffing President, and He's About to Get Called

Presidents lie. But most of them have been clever about it. They tell little lies, or convenient lies, or lies which are half-truths. Or they choose situations where documentary fact is not easy to find.

Trump is different. He’s a unicorn. For two years, Trump has done little else but bluff. His lies are easily disproven, endlessly repeated, and widely advertised. Lying is part of his game: he simply asserts that This Is True, and acts as if it is. And for a while, that worked. But the rise of the new Democratic majority in Congress changes the game.

Whatever else the Dem majority does, basic principles of self-preservation command that they confront Trump. What happens then?

The President cannot stop himself. Bluffing is essential to Trump. Really, what else does he have? To be a good politician, you have to master about 20 different skills. Trump has one: lying in public. He cannot persuade, flatter, horse-trade, coalition-build, count, fundraise. The President lacks the skills of your average Chicago alderman. Trump can bluff in public. That’s it.

Watch the President speak in public. Just get it done, his body posture says: maybe this time they’ll believe you.

He lies on camera, where he rambles. He lies on Twitter, where the world mocks him. He lies on the news, where talking heads have the last word. Trump’s untruths are so obvious, so flimsy, there’s an ambient sadness to the man. A shabbiness.

When Trump talks, words escape from his mouth, and the words slouch towards Fox News, and from there, they seep down to millions of people who will argue with their families over Thanksgiving. It doesn’t matter to Trump. He’s barely aware of consensus reality, or any object outside his immediate line of sight.

The man bluffs from natural inclination. He’s a bullshit artist, always has been. What made Trump the luckiest politician in the world was one simple, unpleasant fact. The institutions that should have restrained him no longer existed when he ran for president. The media, the opposition, the establishment: all three were effectively toothless by 2016.

In 2017, well-meaning folks claimed our system had safeguards to check the president: moderate Republicans, political norms, American exceptionalism, the deep state. Surely these would stop Trump. One by one, these safeguards failed. And so, for two years, the president of the United States was able to rule by blanket assertion.

We’ve arrived at an epically weird moment in our history. Trump’s power exists because his base believes it does, and because the Congressional GOP had no reason to stop him. Everybody knows Trump has no cards.

I need to emphasize how strange this is, especially for a president. Bluffing is usually just one tool in the political armory. The MAGA movement relies on it. It’s Trump’s sole mode of operation. What eucalyptus is to koalas, bluffing is to Trump. Most presidents get called on their lies and back off. Trump’s style of bluffing is a brinkmanship so outrageous, so native to him, he can’t quit now.

But no matter how popular, eventually every presidency runs out of steam. Their power ebbs. By that time, smart administrations have resources to fall back on. Trump will have nothing. No goodwill, no favors, no achievements. What will his coven do then?

The main project for Trump’s base is for Trump to keep triggering the libs. That’s what they care about most. So far, Trump’s brand of patent jackassery has been enough for them. The politics of resentment abide. But you cannot claim to be good at triggering and confounding the enemy if the enemy returns to power.

And no matter what the president claims, the majority will make their will known. And soon.

So, what happens in the spring? What happens the first time Congress deep-sixes one of Trump’s projects? The outlines are broadly predictable. The president will go on Twitter, rage for a bit, and then move on to something else. Sure.

But what about the fifth, or sixth time this happens? What about the twentieth?

What happens when the MAGA crowd loses in concrete, demonstrable ways: not just once, but many, many, many times? What if they lose in ways that are very public, and very humiliating? What happens when the President claims he’s got a majority in the House? What happens when Trump says that the Dems are going to kill social security, and they don’t? What occurs when Trump says he isn’t under investigation … and he is?

We know that Trump cannot change. But his followers can. I don’t mean they’ll discover morality. Commenters have been expecting the MAGA crowd to discover reason, ethics, empathy, or shame for two years now. It’s never going to happen. But his followers do understand one thing, and that’s defeat and public embarrassment. They know, and fear, those feelings. They know how resentment works.

The hardcore will never abandon him. But America doesn’t need them to turn. We just need enough of Trump’s outer cheering section to stop showing up. Suppose in eight months Trump isn’t removed from office, or under indictment. Suppose he’s been defeated in Congress fifty times in a row. Suppose he’s experienced what would, in parliamentary democracies, be called “a vote of no confidence.” Suppose the president’s red-capped acolytes have been whittled down to the loudest YouTube channels.

I suspect the following will happen: Trump will try the angle he used in bankruptcy court, of claiming he’s worth many times what he actually is. And he’ll act, to prove how strong he is.

The President will overreach, like he did with the 2017 Muslim ban. And this time, there won’t be a bankruptcy court to rescue him. Perhaps Trump will give an order he doesn’t quite comprehend, and it will be given in a way that threatens the power of the establishment … and that will be that. Self-preservation will force politicians to act in a way that morality never could.

Here’s the thing. We have only seen Trump when he was relatively manageable, in line with what the GOP Congress wanted. We have not seen Trump truly deranged, in full froth. Trump has not fought anyone who could effectively fight back. Now would be the time for restraint, for holding your tongue. But restraint is not a word Donald Trump knows.

As his handlers fall away or are fired, the president will finally become certifiably unmoored from reality. When Trump got into office, everyone joked that it was a matter of time until he set off the nukes. His staffers anonymously tell us they are there to check his worst impulses. But I wonder. Confronted with a day-in day-out opposition, with an actively scornful Congress, and with a decaying supporter base, Trump will lose the little restraint he has. The actual order doesn’t matter. Fill in the blanks: “Have the army arrest Pelosi.” “Tell the soldiers to open fire.” “Declare the election illegitimate.” “Drop a nuke on Havana.” Eventually, that order, whatever it is, will come.

Thousands of wishful thinkers have predicted impeachment for this president. Far be it from me to join the prophecy game. What I do know is this: power is conserved in Washington, as it is everywhere. Trump has been extraordinarily lucky: no effective power-center has confronted him on this BS. The first struggles will begin in January 2019. And then, we will see.

Eventually, all claims of power are put to the test. Trump is about to receive his first serious check. Bluff your cards long as you like: eventually, someone will call.

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