Governing by Owning the Libs

When a president’s entire motivation is to antagonize the people who didn’t vote for him.

Donald Trump looks smug as he gestures toward a crowd at a campaign rally.
President Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 2018. Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Fine: Donald Trump wanted to buy Greenland, or at least wanted to talk about wanting to buy Greenland. Presidents are allowed to be silly and imperialist; taking over Greenland is mild stuff compared with, say, planting a flag on the moon.

But the original Wall Street Journal story that broke the news of Trump’s desire contained one truly alarming passage, and it was supposed to be reassuring: One of the Journal’s sources said that the president’s interest in buying Greenland was probably not “a serious inquiry,” because “Mr. Trump hadn’t floated the idea at a campaign rally yet.”

This—like the rapid melting of the Arctic that would make Greenland an attractive future acquisition—was simply a background fact: If the president of the United States is serious about doing something, he will announce it at a campaign rally.

There are many recurring themes that help explain what’s happening in the United States under Donald Trump: incompetence, cruelty, racism, self-dealing, misogyny. But the perpetual campaign rally gives shape to all the others. The Trump presidency is the result of politics organized around unending partisan aggression, which has driven out even the pretense of other aims. The only goal of power in the Trump era is to own the libs.

Owning the libs is the purpose behind an otherwise purposeless policy agenda. Why would the administration roll back methane emission limits and fuel-efficiency restrictions, when the power and automotive industries have asked it not to? Why would it go to the trouble of announcing restrictions that would make it harder for a small fraction of members of the armed forces to get citizenship for their children? Why force a losing legal battle on adding a citizenship question to the census?

“As president,” Eric Levitz wrote in New York magazine last week, “Trump has shown a singular disinterest in appealing to—or showing even the smallest bit of deference to the interests of—those outside his party’s coalition.” Levitz was responding to the president’s expressions of contempt for Puerto Rico, as another hurricane closed in on the island, and to a Trump-Pence fundraising email declaring, of the Democrats, “this is our country, not theirs.”

It’s true that Donald Trump has no interest in acting as president of the entire country. At most, he gestures toward the idea of making the country so rich and so proud that the people who’ve been against him will eventually have to submit to him in gratitude. But the us-versus-them message is not just an expression of Trump’s individual personality defects—rather, Trump is president because his personality defects harmonize with the political movement that was already in control of his party.

Last month, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin dropped by the Kentucky Democratic Party’s booth at the state fair. For the occasion, Bevin was wearing a bright blue-and-white blazer printed all over with images of Donald Trump’s face. Matt Bevin was elected in November 2015, before Trump had even won the Republican nomination for president.

It’s notable—though far from dispositive—that the Democratic booth staffers disputed news reports that called the governor’s visit “trolling,” saying instead that they had a “nice long conversation.” The Trump regalia, then, was part of what passes for the everyday order of business. It was normal, for people who live in Kentucky, that the governor of their state, performing his ceremonial duties at a century-old event for the full citizenry, should choose to make himself a billboard for the president’s face. In the same way, it’s normal for Bevin to be fighting a running court battle to try to force hundreds of thousands of people off Medicaid, because Medicaid expansion was part of the Affordable Care Act, and the Affordable Care Act was a win for the Democrats. It’s just the team he’s on.

In the permanent campaign rally, the point of governing is to let everyone know who’s who. This is why Ken Cuccinelli, the acting head of Citizenship and Immigration Services and another figure whose taste for partisan warfare predates Trump, gloated on Twitter about the work his office was doing to block immigration, writing “the best is yet to come!” It’s why when pressed about the poem at the foot of the Statue of Liberty, the tired and the poor and so on, he disavowed the message—just as Stephen Miller, the baleful engineer of the administration’s anti-immigrant machinery, had disavowed it two years before. The ruling party has no use for the Statue of Liberty, because the Statue of Liberty is understood to belong to everyone.

This has been developing for a long time: Next year will be the 25th anniversary of the government shutdown led by Newt Gingrich, when the speaker of the House decided it was better to disable the day-to-day operations of the country than to cooperate with a Democratic president. At the time, it was understood to be a showdown between one governing agenda and another. In the intervening years, though, the deed itself became the point, an act of pure negation. By 2013, when the Tea Party and Ted Cruz shut down the government, the purpose was simply to sabotage the Affordable Care Act—not to produce any alternative policy but to try to use control of a single house of Congress to nullify what had already been made law.

Some might have gullibly taken the Tea Party for a group with identifiable policy priorities. But the Tea Party yelled about fiscal restraint because it wanted to restrain a Democratic president from being able to spend money. When a Republican got back into the White House, the budgetary restraint went away.

Opposition was the only principle. Eventually, inexorably, this led to the moment that Mitch McConnell simply refused to consider any Supreme Court nominee Barack Obama might nominate—followed by John McCain, the mascot of old-fashioned statesmanship and civility, declaring his intention to block any nomination that might be made by a President Hillary Clinton, as well. The alternative to a Republican justice would be no justice at all.

And a broken government is better than a shared one. In Trump, the party has found a figure who frees it from even pretending to care about running the country. Where the George W. Bush administration boasted that “when we act, we create our own reality,” the Trump administration dispenses with action and reality alike. Every decision or announcement or tweet is pure antagonism, a boast of a win built on taunting the losers. By the time anyone tries to figure out what happened—whether the wording of the executive order makes legal sense, or the draft memo ever came to be, or where anybody put the detained babies—the president has gotten bored and moved on. The insight of Donald Trump and the people around him, then, is that the spirit of negation is not just for obstructing what your opponents want to do, but can extend to the entire project of being in charge of the government.

If you’re weak enough to care, by the way, the Federal Election Commission just joined the list of disabled institutions, with one of its four existing commissioners—out of a body that’s supposed to have six—resigning at the end of August. That leaves it without a quorum and therefore unable to enforce election law. The vacancies are there because the Trump administration abandoned the traditional practice of filling the seats two at a time, by naming one Republican and one Democratic nominee. Instead it submitted a single name, a former Trump campaign lawyer. The libs have been owned.