Last month when Paul Manafort was convicted the same day that Michael Cohen flipped, pundits and analysts took to the internet, podcasts and Twitter to announce to assure us that this was a momentous day and that a turning point in the stain on American democracy and decency that is the Trump administration had been reached. Now, less than a month later both those events have faded from the news. They have been pushed out of the spotlight first by the death of a giant of American public life and then by the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. The former event was something over which nobody had any control. Those Americans who paused to recognize the life of John McCain, an enormously influential American war hero and politician, did the right thing. Similarly, the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, while revealing the true venality both of thenominee and the party that supports him is an important political process that deserves our attention.
In the last few days, two other developments of much less significance have pushed the Manafort and Cohen cases even further out of the public consciousness. First, advance copies of Bob Woodward’s new book Fear were made available to the press. Woodward is a giant of American journalism; and I look forward to reading his new book. Reports in the press suggest that the book has numerous examples of White House officials and even cabinet members discussing the extent to which Donald Trump is unhinged, petulant and ignorant and the efforts they have made to keep him from doing even more damage. The Trump administration responded to the reports about Woodward’s book by denials, accusing Woodward of lying and describing the book as little more than fiction. That response is natural from an embattled White House facing a very negative book, but Woodward is a very good reporter with a lot more credibility than Donald Trump or almost anybody else in the administration.
Then on Tuesday afternoon, an anonymous opinion piece was published by the New York Times. This article, by a White House insider, claimed that Trump was indeed unhinged and not mentally up to the job of being President while assuring readers that the adults were in charge and dutifully executing the Republican Party’s right wing agenda. Amazingly this was viewed as a major development and a minor victory for the Resistance. This led to a frenzy of speculation about who the writer of the piece was with some wondering whether it was a high level official like James Mattis or even Mike Pence. The more likely scenario is that the article was written by an otherwise unknown mid-level official looking to secure a book contract following his or her departure from the administration when it becomes known, as it inevitably will, that they were the writer of the article.
Despite the attention given to Woodward’s book and the anonymous editorial, substantively there is little new in either. Trump’s precarious mental state has been clear for a long time. Accordingly, it was also apparent that more stable and mature, while equally reactionary, people in the administration have been reining in the President’s more extreme impulses during his presidency. Woodward fleshes this out with anecdotes and quotes which makes for good reading, but the finding itself is still less than groundbreaking.
The anonymous opinion piece is stranger because while at first cut it may seem like a courageous act, it is really an act of cowardice. If you really believe the President is mentally unfit and only figure that out after you start working for him, you go public with that or begin 25th Amendment proceedings. If you disagree vehemently with the President’s policies, as the writer does on issues of trade and some foreign policy, you resign. This writer did neither, instead choosing to hold on to her job a longer while positioning herself or himself for a lucrative post-White House career.
If the last three years or so have taught us anything it is that there are no turning points, crossing of Rubicons, or other dividing lines in the unfolding of the Trumpian assault on our democracy. Manafort’s conviction has faded into the background, just as Woodward’s book will in a few weeks. However, the media, even the progressive media, cannot get away from this narrative. The fundamental problem with this approach is that if everything is a turning point, then nothing is a turning point. If everything is signal and not noise than ultimately everything is just noise. Because what we are experiencing is without precedent in American history, we keep grasping at straws that might bring us back to the familiar and less frightening terrain of more normal American politics. This is natural, but is also, at its core, denial about just how grave a threat the Trump administration, and the political party that now supports him, represent.
Lincoln Mitchell is a scholar, consultant and writer based in New York and San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell