Friday, April 28, 2017

The Jesus Bug Columnist

Photo by An-Drake/Deviant Art.
"Jesus bug" is an alternative name for gerrids or water striders, the splayed-legged insects you see darting across ponds and pools looking for airborne bugs that have fallen into the water; so called, obviously, because of their ability to "walk on water" like you-know-who in Matthew 14:25, floating on the surface tension, with their hydrophobic feet. We called them water bugs or water skippers (a name that doesn't even appear in the University of Wisconsin dialect survey), and former New York Times columnist David Brooks calls them pond skaters (also missing from the Wisconsin list), as in "The Pond-Skater Presidency", in which he compares our Emperor to one:

a man who is a political pond skater — one of those little creatures that flit across the surface, sort of fascinating to watch, but have little effect as they go.
The problem with Trump being, as it turns out, that he's just so superficial. Not that he's corrupt on a Berlusconi scale, openly asking government to devote itself to his personal business interests foreign and domestic, and pretty much inviting his cabinet officers to do the same, and not that foreign powers seem to have a secret hold on him (people like Brooks presumably think he proved he wasn't Putin's puppet by sending that single irrelevant bombing mission to Syria). And not that he bears all the distinguishing marks of the fascist except for maintaining his own private army (except to the extent, you know, that he does that too). To Brooks, Trump has left all that behind, made his pivot, and turned into a garden-variety Republican:

Trump has now changed and many of his critics refuse to recognize the change. He’s not gotten brighter or humbler, but he’s gotten smaller and more conventional. Many of his critics still react to him every single day at Outrage Level 11, but the Trump threat is at Level 3 or 4....
I don't disagree that the situation is getting less dangerous day to day, at least for those of us who are not visibly Arab or Latino, or not dependent on government arts funding or suffering from a pre-existing condition or for that matter waiting for those coal mine jobs to open up (good luck, bros!). But it's true that a number of bad things seem less likely to happen.

Because of the inconsequentiality of everything he does, for one thing: the impossibility of translating the conceptual sketches of programs his office puts out into legislation, the powerlessness of the executive orders to do anything—they're mostly plaintive requests to somebody to look into something and find out "just what in the hell is going on" as the saying goes, and those that might lead to action (the Muslim ban and the extortion threat against "sanctuary cities) are getting blocked by the courts. Which I even agree with to a large extent, except that this fecklessness combined with Trump's violent rhetoric has pretty awful consequences, as people hear the language without any proper guidance, and State Department officials begin mishandling visa applications, and ICE and CBP increase arrests and deportations, and US forces in the conflict region from Somalia to Afghanistan stop working carefully to avoid casualties, and insurers drop out of the market, and foreign students decide not to come (so many small colleges are kept afloat by tuition payments from the Middle East and Asia and South America), and on and on.

Then there's the fact that the White House is getting a little less crazy, though I object to Brooks suggesting that Trump is getting less crazy:

Second, Trump’s competency level has risen from catastrophic to merely inadequate. In the first few weeks, Trump was shooting himself in the foot on an hourly basis. But as time has gone by, he has hired better people and has shifted power within the White House to those who are trying to at least build a normal decision-making process.
His foreign policy moves have been, if anything, kind of normal.
That's not to my mind "competency" at all: he's not hiring anybody, or shifting power in any concerted way. It's that the more skilled courtiers are learning how to shift power around him, and the deeply unsophisticated anarchists, like Bannon, losing their hold, or maybe falling into line now that the election is over. Prince Jared and Grand Duchess Ivanka don't have a clue about policy, but they know when Dad is embarrassing them in front of their cool Upper East Side friends, and they're figuring out ways of avoiding it without getting him too angry; and smarter foreign leaders like Xi Jinping and Justin Trudeau are getting a good feeling for how to talk him out of bombing North Korea or flouncing out of NAFTA. It's not his choice to leave Obamacare standing or fail to make a real tax proposal or watch the Congress refuse to fund the Wall that the Mexicans won't pay for—Congress just can't, or doesn't want to.

Third, Trump has detached himself from the only truly revolutionary movement of our time. If the current world order is going to really be disrupted, it will be because a U.S. president taps into the anger seething among the globe’s rural working classes. If the current world order is going to really be disrupted, it will be because a U.S. president taps into the anger seething among the globe’s rural working classes.
Trump seemed inclined to do that a few months ago, but not today. Sure, he’ll send out a pro-Le Pen tweet, but Trump has mostly switched from being a subversive populist to being a conventional corporatist. His administration-defining motif now is being pro-business — lightening regulations, embracing the Export-Import Bank and offering to lower corporate taxes.
That fantasy that the world nativist fascist movement from Putin to Farage is somehow revolutionary rather than reactionary, so cherished by American conservatives and American political journalists. You can see in the few places where it has achieved actual power that it despises organized labor, while offering a lot of sentimental lip service to (encouraging the casual racism of) the unorganized working stiff. Putin's government is strongly pro-business in a sort of Singaporean way, combining low taxes with authoritarian central planning, and so is Hungary's. It is not in any sense of the left, and Trump has always been a typical Republican in the things he cares about.

Parts of the Trump economic policy agenda are pretty good — corporate tax rates are indeed too high. Parts are pretty bad — threatening the Paris accords on global warming. But there’s nothing unusual. It looks like any Republican administration that is staffed by people whose prejudices were formed in 1984 and who haven’t had a new thought since.
Indeed. As everybody in my corner of the debate has been saying for the past year, that was always going to be what a Trump administration would look like. The appeal to the working stiff was just how they were going to get the votes. Trump hasn't changed at all; this is just more of The Normalizing.

The thing that's going to stick with me from this column is how inappropriate that metaphor is. Not that Trump isn't superficial, but he isn't anything like a water strider delicately bouncing from point to point without penetrating the pond; he's more like some kind of enraged rhinoceros plunging into the stream without realizing that he's getting covered with mud. You know who's really like a water strider, right? Our abstractly pious former columnist, skipping the surface of the world's entire knowledge without ever sinking into the depths as if avoiding depth were a moral issue—a real Jesus bug, as if not sinking were a sign of his mysterious holiness (Jesus doesn't stay on the water surface, he just does the miracle, as if for fun, and gets back to work recruiting disciples and arguing theology, it's not the same thing at all).

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