Now that she’s been confirmed, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is going to need a Secret Service code name. We think we’ve got the right one: Incitatus. As Roman Empire buffs may remember, Incitatus was the name of the horse Caligula wanted to give a consulship to when he was feeling truly batty.
Not much documentation exists about Incitatus’s positions on the issues in 39 C.E., although he’d probably have voted “Neigh” a lot. DeVos’s confirmation hearings, on the other hand, provided oodles of evidence that she’s no more qualified to run the Department of Education than she is to compete in the Preakness. She is, however, eminently qualified to destroy it, which is pretty much her lifelong ambition.
Despite intense lobbying against her, only two Republican Senators, both of them women—Maine’s Susan Collins and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski—ended up turning thumbs down, letting DeVos barely squeak through once Vice President Mike Pence voted to break a 50-50 tie. One reason that’s significant is that plenty of the GOP senators voting “Yea” represent states whose constituents are likely to be among the Americans most harmed by DeVos’s itch to dismantle public education, as it’s the only school option that exists in many rural areas. Presumably, they know that. But the $200 million the DeVos family has donated to Republican candidates over the years apparently spoke louder to, among others, Marco Rubio, who got almost $100,000 of the boodle.
The larger message, to nobody’s surprise, is that the fantasy once peddled by Rubio himself of the GOP’s Capitol Hill majorities providing a responsible corrective to President Trump’s amateur-hour wrecking crew is just that: a fantasy. We can only guess what sort of pressure Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had to use to keep wavering Republican senators in line, but letting a nominee so blatantly ill-equipped for the job go down to defeat by a couple of votes would have sent a useful signal that our Constitutional system of checks and balances is still in working order. Then again, providing that kind of reassurance has never interested McConnell much when the president is a Republican, even a nominal one like Trump.
If Trump administration isn’t in ruins within a year, democracy as we know it will be.
Instead, the GOP’s determination to ram through even Trump’s most unpopular appointees as hastily as possible suggests panic, not confidence, and a fear that even one setback could bring the whole works crashing down by making the new regime’s control seem less than total. At neither end of Pennsylvania Avenue is this bunch behaving as if they’ve got a leisurely four years, or even two, to implement their agenda. It’s more like they’re racing through their bucket list before the anvil drops.
Of course, that’s also how you operate when you’re staging a coup. The faster you change people’s perceptions of what’s acceptable or even tolerable, the less likely it is the anvil will drop at all. If the Trump administration isn’t in ruins within a year, it no longer seems far-fetched to speculate that democracy as we know it will be instead.
More recklessly and self-aggrandizingly than even his most horrified critics predicted, Trump himself has spent his infant presidency doing his best to redefine sticking up for our system of government—separation of powers, a free press, the Emoluments Clause, indeed any institutional restraint on his power whatsoever—as treason. If not to the United States, then to him, even as he relentlessly blurs any daylight between the two. So long as his MAGA base goes on jubilantly believing that all this is just swell because it pisses off “libtards” and “snowflakes,” this Republic of ours is in much worse peril than it ever was during Watergate, when those institutional restraints kept even Richard Nixon hemmed in.
Right now, the three major targets this White House is out to discredit and deligitimize are a) an independent judiciary, b) the media and c) popular dissent. Not only did U.S. District Judge James Robart get tweet-slapped as a “so-called judge” for suspending implementation of Trump’s Muslim travel ban, but we were told the whole “court system” will be to blame if “something happens” as a result. (Who says Trump doesn’t know how to plan ahead?) As for the media, after tweeting that “negative polls are fake news,” POTUS accused “the very dishonest press” of deliberately not reporting terrorist attacks for unspecified—but clearly sinister—reasons.
On Monday, Sean Spicer, fresh from getting turned into gum-chewing hamburger by Melissa McCarthy on SNL, tried to make that claim sound less vile than it is by saying the attacks had been “underreported” instead. But the White House’s list of examples got promptly demolished by the news outlets being accused, since it included massively covered events from the Charlie Hebdo shootings to the San Bernardino killings to … okay, not the “Bowling Green massacre” Kellyanne Conway had earlier made up out of thin air. A nation grieved just the same, remembering those horrible screams we never heard of “Bowling Green is people! Bowling Green is people!”
The same day, Spicer repeated Trump’s charge—for which there’s no evidence whatever—that the demonstrators against the Muslim ban were paid shills. “Protesting has become a profession now,” he told Fox News, bizarrely adding, “They have every right to do that, don’t get me wrong.” (Naturally, for this administration, a profit motive would seem valid in a way spontaneous moral outrage wouldn’t.) Like so much else in Trumplandia, this is a classic case of projection, since Trump himself famously had to hire paid stooges to cheer for him when he announced his presidential candidacy. For that matter, we don’t know whether he still does now or will soon have to again, anyway.
Let’s not trivialize any of this. Trump and his courtiers are going all-out to create an environment in which the only trustworthy information about what’s going on emanates from Trump himself, along with “news” outlets eager to serve as his administration’s propagandists: Breitbart and Fox. From negative polls to New York Times inside scoops on White House disarray, the rest of the press will be downgraded to peddlers of fiction. (Early this week, White House aide and Breitbart alum Sebastian Gorka confirmed to CNN that all reportage critical of Trump will go right on being labeled “fake news” until the media recognizes the error of its ways.) Any legal and Constitutional challenges to Trump’s diktats will be belittled as loose-cannon partisan obstructionism at best, unpatriotic aid to the terrorist enemy at worst.
None of that was ever how this country used to work, no matter which party was in power. But thanks to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the next generation of schoolchildren may never learn that was the case. Or that we once had two parties, either, or a separate judicial branch. Or even that the Gold House at 1600 Trump Avenue was painted white once upon a time.