Donald Trump told the Associated Press last Friday that a president’s first 100 days in office are “a ridiculous standard” for measuring achievement. So let’s make nice and pretend we’ve forgotten the “100-Day Plan To Make America Great Again” he was bragging up last fall. It was pretty heady stuff, starting with the major pieces of legislation he wanted passed before cruel April gave way to gentle May.
Let’s see: repealing and replacing Obamacare, a yuuuge tax code overhaul, a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill and—this one’ll make you start weeping quietly—a “Drain the Swamp” act to clean up Washington’s ethics, among other MAGA thunderbolts. Plus, of course, The Wall, whose always iffy chances of getting built anywhere outside the sandbox Trump calls his brain have now evaporated to the point that his aides are trying to rebrand it as a “metaphor” for increased border-security funding. It sure didn’t sound metaphorical when he was describing his construction project as an “impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful, southern border wall” last August, but never mind.
We know how the rest of his Capitol Hill wish list has fared. Some of it, like tax reform, is still on the table, if only in the sense that there would be plenty on the table right after Orson Welles threw up his dinner. But the GOP’s first crack at torpedoing Obamacare almost sank Kapitan Paul Ryan’s submarine instead, and life inside Das Boot hasn’t been the same since. Meanwhile, unsurprisingly, the items in Trump’s legislative top 10 that had the most potential crossover appeal—from improved childcare to that swamp-draining anti-corruption bill—now lie quietly in unmarked graves no Republican Congress will ever disturb.
In areas where Trump has more leeway to act unilaterally, he’s delivered on some of his promises (scuttling the Trans-Pacific Partnership, foolishly), been thwarted on others (the Muslim ban, luckily) and openly reneged on a few, including his vow to label China a “currency manipulator” on Day One. He did a 180 on that because (a) it isn’t true and (b) he belatedly realized he needs China’s help to tame North Korea, which are two things any other incoming POTUS would have known before Inauguration Day.
Trump could leave office tomorrow and still qualify as the most consequential POTUS in any living American’s memory.
All the same, judging from his Trucky McTrumpface bluster about how everything’s going great and the bummer stuff is fake news, he’s plainly upset that his ledger at the 100-day mark is looking pretty damn skimpy. That’s why he keeps reverting to “Hey, look! Neil Gorsuch!” to bump up his RBIs—at least when he isn’t prattling (still!) about the size of his Electoral College win or boasting that his Face The Nation ratings topped those for 9/11, which is maybe not the cheeriest comparison. It’s as if he thinks he’s still hosting The Apprentice, which, from a certain point of view, America’s plus-size White House spokesmodel all too unmistakably is.
And you know what? We think that, for once in his life, Trump isn’t giving himself enough credit. Benchmarks like getting major legislation passed, parking an ideologically servile SCOTUS justice on the bench or otherwise delivering on crowd-pleasing campaign promises are how we evaluate conventional presidents. But comparing Trump to any conventional president is about as useful in judging his impact as comparing Benjamin Franklin’s kite to a rogue meteor.
He could leave office tomorrow and still qualify as the most consequential POTUS in any living American’s memory. Nobody else has wreaked so much havoc in such a short time on our conceptions of what kind of country we are, what the Presidency stands for, our democratic system’s durability and worth or America’s leadership role in the world. As of January 20, the whole archaic Lego kit has been up for grabs.
So have fundamental notions of political responsibility, the difference between truth and falsehood and what constitutes unacceptably crass public behavior anywhere from the White House itself to restaurants and playgrounds. Thanks to his influence and example, those are all now partisan issues, not givens.
He hasn’t just shredded our few remaining political norms, which turned out to be unexpectedly fragile. He’s transformed the tone of everyday life, because there’s no escaping him. In just three months–or five, if we go back to Election Day—he’s turned the United States into Trumplandia, a place that’s often unrecognizable as the fractious but mostly benign country where most citizens, immigrants included, could luxuriously take for granted as recently as 2014, 2015 or even topsy-turvy 2016. Against their will, his opponents (and targets) spend even more time living in it than his roistering supporters do.
Virtually everything about Trump’s administration is unprecedented—or “unpresidented,” as he once famously misspelled it. Most obviously, we’ve never had a POTUS whose associates are under active suspicion of being either dupes or tools of a foreign power, whether or not he’s personally compromised as well. Nor have we ever had an executive branch run by a gang of utter novices with such open contempt for government’s institutional role and the professional know-how that goes with it.
We’ve never had a president whose preening offspring (plus one in-law) unabashedly treat the office as an opportunity to boost Dad’s international business brand, prioritizing Trump Organization interests over the national interest worldwide. That hasn’t stopped him from giving them policy portfolios, foreign missions, West Wing offices and top-secret security clearances. We’ve never had a president who neglects the sophisticated apparatus in place to keep him the best-informed human being alive and prefers to get his “news” from cable TV and dubious-to-scurrilous right-wing websites. Then he tweets about his latest discoveries off the top of his head, sending everybody scrambling to redraw their maps of Trumplandia yet again.
In fact, just about this administration’s only bow to tradition is that we have had White Houses positively bulging with unrepentant white supremacists before. But they haven’t been this welcome there in quite a few decades now, and flagrant neo-Nazis never were. Plenty of Mississippian members of the “Greatest Generation” could tell you it’s totally possible to be one and not the other.
Worst of all, however, is that we’ve never had a president so blatantly divorced from reality. True, all politicians live in a bubble to some extent, and all politicians lie. But Trump doesn’t lie like a politician—that is, shrewdly, rationally, tactically or with any awareness he’s lying. He customizes and invents his own truths like a sociopath, and it never fazes him that they’ve got no factual basis. If anything, that damn near pleases him, as if his ability to make outrageous falsehoods a quasi-legitimate part of our national discussion proves what a genius he is.
Trump’s base is holding steady. Pleasing them comes ahead of governing for the good of the country.
On the world stage, and in Europe’s eyes above all, we now careen almost daily from being a dumbfounding laughingstock to an unpredictable terror. Other presidents have been both ridiculed and hated abroad; George W. Bush certainly was. But Europeans could despise Dubya’s Iraq war and cowboy posturing without thinking he was putting their own future at risk or undermining their reliance on the United States to preserve and protect the post-World War II international order. That’s been smashed to smithereens too, because Trump’s only consistent message in foreign policy has been that he’s undependable. At his wackiest, the ultimate taboo—a nuclear confrontation with some country—now seems like a totally plausible outcome to an international crisis, if not something he sounds almost eager to try just to see what happens.
How much comfort can foreigners—or Americans, for that matter—take in the fact that no president has ever been this unpopular with his fellow citizens so early on, demonstrating that we haven’t gone totally loco? Not a lot, because Trump’s base (somewhere between 40 and 45 percent of the public) is holding steady. He’s made it clear that pleasing them comes ahead of governing for the good of the country. “My base really wants it,” was how he recently justified his border wall, even though 62 percent of Americans think building one is a dumb idea.
By now, building one would also be redundant, because Trump himself is already (metaphorically!) the Wall. Unsurprisingly, all sorts of people who used to dream of visiting, studying in or outright immigrating to the United States have no interest in visiting, studying in or immigrating to Trumplandia. This isn’t just losing us tourist bucks; it’s diminishing our potential talent pool. Xenophobes tempted to say “Good riddance” should realize that we aren’t just talking about Sikhs who manage 7-11s, useful members of American society though they are. We’re talking doctors, scientists, technicians and all sorts of other specialists, and we have no idea what making them feel unwelcome will cost our quality of life down the road.
So far, as domestic politics goes, it’s hard to see what Trump could do to push his approval rating even to 50 percent, let alone higher. But that doesn’t matter, because the GOP’s terror of offending Trump’s base will keep the House and Senate’s Republican majorities craven even if he swaps his Oval Office chair for a toilet seat and starts taking televised dumps there every Sunday. Aside from Gorsuch’s confirmation, their devil’s bargain of installing a dangerous nincompoop in the White House in exchange for making good on their dream agenda hasn’t worked out too well so far. But they’re looking ahead to 2018, and they know that publicly defecting from Trumplandia will likely earn them what they dread: a primary challenger who thinks they’ve committed treason.
Speaking of treason, one peculiar upside of Trump’s reign is that being in league with him has wrecked the Republican Party’s pretense that they’re the party of true patriots. How can they keep wrapping themselves in Old Glory when they’ve made it plain that they don’t care whether the 2016 election was manipulated to Trump’s benefit by Russia? On top of that, with a handful of honorable exceptions, they’re now working overtime to hush up, distort or suppress the lurking possibility that Trump’s campaign not only knew this, but flat-out colluded with the Kremlin. Even though nobody knows where Russiagate may lead, the horrendous scenario of United States Senators and Representatives finding out that the worst is true and doing their best to mislead us about it to keep Trump (and themselves) in power doesn’t seem particularly far-fetched anymore.
One political miracle: his first 100 days has galvanized the left into a higher level of organized opposition than most leftists have seen in their lifetimes.
Something similar is sadly true of evangelical voters, who understandably shut up about the GOP being the party of “family values” (a Republican mantra for 30 years) the minute Trump won the nomination. Once upon a time, even liberals could have a grudging respect for the Christian right’s unyielding fervor. They wanted one of their own in the White House, and candidates who only faked adherence to fundamentalist beliefs never fooled or satisfied them. All that went poof once they turned out in droves for a twice-divorced serial adulterer and sexual harasser from depraved Noo Yawk who wouldn’t know God if he and Yahweh were standing next to each other in a police lineup. We at Playboy may not know our Bible the way evangelicals do, but we do remember Genesis 25:29-34: something about selling your birthright for a mess of pottage, people.
Even so, Trump’s irreligiosity hasn’t stopped him from pulling off one certifiable political miracle. It could be that the most substantial and lasting accomplishment of his first 100 days has been to galvanize the left into a higher level of activism, fund-raising and organized opposition than most leftists have seen in their lifetimes. For once, borrowing from the Tea Party’s playbook, they seem determined to stick with it, pressuring the Democratic Party into uncharacteristic intransigence and concentrating on the 2018 midterms instead of supinely waiting for the next presidential election to resolve things.
Will this last? Again, nobody knows. But the surest reason to bet the opposition will stay energized is, of course, Trump himself. That’s because he can’t stop being Trump, and thereby stirring up outrage, panic and disgust pretty much 24/7.
That also explains why 2018 already looms so large on both sides of our ideological divide. Simply, nobody can imagine this chaotic, overheated lurch from farce to horror flick and back going on four more years. (We’re not saying it won’t—just that nobody can imagine it.) The real shock of Trump’s presidency hitting the 100-day mark is realizing that it’s only been 100 days since we first woke up in this Bizarro World landscape, and the tectonic plates haven’t stopped shifting yet. Maybe they never will.