In his book On Television, Pierre Bourdieu warns against the twin temptations of historical analysis: everything is totally changed and unlike anything that went before, and nothing has changed over the last thousand years.
Nowhere are those temptations as visible as in Trump studies. You’ve got a large set of critics screaming that he’s our Hitler (or, for the Russophobes, Stalin), a violator of all the ethical norms of high office. And there’s a hearty band of Facebook ultras, less numerous than the alarmists, who assure us that Trump is little different from Obama (the deportation numbers are down, though there are technicalities involved). Is it too distressingly moderate to say that there’s more continuity in Trump than the screamers say, but that he does mark a turn for the worse?
People who talk about the dignity of the presidency mustn’t think much about Richard Nixon, a far more interestingly twisted character than the one-dimensional Trump. He ran a private spying operation and bombed Cambodia in total secrecy. His drunken ravings caused a frightened Henry Kissinger (co-architect of those secret bombings) and Alexander Haig to hide the nuclear football from him. It’s likely that Kelly, McMaster, and Mattis have a similar arrangement to control Trump.
Trump’s horrendous xenophobia, shocking by recent standards, has a lot in common with the nativism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. His authoritarian longings are in tune with the country that brought you the Palmer Raids and McCarthyism, though Trump has fallen well short of those models so far. And no one is shooting strikers now, though that may be because there are so few strikers.
But everything does feel worse. Policy aside, there’s no question that Trump is a bare expression of the American political id. He’s encouraged the worst people — Nazis, white supremacists, clash of civilization types — to be far more open and even violent. ICE’s war on immigrants — and the targeted roundup of immigrant leaders — is vicious and terrifying. Nuclear war has become something people talk about. Millions will lose health care, national monuments will give way to uranium mines, and the climate will go to hell at an accelerating rate. Trump himself is ignorant and aimless, but there are enough right-wing thugs around him to do a lot of damage. It’s only accelerating a long-term downtrend in the quality of American life, but an acceleration it is.
In the face of this, the Left, whose prospects seemed good in the first days of the Trump regime, now looks confused and divided against itself. Leaving aside the Russophobes, who can’t be taken seriously, we’ve got one set of people blaming identitarians for everything, and another set blaming brocialists. It’s like the 2016 campaign not only didn’t go away, but became a chronic disease. I wish I had a cure, because it’s debilitating, and the times are miserable.