Two Ways of Thinking about the Trump Years

I’ve argued that Donald Trump’s election should be viewed as accidental – not the result of an American realignment or identity crisis, but rather a fluke.  Pressure to elect an outsider had been growing ever since 1992, when software entrepreneur H. Ross Perot won 19 percent of the popular vote. In 2016, continuing globalization and technology shocks, plus revulsion against the Clinton and Bush dynasties, combined to bring about a result that no one expected.

Jeb Bush, the Establishment candidate, was forced out of the Republican primaries, permitting Trump to take control of the Republican Party. Hillary Clinton battled past her primary challenger, Bernie Sanders, only to lose the presidential election in the Electoral College, when the presumed “Blue wall” states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin voted for Trump.

So, six months after Trump’s inauguration, how best to think about his presidency?

One view is to reach back nearly fifty years to the Watergate affair, to hunt for misdeeds, to seek to impeach and convict the president of high crimes and misdemeanors, and so repudiate him.

Another is to set a watchful eye, to expect Trump to remain for the rest of his term, and to find new ways to think about what has happened.

Remember The Beverly Hillbillies?

The Beverly Hillbillies was an immensely popular television situation comedy in the1960s about a rural southern family that moves to Beverly Hills after becoming rich. It, too, was predicated on an accident.  Each successive episode began by recapping the first: patriarch Jed Clampett missing a squirrel on his swampy farm and hitting a vast oil deposit instead.

The Clampett family are thereupon seen loaded up in a very old truck, like so many Dust Bowl refugees, moving to California – with $25 million in the bank. (It was a lot of money in those days!) In one episode after another, they shake up the privileged society they find there with their backwoods ways.

The twist that sustained the series is that while the Clampetts seem backwoods rubes to their neighbors, who look down on them, they are straightforward, good-hearted, moral folk. It is sophisticated Beverly Hills society that’s self-absorbed, uncomprehending, and corrupt, especially Milburn Drysdale, Clampett’s greedy, unscrupulous banker and pretend best friend, who lives next door.

The Trump family saga turns the Clampett gimmick on its head, and weaves a hostile Russia government into the plot. Whether it’s the president declining to release his tax filings, bragging to his Russian guests that the FBI director he has just fired is a “nut job,” casually pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord, or simply telling the French President that his wife is in “such good physical shape – beautiful,”  the patriarch is the boor-in-chief, a slippery rogue installed in the White House not by money but by votes. His family members have been outfitted with unaccustomed West Wing offices and security clearances.

The very latest episode, which appeared Saturday on page 1 of The Wall Street Journal (subscription required), features son-in-law Jared Kushner, who organized   the meeting of the White House’s American Technology Council last month at which technology industry leaders, venture capitalists, and university presidents sat down with the president to talk technology policy. Zachary Bookman, chief executive of OpenGov, got one of 18 seats at the table.

The California start-up, which renders city and state government data more accessible, is seeking federal business. Kushner’s venture-capitalist brother is an investor in the firm, wrote WSJ reporters Jean Eaglesham and Lisa Schwartz. Kushner himself served on Thrive Capital’s board until he sold his interest in the firm to his brother in January. Thrive invested in several fund-raising rounds in InGov, which in 2015 was valued at $180 million – vastly less than the market value of most of the companies at the meeting.  Indictable?  No.  Typical? Yes.

Sitcom is one way of thinking about the Trump administration.  The narrative based on the Watergate scandal is the other. Here The New York Times, The Washington Post, and MSNBC have the taken the lead. The latest chapter in this version was the news last week that Donald Trump Jr. sat down last summer with a Russian lawyer in hopes of finding dirt on Hillary Clinton. But as Leonid Bershidsky quickly explained, the lawyer was no Kremlin power-broker. And the story seemed to recede in importance as the week wore on.

To be sure, the presidency of the United States is not a sitcom. I have myself toggled back and forth between thinking that Donald Trump may have already done something so wrong that he may be driven from office.  He may yet do something sufficiently stupid, or dangerous, or both. So far, though, I don’t think that he has.

The Trump presidency will go into history with an asterisk – not because the Russians meddled with the Democrats’ campaign, not because rogue FBI agents put their thumbs upon the scale, but because his election was an accident. The 25-year feud between the Bushes and the Clintons immobilized both major political parties, fracturing one, paralyzing the other, and Trump slipped through as a result. The relevance of the Hillbillies show, a parable of sound values, is to emphasize how unprepared for life in the White House is the Trump clan – a riches-to-rags story just the reverse of what turned out to be the case in the sitcom.

Still, most of us have a distinct preference to let the results of one presidential election stand until the next – Watergate being the exception.  Indeed, if the WSJ had chosen to frame the Clinton presidency in terms of the Beverly Hillbillies instead of the Watergate narrative, things might have gone very differently ever since

The Clampett family saga ran for nine seasons, 1962 until 1971. It was among the twenty most popular shows on American television – so popular that it was remade as a film in 1993.  The Trump family saga is scheduled for four years. Donald Trump’s administration might be cancelled before then. But, week to week, I find it easier to think of it as a dark sitcom, turning the familiar sound-values premise on its head, a mash-up of West Wing and Breaking Bad. It is not likely to be renewed.

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