Lately when Donald Trump opens his mouth, the sound that comes out is remarkably similar to the voice of Newt Gingrich, if it were bubbling from the depths of yesteryear and through the corpulent, sniffling body of the donald. Trump’s hypocrisy – constantly attacking people for being fat, ignorant, greedy, or unprincipled, while he himself is the posterboy for all of these things – has historically been confined to the private sector. But now that he’s a politician, it’s easy to see that in spite of his claims to being a trailblazer, a boss, a winner, he is really just the miscreant offspring one should expect when Newt Gingrich and his ilk gangbang America for a couple of decades. Like any monster or genuine evil, the man doesn’t even know what he is. He just stomps around in expensive suits and bad hair, emitting shrill diatribes through that hideous hole he calls a mouth.
The fact that no-one in the GOP genuinely stepped up to fully disown him as Trump’s campaign started tearing the the party’s carefully crafted mantle to pieces should tell us something, but none of us are listening. That “something” that it hints at is that – as many of us generally suspect – the real power in DC lies not in the presidency or the legislative or judicial branches, but in the complex and bloated tissue of industry, finance, and commerce, and its Ebola-like relationship with political institutions. Something that people seem almost eager to overlook as they rant about the paralysis of congress and DC in general is what the easily traceable origin of this state was. Remember the “Contract With America”? It was that thing that Newt Gingrich broke, after ramming it down voters’ throats. Trump’s damn-the-torpedoes, take-no-prisoners approach is not at all unlike the Newt’s strategy of the early nineties that permanently gridlocked Congress, and wasted tens of millions trying to impeach Clinton over a sex scandal. A strategy that with hindsight was pretty ironic, because Clinton’s deregulation of the banks, among other things, was about as Republican a pen stroke as one could imagine, and Newt’s previous wives left him because he cheated on them.
This all was quietly gnawing at me over the last few weeks, when I ran across Michael Lofgren’s new book The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government. While the title may suggest the deranged rantings of some paranoid Tea Party fanatic, nothing could be farther from the truth. This passage in the intro is what reeled me in, and the book did not disappoint:
“I began my tenure as a mainstream Republican in the early days of the Reagan presidency. By the end of my career I considered myself a resolute nonpartisan, and increasingly viewed all political ideologies as mental and emotional crutches, or substitute religions: for leaders, a means of manipulating attitudes and behaviors; for the rank and file, a lazy surrogate for problem solving and a way of fulfilling the craving to belong to something bigger than oneself.”
That last clause-ridden sentence may be the most succinct description of today’s politics I’ve ever read. The book itself is decidedly non-partisan; Lofgren regularly skewers both parties with equal criticism throughout, and he does so with a wit that still has a voice of concern in it. Rather than zeroing in on some minute and ephemeral aspect of “what’s wrong” in order to point fingers and lay blame at partisan feet, he describes the entire context of DC and “The Beltway” in a way that fleshes out a picture that you may have already had a fuzzy version of in your head. It’s like when you’re on a calliope. If you pause to think about it, you sort of know how the thing works: you suspect there’s some big motor in there, and an elaborate series of gears, bearings, and pulleys or something making the thing whirl around cacophonously. But if you had to explain it accurately, you’d be at a loss. That’s what Lofgren’s book does remarkably well, and as I said, in a humorously entertaining fashion. If PJ O’Rourke dialed back the detached contempt about 60%, abandoned his partisan posturing, and taught a “Recent History of American Politics” course, it might be something like this book. It’s written with an insightful wit that demonstrates a deep knowledge and genuine comfort with the topic, and with an observer’s – rather than a participant’s – point of view. While there’s no guarantee that Trump won’t in fact become the next Hitler, it gives you some insight into where the power in DC really lies, and perhaps why the Beltway crowd seems less concerned about the possibility of Trump in the White House than one might expect. Trump is rich and powerful, but there are many who are richer, more powerful, and much more intelligent.