Friday, September 14, 2018

Cape Fear


SUMMER 2018, like most other summers the season of ball games and barbecues, has been more for students of the Trump White House. For them it’s been the season of the objective correlative -- the literary technique of representing a feeling with literal symbols that objectify that feeling. In recent weeks, for example, the east coast, and certainly Washington, D.C., have been hit with strong rains of varying intensity: weekends of water that sometimes fell at rates between one and two inches an hour.

More recently — and consistent with a major hurricane  lashing locales up and down the eastern seaboard — the physical reality of the weather is mirroring the parallel reality of presidential politics. Other storms have House Trump coping with torrential downpours of its very own.

The dovetailing of objective reality and the presidential anti-reality of Donald Trump couldn’t be more apparent. Neither could the almost-providential coincidence of the book Fear by Hurricane Bob Woodward, a work that lays bare the calamities, arrogances, stupidities and unforced errors by Trump & Co.; fresh attention paid to the might of Hurricane Maria (which devastated Puerto Rico almost exactly a year ago, claiming almost 3,000 lives, a death toll Trump now insists is a political fabrication); and Hurricane Florence, a monstrous and possibly historic storm that’s slamming into the Carolinas this weekend.

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But the presidential reality distortion field has buckled over the last two weeks. The presumed Great & Powerful Donald Oz is facing down an abundance of forces, from Capitol Hill to the streets, ready to reveal a presidency whose current implosion shouldn’t be a surprise, one that in so many dynamic, operational ways was on its last legs the day it began those 600+ days ago.

A CNN poll — the first such survey since the twin broadsides of the New York Times op-ed and the first excerpts of Woodward’s Fear — found that 32 percent of Americans see President* Trump as honest and trustworthy, a new low in his 20-month presidency. His approval numbers fell 6 percent in a month, mostly among independent voters.

Interesting, though: In the same poll, 69 percent of the country thinks the economy is in good shape. Republicans may try to spin that number as favoring the GOP agenda in November, but there’s a problem with that: It’s the very fact that the 69 percent who view the economy favorably are at odds with the falling poll numbers for the president who’d take credit for that economy. The polling number for the people who celebrate the current economic momentum should be more in line with the polling number for those celebrating the president who (presumably) made that economy possible.

The fact that they’re polar opposites is a problem for the White House. It means that the population, if not the electorate, has already made what for Republicans will be a seriously inconvenient leap: the ability to separate Donald Trump from the upbeat economy Donald Trump is erroneously certain he created.

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THE POLLS get worse. September 12 saw a trifecta of surveys on the midterms in general and The Don in particular. Three new polls on voting for generic House candidates indicated a growing rise in Democrats’ prospects. The new NPR-Marist poll reported a 12-point advantage for a hypothetical Democratic aspirant for the House, over a hypothetical Republican.

Polls from Politico/Morning Consult and Quinnipiac University reported much the same information: slightly different margins (Dems have a 10-point bulge in the Politico poll, they’re 14 points up in the Quinnipiac) but the trend of Dems over GOP remains intact.

A poll from CNN gives Special Counsel and Trump bĂȘte noire Robert Mueller III a 20-point edge over Trump in how well the Russia inquiry is being handled (a poll powered by a misnomer since Trump isn’t handling the inquiry at all, and goes so far as to deny it has any reason for being). On Sept. 10, a Quinnipiac poll on Trump’s overall job performance had Trump upside down, with 38 percent favorables, 54 percent unfavorable. The same day, a similar poll from CNN put the Don’s overall favorables at 36 percent, unfavorable at 58 percent.

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It’s all polling about Trump, of course, but in other ways, it’s about us. Our sense of relating to not just the president but also to the idea of America, which the president presumably embodies. These polls and others point to an American public starting to make and develop that distinction between the president and the presidency.

One wave of predictable despond follows another. Even as Hurricane Florence batters the Carolinas — 5 people are dead at this writing — the president*, locked in the boundaries of his own private cape of fear, has gone a-twittering as usual, focusing as much on the rear-view mirror as what’s looming in the windshield in front of him, early and often re-litigating his administration’s utter failure of a federal response to Hurricane Maria, in Puerto Rico, a year ago.

You’ve seen the videos — or you will — of an American flag methodically vaporized, at the mercy of the relentless wind of the Outer Banks, on top of Frying Pan Tower about 35 miles off the coast of Cape Fear, N.C. In just hours on Sept. 13, it seems, it became just what we needed: the single, unspinnable image of what we are now as a country — torn, fragile, fluttering in multiple directions — and an image whose power is enhanced by the fact that it occurred naturally, organically, a result of the velocity of the national weather.

Not for nothing did Woodward name his new book Fear. The title of course perfectly captures the mood within the White House; and it defines the president’s* fundamental operational dynamic. It gets to the heart of all these poll responses. It distills the essence of what we so many of the people seem to be enduring right now, stoically or angrily. Like that flag: At the mercy of the winds around us, winds that seem to get stronger and more deliberately unpredictable all the time.

Image credits: Trump hair: via @TrueFactsStated. Fear book cover: © 2018 Simon & Schuster.

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