Trump is the personification of E.M. Forster’s one-line foretelling of the Twitter age, “how do I know what I think till I see what I say?”
Whether we individually applaud or fear the commencement of the Trump Presidency, and no matter how deep the political and cultural schisms behind those emotions, we all have one thing in common: we have no damn idea what to expect.
That very unpredictability, of course, was a large part of Trump’s appeal to a certain segment of the electorate. It was an unpredictability baked into the broad-brush, monosyllabic slogans that carried him to the White House. He would blow things up, drain the swamp, build a wall, lock her up, make us great again.
That these knee-jerk phrases were not accompanied or followed by policy details or plans for how they might be implemented can be seen as merely symptomatic of our degraded political discourse in any election year (in fairness, what could be more vapidly content-free than “I’m With Her” or “Yes We Can”?). What was unique about Trump was his ability – honed on the sets of reality TV (an oxymoron if ever there was one) — to substitute imagery for substance and evade any accountability for what his mouthings might mean in terms of governing.
But it didn’t matter. Those who voted for Trump (a distinct minority of voters, it must not be forgotten) knew that they were rolling the dice, and that didn’t bother them enough to vote for a much surer thing. Trump voters knew pretty well what Clinton offered – they had decades of public service from which to infer the steady, wonkish path she would have taken as President — and they rejected it. Their vote was essentially negative to the point of nihilism; they wanted change even if that meant the unknown, a bit of chaos, a bit of destruction. It was a raised middle finger to the coastal states, conventional politics, and the media elites (whoever they are), without much more thought about consequences than that gesture requires.
They had no idea what Trump would mean in practice, and they didn’t care, because few believed he would actually win. They bought what my Irish grandfather called a pig in a poke.
For those deprived of Irish grandfathers, this expression refers to the ancient con of substituting a worthless object, such as a cat, for the valuable thing, such as a pig, that a customer believes he or she has bought, and wrapping it in a poke, or sack, to be discovered only when the seller has absconded with the proceeds.
We are now faced with peering into the sack and discovering, bit by bit, week by harrowing week, what we’ve bought. Clearly, Trump himself never believed he would have to flesh out his empty catchphrases; you needed only to see the look on his face in that first meeting with Obama in the Oval Office after the election to know that. Once we got past the cartoon imagery and demagogic speechifying, he was and is a cipher, no doubt even to himself. He’s the personification of E.M. Forster’s one-line foretelling of the Twitter age, “how do I know what I think till I see what I say?”
In this pig-in-a-poke administration we have a president who refused, unlike anyone running for the office in modern times, to submit his tax returns to public scrutiny, and was elected anyway.
We have a cabinet heavily staffed with men who, like their president, have never held public office nor worked for a minute of their adult lives for anything but personal financial gain and whose likely actions, like their president’s, we therefore have no basis to predict, and with others whose primary qualification seems to be their opposition to the charters of the departments they will now lead.
We have executive orders aplenty (because what could be easier or more familiar to Trump than signing a piece of paper someone else has written, knowing that you can change your mind about it later), with no undergirding detail about how they are to be executed.
We have a “temporary” travel ban pending the implementation of “extreme vetting,” with not even an outline of how the ban should be enforced or what that vetting might entail beyond what is already being done.
We have the promise to tear up NAFTA with no hint of what the terms of a revised treaty might look like.
We have a vow repeal Obamacare with only wildly conflicting clues as to what, if anything, might replace it, or when.
We have an edict to build a border wall – which could turn out to be a fence, or entirely virtual — with no expressed plan for how the price tag will be paid, either by us or, even more fancifully, by Mexico.
We have promises of a major infrastructure initiative and a vast increase in military spending with no explanation of how these, too, can be paid for without ballooning the federal debt, much less in the context of a supposed simultaneous reduction in corporate and personal tax rates.
The one thing Trump was specific about prior to the election was his roster of possible nominees to the Supreme Court, which the average voter could assume was full of conservatives and originalists, but whose backgrounds no one but a few specialists could be bothered to fathom at the time. And as it costs him nothing but another stroke of the pen, he’s followed through in picking a person from that list, proudly declaring himself to be, therefore, a man of his word.
Despite past indications to the contrary, he may at least prove to be that. But we’re a long way from knowing what’s in the poke, and whether he is a man of anything more than words.