The Art of the Possible in an Age of Recrimination

As Otto von Bismarck several times had occasion to observe, “Politics is the art of the possible.” On at least one occasion he added, “the attainable—the art of the next best.”

Since, as Henry Kissinger once observed in a long essay on Bismarck, the Prussian colossus was a “revolutionary” who sought not to “adapt [his] purposes to reality” but rather “to mold reality” according to his purposes, the boundaries of the possible were for him a fluid if nevertheless calculable restraint.

I thought about Bismarck more than once these last few days, as I watched the chihuahuas go at it following the failure of the RyanCare™ bill in Congress. Here are some of the headlines at RealClearPolitics on Sunday morning:

  • Ryan Emerges Badly Damaged
  • Dismantling Obamacare Little More Than Campaign Rhetoric From GOP
  • DC’s Blame Game, Finger-Pointing
  • Long Knives Out for Reince
  • Trump and Ryan Lose Big
  • Party Unready to Govern
  • How Trump Botched Health Reform

And possibly my favorite:

  • GOP Cave on Repeal, The Biggest Broken Promise in History

In history, Kemo Sabe: the biggest broken promise in history.

Meanwhile, back on earth, in the realm of actual possibilities, Donald Trump seems perfectly calm and matter-of-fact. He had always said, over and over, that the politically expedient thing for him to do was sit back and let ObamaCare™ implode on its own and then swoop in and, when people were desperate and the Democrats were busy trying to prise the large omelette off their collective countenance, engineer a fix.

Trump didn’t do that, as he also said repeatedly, because he had promised to “repeal and replace” ObamaCare™ as soon as possible. So he turned to the Republican lawmakers right off the bat, just a few weeks into his administration, and said: What have you got for me?

Different people calculate political possibilities in different and more or less effective ways. On Thursday, March 23, the jury was still out on Paul Ryan. By late afternoon Friday, the jury had reassembled and delivered its verdict. Bad show.

Why wasn’t Trump more upset about this? The chihuahuas were barking their heads off—Republicans can’t govern! Woof!—Trump is a loser! Woof Woof!—Trump’s entire agenda is in shambles! Woof Woof Woof! But there he was, Mr. Imperturbability: We were very close, Paul Ryan worked very hard, we’ll let it implode and come back to sweep up the pieces when the Democrats are ready to negotiate.

Who’s the fall guy? Well, Paul Ryan is not looking so great. The rap: You had seven years to work on this, why couldn’t you come up with a bill that all Republicans, at least, could support? There might be excellent answers to that question. But at times like this interrogatories are not meant to be answered: they are hurled as political hand grenades. No answer is expected. Just humiliation, followed closely by impotence and capitulation.

The chihuahuas of the fourth estate are desperately endeavoring to tar Trump with the same brush. So far it is not working. Why not?

Perhaps the most compelling answer to this question that I have seen comes not from the congregation of chihuahuas but from a lowly cartoonist, albeit one who also happens to be a sort of genius about politics.

I mean Scott Adams, the creator of the “Dilbert” comic strip and also the person who had the best analysis of the truly insane “Trump-is-Hitler” meme that was sweeping the country until Friday. According to Adams, what people were reacting to was not Donald Trump but a malevolent hallucination of their own manufacture that they pretended was Trump. “As Trump continues to defy all predictions from his critics,” Adams observed back on November 23, “the critics need to maintain their self-images as the smart ones who saw this new Hitler coming. And that means you will see hallucinations like you have never seen. It will be epic.” He elaborated:

Before Trump won the presidency everyone was free to imagine the future they expected. But as Trump continues to do one reasonable thing after another, his critics have a tough choice. They can either…

1. Reinterpret their self-images from wise to clueless.
2. Generate an even stronger hallucination. . .

If Trump’s critics take the second option—and most of them will—it means you will see a lot of pretzel-logic of the type that is necessary hold onto the illusion that Trump is still a monster despite continuing evidence to the contrary.

Adams was clearly right about that. And I believe he will be proved right about his next prediction—actually, his next two predictions. With his usual amusing understatement, Adams described the failure of the Republican health care bill as “one of the most important events in political history.” Why? Because with that very public failure “the illusion of Trump-is-Hitler” has been repealed and replaced. Until Friday afternoon, the Trump-is-Hitler meme was chugging along. Then, poof, it suddenly imploded in the face of a tasty new meme: Trump-is-incompetent (pass it on)!

You might say, “Wait a minute! That’s not so good. We don’t want an incompetent president.”

No, we don’t (and don’t worry, we don’t have one—not currently). But Adams’ point is this: “Trump just had one of the best days any president ever had: He got promoted from Hitler to incompetent.”

Not bad for an afternoon’s work. And it will be followed, Adams predicts (and I concur) with an antistrophe: “By year end, you will see a second turn, from incompetent to ‘Competent, but we don’t like it.’”

Of course you don’t. Trump just authorized the Keystone Pipeline. A week or two back he issued an executive order to revamp the entire executive branch, eliminating duplicative or unnecessary program and positions. He is moving fast to enforce our immigration laws. He has already issued executive orders to pare back onerous and unnecessary regulations. At the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense James Mattis has set about rebuilding America’s military, pursuant another of Trump’s executive orders. And on and on. He is keeping his campaign promises to Make America Great Again. How dare he!

No, the “Trump = Incompetent” meme is not going to last very long. But Adams is right: what it replaces was, though hallucinatory, extremely toxic. Here and abroad the hallucination “Trump-is-Hitler” made the usual business of politics very difficult. A crisis of legitimacy loomed. But all that is suddenly behind us now. In other words, “We just went from an extraordinary risk (Trump=Hitler) to ordinary politics (The other side=incompetent). Ordinary politics won’t spark a revolution or make you punch a coworker.”

The chihuahuas are barking but the caravan moves on. “This,” as Adams concludes, “is a good day for all of us.”

Content created by The Center for American Greatness, Inc is available without charge to any eligible news publisher that can provide a significant audience. For licensing opportunities of our original content, please contact

About Roger Kimball

Roger Kimball is editor and publisher of The New Criterion and the president and publisher of Encounter Books. He is the author and editor of many books, including The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia (St. Augustine's Press), The Rape of the Masters (Encounter), Lives of the Mind: The Use and Abuse of Intelligence from Hegel to Wodehouse (Ivan R. Dee), and Art's Prospect: The Challenge of Tradition in an Age of Celebrity (Ivan R. Dee).

Support Free & Independent Journalism Your support helps protect our independence so that American Greatness can keep delivering top-quality, independent journalism that's free to everyone. Every contribution, however big or small, helps secure our future. If you can, please consider a recurring monthly donation.

Want news updates?

Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.

65 responses to “The Art of the Possible in an Age of Recrimination”

  1. Great read, thanks for writing it!
    This “The chihuahuas of the fourth estate” is hilarious!

    • One quibble, chihuahuas don’t “woof” they “yap”, much less impressive…

  2. Mr. Kimball. Upgrade your article to perfect by deleting the word “lowly” to define the brilliant Scott Adams, brilliant cartoonist.

    • I wouldn’t change it. The MSM elite v. a cartoonist is perfect. The author tapped into the image the MSM folks have of themselves compared to what they imagine a guy who produces ‘cartoons’ to be.

    • nothing wrong with “lowly” when it’s surrounded by the rest of his words.

      ” a lowly cartoonist, albeit one who also happens to be a sort of genius about politics.”

    • To my friends who are OK with lowly, I respectfully disagree. Lowly suggests simple, low-born peasant. Somebody ought to ask Scott Adams (I will do it and report back). I think he’d wear Deplorable as a badge of honor but cringe at lowly.

      • It’s not about what the author thinks SA to be, nor what SA thinks himself to be, but what the MSM thinks of folks who ‘draw pictures’ v. how they think of themselves.
        He IS brillliant. But in the ‘voice’ of the MSM “we’re JOURNALISTS”.

      • I’d like to advance the premise that a brilliant “low-born peasant” (lowly) cartoonist should be more highly regarded than a “lying, scum-sucking, libtard” (JOURNALIST ca. 2017) talking-head?

  3. So, he’s afraid that the “Chihuahuas” (i.e. disappointed Republicans) “… were reacting to was not Donald Trump but a malevolent hallucination of their own manufacture that they pretended was Trump.”

    Since when have Republicans ever done anything other than this? After all, they spent eight years running against and trying to save the country from a Kenyan-born Muslim Socialist who somehow had usurped American sovereignty.

    • “The chihuahuas of the fourth estate” is what he wrote. Not many GOPers in that group, if any.

  4. Excellent article. The levels of deep-state propaganda and citizen delusion are dangerously high, and I fear that the eventual result will be that the Tree of Liberty will get a good and thorough watering.

  5. On repealing Obamacare, Trump had 2 ways to win and 1 way to lose (and even that gave him a chance to win). 1) Obamacare repeal/replace fails. Trump’s not an autocrat and couldn’t do it alone. The Dems and Repub’s let him down. Trump kept his promise. Win. 2) Repeal/replace passed and it was great. That wouldn’t be known for years but would be a win. 3) Repeal/replace passed and it was terrible. A loss for Trump. Unless he refused to sign off on it, explaining how it was bad and didn’t keep his promise of something better for less. Win.

      • Are you following Scott Adams’ blog on He has some out-of-the box takes that are worth reading. You might enjoy.

      • I *do* when I get a chance. I agree, his work during the election and after has been both entertaining and incisive.

    • Well, obviously he didn’t win. Nobody seems to be winning at all, as a matter of fact. But at least it’s pretty funny stuff.

      • I think he did. HE won. He promised to repeal/replace with something better but he’s not literally Hitler; he can’t dictate law. HE won, they let him down is how he will play it. And I think it works.

  6. Trump smelled an unsolvable problem with American healthcare and quickly punted. Restricted Medicaid for all with optional private insurance on top is the bipartisan solution. Prioritize life saving treatments over lifestyle treatments.

    • That’s similar to what I’d thought. Anyone with current insurance could, instead, sign for Medicaid, paying 5% of prior years AGI. Without current insurance would owe for time not insured, +50%. Alternatively, private insurance with minimal requirements. States would pay at least 50% of Medicaid for their residents and would establish what is covered under Medicaid.

      • “States would establish what is covered.” This is the key to cost control–basic for everyone; insure over and above for “grade A fancy” care as you wish and can afford. Move Medicare in this direction as well. Add in substantive tort reform and there is plenty to go around. Coverage would be universal–dems would have to get on board and the compromise, of course, would be limits on coverage. All but the poor would add private insurance on top but nobody would be SOL for lifesaving medical care for their family.

  7. Trump is incompetent.
    You can blame Liberals for noticing it but you have to blame Republicans for celebrating it.

    • YOU probably said he’d never get the nomination, too (much less be elected).
      Some incompetence!

  8. Keeping with the dog metaphor, there’s one especially appropriate for you: LAPDOG.

    Trump competent? “Who knew healthcare could be this complicated?” Kimball competent?: only as a sycophant in full genuflection to his demented orange god. Good doggie Roger.

    • & also keeping on with the dog metaphor; we still won, you still keep on yapping.

    • As much as it might be fun for you to exercise your spleen with variations on ‘I don’t like Trump and I don’t like anyone who like’s Trump’, it might be simpler to just stick with that basic message.

  9. Politics IS the art of attaining the attainable. Unfortunately too many Republican “purists” seem to prefer total defeat to partial victory.

    • No, REAL Republicans tend to require fundamental honesty in all things.

      Not a trump thing.

  10. I have a chihuahua and she is a great little dog! Happy as the day is long and the life of the party!

    Please don’t insult any dogs by likening them to the radical leftist Dems and media jackals. Perhaps cockroaches would be a better analogy.

    Otherwise, Great Column!

    • As a metaphor, it’s amusing, but, you’re right. A chihuahua never meets a dog bigger than them, no matter how many pounds or inches the other dog might have. To quote an old song, ‘You’re not big, you’re just tall’.

    • Dominic-
      Our lawyers will be in touch….soon.
      International Brotherhood of Amalgamated Cockroaches

  11. The Trump is Incompetent meme has existed since mid-campaign and will not go away for the rest of his life, I’d imagine.

    • Actually, it existed from day one. If they had memes back in the 80s, it probably would have started sooner.

  12. This is a joke.

    Until people like Mr. Kimball come to grips with trump’s fundamental corrupt persona, they will relegate themselves to the ‘living in trump fantasyland’ crowd.

    No Conservative solutions here.

    • No, Mr. Historybuff who isn’t willing to reveal who he/she really is when calling other people corrupt. I think you need to wear one of those hats the lefty marchers wore after the inauguration. Kimball’s and Adams’ analysis is spot on.

    • mmmmmmmmm, more whining from HB!!
      Love it!

    • OK, I’m game. Corruption typically means a political office holder lining his own pockets with public funds, or extorting money from others by threats to use his official powers against them. So how is Trump doing either of these things by demanding, then failing to obtain, the repeal of Obamacare?

      • My statement:
        “Until people like Mr. Kimball come to grips with trump’s fundamental corrupt persona, they will relegate themselves to the ‘living in trump fantasyland’ crowd.”

        What do you disagree with here?

      • I am not in a position to either agree or disagree until you explain to me in what way Trump is being “corrupt” according to what I offered as the typical meaning of that word. In what way (and in what amounts) is Trump lining his own pockets by his signature actions thus far: repeal (failed) of ACA, restrictions on immigration from certain Muslim-majority nations, budge cuts to certain federal spending programs?

      • ‘trump’s fundamental corrupt persona’

        Can you read?

      • You do realize that “persona” refers to something that is apparent, not down within a person’s core, right? In popular usage, it refers to a character portrayed by an actor, and in psychological usage, it refers to a personality that is projected to others, that is differentiated from the authentic self. If you are objecting to Trump because you believe him to be corrupt to the core, then persona may not be the term to attach to your objection.

      • Try again.

        “a person’s perceived or evident personality, as that of a well-known official, actor, or celebrity; personal image; public role.”

        As for trump corruption…
        In addition, corruption has followed Trump his entire career, including his bankruptcies; his refusal to pay contractors who have done work for him; the scams (e.g., Trump University, the Trump Institute and the Trump Network); his history of being charged with housing discrimination/tenant intimidation; his use of hundreds of undocumented Polish workers and much more. (For details, see this story in The Atlantic and this Washington Post story, which concludes “you’d have to work incredibly hard to find a politician who has the kind of history of corruption, double-dealing, and fraud that Donald Trump has.”) Trump is also a crony capitalist, a corrupter of our political system, par excellence.

        No matter how you choose to package it, trump is a ‘fundamentally corrupt personna’

      • “No matter how you choose to package it, trump is a ‘fundamentally corrupt personna’ ”

        HB … the rest of these guys are way off the mark !! I get what you’re saying!
        The rest of these guys are just too stoopid to see what you’re saying!

        You’re right! Trump is a razor !

      • You are a pretty sharp person… on a very hairy situation.


      • And you’re a really punny guy!

        Politically, we probably don’t agree on much … but word-play, that’s another matter!

        “dif-tor heh smusma”

      • It’s just a talking point. It’s not the first time I see it.

  13. Love American Greatness, Roger Kimball, and Scott Adams! Sanity in an insane world (or as I like to call it, a “Dilbert meets Kafka world”.)

  14. No, Trump said he would quickly repeal and replace Obamacare, and it would be easy. He said this over and over for a year and a half. AMERICAN FAKENESS.

  15. But wasn’t Hitler kind of… incompetent. Particularly toward the end of the war? Scott is acting like a person can’t be both Hilter-esq AND incompetent, but you obviously can.

    • No matter how competent Hitler might have been, Germany couldn’t have won. Germany was no match for Stalin’s Red Army, the Brits’ forces, and the US military (not to mention the various other allies, resistance movements, et al). A genius would have been defeated against that power.

      • I agree, but obviously he didn’t have to invade Russia or entangle himself with the Japanese- thereby avoiding American troops.

        Hindsight 20/20, but being incompetent and being Hitler are not mutually exclusive. I think that Liberals think that Trump is capable of both.

      • Agree.
        That hindsight will kill ya, along with the fog of war and foggy crystal balls.

        You’re spot on when you say that Libs “think that Trump is capable of both”.

  16. Perhaps if Republicans could figure out what they’d like to do in DC besides standing on the Mall with their arms over their heads screaming “We won!”…

  17. It must be pointed out that Chihuahuas go “yap, yap.” Woof is for larger dogs. Say, a standard poodle …

  18. Fun article with a surprising conclusion! I was so upset Friday evening, not sure exactly who to blame … Ryan or the Freedom Caucus (veering towards the Freedom Caucus). I should have realized this was basically another win! And a bigly one!
    On a more serious note, it is amazing how Americans, who basically are better educated and more sophisticated than most of the world, continue to be convinced by little more than endless repetition of any idiocy the mainstream media types deem true. I tell you, it’s the Borg! They’re all members of the Borg!

  19. The problem with Adams’ analysis is that it assumes logical consistency on the part of Democrats. As soon as Trump starts demonstrating competence again he’ll be demoted to Hitler until his next failure.