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.”


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