To travel the liberal byways of social media over recent weeks was to learn that Donald Trump was on the precipice of axing Robert Mueller and was likely to use the days just before Christmas, when we were distracted by eggnog and mistletoe, to lower the blade.
Christmas has come. Christmas has gone. Mueller has not.
To listen to Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders, the tax overhaul that Trump just signed into law is no mere plutocratic folly. It’s “Armageddon” (Pelosi’s actual word). Their opposition is righteous, but how will millions of voters who notice smaller withholdings from their paychecks and more money in their pockets square that seemingly good fortune with such prophecies of doom on a biblical scale?
Some of these Americans may decide that the prophets aren’t to be trusted — and that the president isn’t quite the pestilence they make him out to be.
I’m not minimizing Trump’s capriciousness or cupidity. He could yet fire Mueller, the special counsel. Some conservatives’ intensifying attacks on the counsel and the F.B.I. are clearly grist for that.
And the tax bill is indeed a messy, fiscally reckless means for Republican lawmakers to please their donors and crow that they are getting big things done.
But the end of the world? Come on. That’s not par-for-the-course hyperbole. It’s peculiar-to-Trump hyperventilation, an understandable response to such an indecent president but quite possibly a tactical mistake. It could weaken the odds of hobbling him next fall, in the midterm elections, and of putting him far behind us in November 2020. And that’s where I, for one, want him: in the rearview mirror, growing tinier and tinier as we zoom, pedal to the metal, toward a saner, more dignified horizon.
But I worry. When Trump’s opponents react to so much of what he says and does with such unfettered outrage, that howl becomes background noise, and it’s harder to make sure that his unequivocally foul maneuvers stand out from his debatably foolish ones. When we constantly conjure the direst scenarios, we risk looking like ignorable hysterics — and bolstering his grandiose claims of martyrdom — if events unfold in a less damnable fashion.
Fury isn’t strategy, and there’s no need to extrapolate beyond the facts already in our possession. Take the inquiries into the Trump campaign’s dealings with Russia. They could screech to a halt tomorrow and we’d be left with more than enough evidence of corrupt business dealings, conflicts of interest, shady back channels, awful judgment and outright lies among Trump’s intimates to present voters with a powerful case against his fitness for office.
But by obsessing over clear “collusion” and insisting on visible puppet strings by which Vladimir Putin controlled Trump, we have set the bar dangerously high. Mueller’s ultimate findings could be plenty ugly and still be deemed underwhelming.
Our overreach is everywhere. Some of those social-media threads forecasting Mueller’s pre-Christmas firing went further, envisioning street protests that would prompt a brutal response from government forces just itching for the chance. I spotted the phrase “martial law.”
Much of the tax-overhaul pushback, which painted the whole of the legislation as an abomination, didn’t acknowledge that Democrats themselves had long favored corporate-rate reductions, as The Times’s Bret Stephens recently pointed out.
Nor did the ferocious back-and-forth over Trump’s declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital make clear that many politicians before him had proposed the same step. That doesn’t make it prudent, but it does challenge the portrayal of his decision as some ploy beyond the pale.
The issue here is credibility and not giving the president ammunition to discredit opponents as overwrought, ahistoric partisans in a state of indiscriminate freak-out. When we answer melodrama with melodrama, we’re playing his game, by his rules, and he wins. Better to patrol our language and pick our issues, so that crucial areas of focus — the demoralization of our diplomatic corps, the stacking of the judiciary, the transformation of the presidency into a marketing scheme — aren’t lost in the welter and the whirl.
“I can’t be the car alarm that always goes off,” John McCain reportedly said to a friend this year, explaining his own strategy for tempering Trump. “If I am, I’m not effective.” There’s wisdom in that.
All signs right now point to enormous gains for Democrats in the midterms; I’d be very surprised, based on the country’s present mood, if they didn’t take control of the House. But establishing that check on Trump is much too important to be jeopardized in the slightest. And our Trump-induced delirium indeed jeopardizes it, pumping up his impassioned adversaries at the risk of confusing and alienating dispassionate Americans in the middle.
They needn’t be convinced that he’s all four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. But a singularly miserable jockey? That’s an easy sell. And it’s probably a surer way to eject him from the derby.
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