Each of us decides, at some point in our lives, which dramatic genre we inhabit. Is your life a tragedy? A comedy? As an academic, I aspire to live my life as a rather exalted BBC documentary, but somehow it always gravitates back to sitcom. I have friends who shoot for Hollywood costume drama, but inevitably wind up in low-budget soap opera.
Some American presidencies have been authentic tragedies: certainly John F. Kennedy’s. Indeed, it would take an Aeschylus to do full justice to the Kennedy family’s version of “The Oresteia.” Other presidencies have been more comedic: Aristophanes would have enjoyed Bill Clinton’s presidency, not least because Clinton had the genially bawdy personality that the Athenian playwright liked to give his heroes.
With good reason, Henry Kissinger quoted Shakespeare at Richard Nixon’s funeral, for Nixon’s self-destruction was an authentically Shakespearian tragedy. But what will Donald Trump’s presidency turn out to be? If you believe the prophets of American tyranny, it is already a tragedy — a ghastly combination of Coriolanus, Macbeth, and Richard III. I’ll take the other side. This, my friends, is a comedy. It may even be a full-blown farce.
Last week’s special election in Alabama verged on slapstick. The high point of the comedy for me was Roy Moore’s cowboy-style arrival at his local polling station on horseback, but there were other sublime scenes: the moment his wife cited as evidence of their enlightened outlook the fact that one of their lawyers “is a Jew”; the moment a supporter admitted that he and Moore had once visited a brothel while serving in Vietnam — though of course they had not tarried once they realized the girls were “young, probably very young.”
Earlier this year, I suggested that the half-life of populism might be as short as 12 months. As we approach the anniversary of Trump’s inauguration as president, next month, I realize I should have said 11.
True, the US economy continues its extraordinarily prolonged post-financial-crisis expansion. As far as Trump’s popularity is concerned, however, economic indicators seem irrelevant. Trump’s average approval rating at the time of his inauguration in January was 44 percent, roughly tied with his disapproval number. Today he is down to 37 percent approval, as against 58 percent disapproval. It is worth repeating that no president of the modern era started his first year so unpopular, and none saw his approval rating fall so far in the subsequent months. The argument grows increasingly plausible that no one is doing more to restore the health and vitality of American liberalism than Donald Trump.
Now consider the contribution to his demise that has been made by his own party in Congress. A year ago, House Speaker Paul Ryan was giving stirring speeches in Washington about all the great things Republicans were going to do now that they had achieved unified government. They would repeal Obamacare. They would pass comprehensive tax reform. They would slash burdensome regulation.
Well, it’s now December and Obamacare is still with us, while comprehensive tax reform is now a deformed monstrosity of a bill that, in essence, cuts the corporate tax rate, reduces personal income tax for higher earners, shrinks certain welfare programs, and nevertheless increases the deficit by at least $1 trillion over the next 10 years. Probably the corporate tax cut will boost growth somewhat. But this is shaping up to be a political disaster. In a recent poll by Marist, 52 percent of respondents said that they expect the bill to hurt them, versus 30 percent who thought it would help them. Fully 60 percent said the wealthy would be the bill’s principal beneficiaries, as against 21 percent who said the middle class would benefit most.
Obamacare was unpopular when it was first introduced; this is worse. The probability is therefore rising that the Democrats will win back the House in November. It is also becoming imaginable that they could take back control of the Senate, where Trump’s majority is now 51-49, owing to the debacle in Alabama. At this rate, the Dems will be drafting articles of impeachment this time next year.
Meanwhile, special counsel Robert Mueller presses ahead with his inquiry into the alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. I am not certain if there is a smoking gun that Mueller will find. But I am increasingly sure that Trump is going to try to shut down the inquiry by firing Mueller as he fired FBI Director James Comey. When that moment comes we shall discover whether the founding fathers succeeded in devising a Constitution that could not be overthrown, no matter how unscrupulous the president, or whether these are indeed the last days of the Republic.
“If it weren’t all so tragic,” my friend Andrew Sullivan wrote last week, “we’d be laughing our asses off.” I think he is probably right that it’s too early for laughter, but abroad they are already chortling. “You are interesting guys,” President Putin apostrophized American lawmakers last week, in one of his interminable press conferences on Thursday. “Are you normal at all?” I heard the same kind of thing in Beijing earlier this month.
Comedy or tragedy? Perhaps, in this case, it depends on where you sit in the theater.
Niall Ferguson’s new book is “The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power.”