“Surprisingly Presidential”

How the GOP became the party of affirmative action for chronic under-achievers.

The soft bigotry of low expectations.” In the last two decades, this has become a catch phrase among Republicans seeking to deceive the public into thinking that it is they, not the Democrats, who are the authentic foes of discrimination. Since Michael Gerson, George W. Bush’s speechwriter, put that phrase in the mouth of Candidate Bush, conservative commentators have misattributed it to others with more prestige than the 43rd president, no doubt to give it a greater patina of sanctity. Any day now I expect to hear it credited to Jefferson or Lincoln.

It is part of a familiar arsenal of conservative arguments: they play the part of concern trolls in order to criticize affirmative action, social promotion by schools, and similar policies. Affirmative action, according to this reasoning, makes minorities captive subjects of the Democratic plantation; if Martin Luther King were alive today, he’d be a Republican supporting tax credits and enterprise zones.

Whatever the merits or demerits of affirmative action, the Republican position has always been hypocritical balderdash. The last three Republican presidents, born to inherited wealth, enjoyed either legacy entries into Ivy League universities, or a parent wealthy enough to purchase an admission. Log cabin to White House by dint of pluck, grit, and scholarship is not part of the GOP’s playbook. In fact, affirmative action suffuses the entire conservative business model.

We have no further to look than President Trump’s address to the joint session of Congress. How difficult can it be to stand at a podium and read clichés scripted by a staffer off a teleprompter? To judge from the rapturous welcome by GOP congressmen, it rivaled the Gettysburg Address. And, as usual, the mainstream press, which Trump characterizes as the enemy of the people, did its best to grade the speech on a curve.

“Surprisingly presidential,” gushed pundits at the Washington Post, evidently astonished that the president did not melt down into an incoherent rant à la Howard Beale in Network. In case there were doubters of the president’s abilities, Public Radio International averred that Trump really did sound presidential, wheeling out the squishy social science to prove it. Our British cousins at the Independent, though, saw through all the Hollywood razzmatazz and discerned that Trump had set the bar so low as to rig the game, and that normal Americans who showed him a strange new respect were dangerously naïve.

Let us tolerate no more Republican cant about meritocracy, personal responsibility, and all the other bootstrapping homilies. What else explains Betsy DeVos, a secretary of education so woefully ignorant of one of the central conflicts of American history that she thought historically black colleges were a bold experiment in school choice? What do we make of Rick Perry, duly confirmed as secretary of energy without a single dissenting Republican vote, who in 2012 could not even name the very department he had wanted to abolish and now leads? What about Ben Carson, whose bizarre theory about the Egyptian pyramids being grain storage buildings evidently so impressed Trump as to appoint him as housing secretary? We can only guess at what future HUD rental units will look like.

And on and on it goes. Trump’s signature presidential act, the executive order barring immigrants from seven countries, was so incompetently drafted – mainly by Steven Bannon and Stephen Miller, the Katzenjammer Kids of the new dispensation – that it was immediately stayed by a federal court and had to go back to the drawing board.

Likewise, the idée fixe and abiding obsession not only of Candidate Trump, but of every living Republican in America: the repeal of Obamacare. After finally gaining the commanding heights of power, Trump boggled, apparently for the first time, at the difficulty of simultaneously rescinding the Affordable Care Act, curtailing Medicare to the states, and not throwing twenty million Americans off health insurance. “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated,” Trump said, making it sound as if he were imparting the hot scoop of the century.

Even when his every instinct would pull him in one direction – for instance, in the direction of appeasing Vladimir Putin – Trump’s unfathomable ignorance and knee-jerk reactivity pulls him in another. In a phone call between Trump and Putin, the Russian autocrat asked for an extension of the New START nuclear arms treaty between Russia and the United States. At first, Trump allegedly didn’t even know what Putin was talking about. But on learning from his staff that the treaty had been concluded under the horrible Kenyan usurper Obama, Trump became querulous about what should have been a no-brainer.

The Trump presidency is the most glaring, and politically consequential, example of affirmative action for chronic under-achievers in American history. There are some who opine that the visceral malice of his administration is somehow mitigated by the saving grace of incompetence. But it is difficult to see how all this will end well for the Republic.

Mike Lofgren

Mike Lofgren is a former career congressional staff member who served on the House and Senate budget committees. His latest book is The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government.