The White House, by all accounts, is in chaos.
Some of the accounts emanate from people who work there. It has been like that, of course, since Donald Trump’s inauguration, but the past week seems to have been even more frenetic than usual. It is as if the scenario presented by Michael Wolff in his tell-all book, Fire and Fury, is being played out for real. Perhaps his version was real after all. If it seemed to be a bit far-fetched, over-the-top, at the time the book was published, it does not seem that way now.
The following stories – fake or otherwise – have ‘emerged’ from this nihilistic state in the past few days:
– Trump’s chief of staff John Kelly allowed how his ending up with his job must have been ‘God’s punishment’, amid rumours that he may no longer command his boss’s full confidence;
– Communications Director, and long-standing presidential confidante, Hope Hicks resigned;
– Kelly himself, according to some newspaper accounts, has been asked to ‘get rid of’ Jared Kushner and his wife Ivanka, Trump’s daughter;
– National Security Advisor, General H.R. McMaster, was said to be job-hunting;
– the President, meeting with congressional leaders on the issue of gun control, gave the impression that he was more in favour of certain measures than he had previously let on, but then, after a meeting with senior figures in the National Rifle Association, seemed to go into reverse;
– and finally, at a meeting with steel executives, he revealed in an off-the-cuff remark that he plans to impose tariffs on imported steel and aluminium, sending the stock market into a swoon.
Forgive me if I have probably overlooked a few other instances of an institution out of control, but they come so thick and fast that it is hard to keep up with them.
My purpose in mentioning them is not to lay yet again into the issue of Donald Trump’s incompetence or eccentricity or vanity – all of which are now almost a given – but to ponder a few broader questions, the first and foremost of which is this: how much does any of this matter. The second is: who ultimately is to blame?
The obvious, off-the-shelf answer to the first is that, of course it matters. How can the government, any more than any other organisation, function if no one knows what is going through the mind of the chief executive? That is a conventional response, but it merely answers one question with another. Providing a proper answer is more complex, which is probably why no answer has yet been forthcoming.
None will be presented in this piece, either, because, at the risk of sounding cynical, to this writer it is unclear whether chaos does or does not matter. Anyway, is it really chaos in Washington, or is it just the appearance of chaos? The British observe the shenanigans from across the pond with lofty disgust and a bemused shaking of heads, but things are little better on their side. Not that exact parallels may be drawn, but Her Majesty’s government, for a variety of different reasons, finds itself in the same boat as the Trump administration. If Congress is all at sea, so is Parliament.
Particularly on Brexit, and therefore on all the sundry subsidiary matters that flow from that unresolved issue, but also on a host of other, unresolved issues, including the immediate prospects for the survival of the government itself.
Donald Trump may be presiding over chaos, but so is Prime Minister Theresa May. She has a parliamentary majority only by virtue of a devil’s compact with a fringe God-driven party in Northern Island. She has, like Trump, suffered a number of government resignations, for one reason or another. Her cabinet is as divided over Brexit as the rest of the country. The right-wing hard-liners in her party are poised to oust her, but are deterred from doing so because it would probably trigger a general election that might see an equally confused Labour Party win it, for which they would be blamed.
The only difference between the respective predicaments of Trump and May are that Trump seems to revel in his while May apparently abhors hers. But who is to say, in either instance, American or British, that things are exactly as they seem from the outside, or that that some kind of government collapse and ensuing anarchy is inevitable, or even likely, let alone imminent? Is there an alternative to chaos in an increasingly complex and divided world?
My own view, admittedly not a very constructive or thoughtful one, is that two countries straddling the Atlantic find themselves in a rare, and one can only hope, temporary bind, not because their governments are incompetent – even though that is inarguably the case – but because their respective electorates failed to send a clear message about what kind of country they wished to live in, and what direction it should take.
Trump won his election fair and square in the Electoral College but failed to win a popular majority. That, for good or ill, is the way the American system works. Americans are divided from one household to the next. May called a general election to seek a solid mandate and miscalculated, and ended up losing her majority. British voters are as bewildered as their American counterparts.
Who is to blame for the mess?
If you think the governments are failing us, listen to the commentators, and watch the audience-participation shows on television, and the call-ins on the radio. It is the political experts and the voters who are confused and divided. If the voting population has no clear vision of what is required to fix things, or what is morally right or wrong, then they have only themselves to blame when the governments they elect turn out to have no better idea than they do.
Which is why, when all else fails, the media is blamed for everything – for reminding us daily of what we have done.
We have all ended up, Americans and British alike, with the governments we deserve. As we always do. If we deserve better, then we had better drop our smart phones and our video games and start looking for new leaders, and then giving them a solid mandate for change. First, though, we need to know what we are looking for, and take the trouble to intervene in the process. Sadly, there is scant evidence that it will happen
Meanwhile, the shame is on all of us, not just the idiots we put in power.