The extreme disconnect between the political class and the people they ostensibly serve is by now extremely clear. It was the primary factor behind Donald Trump’s ascendance to the presidency, as the left largely abandoned the working class in favor of woke ideologies and their special interests.
At a certain point, the lip service politicians pay to the working class’s needs and concerns was not enough, and they lost their votes. Naturally, it was at that point Democrats suddenly decided the working class was really racist all along.
That, it seems, is the defining characteristic of our politics today. Politicians do not actually legislate to resolve the things their constituents need them to address. Instead, they leave voters with placebos, a useless sugar pill designed to do nothing but give consumers the illusion that their problem has been addressed.
Democrats don’t have a monopoly on this dynamic, and neither do “establishment” Republicans. Everyone does it.
I am old enough to remember when Paul Ryan was a folk hero for embracing the third rail of politics. As a member of the House minority, he brought entitlement reform and the need to solve the debt crisis to the forefront of the national political conversation. In 2011 Ryan described the federal debt as “the most predictable economic crisis we’ve ever had in this country,” preaching to the need for people with the courage to address it.
Then he became speaker of the House. In that role, he presided over budget deficits that rose every year, from $439 billion the year before he became speaker to $782 billion his final year.
For as long as anyone can remember, the Republican establishment talked a good game about how much they cared about the social issues that animate much of their base. But their interest has been limited to using these issues as red-meat placebos. When the chips were down, they abandoned them, daring them to take their votes elsewhere while they sold them out so they could court the “moderates.”
Republicans’ disingenuous approach to repealing Obamacare also brings this into focus. When the votes were meaningless, and when they knew President Obama would veto their efforts to repeal, congressional Republicans voted over and over to do away with the disastrous health-care law. But after failing to repeal and replace it in 2017 when they actually had the power to do so, they moved on, declaring it “here to stay.”
Nobody is innocent here. It is not just the reviled “establishment” that is guilty of pushing self-serving and meaningless measures designed to accomplish nothing but give the consumers the impression their “leaders” really do care about them, so they continue to cast votes for and donate money to them.
Everyone remembers the rise of scam PACs (I’m still waiting for Speaker Trey Gowdy)—they were essentially selling this exact product. Donate money here and we will continue to act as though we will accomplish what we want you to think we are trying to get done!
There are too many of these to count. Even Sen. Ted Cruz’s objection to the certification of the 2020 election without an audit (which was initially backed by ten other GOP Senators) was just more of the same. There is undoubtedly a need for a commission to unpack what happened. A 10-day audit, however, would not accomplish that at all. But it does make it look like you are doing something about it while accomplishing nothing.
Although Sen. Josh Hawley did call for a real investigation, not whatever a 10-day audit is supposed to be, it also seemed cynical. An effort to establish a real commission would not begin on Dec. 30. The attempt to establish it cannot be limited to performative objections raised on the Senate floor.
Unless it is all just for show, like the vapid statements put out by our former leaders in the hours after the Capitol riots. The only void these actions fill is the checkbox the politicians need to fill to look like they are doing something. And nothing changes for America.
What is most incredible about all this is that it betrays an astonishing lack of awareness that legislatures’ refusal to actually govern is precisely how we ended up where we are today.
Here is an exit question to ponder. What is it about Trump that made him different, that he connected so profoundly with so many people that he could take over both the Republican Party and conservative movement, to the extent that it is plausible he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose voters’ support?
Nobody will ever be able to make a case with a straight face that Trump was or is some great paragon of virtue. Neither would anyone be able to say that he has any fealty to the ideal of truth. But there was an aspect to him that made him different from all these politicians. That is why he resonated.
What made Trump different than all the rest of the politicians—and what helped him run circles around Cruz in 2016—is precisely this. No matter what mantle they assume, these typical politicians deliver truckloads of placebos, salesmen of the same illusion of helpfulness.
Despite having a tenuous (at best!) relationship with truth-telling, Trump dispensed with that sort of approach. He does not care about telling the truth. Still, he was always his authentic self, and if he said he was going to do something for “his people” (those who voted him into office), then, by golly, he would do whatever he could to get it done.
This was what made him the exact opposite of the typical politician. While they tell technical truths and do not keep the promises they make, Trump tells lies but keeps his promises. For many Americans, that is less distasteful than the steady diet of placebo they have grown accustomed to.
If there is a constructive lesson to be learned from the Trump years, it would be this. Our political leaders would be wise to understand that what people want from them is not to put on the same tired show they have been watching for years. They want them to get things done.