We are running out of outrage.
Consider reports that Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao reportedly helped smooth the path for transportation funding to Kentucky to help the re-election prospects of her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell?
That was last Sunday, and it seems likely to be the next vast outrage to be forgotten when next Trump tweets about, say Kim Kardashian (“She’s doing GREAT on criminal justice, but believe me: that’s not the only thing that’s yuge”). He could threaten to nuke Canada, or fire Nancy Pelosi. He could really say just about anything, and—let’s be honest—it will generate more conversation than cabinet corruption involving Louisville’s infrastructure challenges.
You can blame the media for some of this. Once upon a time, the Teapot Dome scandal rocked the political world, leading to the imprisonment of a cabinet member. It’s difficult to imagine a story about transferring oil reserves to the Interior Department without (gasp!) taking competitive bids would dominate our discourse today.
You don’t have to imagine. Former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, former HHS Secretary Tom Price, and former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke all left their posts amid scandal―none of which will compete in the textbooks with Iran-Contra (much less Watergate). In the case of Pruitt, all I can remember is his affinity for Ritz-Carlton moisturizing lotion and that I wrote a whole column calling for his ouster. Tom Price got dinged for taking private planes. And I’m pretty sure Zinke’s scandal was more boring than Teapot Dome. Oh yeah, last year New York Rep. Chris Collins―an early Trump supporter―got busted for insider trading. (Until my editor corrected me, I was 99 percent sure Chris Collins, who won reelection after he was charged, was an NFL announcer.)
Humans, including yours truly, only have so much outrage to go around.
Psychologically, it is both exhausting and debilitating to experience anger, worry, or fear, all at the same time. Ideally, you could get worked up about something (which, in small doses, is cathartic) and then find a respite.
But what if you are fed a steady diet of chaos and turmoil? You can go crazy, drop out, or just become inured to it all. The American public is multitasking and doing all three.
Not that long ago, a film called Wag the Dog suggested that a president could cover up a scandal by launching a military strike. For example, in order to divert attention from the Monica Lewinsky scandal, it is theorized that Bill Clinton bombed a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan.
The reason we remember the incident is because it looked so bad and out of context. But what if something like that happened every day? What if the tail wagged the dog on a daily basis? Could we process the absurdity—the surreal nature of it all?
If Bill Clinton was using a black-powder musket to divert our attention from his scandals, Donald Trump is using a fully automatic distraction machine.
You could literally write a whole “We Didn’t Start the Fire”-esque song about the scandals that have replaced and overshadowed other scandals (Jim Acosta, “Fire, and Fury,” Rob Porter…fights dirty / Michael Cohen, Kelly Sadler, kids in cages, James Clapper). Billy Joel’s song spanned from Harry Truman to the 1980s cola wars. I’m pretty sure I could do one on the first three years of the Trump administration: “I can’t take it anymore!”
In this environment, it’s easy to see how a scandal or two might be swept under the rug. But it’s also probably true that some perfectly legal, if highly controversial, policies might also go undetected, unchallenged, and under-covered.
There is a theory about the press that goes like this: You can either a) feed them, or b) let them get bored—and they will start digging around for dirt. Guess which option Trump prefers?
This leads us back to the ever-present question of whether Trump is simply crazy or crazy like a fox.
Let me share an anecdote told to me by a friend of mine who used to work for one of Trump’s cabinet secretaries: Whenever the secretary was going to roll out some controversial policy, they would give the president a heads-up. Whether it was a coincidence or a strategy, this usually coincided with the president tweeting something else that sucked up all of the public’s attention.
Say what you will about the man, but Trump has expanded the Overton window (his chaos makes other chaos seem fairly normal in comparison). He also functions as a lightning rod for conservatives―running interference and soaking up all the media attention, criticism, and attacks―while simultaneously downplaying would-be scandals and implementing controversial public policies (mostly) under the radar.
If Donald Trump didn’t exist, Mitch McConnell and the Republican Party might have invented him.