Washington • One of the many costs of the Trump era is the dumbing down of our political discourse. The incoherent spoken and tweeted outpourings from President Trump and the daily outrages of his administration leave little time for serious debate about policy or meaningful dialogue about our larger purposes.
In a normal environment, the Republican Congress’ assault on food-stamp recipients, the administration’s waivers allowing states to erode Medicaid coverage, and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson’s proposed rent increases for some of the country’s poorest people would be front and center in the news.
News outlets are entirely justified in lavishing coverage on the sensational and the personal, since developments in these areas are a part of a bigger story that could undermine the Trump presidency all together. Nonetheless, the circus that Trump has brought to town is nearly as much of a threat to a well-ordered political system as is Trump himself.
Nothing is significant for long, everything is episodic, and old scandals are regularly knocked out of the headlines by new ones. It’s a truly novel approach to damage control.
And governing? It seems almost beside the point. Thus does the unraveling of regulatory protections for workers, the environment and the users of financial services rush forward with little notice.
This is where the Trumpian circus benefits the Trumpian project. If there are too many scandals for any one of them to seize our attention for long, all of them taken together allow what are potentially very unpopular policies to take root without much scrutiny.
Yes, good journalists are on top of what’s happening. But their stories usually get buried beneath reports about the latest presidential statement contradicting an earlier presidential statement.
Also consider this: Budget Director Mick Mulvaney last week made a brash admission about his time in Congress. “If you were a lobbyist who never gave us money,” he said to an audience of banking executives, “I didn’t talk to you.”
In a more innocent age, this confession would have provoked sustained indignation over how our political money system fundamentally corrupts our politics. (And imagine if Hillary Clinton had said such a thing.) But Mulvaney’s words just seemed to slide by.
Mulvaney should write thank-you notes to Trump, Cohen and Daniels. Also to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, who had to justify his unjustifiable uses of public money before Congress, and Ronny Jackson, who withdrew from consideration to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs after allegations (which he denies) related to, among other things, his improperly dispensing drugs and his own use of alcohol.
But if the severity of every abuse is relativized, something less tangible but at least as important is lost as well. We are ignoring the imperative of shoring up the philosophical underpinnings of liberal democracy.
Intellectual confusion and ambivalence now haunt the West. Older and once vital systems of thought — in Europe, Christian democracy and social democracy; in the United States, New Dealism and free market conservatism — have an ever-weaker hold on the popular imagination.
This vacuum is filled by strange concepts that hark back to the irrationalism of the 1930s. They include what to supporters of liberal democracy are oxymoronic ideas such as “illiberal democracy” or “authoritarian democracy.”
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has the intellectual courage to raise the specter that lurks behind these terms in her new book, “Fascism: A Warning.” She notes that fascism arose at “a time of intellectual liveliness and resurgent nationalism coupled with widespread disappointment at the failure of representative parliaments to keep pace with a technology-driven Industrial Revolution.”
In the wake of World War I and the Great Depression, she adds, “the promises inherent in the Enlightenment and the French and American Revolutions had become hollow.”
Albright is not a catastrophist (and neither am I). But she doesn’t mind being called an alarmist. She notes “that for freedom to survive, it must be defended, and that if lies are to stop, they must be exposed.” We can’t just “close our eyes and wait for the worst to pass.”
Yet at a moment when we need politics to be thoughtful and engaging, we have a government whose profound swampiness only further deepens public doubts about democracy and encourages us to view public life as mere spectacle. It’s a very bad time to be distracted by a circus.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is email@example.com. Twitter: @EJDionne.