Each of us decides, at some point in our lives, which dramatic genre we inhabit. Is your life a tragedy? A comedy? As an academic, I aspire to live my life as a rather exalted BBC documentary, but somehow it always gravitates back to sitcom. I have friends who shoot for Hollywood costume drama but inevitably wind up in low-budget soap opera.
Some American presidencies have been authentic tragedies: certainly John F Kennedy’s. Indeed it would take an Aeschylus to do full justice to the Kennedy family’s version of The Oresteia. Other presidencies have been more comic: Aristophanes would have enjoyed Bill Clinton’s tenure, not least because Clinton had the genially bawdy personality that the Athenian playwright liked to give his heroes.
With good reason, Henry Kissinger quoted Shakespeare at Richard Nixon’s funeral, for Nixon’s self-destruction was an authentically Shakespearean tragedy. But what will Donald Trump’s presidency turn out to be? If you believe the prophets of US tyranny, it is already a tragedy — a ghastly combination of Coriolanus, Macbeth and Richard III. I’ll take the other side. This, my friends, is a comedy. It may even be a full-blown farce.
Last week’s special election in Alabama verged on slapstick. Having failed to prevent Roy Moore from becoming the Republican candidate for the Senate seat vacated by attorney-general Jeff Sessions, Trump also failed to get Moore elected — in a state that is about the reddest of the red. In the month before the vote, a succession of women came forward to accuse Moore of having sexually assaulted or at least harassed them when they were in their teens. One was just 14 at the time. Yet Trump, urged on by his former chief strategist Steve Bannon, backed Moore.
The high point of the comedy for me was Moore’s cowboy-style arrival at his polling station on horseback, but there were other sublime scenes: the moment his wife cited as evidence of their enlightened outlook the fact that one of their lawyers “is a Jew”; or when a supporter admitted that he and Moore had once visited a brothel while serving in Vietnam, though of course they had not tarried once they realised the girls were “young . . . probably very young”.
Earlier this year I suggested that the half-life of populism might be as short as 12 months. As we approach the anniversary of Trump’s inauguration as president next month, I realise I should have said 11.
True, the US economy continues its extraordinarily prolonged post-financial-crisis expansion. Growth for this last quarter of the year is estimated by the Atlanta Federal Reserve to be 3.3%; the New York Fed says almost 4%. As Trump reminds his Twitter followers on a weekly basis, the stock market is at a “Record High”, up by more than a quarter since his election. We are close to full employment.
The economists can bicker about how much or little of this can be attributed to the Trump administration in a year when global growth has been so buoyant. They can also bicker about how many Americans are feeling the benefit when the lion’s share of income growth is concentrated at the very top of the social heap. But this is definitely not the economic disaster predicted by some of them a year ago. (Let’s not forget the Nobel laureate Paul Krugman’s prophecy on election night that the stock market would “never” recover from a Trump victory, which was wrong by 11am the next morning.)
The only debate worth having is whether or not this recovery can be sustained all the way to 2020 now the Federal Reserve is raising interest rates and ending the large-scale bond purchases (“quantitative easing”) that were its most creative response to the financial crisis. My guess is that Trump gets one more good year but that 2019-20 will be a different story.
The point is that, as far as his own popularity is concerned, these economic indicators seem irrelevant. Trump’s average approval rating at the time of his inauguration in January was 44%, roughly tied with his disapproval number. Today he is down to 37% approval, against 58% disapproval. It is worth repeating that no president of the modern era started his first year so unpopular and none saw his approval rating fall so far in the subsequent months. The argument grows increasingly plausible that no one is doing more to restore the health and vitality of American liberalism than Trump.
Now consider the contribution to his demise that has been made by his own party in Congress. A year ago the House Speaker Paul Ryan was giving stirring speeches in Washington about all the great things Republicans were going to do now they had achieved unified government. They would repeal Obamacare. They would pass comprehensive tax reform. They would slash burdensome regulation.
Well, it’s now December and Obamacare is still with us, while comprehensive tax reform is a deformed monstrosity of a bill that, in essence, cuts the corporate tax rate, reduces personal income tax for higher earners, shrinks certain welfare programmes and nevertheless increases the deficit by at least $1 trillion (£750bn) over the next 10 years. Probably the corporate tax cut will boost growth somewhat. But this is shaping up to be a political disaster. In one recent poll by Marist, 52% of respondents said they expected the bill to hurt them, versus 30% who thought it would help them. Fully 60% said the wealthy would be the bill’s principal beneficiaries, against 21% who said the middle class would benefit most.
Obamacare was unpopular when it was first introduced; this is worse. The probability is therefore rising that the Democrats will win back the House next November. It is also becoming imaginable that they could take back control of the Senate, where Trump’s majority is now 51-49, owing to the debacle in Alabama. At this rate, the Dems will be drafting articles of impeachment this time next year.
Meanwhile, special counsel Robert Mueller presses ahead with his inquiry into the alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. I am not certain if there is a smoking gun that Mueller will find. But I am increasingly sure Trump is going to try to shut down the inquiry by firing Mueller as he fired the former FBI director James Comey. When that moment comes, we shall discover whether the founding fathers succeeded in devising a constitution that could not be overthrown, no matter how unscrupulous the president, or whether these are indeed the last days of the republic.
“If it weren’t all so tragic,” my friend Andrew Sullivan wrote last week, “we’d be laughing our asses off.” I think he is probably right that it’s too early for laughter, but abroad they are already chortling. “You are interesting guys,” President Vladimir Putin apostrophised American lawmakers last week, in one of his interminable press conferences. “Are you normal at all?” I heard the same kind of thing in Beijing earlier
Comedy or tragedy? Perhaps, in this case, it depends on where you sit in the theatre.
Niall Ferguson’s new book is The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power (Allen Lane)