WASHINGTON, March 26, 2017 — There has been an incessant, droning mantra from the left since November: “This is what fascism looks like. This is what happened to Germany in the 30s. This is how a nation descends into tyranny.” The mantra has spread through social media, the regular media, among America’s European allies, and has been picked up by centrists and some nominal conservatives.
On its face this is silly. The U.S. is not Weimar. It isn’t even Europe. Even if the fear behind it is real, the GOP debacle in the House this week should give the fearful pause: The American president not only does not have dictatorial powers, he is less powerful within our government than the German chancellor is within hers.
President Trump’s attempts to stampede House Republicans into replacing the Affordable Care Act collapsed on Friday. House leadership had cobbled together an ugly dog of a healthcare bill that they were too embarrassed to show in public. Neither conservatives in the Freedom Caucus nor GOP moderates would vote for it.
By Thursday it was clear even to the blind that the GOP couldn’t pull itself together to do the one thing it has promised to do for seven years, the one thing it claims is vital to America’s future. Trump lamented that it didn’t have to be this way, but it’s difficult to see how it could have been otherwise.
Republicans didn’t spend the Obama years designing a replacement for Obamacare. They didn’t hash out the details of a new plan and then sell it to America. The party of opposition only had to say what they were against, never what they were for.
House Republicans voted against Obamacare time after time, knowing that President Obama would veto any threat to his great achievement if it managed ever to get through the Senate.
Suddenly they were playing for real, and they had no game. Anyone not blind to political realities could have predicted two things: The Freedom Caucus would never support a bill that maintained the insurance framework of Obamacare; and House moderates would never vote for a replacement that would force low-income Americans to contemplate medical emergencies with the near certainty of financial destruction or death.
It was never likely that Obamacare was going away. As Republicans had to face voting against it without a solid, conservative replacement, that likelihood would only rise. When Utah’s Jason Chaffetz suggested that poor people invest in healthcare rather than iPhones, it was clear that he’d never thought about healthcare. It was also clear that Republicans couldn’t sell water to thirsty people in a desert.
A conservative replacement to Obamacare was doable. Obamacare is a poor bill, as even most Democrats admit. Depending on your politics, it gives too much to insurance companies, it leaves too many people uncovered, it leaves deductibles and copays too high for middle America to afford, it doesn’t improve actual health care, it creates huge administrative and regulatory burdens, and it socializes the American medical industry either too much or too little.
There’s something for almost everyone to dislike in Obamacare, so Republicans should have been able to come up with something better that would ultimately get broad support. But that would take hard work, something that an opposition party doesn’t have to do. And not having done it for eight years, Republicans were flabby, weak, and too undisciplined to beat themselves into shape.
The Republicans are divided, riven by factional disputes and undisciplined. Under the leadership of John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, no one noticed. Under the leadership of Trump, they are not and won’t soon be the incipient National Socialists feared by the left.
That incorrect assessment of the Trump and Republican threat is understandable coming from Europe. Prime ministers and chancellors have much more power within their governments than American presidents do within theirs. Europeans might have thought that Trump could enforce party discipline, that he would get his way, and that the things he said that scared them so badly would be so because he wished them to be so. The European press today displays a palpable sense of astonishment at the Trump and Republican failure on Obamacare.
Some Americans seem likewise astonished, to say nothing of delighted and relieved. People who a few months ago trembled in fear for their friends who would be stripped of health insurance and sent to die in some squalid corner from easily treatable diseases are celebrating this sudden discovery: Politics still matters in America.
Their failure on healthcare reform does not bode well for Republican hopes to reform the tax code, fix infrastructure or revise trade and nuclear treaties. It will be that much harder for them to get to the serious work of disenfranchising women, putting gays in concentration camps, forcing the elderly to eat dog food, driving cute and furry creatures into extinction, and letting billionaires force their neighbors to roof their huts with thatch. Leni Riefenstahl will not be resurrected to film any Trump rallies.
American government remains a messy business, with competing and jealous centers of power. No one in Congress except Paul Ryan seems willing to bow to Trump, and not even Ryan’s heart seems to be in it. Just as he never realized healthcare was so complicated, Trump never realized government was so complicated or that his power was so limited. As much as he’d like to, Trump can’t tell the Freedom Caucus, “you’re fired!”
Donald Trump is not a college professor’s idea of a genius, but he has an instinctual capacity for walking out of a manure pile smelling like roses. Sharks aren’t smart, but evolution has perfectly adapted them to shred college professors who wade into the wrong part of the ocean, and to survive better in the ocean than any professor ever could.
In other words, it is premature to say that his apparent failure this week is a failure. If Obamacare is really the incipient disaster that its critics think it is, Trump may ultimately win the victory by watching it self-destruct, and even nudging it in that direction.
It would be foolish to conclude that this time, at last, Trump has really made the move that exposes his stupidity and will end his presidency. He may have just played Ryan and the House Republicans. It seems more likely that he’s blundered, but he’s like the crazed killer on TV and in the movies: Never turn your back on him just because he looks dead, or that will be the last mistake you ever make.