It’s become the most regular pattern in American politics. President Trump insults some important personality, or defies what passes for common decency, or attacks traditional allies, or just says something bizarre; the mainstream media then denounce him, “check” his “facts,” proclaim his end or the end of the republic; a week or so later, observing that their furious campaign has had no effect on the body politic except for a tiny increase in the president’s popularity, the media initiate another anti-Trump campaign. At this juncture, rightwing media proclaim Trump a “genius” who has a “unique connection” with the real America, and many bytes are spilled over his success at “calling the liberals’ bluff.”
I have a different take on the gambling analogy, and also on the allegation of genius.
To me, a genius at gambling isn’t somebody who wins a hand because he has a pair of treys and his opponent has a pair of deuces. It’s no argument for genius that Trump can, with a few badly worded remarks, puncture the pomposity of Hillary Clinton, suggest that the National Football League isn’t an army of martyr patriots, or reveal the fact that US senators tend to be horse’s asses. And if somebody with a pair of deuces — such as the typical columnist for the New York Times — is stupid enough to think that he’s got a winning hand, and bets his trust fund on it, that doesn’t mean that he’s bluffing, or that his opponent called his bluff. It’s just that he’s never played with anybody who wasn’t as stupid as he is.
A genius at gambling isn’t somebody who wins a hand because he has a pair of treys and his opponent has a pair of deuces.
Trump’s liberal — and conservative — opponents didn’t bluff; they thought they had the best cards ever dealt. And Trump didn’t play a good hand; he discarded several of his face cards (limited government, fiscal responsibility, a real investigation of the Clinton machine), and kept those treys. This is a game in which one player sees John Kerry, Colin Kaepernick, John McCain, and himself as national heroes, and the other player knows that they’re not. It’s a game in which one player thinks he’ll win by pushing transgender restrooms and the other one waves the flag. No bluffs, no genius; but who do you think will win?
Here’s a note about my own standards of assessment. I never thought that President Reagan was the Great Communicator. I liked him, but he didn’t communicate particularly well to me. I thought he was great when he stood up to the Air Traffic Controllers Union — one of the bravest episodes of modern presidential history — and when he stood up to the Russians in Reykjavik. I thought he was a dope, by his own principles, when he forced the states to raise their drinking age to 21, when he talked nonsense about “drugs,” when he failed to abolish the Department of Education, etc.
Today, no one dreams that Congress will achieve anything much (although a certain low trickery is always to be expected).
How good was Reagan’s hand? I’d say he had a full house or a flush. He was smart; he had an impressive manner; he understood the nature and effects of limited government; he didn’t overreach; he dismissed the outrageous criticism he received from a media establishment that was almost as obsessed with hating him as it is with hating Trump. At that time, the Democrats’ hand wasn’t fantastic, either; but I’ll give them a pair of jacks and a pair of queens. They were dominated by real unions, not government-employee unions and advocates of far-left causes. There were some savvy politicians in their leadership (and I don’t mean Jimmy Carter). No one was bluffing, but when the Democrats and the media (then, as now, the same players) showed their hand, Reagan won.
Reagan never had a majority in both houses of Congress, but he had large legislative achievements, such as the revision of the tax rates. Today, no one dreams that Congress will achieve anything much (although a certain low trickery is always to be expected). Survival is the measure of accomplishment. In these circumstances, almost any hand will win whatever there is to win.