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The Profit Unarmed

The collapse of Trumpcare demonstrates yet again that the strongman isn't strong.

Donald Trump in 2016. Gage Skidmore

In the wake of the collapse yesterday of the Republicans’ effort to repeal Obamacare — let’s hope this really is the endgame of that effort — it’s time to re-up, first, this piece I did for the Times, just after the House Republicans’ effort to repeal Obamacare collapsed; and, second, this piece I did for n+1, arguing that Trump’s would be a spectacularly weak and ineffective presidency, along the lines of Jimmy Carter’s.

It goes without saying that it’s too early to celebrate, and now that McConnell has declared his intention to pass a simple repeal (rather than repeal and replace), we need to stay on the phones. But there is some reason to think, as Brian Beutler argued yesterday, that even though the House GOP came back after their defeat to pass a different repeal and replace measure (one far worse than the one that was defeated), the only reason they could do that is that they knew it would not be passed by the Senate. Which turned out to be true.

Likewise, it may turn out to be true that the only reason the congressional GOP could pass those Obamacare repeal measures all those years was simply that they knew Obama would veto them. Which he did. When brought face to face with the reality of their dreams, they continue to balk.

So let’s hope (and make sure): good riddance. As Irving Howe said of Irving Kristol: may he have a long life, and many many defeats.

Back to the Trump/Carter comparison: since I first made it, there’s been a lot of resistance to it.

The most obvious reason for the resistance, particularly among Democrats, is that Carter has acquired a kind of saintly halo about him, whereas Trump is an id-driven immoralist. Even though I constantly point out that the comparison between the two presidents is structural rather than substantive (though Carter’s policies and politics were in fact a lot more conservative than people remember), something about the comparison rubs people the wrong way, as if I’m sullying the name of a good man.

But I think there’s actually a much deeper reason for the resistance. And that is that Trump and Carter play to our deepest archetypes of power and strength: Trump as the menacing fascist, Carter as the meek and mild-mannered do-gooder. That archetype pervades the political spectrum, for it rests on an ancient belief: that power and morality, power and ethics, are ever and always opposed.

So even on the left, which opposes Trump, there is a subterranean belief that that performance of his — which is so obviously a case, almost kitschily so, of the emperor has no clothes — is in fact really strength. Precisely because Trump is so transparently uninterested in morals. Likewise, there is a subterranean belief on the left that Carter had to be weak. Precisely because he was so transparently interested in morals.

The truth, funnily enough, is that while the Trump/Carter comparison continues to hold — holds up quite well, in fact — if we had to compare the two presidents, we’d find out, that as of this point in their presidencies, Carter had delivered far more, had transformed the national agenda far more, had acted and imposed his will far more, than Trump has. Carter was in fact the stronger leader.

But we continue to fear, in the face of all the facts, that Trump is. And not because Carter did good things (a lot of the things he did were in fact pretty terrible) but because, as Orwell saw in his essay on Gandhi, we like to think of our prophets as unarmed. We like to think that powerlessness is a virtue and power a vice — a dangerous delusion that feeds its own dangerous counter-delusion: that strongmen are strong.