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The, Um, Evolution of Donald Trump II

"You can't always get what you want," the classic song says. The occupant of the Oval Office is on the pointy end of that harsh truth right now.

Hurricane Maria making landfall in Puerto Rico, Sept. 20, 2017 (NOAA/NASA/CIRA). The man in the White House has faced serial political hurricanes recently.

Don't let your mouth write a check your ass can't cash.

 — Folk saying variously ascribed to 50s rock legend Bo Diddley and the author Charles Portis


Sooner or later, every autocrat finds it necessary to embrace some of the tenets of democracy. Sooner or later, kicking and screaming if necessary, every putative ruler obeys the call to govern — with all the parliamentary, deliberative and conciliatory actions the word “govern” implies.

In fits and starts, that’s starting to happen to President* Donald Trump, whether he likes it or not. In a generally increasing series of rebuffs and rejections, the occupant of the White House is learning that the authority of the Oval Office isn’t the same as that in a C-suite in Manhattan.

We remember the fire-breathing ideologue of the campaign days, last year, the man who insisted that if he won, there’d be no quarter asked of or given to the Democrats, scourge of species, Satan’s deputies on earth.

And lo, the commandments were written upon the tablets: The wall protecting the United States from the tide of brown people in the south shall be built. The abomination known as Obamacare shall be defeated. The sellout of the Paris climate accords shall be corrected, with the United States getting out of a bad deal.

◊ ◊ ◊

Fast forward through the thicket of the 2016 campaign, into the cold light of the autumn of 2017.

The vote for the Graham-Cassidy bill — the latest Republican improv of a health-care bill to replace the Affordable Care Act, and in deference to the wishes of the president* — was supposed to be held on Wednesday, Sept. 27. But the building Republican opposition to its monstrous Frankenstein tweak of previous versions of Trumpcare legislation was so bad, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pulled the last last-ditch iteration of Trumpcare out of consideration the day before, sparing the GOP from the bad optics of a doomed floor vote playing out in real time on C-SPAN.

It was an embarrassment for Trump, whose signature pledge of the 2016 campaign — the dismantling of Obamacare — went down to defeat before its final version ever took the field.

◊ ◊ ◊

Things happened in an eerie succession for Trump on Sept. 26, which may go down as one of his worst days in terms of domestic policy and party politics. The health-care disaster was bad enough; Trump also lost by proxy when Luther Strange, a conservative candidate and Trump supporter running in the Alabama primary Senate election, was defeated by Pastor Roy Moore, a judge and an ultra-conservative firebrand.

The Strange-Moore matchup’s thought to be something of a canary in the coal mine for Trump and his reach in the Deep South, and a test of his ability to hold on to his conservative base in the face of people who are even more conservative. There wasn’t enough Strange love in Alabama; he lost by 9 points, Axios reported. The results will be hard for Trump, or his backers in the south, to convincingly spin.

And oh yes — in the Florida state Senate, Democrat Annette Taddeo won in an upset, defeating Republican Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, a man who was once a contestant on Trump’s reality show “The Apprentice.” Taddeo won with less money and fewer connections.

Her victory “gives the once-dispirited party a badly needed lift heading into the 2018 elections. National Democrats pointed out that Democrats have now flipped a total of seven legislative seats in seven states during "the Trump era,’” Politico reported.

Taddeo’s flip of a seat in a longtime Republican stronghold is an object lesson in how the ground shifts under every politician’s feet. Even one who thinks his feet don’t touch the ground.

◊ ◊ ◊

All this happened after a previous concession to geopolitical reality. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and national security adviser H.R. McMaster recently walked back some Trumpian campaign bravado when they indicated that the United States might still be open to remaining part of the Paris climate accords “under the right conditions.” 

The officials said “the president’s ears are open” if the White House received different terms for the United States’ role in the climate agreement.

While Team Trump has couched this in the tough, skeptical rhetoric we’re accustomed to, the “right conditions” talk is clearly a walkback from the take-no-prisoners approach we heard from the White House not so many months ago, and over much of the 2016 campaign. We were led to believe this was a House Trump day-one slam-dunk. Now? Meh.

◊ ◊ ◊

There’s likely to be another surrender to the way things are. The most active part of the hurricane season runs through mid-October. We’ve already seen three major storms — Harvey, Irma and Maria — devastate Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the United States Virgin Islands in recent weeks. At this writing, Puerto Rico is still recovering from a direct hit from Maria; the need for federal aid was immediate and will continue.

It’s too soon to get arms around what it will take to restore Puerto Rico, fighting back from the worst hurricane since San Felipe II in 1928. But early estimates for Texas’ recovery from Harvey went as high as $125 billion. One FEMA official told The Miami Herald that flood insurance claims from Harvey and Irma could pass $11 billion; the paper quoted a firm that estimated storm-related losses in Florida and four other coastal states could be up to $38 billion. 

Millions or billions more in federal relief will probably be needed by the end of the hurricane season, weeks away. Add those costs to the Senate’s approval of a $700 billion defense budget, and other known government expenditures. While the cost of a wall along the U.S. southern border for between $22 billion and $67 billion might amount to chump change by comparison, Trump’s still facing opposition to the wall from regional political leaders, some of whom say Trump went too far planning a project that would complicate life for them and their constituents. And don’t forget about the wall’s opponents on Capitol Hill.

◊ ◊ ◊

Taken all together, and despite what his champions would have you believe, it’s proof that Trump is susceptible to realpolitik, vulnerable where it counts, on matters of policy, not presentation; on issues calling for suasion, not swagger. He’s one week past eight months in office, and Donald Trump has already made presidential history. 

No American president since Johnson has been so undercut by the velocity of events he can’t control. No American president in modern times has been as wounded as Trump in so short a time. And no president in modern times — not even Nixon to the same point — has inflicted so many of those wounds himself.

A certain amount of retreating from campaign pledges is expected after you win. All politicians overpromise on the stump and underdeliver on the job; our campaign season and our bicameral government make sure of that. But what's problematic for Team Trump is having promised so much during the tumultuous 2016 race, and having worked so hard to alienate and demonize much of the American public while vilifying his opposite number, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

He's paying a price for that. Now, everyone in a position to push back against Trump is doing just that.

This string of setbacks are part of Trump’s reluctant evolution from businessman showman to presidential asterisk: learning that neither the government nor the electorate bow automatically to the will of the White House; learning the hard way that Americans aren’t really down with the whole King Thing — it’s antithetical to what being an American is all about in the first place.

◊ ◊ ◊

At the Republican National Convention last July, the Trump campaign baited Democrats, music lovers, and the Rolling Stones when campaign officials approved, and the loudspeakers played, the Stones classic “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” at Quicken Loans Arena on the night Trump accepted the Republican nomination for the presidency.

It was a supersize F-you to the perceived naysayers in the media and the so-called establishment — the party seers, the official politicians, the professionals, the keepers of the swamp, and everyone else who didn’t like him — that Trump could go his own way, that he could defy gravity, that he could do everything that mattered without them.

What a difference eight months in office makes. Gravity is That Which Must Be Obeyed. And the Stones can take their classic back. In every way that matters, the president* is on the pointy end of its harsh existential truth right now.

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