Certainly one conclusion to be reached about the early days of this Administration is that... how to put this... things are not running smoothly. One might even call it, dare we say... chaotic.
The wild zigs and zags of the White House inner circle - the unbelievable pronouncements that began, literally, on Inauguration Weekend with Sean Spicer's assertions about crowd size, the bewildering rollout of the "Travel Ban" Executive Order, the ongoing questions about ethics and finances and Russian collusion these folks can't avoid... we already have dozens of examples, little sense of coherence and a definite "what will happen next" anxiety. And with each new turn, each bizarre revelation, every twist of questionable or demonstrably false assertions... comes the question: "are they doing this on purpose?"
This question arrives with each new turn, each subsequent revelation. When Rachel Maddow brought David Cay Johnston on to discuss the sudden appearance of 2 pages of Trump's 2005 taxes - the only federal return that's been seen publicly - within minutes the cries went out that Trump had revealed it himself, on purpose. Why? Because it would distract from the failure of healthcare. Or charges about Russia. Or...something. One day later, it was back to stories of Obama-led surveillance! More chaos!
Conspiracy Theory is the hot phrase of the internet in these roiling political times, and after years of putting up with at least a willingness to hear these things out, the biggest lesson I've learned is: beware of convenient theories that serve as catch-all, all encompassing notions of How To Explain Everything. On the right, it's their elastic use of "Saul Alinsky" and dark mutterings of socialist tactics ascribed to every liberal idea. On the left, it's a theory about public manipulation and propaganda where every "fake news" story and conservative talking point is meant to distract and confuse and sow chaos in the general public. It's this latter theory that's serving as the narrative background noise for Chaos in the Trump White House. They're doing it all on purpose.
This theory would be amusing if things didn't seem so serious. It is, no doubt, confusing to deal with the rapid pace of lies, false assertions, and flat out fabulism taking over institutions of government defined primarily by the trust and faith of the public in them. When "Presidential Spokesman" loses even the fig leaf of quiet accuracy afforded it over time, where can we go for real facts? How can it not be part of a grand design?
For me, it's the very lack of skepticism in any of the moves the Trump folks have made that puts the Chaos Theory to bed. I have no doubt the White House took a "full speed ahead, damn the torpedoes" approach to the Travel Ban order; but I sincerely doubt that they anticipated a host of legal challenges, spontaneous protests at major airports from coast to coast (and crucially for them, everywhere in between), and the self inflicted wound that had them limping to reconstruct a more carefully worded order that has, as of this writing, yet to even take effect. To call that "deliberate" isn't just 3 dimensional chess - it's granting a kind of insight I am quite sure no one, not even a self styled Dark Lord like Steve Bannon, actually possesses in this Administration.
The more likely explanation is that, from the start, this Administration has been a series of gaffes, missteps and rookie mistakes on an epic scale, both due to the near criminal lack of experienced hands and the operatic levels of theatricality favored by the man (ostensibly) in charge. Sensible, thoughtful people would have stopped using Twitter to make policy and personal pronouncements long ago - Donald Trump is neither sensible nor thoughtful, that seems clear. Basic knowledge of the process of government would have led most transition teams to carefully pre-check cabinet nominees for potential red flags; not these folks.
As much as we bemoan the state of media coverage of all of this, it's unfair, I think, not to acknowledge that much of the mass media is rising to the Trump moment. The Washington Post hasn't seemed this energized and essential since the heady days of Watergate. The New York Times seems to have awoken from its Grey Lady slumbers with a renewed verve. MSNBC has found its purpose. These are all to the good, and already are producing results. Aside from my dislike of conspiracy theory (it may have been the attempt at communist indoctrination I experienced at 13. Long story), I fundamentally question notions that Americans can be gassed into submission by dark mutterings of an invisible hand wielding hazy propaganda. We may, yes, be a nation enthralled by Bachelorettes and Kardashians, but we're also smart and observant and empowered by the very free society that's supposedly under constant threat. More than our faith in political leaders or popular figures, our nation is defined, fundamentally, by our faith in each other. That faith may be tested, but it's nowhere near as dead as some might suggest. And propaganda can't wish that away, or ultimately succeed in wrecking it.
Complainers surely have it right, though: the pace of these disasters is exhausting. The remarkable ability of these Trump folks to make multiple missteps at the same time is bewildering. It's hard to keep up. It's scary to think of where this is all headed. It's frightening to live moment to moment wondering what will happen next hour, tomorrow, next week. For all the feelings that this presidency had the makings of a disaster, surely we can all admit - this is by no means the exact disaster we had in mind.
The mistake, though, is to endow the people making these dramatic missteps some sort of supernatural secret power that absolves them of simply being atrocious at what they're doing. It's a mistake to not simply call Kellyanne Conway a terrible, useless spokesperson for her President and his causes. It's a mistake not to note the sycophantic intensity of a flunky like Stephen Miller, and how it undermines any ability to present himself with seriousness. It's a mistake not to note the inherent tension between Bannon and Priebus and simply accept assertions that they run as a carefully coordinated unit when clearly they do not. At a moment full of untruths, we do not have deny every reality in front of us. And surely we can see chaos for what it is: chaotic. And nothing that's helping a poorly run, inexperienced Administration make any real progress on the things they say they're trying to address.
If chaos is what Steve Bannon wants... then that's simply another example of how he's not helping his cause, but hurting it. Projecting a sense of command, sureness, authority, an ease with dealing with the unexpected - that, those things, is what surely would be terrifying in a Trump presidency. Imagine if they were good at this! Imagine if they were, actually, getting away with any or all of it! Imagine that we didn't have tools and tricks and public outcry to throw them off their game at any moment! We do and we can, and frankly, it's the successes of the resistance (or #Resistance if you prefer) that's been the real tale of the early days of this horrible, disastrous Administration. Let's not let them sell chaos as their winning move.