Perks of a “Rigged System”
On the circular cynicism that insulates Trump
As the Ukraine scandal continues to unfold, it is worth taking a step back to consider how much of President Trump’s appeal — and, ultimately, his resiliency — owes to the predicate of a “rigged system” laid in the early days of his campaign. Even before Trump employed the phrase, his candidacy was a heat-seeking missile aimed at the conventions, pieties, and established norms not only of the GOP, but of elite consensus and the political power structure more broadly. And in tagging the system itself as rigged — corrupt, bankrupt, and working against your interests — Trump lent himself (if not a defense) a facile retort to any charge.
From baldly transactional diplomacy to crude international fishing expeditions, nothing the President does or has done is beyond the pale, because it is merely an acknowledgement of How Things Work. Everyone lies, cheats, and steals, Trump is just more honest about it, you see. Unlike the feckless elites, he doesn’t dress his actions up in subtleties or high-minded pretensions. Thus, whenever ugliness is revealed, far from indicting Trump himself, it is merely a fulfillment of the President’s premise, a validation of his — and his supporters’ — ever more encompassing cynicism.
In a sense, it’s an inversion of the defense most famously employed by Eric Stratton in Animal House. Stratton defended the hi-jinks of Delta House by breezily (and transitively) suggesting that blaming them for the actions or one or two bad apples is tantamount to an indictment of a concentric series of institutions, from the Greek system, to education in general, to American society writ large. With that, Delta’s eminent Rush Chairman led a raucous charge out of the mock court room; (“You can do whatever you want to us, but we’re not going to sit here and listen to you badmouth the United States of America!”)
For his part, Trump assumes the last bit — “What, do you think our country’s so innocent?” — and works backwards, absolving himself of accountability, and even crediting his no-holds-barred approach for being tough, smart, and effective, unlike those weak leaders in the past who didn’t have the guts to Make America Great Again.
This sentiment offers a framework for processing virtually every fracas of the administration to date, of which there are many. The rigged system premise opens the door to an endless stream of tu quoque. And in the end, for those who abide the logic, it creates a permission structure to defend, deflect, and even delight in the President’s actions.
Every step of the way, Trump’s behavior has amounted to a caricature of politics at its most base and petty; and in reflecting and refracting our our built-in cynicism toward politics, he has inured his core supporters to virtually any offense, likely indemnifying himself against removal along the way.
President Trump may have been sent to Washington to break up a rigged system, but three years into his administration it’s increasingly clear that nobody has benefited from — or perpetuated — the notion more.