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  • Max Stearns

The Ironic Sincerity of Trump’s ACA Blame Game

The Republicans are abandoning efforts to repeal and replace, or even to repeal, hoping later to replace, Obamacare. Donald Trump claims that the “failure” is not his fault, or even that of Republican congressional leaders. He has made clear that neither he nor the Republicans will “own it.” See here. Rather, the failure is the fault of Democrats, along with a few non-helpful Republicans. See here. Listening to CNN, MSNBC, and other media outlets digest this over the past day or so has left me with an unmistakable conclusion: The coverage makes no sense. That is, unless one assumes that Donald Trump is ironically being sincere.

Let's say you are a world class athlete, like Roger Federer, who just won his eighth Wimbledon title, defeating Marin Cilic. Now imagine a news commentator ask Cilic why he lost. Cilic might blame his earlier foot injury, or perhaps the fall he took in game five, which might be related. See here. But imagine, instead, that Cilic answered “It was Federer’s fault!” In the ordinary course, we would laugh, and we would also assume Cilic intended us to do so. That is because ordinarily, such a statement is expressed ironically, as a joke, and certainly not sincerely. A sincere equivalent sentiment would take the following sportsmanlike form: “I lost because Federer played a better game.” This response does not elicit even a chuckle because the sentiment is entirely sincere.

More generally, unless we are being ironic, we do not blame our opponents for accomplishments in which the opponent takes rightful pride that results in our defeat. We, instead, credit our opponents with victory. Not so, Donald Trump. And this is what makes the news coverage nonsensical. What makes it all so odd, and what explains the media confusion, is that when Trump blames the Democrats for failing to repeal Obamacare, he is not being ironic at all. This is no self-deprecating joke. Trump is incapable of that. Instead, Trump is being ironically sincere. For the rest of the world, it is ironic to blame opponents for our defeat, but for Trump, who only cares about avoiding personal responsibility, it is (mix sports metaphors a bit) par for the course.

Trump is so prone to outright misstatements of fact, see here, that one can understand the media’s becoming confused when, instead, Trump says something that should be ironic, and thus non-truthful, but that actually is sincere. This is not an instance of a crying boy who tragically sees an actual wolf; rather, it is the boy crying for a wolf that he alone sincerely believes is there, but that all us know is not. The media are genuinely confused about whether it is somehow credible to blame an opponent that won for winning.

So the media keep asking if Trump can succeed in passing the buck rather than taking it himself or even sharing it with the Republican Senate colleagues. Surely we all know by now that Trump is no Truman. (Close names are just that: think Bo Derek and Derek Bok). Media commentators have observed that this will be a hard sell because the Republicans control the White House and both houses of Congress. But no, it is a hard sell because it requires an absurd mental contortion, namely blaming an opponent for having accomplished the very thing the opponent set out to accomplish and that you opposed, like blaming Federer for playing the better game.

We are in a world in which too often down is up and up is down. Trump wants to repeal Obama care. Trump wants to leave Obamacare in place and let it die on its own. The one thing Trump seems uninterested in doing is working to make Obamacare function better, in a manner that avoids rendering tens of millions of presently insured persons uninsured. In a world without anchors, few things make sense. The problem for the media is that for once, Trump means exactly what he says even though what he says makes no sense other than ironically. Trump doesn’t care about helping to improve our health care system. Truth to tell, I’m not sure he cares much about tearing it down either. But I do know this: the one thing Trump truly cares about making sure that whatever happens, someone other than him, and at least for now, those he’s stuck working with, take the blame.

As always, I welcome your comments.

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