Merriam-Webster chose “surreal” as its 2016 word of the year, and at this point it has to be the 2017 front-runner, too.
Just look at last week. It began with President Donald Trump establishing moral equivalence between the United States and Russia on the topic of heads of state being killers. Then we were treated to the unprecedented sight of a vice president having to cast a tiebreaking vote on a Cabinet nominee.
That was followed by Trump threatening to “destroy” the career of a state senator from Texas, the Senate rebuking and silencing Elizabeth Warren for reading a letter by Coretta Scott King, and Trump absurdly and falsely saying the nation’s murder rate is the highest it’s been in 47 years. Trump tweeted it was “unfair” that Nordstrom dropped Ivanka’s Trump clothing line because she’s a “great person”; adviser Kellyanne Conway flat-out told people to buy “Ivanka’s stuff”; Melania Trump filed a libel lawsuit saying she had been deprived of making millions from a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” presumably being first lady; and Trump lambasted judges and the judicial system over his immigration ban.
But the surreality was not the most interesting part of the week. That would be the emerging signs of what might be the beginnings of a real pushback — from people whose opposition would be far more troubling for Trump than reflexive Democratic obstruction or journalistic fact-checking.
- Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, told senators of both parties that Trump’s attacks on judges and the judicial system were “disheartening” and “demoralizing” and that an attack on one judge is an attack on all judges.
- Nordstrom, which said its decision to stop carrying Ivanka Trump’s line was purely about business, saw its stock drop after Trump’s tweet accusing the retailer of treating his daughter badly. But the stock recovered within 10 minutes and finished the day up more than 4 percent — more than three times larger than the industry writ large on a day when a forecast for a good 2017 for retail also was released. Some traders openly celebrated their ability to overcome a Trump broadside.
- GOP Rep. Jason Chaffetz, head of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, asked the federal ethics office to investigate Conway for possibly violating the rule on not endorsing private businesses. Chaffetz is under pressure at home in Utah, where more than 1,000 people at a raucous town hall booed the claim he has made repeatedly that he sees no reason to investigate Trump’s potential business conflicts, yelling at him to “Do your job!”
- Two Republican senators, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, voted against the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as education secretary.
- Numerous Republicans on Capitol Hill criticized Trump’s immigration ban and said they’d be willing to work with him on redoing his executive order. The White House appears to be considering a revision.
- Most tellingly, Trump backed down from his suggestion, made after a December phone call with Taiwan’s leader, that the United States might not honor the one-China policy which does not recognize Taiwan’s sovereignty. Chinese President Xi Jinping expressed his displeasure after the call, then refused to talk to Trump. An ice-breaking letter wishing Xi a happy Chinese New Year was followed by a call Thursday night and Trump’s about-face, saying he would honor the one-China policy at Xi’s request.
Sooner or later, a bully’s bluff gets called. Chastened, he responds. But how? And what if there are no consequences for punching back?
That’s when it really gets interesting.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.