Trump and Gorsuch Would Like You to Know that You Do Not Exist

Greg Ranzini '18
News Editor

“Nobody knew healthcare could be so complicated.” It’s generally a pretty bad idea to spend too much time thinking about anything that comes out of Donald Trump’s mouth, but something about that particular statement stuck in my craw. Such is the zeitgeist, I suppose, that such an inane comment not only demands attention but lingers for a month as a familiar, subconscious distraction, like a television left on in the next room or a skin tag. It’s one thing to know that the GOP is hell-bent on scrapping the social safety net and that there’s nothing you can do about it; that’s sadly nothing we haven’t seen before. The bewilderment and petulant “stop hitting my fist with your face” frustration, though? That’s a new wrinkle. 

It’s safe to say that some people other than Donald Trump were aware of healthcare’s complexity. Rather, as we’re learning to our chagrin, when Trump asserts a fact, more often than not it is something else, whether an aspiration, delusion, confabulation, or deception. That goes double when he’s stating core tenets of Trumpism, such as: “Donald Trump is the only conscious being in the universe,” “nothing exists apart from that which Donald Trump comprehends,” and, naturally, “object permanence is fake news.” His is a pseudo-Cartesian skepticism, expounded by an illiterate. 

The problem for Trump is that the world is largely made of “other people,” and at last count, approximately zero of them like his healthcare plan. Some, notably the fire-eaters in the House, won’t accept anything short of a total repeal. Or, perhaps, they simply can’t, having noted that, while the Affordable Care Act is popular, “Obamacare” is not, and made the cynical decision to stake their seats on the support of the 45% of Americans (at last count) who don’t know that the two are the same thing. On the other side, Trump also faces opposition from House and Senate Democrats who, while distressingly willing to hedge and triangulate under normal circumstances, have at least decided that it would be bad politics to sign their names to undoing President Obama’s signature achievement. Their front has been so superficially unified that one might almost be forgiven for believing that the Democrats have grown spines—a happy enough fantasy until one remembers that their refusal, with the Presidency and a two-house supermajority at their fingertips, to enact a first-world healthcare system instead of a cruel, bureaucratic, and uselessly compromised insurance company giveaway caused this mess in the first place. You know your ideas suck when you create a law that saves thousands of lives, but half the people you save are still out for your blood.

Rounding out the roster of “other people” are the millions of Americans who still don’t know whether they’ll have health insurance this time next year. Trump may be able to hide away in his golf resort on the weekends, but those GOP politicians who still bother to have public town hall meetings have been seeing plenty of them lately. Whether they matter at all in the present political situation is still up for debate, however. When “Trumpcare” crashed and burned last Friday, it still did so mostly on party lines. Although the Republicans may harbor some concerns about electoral fallout in the abstract, that wasn’t enough to stop the vast majority of them from trying to take away their constituents’ healthcare. That said, they were at least unwilling to put the question to a roll-call vote. Democracy in action?

The result, for the Affordable Care Act, can only be described as a “stay of execution.” Certainly, the attempt to neutralize it through the budget reconciliation process has failed for the moment, as has every other vote on the issue since the GOP regained the House in the 112th Congress. It remains to be seen whether Trump will follow through on last week’s threat to abandon the idea should this attempt fail. Even if he were to try again, however, his party is unlikely to play ball for the moment: his “threatened” outcome affords them a vital opportunity to save face. Still, expect them to return to the issue just as soon as their President’s goldfish-like attention span scuttles their tax reform plans.

Over in the Senate, meanwhile, we were properly introduced this past week to what a Trump Supreme Court nominee looks like. It wasn’t pretty. On the occasion of Neil Gorsuch’s nomination seven weeks ago, I remarked that, with his conventional mien, “he appear[ed] to be the ringmaster in a tent full of clowns.” That analysis remains accurate as to aesthetics, but does not fully capture the profoundly repugnant human being that we saw smirking and yukking it up on C-SPAN. Asked repeatedly to defend the indefensible, Gorsuch did so with evident gusto. 

Consider Judge Gorsuch’s dissent in TransAm Trucking, Inc. v. Admin. Review Bd., 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 13071 (10th Cir. July 15, 2016), and his defense of that dissent when asked about it during his hearing. If you haven’t read it already (and you should), here are the facts in TransAm in a nutshell: Alphonse Maddin, a trucker, found himself stranded on the side of the road in subzero temperatures. The brakes on his trailer were frozen solid, and the heating unit in his cab had failed. He radioed for assistance and was told by his company that a repairman was on the way and he was not to leave the cargo. So he waited for two hours, eventually falling asleep, until his cousin fortuitously called him on the phone. Here’s what happened next, according to the majority in the Tenth Circuit:

According to [Maddin’s cousin, Gregory] Nelson, Maddin’s speech was slurred and he sounded confused. When Maddin sat up, he realized his torso was numb and he could not feel his feet. He called Road Assist again and told the dispatcher his bunk heater was not working. He also told the dispatcher about his physical condition and asked when the repairperson would arrive. The dispatcher told Maddin to “hang in there.”

About thirty minutes after his second call to Road Assist, Maddin became concerned about continuing to wait in the freezing temperatures without heat. He unhitched the trailer from the truck, pulled the truck about three feet away, and called his supervisor, Larry Cluck. Maddin told Cluck he couldn’t feel his feet and was having trouble breathing because of the cold. Cluck repeatedly told Maddin to turn on the APU even though Maddin told Cluck several times it was not working.

When Maddin told Cluck he was leaving to seek help, Cluck told Maddin not to leave the trailer, instructing him to either drag the trailer with its frozen brakes or remain with the trailer until the repairperson arrived. Maddin did not follow either instruction but, instead, drove off in the truck leaving the trailer unattended.

Id. at *3.

TransAm subsequently fired Maddin. The Department of Labor Administrative Review Board (ARB) found that this termination violated the Surface Transportation Assistance Act, because it constituted retaliation against Maddin for reporting an equipment failure. Two judges of the Tenth Circuit agreed, and declined to second-guess the ARB. Judge Gorsuch, however, disagreed. By his reckoning, Maddin had a choice: 

“He could drag the trailer carrying the company’s goods to its destination (an illegal and maybe sarcastically offered option.) Or he could sit and wait for help to arrive (a legal if unpleasant option). The trucker chose None of the Above, deciding instead to unhook the trailer and drive his truck to a gas station.”

. . .

In [the majority’s] view, an employee should be protected not just when he “refuses to operate a vehicle” but also when he “refuses to operate a vehicle in the particular manner the employer directs and instead operates it in a manner he thinks safe.” Yet those words just aren’t there; the law before us protects only employees who refuse to operate vehicles, period. Imagine a boss telling an employee he may either “operate” an office computer as directed or “refuse to operate” that computer. What serious employee would take that as license to use an office computer not for work but to compose the great American novel? Good luck.

Id. at *23-*23, *26.

In other words, given the choice between “defy[ing] the laws of physics,” Id. at *16, pointlessly risking his life, and saving himself, Maddin picked his life over the directives of his employer. How dare he. Think back to a time that you were cold and stranded. Can you remember how it felt? If you’ve never experienced a winter weather emergency, can you at least imagine yourself in Maddin’s situation and get an idea of how you might have acted? Congratulations! You have a greater capacity for empathy than the man who will probably be our newest Supreme Court Justice. How do you feel about that? If you’re Neil Gorsuch, you probably think that’s beside the point. After all, as he complained at one point during his hearing, it really is just so hard being Neil Gorsuch: “When Byron White sat here, it was ninety minutes. He was through this body in two weeks. And he smoked cigarettes while he gave his testimony.” What kind of barbarians, indeed, would have have the temerity to delay and obstruct a Supreme Court nomination?

Perhaps it should not come as a surprise that a man hand-picked by Donald Trump would share some of his pathologies, but the openness with which Neil Gorsuch rejects the equal humanity of everyone not named Neil Gorsuch still astounds. That he expresses that malignant character through a legal philosophy based on callous pedantry is all the more disqualifying, although it does bring his temperament that much further in line with that of the former occupant of his presumptive seat. Still, Judge Gorsuch should not rest assured of his confirmation. Senate Democrats might yet succeed in forcing Trump to withdraw his nominee, and if last Friday was any guide, we have a pretty good idea of how he will react: scrub his plan, pretend that he’s gotten what he wants, and turn his limited attention elsewhere. It’s anticlimactic, but hey—nobody knew being President could be so complicated.