Trump's Washington bashing is having this strange effect on America

  • By trampling over the Washington establishment, Trump is doing something no one else could have done. He's making Americans love Washington again.
The Presidential Inauguration ceremony in Washington, D.C.
Mandel Ngan | AFP | Getty Images
The Presidential Inauguration ceremony in Washington, D.C.

When Donald Trump said he would make America great again, he wasn't talking about Nebraska—which clearly rocks. He didn't mean Michigan or Mississippi. Trump was never going to save our states by fixing state tax codes, lobbying laws, or regulatory regimens. Candidate Trump, and his supporters, clearly believed that making America great again meant making Washington great again. Trump never went so far as to claim he could make Americans actually love Washington. But after fewer than 100 days, it looks like he has. By threatening to take it away.

He's slashing Washington budgets. Appointing agency heads to kill Washington agencies. He's living the dream of every American who ever laughed at Ronald Reagan's joke about the scariest words in the English language: I'm from the government and I'm here to help.

But Americans exhibit strange dichotomies when it comes to Washington. We hate Washington, which is run by the Heartland avatars of our choice. We revere the founding fathers as patriots and geniuses, but deride the brilliant, enduring, self-replicating machine they invented.

Donald Trump campaigned on the notion that fixing Washington would be simple because the problems were simple; caused by the feckless idiots and self-dealing crooks known as politicians.

But it turns out the problems aren't simple. Nor are the political solutions. Because what we really hate about Washington, the source of its capacity for both good and evil, is the people we ourselves choose to run it. Not our people, of course. The problem is "special interests." Which is just shorthand for our ideological opponents: Big oil, big pharma, and Wall Street on one side; unions, environmentalists, and people of color on another. The reason we hate Washington is that it allows any interests to prevail. If we let them.

"Donald Trump campaigned on the notion that fixing Washington would be simple because the problems were simple; caused by the feckless idiots and self-dealing crooks known as politicians."

In going from owner of a privately held family business to president of the country, Trump went from being answerable to nobody to being answerable to everybody: All the special interests. So, on the issues big enough to draw attention, Trump has met not just resistance from "special interests," but that most pernicious, transformative Washington force: Reality. In the case of health care, that reality being the fact that "special interests" consists of tens of millions of people who really want health care.

Before coming to Washington, Trump was very clear that he understood health-care issues. He spent decades running businesses that provided health care for hundreds of employees. He debated health care with journalists and rival politicians for more than a year. It took just 38 days in Washington before he declared, "Nobody knew health care could be so complicated."

From the Export-Import Bank, to labeling China a currency manipulator, Washington is teaching him that most things are complicated.

And, like scientists observing artificial life in a lab, Americans have watched, whispering with awe: "It's learning."

More importantly, Trump is teaching others both that it's not so easy, and that it's okay to see things as complicated. Obamacare is now popular enough that Republicans are keeping it alive. And out in the Heartland? Americans are fighting to protect bureaucrats and preserve bureaucracy.

They're holding protests and attending town halls. Demanding funding for federal agencies. Faced with losing them, people have decided they're willing to fight for things like clean air and water, educational funding, voting rights, workplace protections, consumer protections, fuselage-crack detection, and myriad other blessings of paper-pushing bureaucrats and overweening regulators.

An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll out Monday finds that 57 percent of Americans want more government solutions in their lives. That's the highest that number has been in the 22 years they've been asking. Americans aren't laughing at Reagan's joke any more.

Democratic party leaders, however, don't seem to have noticed. They're still running away from big government. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee runs ads using the phrase "career politician" as a pejorative. The strange dichotomies of Washington, where career politicians hurl "career politician" as an insult at a time when history's least popular president is the first without a history of public service and America's most popular politician is a career politician.

Just as only Nixon could go to China, maybe Trump was right that only Trump could make Washington great again. Only he could convince his voters that some things are complicated. And show America that swamps are beautiful places teeming with wildlife and wild life. And remind us that Washington is a brilliant, marvelously calibrated tool that will accomplish the goals of those who choose to use it. Maybe Trump is simply showing us that Washington was great all along and that it was us, in our bubbles, who've been terrible.

But we're learning.

Commentary by Jonathan Larsen, the managing editor of TYT Politics. You can follow him on Twitter @JTLarsen .

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.