During his March 13 “listening session” on health care, Donald Trump told the citizens he’d convened to listen to him that the Affordable Care Act was “imploding.” Whether or not Republicans repealed and replaced it in the next few years, he said, “It’ll be gone … it’ll be imploded off the map.” Absent his intervention, the physics teacher–in-chief seemed to imply, Obamacare will collapse on itself as the differential between high external pressure and low internal pressure creates an inward pull. He reiterated in a tweet the same day that this concentration of matter and energy in the space formerly occupied by Obamacare would end in “disaster.”
But later, after the Republicans’ health care proposal likewise succumbed to the entropic imperatives of science, Trump revised his evaluation. “I’ve been saying for years that the best thing is to let Obamacare explode and then go make a deal with the Democrats,” he told Robert Costa. “The beauty is that they own Obamacare. So when it explodes, they come to us.” Later, in a tweet, the president seemed to suggest he might craft a new plan from the literal detritus of the Obamacare combustion.
An explosion, not an implosion. Hmm.
It is true that explosions can be beautiful. Fireworks are controlled explosions generated by the artful intersection of gunpowder, a shell, and a lit fuse. For a while last week, it seemed as though the end of Obamacare might be a spectacular light show, one ignited by Paul Ryan’s indifference to poor people, Trump’s hostility toward his predecessor, and the Democrats’ inability to sell their own legislative achievement.
Yet the rockets backfired. The bombs burst in midair. When Friday night ended, the ACA was still there.
Trump’s consistency as a metaphorist was not.
An explosion—the “rapid increase in volume and release of energy in an extreme manner” that occurs when potential energy is converted to work—sounds more dramatic than an implosion. It’s understandable that as Trump comes to terms with his American Health Care Act setback, he is reaching for even more lurid language to describe Obamacare’s dangers. Explosions generally entail high temperatures and the venting of gases, which can mask the deadliest part of the reaction: the shock wave (a rapidly moving rise in pressure). Trump is right to note that an Obamacare explosion would radiate a wall of force that might cause real damage for the Democrats, though his faith in the blast’s ability to discriminate between liberals and conservatives appears misplaced.
Can Obamacare both implode and explode at the same time? If an implosion concentrates matter and energy but an explosion disperses it, how would that work? Is the president confused about what words mean, or is he playing chess in an as-yet undiscovered dimension in which the pawns implode on impact but also explode on impact?
Explain, Mr. Trump!
Obamacare is “imploding and soon will explode,” he clarified to Fox after his party pulled the vote. “And it’s not going to be pretty.”
Right now, in other words, the ACA is experiencing a violent compression. It is like a submarine crushed by the weight of the sea or a star converting its mass into a far denser black hole. Soon, however, the ACA will erupt into an exothermic death trap like ammonium nitrate combined with fuel oil.
If you’re still not sold on this metaphor, you should know that certain reactions can involve both implosion and explosion. For example, as the website ScienceLine explains, nuclear bombs go off “when unstable material reaches a certain critical density.” To help the isotopes achieve that density during detonation, “smaller explosions occur all around the outside of the material. All these little explosions push inward on the material in the center, causing it to implode.”
Remember, Trump’s timeline has the ACA imploding and then exploding. There’s a sound figurative logic here if you interpret an “implosion” as a quieter process with fewer visible consequences for the surrounding world. In the president’s analogy, the “implosion” consists of rising premiums driving healthy customers away from insurance plans. The “explosion” will transpire when insurers, unable to make money because the healthy customers are gone, flee the market as well. As descriptions of death spirals go, Trump’s makes some intuitive sense.
In reality, though, Obamacare is not as moribund as its critics would have you believe, according to the most recent analysis from the Congressional Budget Office. If it’s not imploding or exploding or imploding then exploding, then what is the present state of Obamacare?
Here are a few alternative framings.
The ACA is not imploding. It is a glob of toothpaste being squeezed onto a toothbrush by a drunk person.
It’s meeting some of its objectives, but there’s also a lot of waste.
The ACA is not waiting to explode. It is a golf ball rolling around the putting green at Mar-a-Lago.
It keeps missing the hole, but with a bit of concentration and luck, it will get in there eventually.
The ACA is not imploding or about to explode. It is a cool, refreshing stream of water coming out of a water fountain and hitting a kid on the head.
Health care is moving in the right general direction, but there’s certainly room for further adjustments.
And here, in GIF form, is our assessment of President Trump’s metonymic abilities:
Is that clear? I thought so.