So we are now four months into a four-year term and we have learned a lot.
First, the campaign was not any sort of aberration; it was an authentic precursor for the presidency. Some people hoped that the man really was such a genius that he could put on one act for a campaign and pivot to a totally different presidential person afterwards. Well, we can give up on that one now.
The campaign showed up everything we needed to know. Here was an arrogant, bullying, shameless deluded person on an outrageous ego trip, surrounded by a few more dangerous people along for the ride using the unreliable vehicle to further various warped agendas, hitched to a party vehicle bankrupt of ideas beyond greed. The presidency is exactly the same thing. The campaign had some small hope of success, and somehow pulled it off, partly thanks to the complacency of the opposition. The presidency lacks even that small hope; by most measures, it is doomed.
So already people are speaking of end games. David Brooks thinks that the window for constructing a functioning administration has passed, because the whirlwind of scandal is already beyond control, so nothing gets done, everyone on the ship loses trust and runs for the lifeboat to look after themselves, and no one of any competence can be recruited to the sinking ship to replace them.
This feels credible, as week-by-week we see the effects of an understaffed office buffeted by scandal and self-inflicted wounds. The good news for those of us who find the stated policies of the administration to be detestable is that they will be able to enact hardly any of them. It is little better in congress. The Republican agenda, such as it is, runs nakedly against the interests of the misguided souls who voted for it. Ryan and McConnell are unable to come up with any legislation that does not lay that fact bare, and yet can still be supported by the zealots of the freedom caucus.
It surely is tempting to laugh. But it would be more appropriate to cry, and to be fearful too, because the president has significant executive power, through words and tone as well as through action. Institutions may take generations to recover from the damage, and meanwhile people suffer and the world holds its breath as its decency is threatened.
The scale of shameless mendacity and incompetence is staggering, as is its brutal tone. Blatant lies are uttered, repeated, twisted, denied, reshaped and left to hang in a way that a community social club would be ashamed of. Allies (except Israel) are trashed while autocrats are lauded. Insults are hurled in all directions based on a whim or on having the presidential ego threatened, reminiscent of a middle school playground. Protocol is trampled all over, irrespective of any law that might be broken.
Much of this behaviour rebounds straight into the Trumpian coiffured face, in utterly predictable ways. There is probably little legal misbehaviour over Russia, but Comey does his job and follows through and shows some independence, also annoying the famous ego by hinting that he may have inadvertently turned the election. So he is fired in a fit of petulance, followed through by stories changing wildly to fuel the fire of speculation of true misdeeds, and royally insulted for good measure to ensure further leaks and retribution. Brooks may be right – it is hard to see an escape from this spiral.
But reaching this conclusion is not enough. Something must happen next, and we need to work out what that something might be. The spiral of doom is not sustainable forever, indeed very likely not even for four years.
To try to work this out, we have to start with the personality of the president. A few things stand out. First, he is exhausted already. On the foreign tour, his hair looked as sprightly as ever, but his eyes betrayed how tired he was. He is not young, and he must be physically vulnerable. Next, his unshakeable self-belief is starting to wobble. We started with “only I can fix this”, moved to “health is complex”, and are heading towards avoiding issues. An ego shaken is a dangerous animal.
Most importantly, I think he is hating this job. The briefings, hard work, complexity, buffeting and checks on power can all be an invigorating challenge for a time but they wear down someone with such hubris and such a low attention span. In an interview a month ago he admitted to liking the job less than he had thought, and I can’t see this improving any time soon.
So what happens next? We can already see what happens in the short term, he just lashes out, becomes even more impetuous and does what he can simply because he can. I put the Paris renunciation into this category. He had spent days being isolated at NATO, the EU and the G7. His main priority after that had nothing to do with US interests or even feeding his base, it was to get even and to show power and feed his own ego. This is salutary as we go forward. The next show of defiant impulsiveness might just involve a red button.
I am not sufficient of a student of history to be able to find illustrative comparisons for this situation. Nixon, Henry VIII and Charles I are being cited, but I think we need to find clearer examples. Roman emperors could be a good place to look – perhaps Caligula or Nero?
Incapacity is one possible end game, assuming this could be medically conclusive and accepted by Trump’s family and that he agrees to resign or limit himself to a titular role with a sort of regency operation around him. But, short of hospitalisation, I can’t see him accepting this lightly, and he would probably undermine any regency operation that was informal. Formal regency would be rather like an impeachment, and that feels even less likely, except very slowly and painfully. Britain has shady men in suits to deal with these situations; I am not sure what the US has.
There may be other end games, but I can’t think of any that feel likely. Most probably this spiral of doom can continue for several months or years, each twist further challenging our credulity. It would be a macabre public humiliation, and one with massive potential for serious, lasting damage, starting with that red button.
How should liberals react in this situation? Lexington in the Economist rightly argues for patience. Many are rushing towards impeachment, but it is too soon and may rebound as a strategy. The three priorities from an earlier blog remain intact. First, help to protect against lasting global damage, by whatever means necessary. Next, allow the failure to become obvious to the blue-collar voters of Michigan, not just liberals in New York or Hamburg. And last, build a compelling alternative narrative, ideally with a charismatic champion like Trudeau at the helm.
Part of the patience strategy is to make sure that the Republicans are brought down along with their president. They will try to pin everything on him, and may succeed, unless enough time and enough focus are placed on their odious attitude to regular citizens. Again, this means focus on people who voted for Trump. Despicable though the Paris decision was, it means little to many Americans. That health care bill and that budget most certainly will, given time to fester.
It is hard to be patient amidst such provocation. However, so long as true calamity can be averted, there are reasons for hope. The checks and balances on presidential power are working. Executive orders will run out of steam in the absence of legislation. Neo-liberal greed might be exposed and killed off for good. Europeans and others are already uniting and showing more maturity than before. The ultimate legacy of Trump might be wonderful, just not in any way that he would have hoped or would be able to take any credit for.
In the meantime, let us pray for Donald. He is hating this already, and it ain’t getting any better any time soon.