Five months into the Donald Trump presidency — or five hours, for that matter — it was clear that the White House had been occupied by a charlatan, somewhere between a buffoon and a demagogue and competent in neither role. That prospect had been clear five months previously, on the campaign trail; it was clear five years previously, or at any time earlier in Trump’s career as a bogus magnate, serial bankrupt and reality show sadist.
Some people thought giving the system a good shake would be salubrious, even at the cost of some chaos; some thought that Trump would sober up once the daunting realities of office faced him, or at least permit himself to be guided by helpful handlers. (We all remember how well that worked in the last Bush presidency with Darth Vader Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.) And some people, whatever their persuasion, were just happy, at least in the moment, to be spared the presidency of Hillary Rodham Clinton.
It needs to be said, one last time, how bad a status quo Clinton presidency would have been. Four more years of Wall Street rule; four more years of reflexive Cold War politics; four more years of our endless wars, with no doubt a few new ones thrown in. Four more years of the Clintons themselves, with their inevitable slime-trail of sleaze. Four years of that, and a nation either on Zoloft or at the verge of rebellion.
But in 2016, we were already in a state of rebellion against both political parties and their packaged candidates. It takes more forgiveness than I can muster that the Democratic Party, faced with such a crisis, put forward the most backward-looking, personally distrusted and even viscerally despised candidate it could find, and gave the rebel flag its chance. I don’t mean the rebellion that the attempted repudiation of establishment candidates represented, and the demand to address rising inequality, a system so sclerotic it couldn’t fix the roads or send the kids to college or grandpa to a clinic without bankruptcy, and a foreign policy that simply spewed out new wars on top of old ones. That rebellion was just and necessary, and still is. I mean the rebel flag of violence, hatred and racism that the old Confederacy embodied, and that in nominal defeat has dominated so much of our politics since. That was the cause that triumphed in 2016, and confronts us with the politics of our moment — a politics not created by Donald Trump, who is too shallow an actor to create anything, but which has been channeled through him.
I’m not going to say that the election of Donald Trump was the triumph of the deplorables, as Hillary Clinton tried to. It was really the triumph of the Electoral College, the last institution foisted on us by slaveowners, and still wreaking its mischief today. But Trump brought every raw nerve in the country to the surface, whether for reasons good or bad, and he has kept them there ever since, having no other gift or capacity and being himself, in his own willful narcissism, nothing but bristling resentment. We find ourselves thus sucked into a personal psychodrama that, in a feedback loop, keeps popular fury at a boil as well.
In his first week in office, Trump asserted (1) that it hadn’t rained on his inaugural address, itself an exercise in hate-mongering paranoia; (2) that the crowd at his inauguration had vastly exceeded those at his predecessor’s and (3) that a popular vote majority in the election cast for him had been stolen by millions of illegal votes. The fact was that rain had begun just as he opened his mouth; that photographs showed far larger crowds for Barack Obama; and that each of the 50states of the Union had (no thanks to the Russians) reported a clean election without any irregularities of consequence. Trump’s claims weren’t exaggerated or implausible: they were loony. A man who thinks that the sun is shining when rain is falling on him isn’t just out of touch with reality; he is creating and living an alternative reality. Fake news, yes — but fake weather too? Phantom crowds and phantom votes?
You had a clinical case for removing Trump from office on 25th Amendment grounds before Groundhog Day.
The problem, of course, is that triggering the 25th Amendment requires a letter signed by a majority of the Cabinet certifying presidential incapacity. Trump had insulated himself from this (or permitted himself to be insulated by his transition manager, Mike Pence) in the selection of what is surely the worst Cabinet in history, ideologues and paid hacks determined to take advantage of Trump’s one demand of them — personal fealty and unstinting praise — to grease their private agendas and gratify their paymasters. Incompetence in the boss was a prize asset, as the Republican Congressional leadership had already come to appreciate; Trump was to be the useful idiot who would enable the party’s dream of 80 years, to dismantle the regulatory state and undo the last remnants of the New Deal.
How persistent this dream has been, and how pernicious, is shortly to unfold if the Republicans’ two-pronged legislative program, to gut Medicaid and use the loot to finance tax cuts for the rich, makes it to the presidential desk. Trump will sign these bills because, well, he likes to sign his name, and because the rich are his favorite constituency. He’ll be told they represent success — his success — because presidents are judged by their legislative performance, and, lacking any agenda of his own other than the advancement of his personal business interests, he’ll be happy to have had one supplied for him.
Does this sound simplistic? Spend five minutes inside the brain of someone who can’t be bothered to read even doctored summaries of the bills he’s about to sign and spends his evenings screaming at his television set and you’ll get some idea of what our flawed if not failed democracy has inflicted on us: or, rather, what We the People have come to after 230 years of our grand Constitutional experiment.
We can’t afford this, not simply because of what it means to our own social fabric but because of what our instability means in the world. Whether on balance America has been a good or a bad thing for others is open to debate, but an America run amok is extraordinarily dangerous. The candidate who said he knew more about military affairs than the generals has ceded control of our wars to them without policy review or directive, and with it the central issues of American foreign policy. The result of this has been deepening involvement in our failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a brand new one in Syria and another in the making (if not effectively underway) with Iran. It has meant confrontation with China, and Russian and American warplanes buzzing each other from the Baltic Sea to the Syrian desert. It has also meant enabling wars we do not necessarily start but wind up with anyway, and meddling ineptly in explosive local rivalries such as that between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. There’s a ripple effect to our irresponsibility too, such as the recent threatening talk between unstable, nuclear-armed India and Pakistan. We can clean up the messes we create at home with sufficient political will, at least in theory; those we foster abroad are less easily solved.
This is not to say that our chaos at home is less threatening. A rudderless presidency exacerbates social frictions; an occupant of the office who functions in isolation and flails out at enemies real and imagined, who attacks public institutions and private individuals and who shames the very idea of civic discourse with the vocabulary of a foul-mouthed five-year-old, diminishes and debases us all. We simply can’t function in this climate without lasting and potentially irreparable damage. Nor is it something we can just shrug off as a bad patch in our history. It is what our history has come to at this moment, and we have to deal with it.
Trump has already committed impeachable offenses in his brazen flouting of the Emoluments Clause — his open bargaining of foreign policy for business favors — and for obstruction of justice. If that doesn’t work for you, try his wanton disregard for the separation of powers, his baseless attacks on his predecessor, his willful discrimination against religious minorities, his failure to execute the laws or staff the agencies responsible for them, etc. Trump has actually left us no excuse not to remove him. There is plenty of cause if there is an ounce of will. The trouble is that there is no such will, at least among those in whom the power to act currently rests. The Republican Party has made its pact with darkness, and that pact was made long ago.
This isn’t to suggest that the Democratic Party offers much better. There is, too, the fear on the left that a Pence presidency, or a Paul Ryan one if Pence too is enmeshed in the burgeoning Russian scandal to survive, might function more effectively as a platform for reaction. That, though, would be an issue to be dealt with on its own terms. The reality we confront is a rogue presidency wildly misled every which way by a disastrously unprincipled and unfit man. That’s the classical definition of a tyrant. No people that hopes to govern itself can tolerate one, no matter for how short a period.