When future generations look back on the second decade of the 20th century, they will mark the point when it began as the day in 2015 when Donald Trump declared his candidacy for the presidency. It was an announcement that, at the time, received little notice, and that derisive: to be sure, a pizza magnate had run for the Republican Party nomination in 2012, but a serial bankrupt whose signature line in the midst of a recession was, “You’re fired?” Even in the carnival of American politics, some acts won’t play, even for laughs.
The joke, if that’s what it is, is on us.
As the third year of the Trump presidency approaches, we find ourselves at the mercy of a man who now fits the classical definition of a tyrant: a ruler himself ruled by petty insecurity and whim, but with the power to bend an entire nation to his momentary will. You have to go back to Caligula (the guy who made the Roman Senate acknowledge his horse as chief minister) and Nero (who killed his mother after even she tired of him) to find the like. True, Trump hasn’t offered his golf cart a cabinet post, and his close relations are still well and accounted for.
But, consider last month, Trump provoked a crisis over a routine appropriations bill, threatening to shut down large portions of the government unless it included funding to build his oft-insisted upon border wall at the southern border. Now, the wall was never Trump’s idea to begin with. It was the brainchild of former campaign advisors who thought it up to give him a concrete image to fix on as a symbol of his demonization of illegal immigrants. Trump doesn’t care about the wall, or for that matter about immigrants. What he does care about is that immigration is the issue that galvanized the anxieties and resentments of his core supporters, who provide him with the adulation he craves daily. Even that, however, didn’t hold his attention long enough to prevent him from agreeing to a bipartisan bill that made no mention of a wall. It was only when a couple of Fox News commentators held his feet to the fire that he abruptly welshed on his commitment and retreated to his original demand. But welshed, as in backing out of a deal, isn’t the operative word either. Trump didn’t break his word. He simply erased it as if it had never been given, and that there had never been a bill at all. Of course, if the bill never existed, then in what sense does Congress itself exist? Right, you guessed it: it can’t, except, like Trump’s cabinet, as an ornamental expression of his will.
This event was not exceptional. It is the way Trump has been doing business from the beginning. He has abused, ignored or sought to delegitimize his own justice department and intelligence agencies, the Pentagon, the justice system in general and the Federal Reserve Board. The agencies that operate with his approval are the ones performing the opposite of their mandated functions: an Environmental Protection Agency that despoils the environment, a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that protects predatory lenders, an education department that shackles students to their debts and so on. Congress could hardly have expected different treatment.
The difference is that Congress is the one institution with the power to remove a president from office. That it hasn’t done so has been due, to this point, to Republican control of both its houses, and to the high barrier of a two-thirds majority in the Senate to approve a bill of impeachment. Under a ministerial system of government, a chief executive behaving as Trump has would have been gone long ago. Even if the votes were there, the risk of how Trump might react to such a prospect is too dangerous to contemplate. A negotiated resignation that included the promise of a pardon for any legally actionable offenses has been floated as a possible alternative. But the agreement could not include the pardon itself, which could only be conferred by Trump’s successor unless Trump’s position that he can pardon himself were accepted. Such a precedent would place the presidency above the law, and be itself actionable. And as for waiting on the 2020 election, that is itself a nightmare scenario. Trump might win another term, or foment a crisis to postpone or suspend the election if his defeat seemed likely. If beaten, he might challenge the election result, as he suggested he would if defeated in 2016. This time, he would have all the powers of the presidency at his disposal in doing so.
In short, 2019 or 2020 won’t be 1974, when Richard Nixon agreed to obey the Supreme Court’s order that he turn over the White House tapes, and resign without the written promise of a pardon when confronted at last by GOP elders. Nixon was a lawyer, a Republican, and, when all was said and done, a man constrained by reality. Trump is none of these things. It might actually take a palace coup or a military insurrection to get rid of him (which is one reason he has disposed of the generals who once surrounded him). And that would be a solution as dangerous as the problem.
We have, in short, terribly underestimated the peril we are in. On the one hand, Donald Trump is already a man profoundly isolated despite his ready access to media attention, and no doubt despised by those who work for him. Nor does he have, as a rational despot might, any clear idea of what he wants from one day to the next. On the other hand, he is a megalomaniac who, made desperate enough, is capable of anything.
I think there are many in Washington who appreciate all this. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has just said, in a public interview, that Donald Trump would like to “abolish” Congress. She wasn’t being hyperbolic or provocative; I think she said exactly what she meant. The question is whether Pelosi and her colleagues have any idea what to do about it.
Meanwhile, the government shutdown threatened by Trump continues. He seems content at the moment that parts of the executive as well as the legislative branch should disappear, in his words for months or years. In his fantasy world, his will alone suffices.