“This is not normal. This is not politics as usual. This is something that is completely outside how American law is supposed to work.”
I am in plentiful company among those who have opined, at great length, that one of the greatest dangers of the Trump presidency is the normalization of Trumpism. With apologies for arrogance, I’ll quote from my own book:
The normalization of Trump means the acceptance of irrationality. It means transforming our definition of “presidential.” It means ceasing to believe there is anything objectionable about using the most vulnerable people as political pawns and treating the tenets of public propriety as an expendable vanity. At the moment, @realDonaldTrump has almost four million [now almost 12 million] more Twitter followers than @POTUS. That is not a trivial matter. More people are interested in petty blurts and baseless conspiracy theories than are interested in the official communications of the White House.
Since I wrote that, in December 2016, Trumpism has crept into public life as an ideology and political strategy on equal footing with accepted customs and practices. Since Inauguration Day, some of the best minds in the Fourth Estate have remained vigilant in their attention to the President’s disregard for centuries of established conduct, both customary and codified. The press has raised flags over nearly innumerable departures from the norm, including:
· Publicly insulting a company for dropping his daughter’s product line
· Using the State Department’s website to advertise his Florida resort
· Abiding his family’s private dealings with foreign governments
· Baselessly accusing his predecessor’s National Security Advisor of committing a crime
· Just as baselessly alleging that his predecessor spied on him
· Threatening to sabotage America’s insurance providers
· Threatening to break up a Circuit Court of Appeals
· Failing to fill thousands of vacant executive branch jobs
· Censoring federal employees and barring them from promulgation of basic science
· Defending a television personality who was fired for serial sexual harassment
· Announcing his intention to pull out of international climate agreements
· Declaring the news media enemies of the American people
· Labeling the court system a “threat to national security”
· Allowing his staff to ask the FBI to leak favorable information
· Alleging widespread election fraud contrary to established facts
And the list goes on. To parse terms just a bit, there may be nothing normative about a president doing any of the above, but the non-normative is becoming creepily normal. That is the issue that should concern us most ― that the previously abnormal will become normal. It is almost impossible to stay abreast of the daily doings of the Trump administration, let alone sustain outrage or incredulity. On the same day that the President fired the man in charge of investigating the Trump campaign’s possibly criminal ties to Russia, federal prosecutors issued grand jury subpoenas seeking business records from associates of the former U.S. National Security Adviser. The second of those stories, in a normal America, would have led the news. In the normalized Trump America, it was a page two story.
He offends two-and-a-half centuries of democracy and decorum with such regularity that there might be no going back to a pre-Trump normalcy. Much of the breach he has wrought might be with us to stay. Trump himself, however, might not.
It is easy to conclude that powers within the Republican Party were uneasy, to say the least, about Trump’s candidacy and the prospects of his presidency. But on the whole, those uneasy powers curbed their sentiments for the sake of winning the ultimate prize in politics. Having done so, Trump would serve himself well to consider that the party’s discomfort with him still prevails and, having gotten what they wanted from him, Republicans could now do without him.
The foregoing list of outrages notwithstanding, consider what Trump has already delivered for the Republicans.
1. The foremost interest in a Trump victory that consumed Republicans in 2016 was the desire to maintain the Supreme Court balance that was threatened by Antonin Scalia’s death. That desire was fulfilled by a Senate that re-wrote its own rules, setting a precedent that will allow a simplified confirmation of future nominees, even flagrant partisans. Had Trump achieved nothing in four years beyond the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, many Republicans would have been satisfied.
2. The House of Representatives has now passed a bill to substantially repeal the Affordable Healthcare Act. It does not matter that the bill may have no life beyond the House. Its passage is a campaign promise fulfilled for the most zealous in the G.O.P. base. The Senate can stall any progression of Repeal-and-Replace by sticking to the 60-40 standard for passage of companion legislation, thus giving House candidates cover in 2018. It is worth noting that of the 50 current Republican Senators, only eight are up for re-election in 2018. Twenty-two of those 50 will not appear on a ballot again until 2022. There might be life in healthcare reform or there might not be. Either way, Republican legislators are covered.
3. Trump has installed cabinet members that directly advance the interests of wealthy G.O.P. individual and corporate donors. The Secretary of Education is an avowed advocate of school choice and vouchers who, in 2001, described education activism as a means to “advance God’s kingdom.” The Secretary of Energy pledged, as a 2012 presidential candidate, to abolish the department he now heads. The Secretary of the Treasury spent 17 years at Goldman Sachs and has made a 15 percent corporate tax his cause célèbre with the argument that corporate tax relief is good for poor people. Trump’s head of the Environmental Protection Agency is a self-described “leading advocate against the E.P.A.’s activist agenda” who denies human agency in global climate change. His Secretary of State is one of the world’s most recognized petro-chemical champions and the recipient of Russia’s Order of Friendship medal, personally presented to him by Vladimir Putin who, in 2011, signed an agreement with Russia for drilling in the Arctic that could be valued up to $300 billion.
4. Trump’s executive order on deregulation stipulates that for all federal agencies, “for every one new regulation issued, at least two prior regulations be identified for elimination.” The order is not only arbitrary, it is also a patent assault on the government’s authority to reign in industry and check abuses by the private sector. The direct implication of the order is that no agency can reasonably impose any new, needed restrictions on emerging opportunities for private-sector plundering of the natural environment, the public rights of way, the airwaves, internet, the banking system and much more.
5. Trump has effectively quashed the authority of the free American press as a truth-finding and reporting institution. He has used his personal celebrity and patent disdain of veracity to confound traditional coverage, obfuscate investigative reporting and nearly erase the line between reportage and propaganda. Before he assumed office, fact-based journalism through traditional media was already struggling. Pew Center research indicates that traditional media are dying a quick death. Only 5% of people ages 18 to 29 and 10% age 30 to 49 report often getting news from print journalism. Half of each demographic routinely gets news from the internet and for the younger cohort, even television is no longer informative with only 27% of Americans 18 to 29 regularly watching TV news. In place of what used to be mostly independent analysis to inform the electorate, there are now heavily-trafficked, polarized echo chambers in which demagogues and true believers promulgate lies and lunatic quasi-theories, and that might be as true on the Left as the Right.
The last of these achievements, what we can call Trump’s assault on truth, might be the most concerning of all. By in large, what a given president does by executive order another president can just as easily undo. But Trump has, by a series of shrewdly calculated tactics and naked breaches of tradition, excluded responsible new organizations from their historic place at the table of government and is well on his way to elevating propaganda outlets to the level of legitimate journalism. By redefining the president’s role as Carnival Barker in Chief, he opens wider the door that was already cracked, through which subsequent aspirants to high office will walk armed with a narrative of lies and ideological screeds, with no fear of accountability. Every time Trump breaks a precedent he sets a new one and that fact, more than the man himself, is a terrible omen of things to come.
The direct result of a blurred truth boundary is the reinforcement of this country’s deepest division – a socio-cultural-religious-ideological chasm that separates Red from Blue and belies the name “United” States. There are quite clearly at least two Americas, a fact Trump exploited during the campaign and one he entrenches daily with ad hominem attacks, reckless derision of public departments and agencies, vituperation of responsible journalists and news organizations, and other abuses of his regal status.
The problem for Trump is that he has now already done the most draconian things he is likely to do and he is, therefore, no longer an asset to his own party, which has thus far held its collective nose while he tarnishes our reputation abroad and upended normalcy at home. The G.O.P. has its Supreme Court Justice, its (probably hollow) kept promise on healthcare reform, its cabinet packed with extremists, its deregulation and its public discourse cluttered with red herrings and diversion narratives. Why, now, would a Republican-led legislative branch not prefer President Pence, who actually understands how the government works?
There are at least three possible ways the Pence administration could come to pass.
First, Trump could pack up his marbles and go home. Senator Dianne Feinstein told a group of anti-Trump protesters in March 2017 that the president is going to “get himself out of office soon,” intimating that she may know more than she can share publicly about his Russian affairs and other matters that hang over his scandal-plagued, still new term. He could resign in advance of congressional findings of impeachable offenses or, perhaps more likely, he could just grow tired of the job. Others have pointed out his tendency to walk away from difficulty. He has headed failed boondoggles one after another for decades, and left others holding the bag for his dilettante urges. On his hundredth day in office, Trump told Reuters, ““I loved my previous life. I had so many things going,” adding “This is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier.”
Second, he could be removed through the process of impeachment. Assuming the evidence is there, and James Comey might have been closing in on it, such evidence will almost certainly come to light. There are precisely zero secrets in Washington. There are so many allegations of impeachable offenses implicit in ongoing investigations, even a smattering of those allegations, if proven, could end Trump’s reign even if he chooses to stay and fight.
Third, he could be removed by a legal coup. This sounds far-fetched at first, but consider this: Section 4 of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment to the Constitution states that,
“Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.”
In other words, the Vice President himself, with support from a majority of the Cabinet, could conclude that the President is unfit to serve and by informing both houses of Congress of that fact, assume the office of President with no other proceedings. In fact, reading the section closely, such a declaration could come from any “other body as Congress may by law provide,” meaning a committee could deem him unable to discharge the powers of his office. Trump could, in essence, be found incompetent, which would result in Pence becoming the 46th President.
I’ll let others speculate about Trump’s mental health, but one doesn’t need a formal diagnosis to note that he is an impulsive man given to public temper tantrums, a bold-faced liar who impugns the integrity of individuals and institutions, an unrepentant self-promoter who uses his office to advance his business interests and those of his family, and a willing advocate of autocrats, despots and goons. If he’s not unfit to serve, he’s certainly sailing ride up to the line.
Jettisoning Trump at this point would serve the G.O.P. well. Not only have they gotten all they could reasonably hope for from him, they’re also now beginning to be tainted by association with him. Republican members of Congress face growing hostility from electorates across the country and are called on daily to account for one or another absurd utterance from their party’s nominal leader. Their remaining, long-term objectives and short-term agenda would fare no worse under Pence than Trump and the former would be far less damaging than the latter to the party’s standing with the American voting public.
History might not always repeat, but it does rhyme. When Republicans turned on the heretofore most egregious president on record in 1973, it led directly to their loss of the White House in 1976. But that loss was short-lived. The Reagan-Bush White House launched an era of union busting, regulation slashing, top tier tax cutting and other profit-sided reforms that abides to this day. The Reagan-Bush era was an extreme time in American politics, but by comparison to the extremity of Nixon, it all seemed quite normal. Two current Supreme Court Justices remain from that era. That is playing the long game, the sort of planning and strategy that accounts for Republican domination of American politics. Neil Gorsuch is not a Supreme Court Justice because Republicans claimed the presidency this year, but because they controlled the Senate last year.
One needn’t go back to the previous century to see that the outrageous makes the merely extreme seem reasonable by comparison. Ask yourself if, by comparison to Trump, the George W. Bush administration doesn’t seem almost palatable?
It is my considered opinion that Trump’s days are numbered. I have no inside information to base that opinion on. I have only the evidence that is readily available to a literate public and I think the evidence speaks for itself. Republicans will shrug off the Trump aberration as they did Richard Nixon’s paranoia and petty criminality. For better or worse, President Pence is ready to serve and when Trump’s “et tu, Brute” moment comes, there will be a long line of Republicans eager to thrust daggers.