Where did Donald Trump come from? Where is the GOP going? Should the whole thing be burned down? A lot had to go wrong before we got a President Trump. This fact, once broadly acknowledged, has gotten lost, as if a lot of people want it forgotten.
Mr. Trump’s election came from two unwon wars, which constituted a historic foreign-policy catastrophe, and the Great Recession, which those in power, distracted by their mighty missions, didn’t see coming until it arrived with all its wreckage. He came from the decadeslong refusal of both parties’ leadership to respect and respond to Americans’ anxieties, from left and right, about illegal immigration. He came from bad policy and bad stands on crucial issues.
He came from the growing realization of on-the-ground Americans that neither party seemed to feel any particular affiliation with or loyalty to them, that both considered them lumpen bases to be managed and manipulated. He came from the great and increasing social and cultural distance between the movers and talkers of the national GOP, its strategists, operatives, thinkers, pundits and party professionals, and the party’s base. He came from algorithms that deliberately excite, divide and addict, and from lawmakers who came to see that all they had to do to endure was talk, not legislate, because legislating involves compromise and, in an era grown polar and primitive, compromise is for quislings.
He came from a spirit of frustration among a sizable segment of the electorate that, in time, became something like a spirit of nihilism. It will be a long time repairing that, and no one is sure how to.
And here, in that perfect storm, was Mr. Trump’s simple, momentary genius. He declared for president as a branding exercise and went out and said applause lines, and when the crowd cheered, he decided “This is my program,” and when it didn’t cheer, he thought, “Huh, that is not my program.” Some of it was from his gut, but most of it was that casual. After the election a former high official told me he observed it all from the side of the stage. This week the official said that after a rally, on the plane home, all Mr. Trump and Jared Kushner would talk about was the reaction. “Did you see how they responded to that?”
The base, with its cheers, said they weren’t for cutting entitlement benefits. They were still suffering from the effects of 2008, and other things. They weren’t for open borders or for more foreign fighting. They were for the guy who said he hated the elites as much as they did.
The past four years have produced a different kind of disaster, one often described in this space. The past six months Mr. Trump came up against his own perfect storm, one he could neither exploit nor talk his way past: a pandemic, an economic contraction that will likely produce a lengthy recession, and prolonged, sometimes violent national street protests. If the polls can be trusted, he is on the verge of losing the presidency.
Now various of his foes, in or formerly of his party, want to burn the whole thing down—level the party, salt the earth where it stood, remove Republican senators, replace them with Democrats.
This strikes me as another form of nihilism. It’s bloody-minded and not fully responsible for three reasons.
First, it’s true that the two-party system is a mess and a great daily frustration. But in the end, together and in spite of themselves, both parties still function as a force for unity in that when an election comes, whatever your disparate stands, you have to choose whether you align more with Party A or Party B. This encourages coalitions and compromise. It won’t work if there are four parties or six; things will splinter, the system buckle. The Democratic Party needs the Republican Party, needs it to restrain its excesses and repair what it does that proves injurious. The Republicans need the Democrats, too, for the same reasons.
Second, if the Republicans lose the presidency, the House and the Senate in November, the rising progressives of the Democratic Party will be emboldened and present a bill for collection. They’ll push hard for what they want. This will create a runaway train that will encourage bad policy that will damage the nation. Republicans and conservatives used to worry about that kind of thing.
Third, Donald Trump is burning himself down. Has no one noticed?
When the Trump experience is over, the Republican Party will have to be rebuilt. It will have to begin with tens of millions of voters who previously supported Mr. Trump. It will have to decide where it stands, its reason for being. It won’t be enough to repeat old mantras or formulations from 1970 to 2000. It’s 2020. We’re a different country.
A lot is going to have to be rethought. Simple human persuasion will be key.
Rebuilding doesn’t start with fires, purges and lists of those you want ejected from the party.
Many if not most of those calling for burning the whole thing down are labeled “Never Trump,” and a lot of them are characterologically quick to point the finger of blame. They’re aiming at Trump supporters in Congress. Some of those lawmakers have abandoned long-held principles to show obeisance to the president and his supporters. Some, as you know if you watched the supposed grilling of tech titans this week, are just idiots.
But Never Trumpers never seem to judge themselves. Many of them, when they were profiting through past identities as Republicans or conservatives, supported or gave strategic cover to the wars that were such a calamity, and attacked those who dissented. Many showed no respect to those anxious about illegal immigration and privately, sometimes publicly, denounced them as bigots. Never Trumpers eloquently decry the vulgarization of politics and say the presidency is lowered by a man like Mr. Trump, and it is. But they invented Sarah Palin and unrelentingly attacked her critics. They often did it in the name of party loyalty.
Some Never Trumpers helped create the conditions that created President Trump. What would be helpful from them now is not pyromaniac fantasies but constructive modesty, even humility.
The party’s national leaders and strategists don’t have a lot to be proud of the past few decades. The future of the party will probably bubble up from the states.
But it matters that the past six months Mr. Trump has been very publicly doing himself in, mismanaging his crises—setting himself on fire. As long as that’s clear, his supporters won’t be able to say, if he loses, that he was a champion of the people who was betrayed by the party elites, the Never Trumpers and the deep state: “He didn’t lose, he was the victim of treachery.”
Both parties have weaknesses. Liberals enjoy claiming progress that can somehow never quite be quantified. Conservatives like the theme of betrayal.
It will be unhelpful for Republicans, and bad for the country, if that’s the background music of the party the next 10 years.
The impeachment inquiry is laying him bare. It’s not a pretty sight.
I was based in Washington and reported from Capitol Hill during Bill Clinton’s impeachment, which was the last time the country entered waters like these. It was ugly, and Democrats and Republicans traded vicious words.
But Clinton never publicly accused his detractors of treason or floated the idea that one of them be arrested on those grounds, as Donald Trump just did with Adam Schiff.
Clinton and his defenders raised the specter of a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” to use Hillary Clinton’s infamous phrase, thus asserting that he was being persecuted for his politics, not punished for his misdeeds.
But they didn’t insist, as Trump and his defenders routinely do, that a vital part of the federal government was an evil cabal intent on undermining our democratic processes, which is Trump’s self-serving characterization of the intelligence community. Their central strategy wasn’t to ignite a full-blown crisis of confidence in the institutions of government. They weren’t serving dire notice, as Trump essentially is, that if the president goes down, he’s taking everyone and everything else with him.The Clintons possessed and projected a moral arrogance that was laughably oxymoronic under the circumstances. And they and other prominent Democrats junked the party’s supposed concern for women’s empowerment to savage Monica Lewinsky, Paula Jones and others who came forward with claims about the president’s extramarital sexual activity, including serious accusations of sexual violence.
But they didn’t equate the potential fall of the president with the fall of the Republic. They didn’t go full apocalypse. Bill Clinton didn’t prophesy that his impeachment would lead to a kind of “civil war” from which the country would “never heal,” as Trump did by tweeting an evangelical pastor’s comments on Fox News along those lines.
I wrote last week that the prospect of Trump’s impeachment terrified me, and one of the main reasons I cited was what we’re seeing now: his histrionic response, which is untethered from any sense of honor, civic concern or real patriotism.
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He’s not like most of his predecessors in the White House, who had some limits, at least a few scruples and the capacity to feel shame. Their self-pity wasn’t this unfathomably deep, their delusions of martyrdom this insanely grand. “There has been no President in the history of our Country who has been treated so badly as I have,” he tweeted last week, and the violins have wailed only louder and weepier since.While there were fellow narcissists among his forebears, was there a single nihilist like Trump? I doubt it, and so the current waters are in fact uncharted, because the ship of state has a sort of madman at its helm.
That he’s fighting back by impugning his critics’ motives, stonewalling investigators and carping about the media shouldn’t disturb anyone, not if we’re being grown-ups. Richard Nixon, confronted with his impeachment, thrashed and seethed. Clinton assembled a war room in an effort to outwit his adversaries. That’s the nature of politics. That’s the right of the accused.
But in the mere week since a formal impeachment inquiry was announced, Trump has already gone much farther than that and behaved in ways that explode precedent, offend decency and boggle the mind. We’re fools if we don’t brace for more and worse.
For grotesque example, he has suggested — repeatedly — that government officials who tattled about his crooked conversation with the Ukrainian president are spies who deserve to be executed. Had any other president done that, many Americans would speak of nothing else for the next month.
But from Trump, such a horror wasn’t even surprising, and it competed for attention with so many other outrages that it was dulled, the way so much of his unconscionable behavior is. When you churn out a disgrace a minute and no one expects anything nobler, you’re inoculated by your own awfulness.
He has taken his vilification of the media to new depths, content on this front, as on others, to pump Americans full of a toxic cynicism so long as he profits from it. He and his handmaidens have disseminated distortion after distortion, lie upon lie, including the claim that deep-state officials tweaked the criteria for whistle-blowers just so that someone could ensnare him.
They have instructed Americans not to believe their own eyes, their own ears, their own intelligence. They mean to put truth itself up for grabs, no matter the fallout.
Lindsey Graham, the sycophant of the century, called the whistle-blower’s complaint a setup, as if it didn’t rest on the sturdy foundation of a reconstructed transcript — released by the White House — that shows Trump imploring a foreign leader to do political dirty work for him.
Trump keeps saying it was a “perfect” call, which is like seeing Dom Pérignon in a puddle of sewage. Then again, his presidency has long depended on such optical illusions.
There’s light, though, and it’s this: As corrosive as his tirades are, they may also be what does him in. He’s poised to take this persecution complex too far.
Already, there has been a swell of support for impeachment, according to new polls released by CNN and Monmouth University, and I bet that trend continues as revelations of his wrongdoing cascade and as he wildly overreacts.
That probably wouldn’t be enough to get Republican senators to convict him and remove him from office, should the House follow through with impeachment and a Senate trial ensue. But it would affect November 2020.
He’s in a bind, because his burn-down-the-house defense against impeachment makes the best case that he must be impeached — that a leader with no bounds and no bottom can’t be allowed to rage on unimpeded. The impeachment inquiry is laying Trump bare. As scary as that is for us, it may be even scarier for him.
In early January, FBI director Christopher Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein met with House Speaker Paul Ryan and asked him to rein in his attack dog, Devin Nunes, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
Nunes, who also attended the meeting, had supposedly “recused” himself from the Trump-Russia investigation, but in fact was running an increasingly vicious counter-investigation against the Department of Justice in an attempt to defend the administration.
.. He has compiled a secret memo making wild allegations of conspiracies and even criminality against all of Trump’s legal antagonists. The entire conservative media infrastructure, goaded on by Trump himself, is foaming at the mouth to publish the Nunes memo.
.. A side effect of Nunes’s campaign to discredit Trump’s investigators is to threaten to burn down the credibility and effectiveness of federal law enforcement. Here is the point that is largely absent from this drama: This is all happening because Paul Ryan wants it to happen.
.. A reporter asked Ryan if he believed the president should cooperate with Robert Mueller if he wanted an interview. Ryan dispatched it very quickly: “I’ll defer to the White House on all those questions. This pertains to them, not this branch.”
.. That has been Ryan’s stance all along. All the icky stuff Trump does, the corruption and disdain for the rule of law, is Trump’s business
.. In fact, there are things Ryan could do — and not just cinematic speeches calling out the president for his misdeeds. The House of Representatives could pass a bill to compel the release of Trump’s tax returns.
.. Given Trump’s unprecedented decision to retain his business interests in office, mere disclosure would be a meager step against the possibility for corruption. Democrats have repeatedly introduced bills to disclose the tax returns. Yet the House — Ryan’s House — has blocked every one.
.. In October, Gayle King asked Ryan how Trump could say that the tax cuts would increase his own taxes without disclosing his returns, and Ryan just laughed.
.. And now, Trump and his allies are circulating absurd lies about the Department of Justice in order to enable the administration to avoid any accountability to the rule of law. The heart of this campaign is the chamber Ryan controls.
It is not only or even primarily Devin Nunes, The Wall Street Journal editorial page, and Fox & Friends that are marching into the fever swamps. The invisible man at front of the march is Paul Ryan.
The West Wing has come to resemble the dankest realms of Twitter, in which everyone is racked with paranoia and everyone despises everyone else.
What made the Emperor Nero tick, Suetonius writes in “Lives of the Caesars,” was “a longing for immortality and undying fame, though it was ill-regulated.”
.. Many Romans were convinced that Nero was mentally unbalanced and that he had burned much of the imperial capital to the ground just to make room for the construction of the Domus Aurea, a gold-leaf-and-marble palace that stretched from the Palatine to the Esquiline Hill.
.. Chaotic, corrupt, incurious, infantile, grandiose, and obsessed with gaudy real estate, Donald Trump is of a Neronic temperament.
He has always craved attention.
.. Future scholars will sift through Trump’s digital proclamations the way we now read the chroniclers of Nero’s Rome—to understand how an unhinged emperor can make a mockery of republican institutions
.. He was post-Freudian. (“It makes me feel so good to hit ‘sleazebags’ back—much better than seeing a psychiatrist (which I never have!).”)
.. In due course, Trump perfected his unique voice: the cockeyed neologisms and the fractured syntax, the emphatic punctuation, the Don Rickles-era exclamations (“Sad!” “Doesn’t have a clue!” “Dummy!”).
.. Then he started dabbling in conspiracy fantasies: China’s climate “hoax,” President Obama’s Kenyan birth, “deep-state” enemies trying to do him in.
.. “Stop Being Trump’s Twitter Fool,” Jack Shafer, of Politico, advised, just after the election. Trump’s volleys were merely a shrewd diversion from serious matters.
.. “you’d expect that people would have figured out when Donald Trump is yanking their chain and pay him the same mind they do phone calls tagged ‘Out of Area’ by caller ID.”
.. Sean Spicer, the President’s first press secretary, insisted otherwise. Trump, he pointed out, “is the President of the United States,” and so his tweets are “considered official statements by the President of the United States.”
.. Trump’s tweets are most valuable as a record of his inner life: his obsessions, his rages, his guilty conscience.
.. he set a White House record with a sixteen-tweet day.
.. took credit for a year without an American air crash,
.. he continued to offer respect bordering on servility to the likes of Vladimir Putin.
.. One of his signature phrases—“fake news”—has been adopted by autocrats from Bashar al-Assad, of Syria, to Nicolás Maduro, of Venezuela. To the astonishment of our traditional allies, Trump humiliates and weakens a country he pretends to lead.
.. He surrounds himself with aides who are either wildly incompetent or utterly defeated in their attempts to domesticate the mulish and bizarre object of their attention.
.. There is no loyalty or deliberation in the White House, only a savage “Lord of the Flies” sort of chaos. Each day is at once preposterous, poisonous, and dangerous.
.. And so the West Wing in the era of Trump has come to resemble the dankest realms of Twitter itself: a set of small rooms and cramped hallways in which everyone is racked with paranoia and everyone despises everyone else.
.. Trump has reacted to Wolff’s book in the manner of a wounded despot
.. Nero had hoped to last long enough on the throne to re-brand the month of April “Neroneus” and the city of Rome “Neropolis.” He did not succeed.
.. The President sees one West Wing satrap and Cabinet official after another finding a distance from him. “Where is my Roy Cohn?” he asked his aides angrily
.. He is unfit to hold any public office, much less the highest in the land.
.. The President of the United States has become a leading security threat to the United States
First of all, people who create mottos about how they don’t care what people think tend to be precisely the sort of people who care what other people think.
Another dead giveaway: When you repeatedly invite reporters from places such as Vanity Fair to follow you around and record your Stakhanovite disregard for the opinions of others.
Similarly, people who famously call back every reporter seeking a quote are the kind of people who love being buttered up by journalists.
.. Likewise, people who hungrily cooperate with authors looking to turn them into political celebrities are really into the idea of being political celebrities.
Staffers who take credit for their bosses’ political victories, on the record, tend not to be aloof islands of self-confidence either. People desperate to let you know that their philosophical lodestars are obscure mystics and cranks — he studied Evola and Guénon! — tend to be compensating for something.
.. If Bannon truly didn’t care about the “Opposition Party,” his term for the mainstream media, he wouldn’t have lost his job in the White House, the favor of the Mercers, and what was left of his reputation. But he just couldn’t resist talking to reporters and claiming credit for the accomplishments of others.
.. Bannon is a common character in Washington: a megalomaniac who made the mistake of believing his own bullshit.
Bannon believed he was the intellectual leader of a real grassroots movement, and all that was needed to midwife it into reality was to Astroturf as much rage and unthinking paranoia as the Mercer family’s money could buy.
.. Bannon’s self-proclaimed Leninism was mostly the kind of b.s. one spouts to rally the twentysomethings in their cubicles to churn out more ethically bankrupt clickbait fodder.
.. Lenin was a real radical who wanted to tear everything down. But his motto wasn’t “Honey badger don’t give a sh*t” — it was “The worse the better.” Both men share a theory that by exacerbating social tensions — heightening the contradictions in Marxobabble — they would emerge victorious. The biggest difference between the two men is that Lenin knew what he was doing.
.. There is a Nietzschean quality to both Bannon and the host organism he fed off. Rhetorically, Trump extols strength and power and denigrates rules and norms. But Trump’s Nietzscheanism is almost entirely in service to his own glory. He simply wants praise for its own sake. Bannon’s fetishization of strength and power and his denigration of rules and norms stems from a potted theory about how to burn it all down so he can rule the ashes.
.. He marveled at the performance art of Milo not because of any intellectual merit, but because it was transgressive, which is its own reward to the radical mind.
.. People spend too much time trying to figure out if Bannon is a bigot. Who cares? Isn’t it even more damning that he was perfectly comfortable to enlist bigots to his cause simply to leach off their passion and intensity?
.. Because Bannon consistently confuses means and ends, he was fine with forming an alliance of convenience with the alt-right when he thought it could help him.
.. Bannon likes to talk a big game about the importance of ideas, but his idea of how politics works is entirely anti-intellectual, and that’s what spelled his doom.
.. He talks a lot about the Trump agenda, and yet he’s made it his project to destroy any politician Trump actually needs if they dare stray from public sycophancy to Trump or fealty to Bannon’s dog’s-breakfast ideology.
.. He goes around the country stumping for crackpots and bigots, claiming to be the Joan of Arc of Trumpism, boasting incessantly of his courage and loyalty to Trump as evidenced by his willingness to stick with Trump during “Billy Bush Weekend.”
.. There’s just one problem: Bannon can’t stick to it. He just can’t help but boast to liberal reporters about how great and brilliant he is. He can’t resist talking smack about his rivals and denigrating the reality-show nationalist that plucked him out of relative obscurity, because despite all the impressive verbiage, Bannon can’t help but make himself the story.
“Steve Bannon has nothing to do with me or my presidency,” Mr. Trump said in the statement. “When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind.”
Mr. Trump berated Mr. Bannon for the loss of a Senate seat in Alabama and said the former adviser did not represent his base but was “only in it for himself.” Rather than supporting the president’s agenda to “make America great again,” Mr. Bannon was “simply seeking to burn it all down,” Mr. Trump said.
.. “Steve pretends to be at war with the media, which he calls the opposition party, yet he spent his time at the White House leaking false information to the media to make himself seem far more important than he was,” he added. “It is the only thing he does well.
.. Mr. Bannon had said he planned to back a slew of candidates in Republican primaries this year to take down establishment incumbents he saw as insufficiently conservative, even if it clashed with Mr. Trump’s endorsements.
That did not seem to bother Mr. Trump and indeed struck many as a way for the president to keep Mr. Bannon as an outside hammer pressuring Republican lawmakers to stay in line.
.. But accusing the president’s eldest son of treason crossed the line, even for an inner circle of aides who regularly fought and privately disparaged each other.
.. The book presents Mr. Trump as an ill-informed and thoroughly unserious candidate and president, engaged mainly in satisfying his own ego. It reports that early in the campaign, one aide, Sam Nunberg, was sent to explain the Constitution to the candidate. “I got as far as the Fourth Amendment,” it quoted Mr. Nunberg as saying, “before his finger is pulling down on his lip and his eyes are rolling back in his head.”
.. According to the book, neither Mr. Trump nor his wife, Melania Trump, nor many of his aides actually expected to win the election in November 2016 and indeed did not really want to.
.. It describes a distraught Mrs. Trump as being in tears on election night, not out of joy, and said the new president and first lady were fighting on Inauguration Day.
It seems like the wheels are falling of the bus that is the Trump presidency. It is also interesting to note that anyone who leaves his administration and causes Trump to get negative coverage, was only a minor player.
Bannon – Minor player with a role that required the highest level of security clearance
Papadopoulous – Minor unpaid player who somehow managed to get photographed in a meeting with Trump
Flynn – Minor player with the administration a short time
Manafort – Minor Manager of his whole campaign.
I wonder who the major players are? Will Kushner be a minor player if/when he leaves?
Poetic justice for both Trump and Bannon.
Trump wanted the counsel and company of an anarchist – well, no surprise, he got endless chaos.
Bannon wanted a loose cannon in our highest office – well, now it was turned on him.
Notice how Trump never refutes anything Bannon says; instead he just ridicules and attempts to minimize the man he previously clearly embraced as his closest advisor. Notice also that all of Trump’s other closest advisors and spokespersons, except his family members, are now gone and have been excommunicated (Manafort, Flynn, Priebus), and in every case Trump has tried, unsuccessfully, to distance himself from them as if they never had anything to do with his campaign. See a pattern?
The president’s base is rooted in a cult of personality, not support for the Republican party or conservatism.
.. it also demonstrated his complete indifference to Republican objectives, since it set up another confrontation with the Democrats at the end of the year over the debt ceiling and likely made it much harder to pass a tax-reform package.
.. While Trump’s overall popularity continues to fall, the people who turn out to cheer him at rallies and who were responsible for his routing of his Republican rivals in the 2016 primaries aren’t going to abandon him because he stabbed McConnell and Ryan in the back. The Trump movement, to the extent that one can dignify it with that term, was never about any ideology, let alone conservatism.
.. he is the object of a cult of personality, not the leader of a political party.
.. But despite his vocal disappointment about the failure to pass an Obamacare repeal-and-replace bill this summer, Trump was largely AWOL during the battle for votes, avoiding the normal give and take with members of the House and Senate that might have secured his objective. Since then he has publicly feuded with McConnell and made it clear that he blames everyone but himself for this failure.
.. If Trump was willing to give the Democrats everything they wanted, it’s not because, as some conservatives have always suspected, he’s a closet liberal. It’s because he’s in business for himself. Trump wants to be seen getting things done, so, if a three-month debt-ceiling deal will prevent partisan squabbling from interfering with hurricane relief, he’ll do it, even if it strengthens the Democrats’ ability to thwart tax reform, budget cuts, or even funding for the border wall he wants to build.
In theory, that ought to make your average Trump voter as mad at the president as Mitch McConnell is. But it won’t.
.. Trump’s base despises GOP congressional leaders, in some cases more than they do the Democrats.
.. Indeed, with a sidelined Hillary Clinton no longer available as a target of their vituperation, the desire of Trump’s fans to “lock up” their idol’s foes now seems to be focused solely on Republicans.
That the irony of calling a war hero like McCain a traitor is completely lost on Trump backers tells you all you need to know about their blind loyalty to the president and complete indifference to anything other than his interests.
.. Trump’s media cheerleaders, such as Fox Business Network’s Lou Dobbs. He reacted to Trump’s embrace of the Democrats as being praiseworthy precisely because it cut Speaker Ryan off at the knees. He seems to think anything that undermines GOP leaders is a triumph for Trump, no matter what it means in terms of legislation.
.. The base’s trust in Trump isn’t predicated on a belief that he will be more skillful at advancing conservative issues; it’s rooted in their desire to burn the system down and replace it with one led by someone who is not merely untainted by past failures but also unencumbered by adherence to the traditional values that the political class cherishes.
.. Nor will a possible betrayal on immigration — the one issue that seems to really motivate the Trump base — damage him. If Congress doesn’t pass a solution to the DACA issue that will give legal status to illegal aliens brought here as children, Trump has already threatened to act on his own as Obama did. Or he might again cut a deal with Democrats on the issue — to exchange something his base would call amnesty if it were proposed by anyone else