Is he waving or drowning? Swimming or sinking?
I ask this question because we’re more than two months in and the trauma has not subsided, but it has, perhaps, bifurcated. Sure, Trump still shows alarming potential as a would-be tyrant, contemptuous of constitutional proprieties, and prone to trashing every last norm of liberal democracy. But he is also beginning to appear simultaneously as a rather weak chief executive, uninterested in competent management or follow-through, bedeviled by divisions within his own party, transfixed by cable news, and swiftly discrediting himself by an endless stream of lies, delusions, and conspiracy theories. Even the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal challenged his credibility last Tuesday. They did this because, at this point, among sane people, he quite obviously has none.
The polling, meanwhile, is brutal. Gallup puts Trump a full 21 percentage points below average for presidents at this point of their administration. Real Clear Politics’ poll of polls shows a new high in disapproval this week, over 50 percent, and a new low in approval, at 43. Gallup finds him in the upper 50s of disapproval, and in the upper 30s in approval. Even GOP-friendly Rasmussen now has his disapproval at 53. Quinnipiac sees his support among whites and men falling, and discovers that 60 percent of Americans think he’s dishonest and 61 percent say his values are different than theirs. Yesterday, Quinnipiac also found that the Republican Obamacare replacement — the first serious agenda item of the Trump era — is opposed by a whopping three-to-one margin. Money quote: “One out of every seven Americans, 14 percent, think they will lose their health insurance under the Republican plan. That 14 percent includes 27 percent of voters in families with household income below $30,000, 18 percent of working class families and 14 percent of middle class families.” Good luck with those midterms, guys.
In Washington this week, as this shambolic health-care plan staggered, zombielike, into the House, there was a palpable sense that political gravity may, for the first time, be operational around Trump. If he somehow muscles this legislation through, he will be stuck with an avalanche of angry.
So time to take a deep breath? I’d say a shallow one. I can see two possible scenarios that could follow a drawn-out Trump slump. One is the nightmare I’ve been having for more than a year now. A president hobbled domestically by his own party’s divisions and the opposition’s new energy may be tempted — Putin-like — to change the subject in a way that vaults him back to popularity. A foreign altercation from which he will not back down? A trade war? A smidge likelier, I’d say, is an over-the-top response to an inevitable jihadist terror attack in a major American city. A demagogue loses much of his power when he tries to wrestle complicated legislation through various political factions, in the way our gloriously inefficient Constitution requires. He regains it with rank fear, polarization, and a raw show of force. Heaven knows what the Constitution will look like once he’s finished.
The other possibility is that Trump really does at some point realize he’s sinking fast and decides on a hard pivot. He wants to win and be loved, and if he keeps losing and becomes more widely loathed with his current strategy, it’s by no means out of character for him to recalibrate. He could use the possible failure of Trumpcare to feed Paul Ryan to the Breitbartians, and reach out to Democrats on a tweaked Obamacare and infrastructure package. He could dump Bannon the way he dumped Manafort and bullshit his way through all the inconsistencies (the one thing he remains rather good at). He could wrest himself like Kong on Skull Island from the giant lizards and become the tribune of the forgotten men and women he wants to be, and combine nationalism and protectionism with, er, socialism, like his heroine Marine Le Pen. He could finally realize the potential he has thrown away so far, and become an American Perón.
The only snag with this strategy, of course, is that he could hard-pivot only to find himself a Kong who’s alienated from the GOP and obstructed by the emboldened Dems, a rogue, bleeding president without a party, marooned on his own island of polarized irrelevance.
Well, I can hope, can’t I?
One of the features of living in Washington is that one is rarely unmindful of humanity’s capacity to disappoint. I’ve long tried to be an optimist in these matters — because Washington contains plenty of individuals who are genuinely devoting their lives to the common good. (I swear. I know many of them, on both sides.) But watching previously rock-ribbed conservatives slowly give in to the pull of utter expediency these past few months has been a truly deflating experience. The grossest are those like Stephen Moore (or Mike Pence!), who were for decades a near-parody of ideological purism, and yet overnight saw the populist light.
But the lamest of the enablers are the anti-anti-Trumpers, those conservatives who know full well the depravity of this president, and yet focus on his opponents (I’m looking at you, National Review, with a few honorable exceptions). So much hysteria, these knowing right-wingers sigh. Ignore the character flaws, they urge. Just look at the tax cuts. And, er, Gorsuch! No, Trump won’t actually bring back a major tariff, they insist. Our system is far too robust for soft despotism. And so on. The Republicans who recently told us that an FBI investigation disqualified someone from the presidency are now telling us there’s nothing to see in the Russia mess. And the moralists who impeached a president because of his low character and lies are now silent when it comes to the putrid excrescence now preening in the Oval Office.
But there have also been Republican writers who have bravely and clearly stood their ground. Avik Roy risked a lot to come out against Ryancare. Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat have not wavered from their prescient belief in reforming the GOP, while keeping Trump at a clear, distinct distance. My friend David Frum has had a real moment. George Will has been fired by Fox. David Brooks hasn’t caved. I even find myself in the odd position of being smack-bang at Bill Kristol’s side as he resists. Super-neocon Eliot Cohen has pulled no punches. Jen Rubin at the Washington Post is on a roll. Rod Dreher at The American Conservative believes the whole world is ending, but he still won’t acquiesce to Trump. Ditto Daniel Larison on foreign policy. David French, however, deserves a minor medal for this moment of dissent in National Review:
I’ve watched Christian friends laugh hysterically at Trump’s tweets, positively delighted that they cause fits of rage on the other side. I’ve watched them excuse falsehoods from reflexively-defensive White House aides, claiming “it’s just their job” to defend the president. Since when is it any person’s job to help their boss spew falsehoods into the public domain? And if that does somehow come to be your job, aren’t you bound by honor to resign? It is not difficult, in a free society, to tell a man (no matter how powerful they are or how much you love access to that power), “Sir, I will not lie for you.” Trump isn’t just doing damage to himself. As he lures a movement into excusing his falsehoods, he does damage to the very culture and morality of his base.
Those are fighting words. And not without consequences. The Trumpeters have been ruthless in kneecapping anyone who hasn’t bowed to the Supreme Leader from the get-go. And so, among once-formidably-tight conservative social circles, old friends no longer talk to each other; dinner parties careen into excruciating silences; social occasions are avoided; regular phone calls peter out; or you keep your eye open in order to avoid bumping into someone who has gone over to the dark side. Every now and again, you hear of another one disappearing into the Trumpian void, and you shake your head and sigh.
The catastrophe in the White House has, in this respect, been a good thing. Trump has decisively broken the unified bubble of right-wing conformity in Washington. There’s even some freshness in the intellectual air. And a whole new perspective on those many conservatives you once thought of as decent people. And on those you had previously given up on.
“We are not afraid,” declared Prime Minister Theresa May after the latest Islamist horror on Westminster Bridge. She went on about the importance of being “normal.” It’s a very British response to terrorism. It’s called stoicism — a quality unknown, it appears, in the home of the “brave.” Perhaps its highest moment of sangfroid was when the IRA bombed the very hotel in Brighton where the prime minister and much of her cabinet were staying while attending their annual party conference in 1984. Thatcher herself would have been killed if she had been in a different room in her hotel suite. A leading cabinet member had to be hauled out of rubble. Nonetheless, the next day, Thatcher, utterly undaunted, got up and gave her speech — almost as if nothing had happened. A few days later, she insisted: “We suffered a tragedy not one of us could have thought would happen in our country. And we picked ourselves up and sorted ourselves out as all good British people do.” Keep calm and carry on, and all that.
Compare this with, say, the reaction to the Boston marathon bombing. An entire city was brought to a standstill and locked down, while the pursuit of a deranged, unarmed teenager continued. You can understand that, I suppose, given that the suspect was still at large. But to subsequently celebrate the event with the slogan “Boston Strong” was perverse. The truth was: “Boston Shit-Scared.”
The response of Americans to terror is to be terrified — 9/11’s trauma has never been fully exorcised. Until we get over that, until we manage to stiffen our upper lips like the Brits, jihadist terrorists will exercise control over the American psyche like no one else. We can do better, can’t we? If we want the Constitution to survive both Islamism’s threat and the potential response of a beleaguered Trump, we’ll have to.