Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, what to make of Trump’s increasingly erratic behavior, Joe Biden’s gaffes, and a conservative resistance in the U.K.
Some Washington reporters have begun to observe that, in the face of lagging economic indicators, North Korean progress on missile tests, GOP retirements in Congress, and other setbacks, Donald Trump’s ever-more-erratic outbursts over the past month are a sign that he feels his presidency is in danger in the run-up to 2020. Are they right?
America’s First Baby is certainly acting like someone put him in the corner. To call Trump erratic right now is a compliment. He makes Roseanne Barr look like Theresa May. Just when you think he is going to let go of Sharpiegate after five days and concede that there was never (as he said) a “95 percent chance probability” that Hurricane Dorian would hit Alabama “very hard,” he’s at it again, summoning a Fox News reporter to the Oval Office to try to enforce his fantastical meteorology. His tweet storm is threatening to outlast the actual storm. What’s next? Will he send Al Roker to Guantanamo? Will he lavish emergency aid on Alabama, perhaps to bolster the campaign of whichever Republican is anointed to take down Democratic Senator Doug Jones in 2020? Or — to repurpose a Jonah storyline from Veep — will he show up an hour late for a public event and insist that everyone else has it wrong because daylight saving time has already ended? Trump could become the first president ever to be publicly corrected by both the National Weather Service and the timekeepers at the U.S. Naval Observatory.
Of course Sharpiegate is only one offering in the past week or so’s 24/7 repertory of White House Looney Tunes. Not even another mass killing in Texas could distract our president from a public feud with his long-ago fellow NBC primetime star Debra Messing, of Will & Grace. There’s also the bagatelle of his tweeting out a classified surveillance photo of an Iranian missile site, yet another in an endless series of moves to undermine American intelligence agencies. But there may be more of a method to the madness of Trump’s “congratulations” to Poland on the 80th anniversary of the German invasion. Far from being one of his typical displays of utter historical and geopolitical ignorance, this tweet may have been a heartfelt expression of his genuine conviction that there are “very fine people on both sides” when Nazis launch a blitzkrieg.
Whether this latest uptick in lunacy is attributable to psychological, medical, or political factors — or some combination of the three — is unknown. But whatever is going on, it’s clear that it reached a new plateau a few weeks ago when the word “recession” crept onto his addled radar screen and he realized that blaming his own Fed chairman, Fake News, or Obama would not let him off the hook if a slowdown becomes reality next year. Given that this international anxiety will remain unresolved until Election Day no matter how much he reworks economic charts with his Sharpie, Trump may just be getting started.
The persistence of Biden’s polling lead over the Democratic field may most of all be a reflection of a simple mathematical fact: For now, the party’s progressive base is divided between two runners-up, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. But it also should be noted that Trump has given Biden and, for that matter, all of his adversaries a gift. He has defined deviancy down so low that most, if not all, of the political pratfalls that used to be called “gaffes” barely register. What has arguably been Biden’s biggest blooper thus far — his recurrent use of a touching Afghanistan war tale that the Washington Post discovered to be a fictionalized composite — did him no damage whatsoever. Next to Trump’s nonstop fabrications, it comes across as a minor white lie, and, unlike Trump’s lies, Biden’s war story was in the service of positive and patriotic sentiments, not racism, divisiveness, vulgarity, and greed.
Given this new normal, the infraction that decades ago torpedoed Biden’s earliest presidential hopes, plagiarism, might now be a one-day story. The errant behavior that drove other modern candidates out of national politics — Edmund Muskie’s “crying,” Howard Dean’s “scream,” Gary Hart’s escapades with Donna Rice, John Edwards’s infidelity — might now be nonevents or, who knows, boosts to their candidacies. Whatever the fate of Biden’s 2020 presidential quest, it is highly unlikely to be determined by his gaffes.
British Parliament’s continued defiance of Boris Johnson on a no-deal Brexit this week has required a group of conservative lawmakers to join the opposition party, forfeiting their parliamentary majority. What would have to happen for Trump’s more vocal Republican critics to stand in his way?
Nothing, apparently. With the sole exception of a single Michigan congressman, Justin Amash, current Republican officeholders, even those who purport to be occasional critics, have refused to challenge Trump even as children are put in cages and top administration jobs have been routinely handed out to grifters, bigots, and perpetrators of sexual assault. As Trump has said that his base would stand by him even if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue, so Mitch McConnell has deferred to Trump and tabled new gun-control laws even after the deaths of 53 Americans in mass shootings in August alone.
As Edmund Luce of the Financial Times pointed out this week in a powerful column about “the surrender of America’s adults,” it’s not just senators like Mitt Romney, Ben Sasse, Susan Collins, Jeff Flake, and Bob Corker who have retreated from taking real action against Trump despite their periodic furrowed-brow expressions of “concern” over his latest outrage. No less wimpy are departed Cabinet members like Rex Tillerson and Jim Mattis, who have continued to withhold public criticism of a president they obviously thought was a danger to the nation. Mattis has said he is doing so out of a “duty of silence” to the administration he served. As Luce points out, the departed Secretary of Defense may also have a duty to shareholders: “Shortly before Mr. Mattis launched his memoir, he rejoined the board of General Dynamics, one of America’s largest defense contractors. Mr. Mattis’s worth to GD is inversely related to the value of what he can say about the future of U.S. democracy. The more he speaks against Mr. Trump, the likelier his company will suffer.”
As for Mattis’s specious theory of a “duty of silence,” history is replete with examples of the calamities that follow when good men stay silent while serving criminal regimes. Unlike their feckless and/or ignorant American counterparts, the 21 Tories who left their own party rather than countenance their prime minister’s abuse of power know this history. And none more so than Nicholas Soames, Winston Churchill’s grandson, who is leaving Parliament after 37 years rather than knuckle under to Johnson. “I knew what I was doing,” he told the BBC of his banishment. Elucidating further to The Guardian, he recalled a debate in the House in 1938, when the apostle of appeasement, the Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, accused his grandfather of undermining his negotiations with the Germans. “I think history will prove my grandpapa to be right under the circumstances,” said Soames, “and I think I will prove to be right.”
Though Trump might disagree, history has long since proven Soames’s grandpapa right. The American adults who have surrendered to their leader over the past three years are unlikely to be treated more kindly by posterity than Chamberlain.