American political history has had its share of the baroque and the surreal, but the present moment is setting records for the peculiar. Like three presidents before him, Donald Trump owes his position not to a popular triumph at the ballot box but to the anachronistic institution of the electoral college.
To many Americans this makes him seem less than a fully legitimate leader, and he has done nothing to win them over. Add to that the fact that he was elected as a Republican but ran on a populist platform, so he is at odds in many ways with his putative party.
Of course, even those Republicans who find him alien and repugnant are loath to look a gift horse in he mouth. Thanks to Trump’s “win,” they control the executive, both branches of Congress and are beginning to Republicanize the judiciary.
Yet all is not running smoothly. The leaders of Congress are trying to pass a wish list that long predates Trump. But it (or they) are so far to the right that no compromise with the Democrats has been possible. Yet their agenda is also at odds with many of the stated goals of Trump’s campaign. Hard to get a majority under these conditions.
The result has been messy. Fissures in the Republican ranks keep emerging. Grassroots Tea Party types demand less debt, but the tax cutters are okay with debt if it benefits corporate and Wall Street fat cats. The alt-right Bannonites favor isolationist trade, immigration and foreign policies, but much of America’s business wealth is generated abroad. To them, globalization is money in the bank.
While this internecine warfare goes on, Democrats are largely relegated to the roles of spectator, spoiler or sniper. Their most zealous wing demands resistance and impeachment, but minority parties are all but powerless, other than voting nay on everything.
And powerlessness can make minorities a little cuckoo. Hamilton noted as much in Federalist 78 when he said such poor souls can fall victim to “the rage for objection which disorders their imaginations and judgement.”
On a different front, judicial resisters like the ACLU are pursuing a strategy of gumming up the works of the administration by hauling it into court every time they detect overreach, as in the case of the travel ban and various regulatory moves of questionable legality.
If we were a minor European duchy or a banana republic of an earlier era, this governmental dysfunction would be embarrassing or even comic. In an economic and military superpower, it is alarming. First, because the rest of the world can get up to no good while we are too divided to maintain order. Second, because we risk lost opportunities. Our economic and geopolitical rivals aren’t going to wait for us to come to our senses. While we stand still or whirl in circles, they will endeavor to eat our lunch.
Looming behind all this dysfunction is the huge issue of Russian cyber-meddling in Trump’s election, Robert Mueller’s investigation of it, and the possibility of Trump’s collusion. He refuses to acknowledge it even took place, and the Republicans have no interest in seeking the truth if it risks killing the goose that let’s them steal the golden eggs.
At the center of this multi-ring circus is the character of the president himself. We have seen enough of his behavior to know he is uninterested in or incapable of study, planning, devising complex legislation, building coalitions, or any of the nuts and bolts of governing. He likes to be applauded by crowds, fawned over by loyalists, to pick fights, to send snarky tweets and to binge watch news outlets that stroke his ego.
The combination of Trump’s fecklessness with the party’s internal divisions and its unwillingness to compromise with Democrats means the administration has little to show for its first year in office. Its reputation for dysfunction is now so familiar that the Trump camp is
Invoking it to explain why the Mueller investigation will find no wrong-doing. Because the notoriously slipshod and chaotic campaign couldn’t possibly have managed it.
I’m not making this up. And on the surface one might almost be tempted to agree that so scattered a chief executive with such incompetent appointees would have trouble pulling off a a complex conspiracy. But a career prosecutor was quick to point out that even crack addicts can commit crimes and be found guilty of them. And in this case the heavy lifting was done by well-organized Russia hackers and Julian Assange, not the Trump crowd.
Furthermore, even lazy and non compis mentis executives can preside over destruction. The process is familiar from history. Henry II in a fit of pique said, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” Which his Barons took as orders from headquarters, saddled up, and killed Thomas a Becket.
In reviewing a new biography of Stalin in “The New Yorker,” Keith Gessen describes a similar process when drawing a contrast between the workaholic Stalin, who personally compiled his voluminous execution orders, and a charismatic ideologue, Hitler.
“The Fuhrer’s hands-off tyranny has led to a historians’ debate about his actual participation in the crimes of his regime, and to Ian Kershaw’s famous concept of ‘working towards the Fuhrer,’ that is, anticipating his wishes in the absence of direct orders.”
Under such a scenario, Trump may not have managed the conspiracy with Russia and Wikileaks, but Flynn, Manafort, Papadopolous, Don, Jr., Roger Stone, Carter Page and all the other courtiers and go-betweens knew what would please the boss, and got it done.
In just this way, as Michael Lewis is detailing in a must-read series of “Vanity Fair” exposes, Trump’s unqualified, but malicious appointees to the executive departments of government are vandalizing it in ways Trump knows too little grasp, but would appreciate if had the patience to sit still for a briefing.