Stepping back, cooling off a bit, displaying some strategic patience, taking the long view: The first two weeks of the Trump administration have been the most abso-friggin-lutely frightening of the modern presidency.
President Donald Trump has managed to taunt and alienate some of our closest allies – Mexico and Australia (!) – while continuing an NC-17-rated love fest with Russia. He has engaged in moral equivalence that places America on the level of Vladimir Putin’s bloody dictatorship.
“What, you think our country’s so innocent?” he said – a statement of such obscenity that it would haunt any liberal to the grave. He has issued an immigration executive order of unparalleled incompetence and cruelty, further victimizing refugees who are already fate’s punching bag. He has lied about things large (election fraud) and small (inaugural crowd size), refused to allow facts to modify his claims, and attempted to create his own reality through the repetition of deception. He has abused his standing as president to attack individuals, from a respected judge to the movie star who took over his God-awful reality-TV show. He has demonstrated a limitless appetite for organizational chaos and selected a staff that leaks like a salad spinner. He has become a massively polarizing figure within America and a risible figure on the global stage.
All in a fortnight.
And yet, serious, non-Trumpian figures on the right, such as blogger Ed Morrissey, have found it the “best fortnight in a decade” for conservatives. It is a “continuing feast of promises kept,” most obviously concerning Trump’s Supreme Court pick, but also on personnel choices, regulatory policies, the Keystone pipeline, and the beginnings of the Obamacare rollback. For conservatives, it is a “solid winning streak,” concludes Morrissey. All the more welcome after a long dry spell.
These developments give conservatives much to chew on. Their best of times is a scary period for much of the country. Liberals would say: Of course, because conservatism itself is frightening. But Trump’s most vivid problems concern his character, his view of executive power, and a set of foreign policy instincts that America has not seen since Pearl Harbor caused the original “America First” to close up shop.
I am grateful to Trump for the wise nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the high court. But the trends of the first two weeks are not good for the Republican Party or for the long-term interests of conservatism. Trump is building deep loyalty among hard-line conservatives as his alarming antics and executive boundary-testing are alienating most Americans (his disapproval is already more than 50 percent in recent polls).
Republicans are on the horns of a bull in the china shop. Perceptive leaders can see their party eventually physically reduced and morally diminished to a fanatical ethno-nationalist core. But opposing Trump in public risks Twitter attacks and primary challenges. In Trump’s amoral, counterpunching ethic, even the mildest criticisms can result in massive retaliation. Trump has already succeeded in creating an atmosphere of intimidation in Washington.
Several members of the Senate are willing to take on Trump on a case-by-case basis. But almost the whole of the Republican House is riding the populist wave or waiting quietly until it passes. And Speaker Paul Ryan seems to have embraced the Faustian bargain with open eyes – a chance to legislate if he occasionally ignores his conscience.
Where is the Republican red line when it comes to Trump? It is too early to determine, but not too early to consider. Trump’s theory of governing, as it develops, could be a direct and serious challenge to American institutions. The president views legislative leaders such as Ryan – if the first part of his inaugural address is to be believed – as corrupt, spineless failures. And he believes that court rulings that go against him always represent bad faith on the part of a judge. Trump does not think he needs the support of political and media elites; the only things that really matter in politics are the people and the leader. And it is the leader who interprets the true interests of the people.
On the issues that seem to matter most to Trump – immigration and trade – America’s chief executive has extraordinary powers. He can end trade agreements and impose tariffs unilaterally. He can impose immigration changes up to limits that he is not even approaching. We are discovering how many presidential limits are rooted in respect for norms rather than obedience to laws.
After two weeks, we can be certain of two things: To Trump, norms mean nothing. To America, they matter greatly.
Michael Gerson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.