Even before the media obsession with Hillary Clinton’s email server put The Worst President Ever(TM) in the White House, historians were comparing Donald Trump to Caligula, the cruel, depraved Roman emperor who delighted in humiliating others, especially members of the empire’s elite. But seven months into the Trump administration, we can see that this comparison was unfair.
For one thing, Caligula did not, as far as we know, foment ethnic violence within the empire. For another, again as far as we know, Rome’s government continued to function reasonably well despite his antics: Provincial governors continued to maintain order, the army continued to defend the borders, there were no economic crises.
Finally, when his behavior became truly intolerable, Rome’s elite did what the party now controlling Congress seems unable even to contemplate: It found a way to get rid of him.
Anyone with eyes – eyes not glued to Fox News, anyway – has long realized that Trump is utterly incapable, morally and intellectually, of filling the office he holds. But in the past few days, things seem to have reached a critical mass.
Journalists have stopped seizing on brief moments of not-craziness to declare Trump “presidential”; business leaders have stopped trying to curry favor by lending Trump an air of respectability; even military leaders have gone as far as they can to dissociate themselves from administration pronouncements.
Put it this way: “Not my president” used to sound like an extreme slogan. Now it has more or less become the operating principle for key parts of the U.S. system.
Despite this, it may seem on the surface as if the republic is continuing to function normally. We’re still adding jobs; stocks are up; public services continue to be delivered.
But remember, this administration has yet to confront a crisis not of its own making. Furthermore, a series of scary deadlines are looming. Never mind tax reform. Congress has to act within the next few weeks to enact a budget, or the government will shut down; to raise the debt ceiling, or the U.S. will go into default; to renew the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or millions of children will lose coverage.
So who’s going to ensure that these critical deadlines are met? Not Trump, who’s too busy praising white supremacists and promoting his businesses. Maybe Republican leaders in Congress will still be able to wrangle their extremist members, who see crippling the government as a good thing, into the necessary deals.
But the revelation that these leaders were lying about health care all those years has destroyed their intellectual credibility – remember when people took Paul Ryan’s pretense of policy expertise seriously? And their association with President Caligula has destroyed their moral credibility, too. They could keep the government functioning by dealing with Democrats, but they’re afraid to do that, for the same reason they’re afraid to confront the madman in the White House.
For here’s the situation: Everyone in Washington now knows that we have a president who never meant it when he swore to defend the Constitution. He violates that oath just about every day and is never going to get any better.
The good news is that the founding fathers contemplated that possibility and offered a constitutional remedy: Unlike the senators of ancient Rome, who had to conspire with the Praetorian Guard to get Caligula assassinated, the U.S. Congress has the ability to remove a rogue president.
But a third of the country still approves of that rogue president – and that third amounts to a huge majority of the GOP base. So all we get from the vast majority of elected Republicans are off-the-record expressions of “dismay” or denunciations of bigotry that somehow fail to name the bigot in chief.
It’s not just that Republicans fear primary challenges from candidates pandering to the racist right, although they do; Trump is already supporting challengers to Republicans he considers insufficiently loyal.
The fact is that white supremacists have long been a key if unacknowledged part of the GOP coalition, and Republicans need those votes to win general elections. Given the profiles in cowardice they’ve presented so far, it’s hard to imagine anything – up to and including evidence of collusion with a foreign power – that would make them risk losing those voters’ support.
So the odds are that we’re stuck with a malevolent, incompetent president whom nobody knowledgeable respects and many consider illegitimate. If so, we have to hope that our country somehow stumbles through the next year and a half without catastrophe and that the midterm elections transform the political calculus and make the Constitution great again.
If that doesn’t happen, all one can say is God save America. Because all indications are that the Republicans won’t.