Can our government function normally when President Donald Trump tweets about his “button” being bigger than that of an armed adversary? Can there be business as usual when the word “insane” is being applied with increasing frequency to his actions, and when one of his most loyal supporters has called a meeting between Russian operatives and Trump campaign officials “treasonous”?
Only a few days into the new year, there is a striking disconnect in the nation’s capital between the ordinary and the mind-boggling – between the sorts of transactions politicians routinely make to keep the country running and displays of the irrational, the abusive and the menacing emanating from the White House.
There has been an inclination over the past year in both politics and journalism to separate Trump’s tweets and other outbursts from the realities of governing. The idea is that his eruptions are either (a) largely irrelevant forms of his letting off steam, or (b) signs of a brilliance beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. What looks to most of us like madness is cast as genius in setting up enemies, signaling his base or distracting us from one thing or another.
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But we are past the time when we can believe any of this. Trump is, without question, doing enormous damage to the United States’ standing in the world, and his strategy for political survival is rooted in a willingness to destroy our institutions.
While the news on Wednesday understandably focused on Steve Bannon’s treason comments in a new book by journalist Michael Wolff, 2018 has already produced two remarkable essays explaining the genuine threat the president poses to the nation’s foreign policy interests.
Susan Glasser, writing in Politico, offers frightening detail about how Trump’s stunning lack of knowledge and his indifference to his own obliviousness have led diplomats to label him “insane,” “catastrophic,” “terrifying,” “incompetent” and “dangerous.” Glasser concludes: “When it comes to Trump and the world, it’s not better than you think. It’s worse.”
And Evan Osnos’ carefully reported and much-discussed article in The New Yorker demonstrates how Trump’s policies but also his pathological focus on himself, his ignorance, and his astonishing susceptibility to flattery have profoundly weakened the U.S.’ position in Asia and played into Chinese President Xi Jinping’s reach for international power.
Osnos cites a Chinese think tank’s observation that the Trump administration is a collection of hostile “cliques,” the most powerful of which is the “Trump family clan.” And its analysis uses a term from feudal China, “jiatianxia,” to define Trump’s approach. It means “to treat the state as your possession.”
This insight cuts to the heart of the peril the president represents to our democracy and the rule of law.
On the second day of the year, Trump called on the Justice Department to “finally act” against Huma Abedin, a Hillary Clinton aide, and also against James Comey, the former FBI director he fired. And by referring not to the Justice Department, but to the “Deep State Justice Dept,” Trump continued to push back against all others investigating him, treating them as if they were a band of spies and traitors.
Directing the prosecution of political enemies is a habit of autocrats. As Benjamin Wittes, my Brookings Institution colleague, wrote recently, Trump is “normalizing for an entire political movement the politicization and weaponization of law enforcement and intelligence.” Is this the legacy the Republican Party wants?
In the midst of all this, Republicans and Democrats in Congress go about their business, trying to negotiate a budget agreement to avoid a shutdown and, in the Democrats’ case, trying to protect the Dreamers and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
And, who knows, maybe we can manage with a kind of split-level politics. While we sit back and wait on special counsel Robert Mueller to issue his findings, we pray that regular governance will be possible because there is no other choice.
Yet doing so means continuing to absorb Trump’s blows to our system and to our country’s influence around the globe. It also requires great faith in our capacity for restoration despite the readiness of the president’s allies to place his survival above the health of our polity.
The United States does have extraordinary gifts for self-correction. But we must face the fact that Trump is accelerating us toward the breaking point. No matter how confident we are in our resilience, we should not imagine otherwise. Not even Mueller has a button on his desk he can press to get us out of this without scars.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.