When the wheels come off

President Donald Trump listens to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis speak in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House in March 2018.
President Donald Trump listens to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis speak in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House in March 2018. The Washington Post

What happens when the wheels come off the world’s most powerful political and military and economic vehicle? No one knows the answer to that one, but I suspect we’re about to find out.

Trump’s year is not ending well, and because of the outlandish power he wields, and his willingness to use that power petulantly for entirely personal ends, it’s likely things will get worse for us, the people, too. After the GOP lost the popular vote in the midterm elections by roughly nine million votes, Trump is seeing out 2018 with his administration in freefall: his insistence on Congress funding an utterly useless “great wall” on the U.S.-Mexico border seems, as of this writing, almost certain to result in a prolonged holiday-season government shutdown.

A lot of people in the U.S. will feel a bucketload of financial hurt as a result. In fact, the moolah-obsessed president will spend his vacation indulging in all his usual extravagances, while hundreds of thousands of government employees start being furloughed, their paychecks temporarily withheld, because of Trump’s histrionics. His Secret Service detail will continue working, protecting him unpaid while the government remains paralyzed.


Of course, a lot of people outside the U.S. – asylum seekers illegally bottled up in Mexico, refugees unable to leave war zones and escape famine, would-be travelers caught up in Trump’s vile and un-American travel ban, kids tear-gassed by border patrol agents – are already feeling the pain inflicted by the volleys of xenophobic, paranoid border and immigration policies that this administration has unleashed.

Meanwhile, the huckster businessman’s reckless treatment of the economy, from tariffs announced via Twitter to public bullying of the Federal Reserve, has contributed to a December stock market implosion that has wiped trillions of dollars off of Americans’ balance sheets. More worrying, after years of growth, a large number of economic warning lights are starting to blink red, suggesting the stock market rout, which by Christmas Eve had pushed the Dow down well below 22,000, might soon morph into a much broader, more painful economic downturn. And, if poverty and unemployment numbers start to take off again, the administration, which has gone out of its way to gut health care programs, to limit food stamps, to scare immigrants off of any temporary relief programs, to further eviscerate public housing, and which squandered hundreds of billions of dollars on tax cuts for the wealthy, will lack resources to deal with a crisis.

Sasha Abramsky.JPG
Sasha Abramsky

At the same time, Trump’s banal, incoherent remaking of foreign and military policy on the Twitter-hoof has led to the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, widely viewed as “the last adult” in the Trumpian room, and his publication of a scathing letter essentially rejecting all the core tenets of Trump’s alliance-sabotaging, nationalistic, cozying-up-to-dictators worldview. Mattis’s resignation almost certainly won’t be the last. In fact, after Trump’s ejection of Mattis earlier than he had intended, and his tweeting of insults at Mattis, I’d wager more senior officials are soon headed for the exits.

Trump will be entering 2019 with an acting attorney general who has ignored the advice of Department of Justice ethics experts in not recusing himself from overseeing the Mueller investigation, and who is himself linked to sordid, arguably illegal business practices. He has no defense secretary, no United Nations ambassador. His interior secretary has been forced out under a cloud of corruption investigations, as was his Environmental Protection Agency head back in the summer. He’s even recently had to un-follow on Twitter (the ultimate Trumpian insult) his erstwhile cheerleader Ann Coulter, after she suggested he likely wouldn’t finish out his term in office.

Trump’s long-time personal lawyer is heading to prison and his one-time campaign manager is already in jail. His ex-National Security Adviser committed acts so sleazy that his sentencing judge asked prosecutors whether he could call them treasonous. Trump’s response to this? Like a two-bit, vulgar mobster with his back against the wall, the president tweeted that his lawyer, Michael Cohen, is a “rat” for talking to the Feds; and he wishes Flynn “good luck” in avoiding prison time for his self-confessedly illegal actions.

It’s entirely possible that Trump’s children and their spouses will soon be indicted by Robert Mueller. Trump’s charitable foundation was recently forced to close up shop after New York state prosecutors detailed a pattern of illegal activities. Trump’s inauguration committee is under investigation for a misuse of funds. And it’s looking increasingly likely that Trump himself is being investigated for potential obstruction of justice, campaign finance violations and possibly illicit financial deals with a variety of unsavory Russian organizations and individuals. Even if the Mueller probe is shut down by Attorney General Whitaker — who appears to have been hired on solely because of his hostility to the special prosecutor — the Democratic majority in the House will investigate Trump’s putative crimes from here to kingdom come over the next two years.

Nothing’s going right for this president anymore. He’s having the kind of holiday season that ends with a stocking filled with coal and an invite to a New Year’s Eve party that no one else attends. I wonder when in 2019, and after how much chaos is sown nationally and globally by an increasingly bizarre, erratic administration, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell will decide to cut his losses, pick up the phone, and tell the toxic, unstable, corrupt man at the other end of the line that the gig is up.

Sasha Abramsky, who teaches at UC Davis, is a Sacramento writer whose latest book is “Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream.” He can be contacted at