Donald Trump says that Democrats and journalists are trying to delegitimize his presidency. But the real issue is Trump’s methodical destruction of the presidency itself — his wholesale plundering of its moral authority.
Don’t take my word for it. Bret Stephens, a prominent conservative commentator for the conservative Wall Street Journal, has a column today that says it better than I can. And since I’m traveling today, I’ll happily cede the floor to Stephens — with a few annotations of my own:
“We are now in the seventh week of Donald Trump’s presidency, and if fair-minded detractors and fans of his administration can agree on anything, it’s that this is not going well. Mr. Trump isn’t simply failing on terms set by his opponents, which is a given for most presidents. He is failing on his supporters’ terms, too. Making America Great Again was not supposed to be a belly-flop into the cloudy pond of Mr. Trump’s psyche.”
But into the pond we’ve plunged, because, as Stephens well understands, character is destiny. A presidency is heavily shaped by the psyche of its occupant; the occupant’s psyche, its strengths and flaws, has been hard-wired since childhood. And the current occupant’s psyche tips toward paranoia, as evidenced by his preposterously baseless claim that Barack Obama, his hate obsession, illegally “wiretapped” his tower.
“Maybe the source of Mr. Trump’s information isn’t merely another neuralgic radio monologue from [right-wing shock jock] Mark Levin or a recap in Breitbart News, but his own reliable presidential intelligence. Or, maybe, an intemperate and verbally incontinent 70-year-old man, prone to believing dubious conspiracy theories, just let fly on Twitter at 6:35 a.m., to hell with the consequences. And now the entire machinery of government must once again get in gear to contain the political fallout.
“If such episodes occurred once or twice in a presidential term, they might not matter much. But the president’s supporters ought at least to ask themselves how much of his political capital has now been squandered on spiteful fusillades intended to settle pointless scores. How goes that ‘major investigation’ into alleged voter fraud that Mr. Trump promised only a few weeks ago? How many wavering supporters did the president win over last month by accusing half the press corps of being ‘an enemy of the American people’?”
Exactly. The kindest assessment of Trump, at the seven-week mark, is that he has no idea how to govern. His “spiteful fusillades” against Obama, which his flacks and congressional Republican toadies have been at pains to defend, are dominating the news cycle — as well they should, because his claim is so explosive. Any president within the realm of normal would resist the urge to focus all attention on himself. But this one seems determined to do so, even to his own detriment – and to the detriment of the presidency itself:
“Repeat these convulsions at the current rate of two or three a month, and the result could be a Seinfeld presidency — a show about nothing, only this time devoid of wit and sweetness. Except for this: No presidency is ever about nothing. And the something that the Trump administration is fast becoming about is its own paranoia, incompetence and recklessness, all playing out in vertigo-inducing ways. The president of the United States has now publicly denounced his predecessor as a ‘bad (or sick) guy!’ Mr. Obama will shrug it off, but what happens when someone just as prickly as Mr. Trump — Xi Jinping for instance, or Kim Jong Un — takes the next asinine tweet seriously?”
Indeed. Trump has yet to be tested in an international crisis. When that happens, we’ll see whether his “paranoia, incompetence, and recklessness” serves us well. And in the meantime, Trump will continue to sack the presidency itself, vandalizing its moral authority. As a traditional conservative (as opposed to a conservative who has donned the Trump armband), Stephens cares about what he calls Trump’s “methodical corruption.”
“In his new biography of Washington, John Rhodehamel eloquently describes the founding father’s ‘deliberate creation of the public character that gave him the moral authority to lead the quarrelsome collection of former colonies into sturdy nationhood.’ That moral authority is now being dissipated at a rate unparalleled in recent history, except perhaps during the Watergate scandal. The difference is that we haven’t just lost the Vietnam War, the economy hasn’t hit a wall, and we’re still in the honeymoon phase of this presidency …
“If there’s another thing we’ve learned, it’s that Mr. Trump hasn’t the slightest intention of changing his ways, even if he had the ability to do so. Character rules, for better or worse. Americans used to know this, thanks to the likes of Washington. But liberals dropped the idea with Bill Clinton and conservatives dropped it with this guy. An earlier generation of moralists, philosophers and commonsensical people would have known what to call this: decline.”
This decline will continue unless or until there’s a major shift in sentiment on the Republican right. Conservatives like Stephens understand what’s going on (all that’s required is a functioning mind), but most grassroots Republicans still think Trump is great. National polls put GOP loyalty at roughly 80 percent. Unless or until that support drops below 50 (because he has blundered us into a war, because the Russia scandal becomes impossible to ignore, because the factory jobs haven’t magically returned), his congressional abetters will continue to knuckle under. And we will remain hostage to the consequences of our electoral folly.