The Trump presidency will end, or American democracy will end. Or both.
Last night’s bizarre spectacle of a health care vote in the U.S. Senate, in which a terminally ill John McCain cast the deciding vote to end (for now) the grotesque Republican effort to dismantle much of our country’s health care system because it got reformed by a black guy, was a pivotal moment in a much larger story.
In casting his vote, McCain, who will never have to worry again about re-election, gave cover to many of his Republican colleagues, who knew how dangerous their bill was but were more worried about the likelihood of losing a primary challenge (and their jobs) to the frothier end of the Republican base. A lot of people will debate why McCain voted as he did. Perhaps, as he claimed earlier this week, he really was offended by the charade of a democratic process used to force a vote on a bill literally written over lunch Thursday, and presented to the Senate less than three hours before the final vote.
But if that was the case, McCain could have avoided several days of this nonsense – and utter panic among millions of Americans whose lives were literally threatened by this week’s series of votes. He could have voted “no” on letting any of those bills ever reach the floor. But instead he let the process play out in a way perfectly calibrated to maximally humiliate and damage Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump.
More likely, McCain – who is every bit as vengeful as the president – never forgot Trump’s mocking during last year’s presidential campaign (and McCain’s re-election bid) of McCain’s brutal POW experience. This was revenge served on ice. And it brought cheers not only from Democrats and Americans who need (or might someday need) access to health care, but plenty of other Republicans who are now, finally, starting to openly turn on Donald Trump.
Aside from his usual petulant tweets, Trump actually had very little to do with the Senate vote. He’s been busier lately watching his business empire and his personal family (not to mention his political career) increasingly become the focus of Robert Mueller’s criminal investigation, and scrambling madly to try to head that off. He’s responded by publicly attacking every single official involved with oversight of the investigation; throwing Jeff Sessions, his most loyal Cabinet member, under the bus as a ploy to try to get the power to fire Mueller; and claiming that the FBI (which would inherit the investigation if the special counsel is fired) should report directly to him as his private law enforcement agency.
Meanwhile, the anonymous quotes that started coming out in the very first week of the Trump presidency, of a White House marred by complete disorganization, terrible morale, and vicious infighting, have burst out into the public. At the same time, Trump’s attacks on Sessions have reportedly enraged not only Sessions’ former Senate colleagues, but many of Trump’s Cabinet members, who reason (correctly) that if Trump can publicly humiliate and sabotage someone as loyal as Sessions in this way, any of them could be next. (Note that it’s the Cabinet members who would first need to sign off on any 25th Amendment attempt to remove Trump from power, and those same Republican Senate colleagues who would be the key votes to approve it.) Also this week, military leadership is all but openly defying the Commander in Chief on his bizarre tweet that (apparently) ordered all transgender individuals expelled from active military service. Even the fever swamp conservative media is finally starting to splinter, taking up sides on who to blame as the wheels fall off. (Hint: only the most credulous are buying the claims that it’s somehow all the fault of liberals.)
All the while, the Mad King (as Revel Smith so presciently dubbed Trump a full year ago) reportedly watches the infighting with glee, a mildly retarded five-year-old giggling and rubbing his hands in delight as his subjects shiv each other for his entertainment.
All in the last four days.
This is not sustainable.
Trump built his career – and enormous wealth – by relentless self-promotion, bullying, fraud, and lies. In the private sector, his wealth insulated him from the consequences. The same tactics somehow got him elected president. He’s not going to change now; it’s who he is.
But governing, unlike real estate, is a collaborative process in which there are many bases of power; trust is the coin of the realm. Trump doesn’t do collaboration, or trust; he does fear. And in a mere six months he’s managed to destroy what was already a remarkably small number of political allies in DC. Plenty of Republicans fear their unhinged base; they’ve treaded carefully around Trump because Trump enjoys a strong tribal loyalty among that base.
But regardless of whether his election last year was made possible by Vladimir Putin and the same clique of Russian oligarchs and mobsters that keep popping up in every facet of Trump’s life, he’s now vulnerable to impeachment on a number of fronts, not least of which being his clear and unapologetic efforts to obstruct justice. He hasn’t been able to get any part of his legislative agenda enacted by a Congress tightly controlled by his own party; half of his senior leadership is rumored to either be leaving or being pushed out; and more than a few of them are spending a lot of their (or Trump re-election) money on private lawyers.
Donald Trump has only one tool in his governing toolbox – fear – and the Republicans whose support he now needs to survive, let alone enact any part of his agenda, increasingly do not fear him.
Which Way Will It Go?
There are so many moving parts to this governing crisis that it’s impossible to keep up each day with the cascading bad news. But the need to govern doesn’t stop. In the next six weeks – some of which Congress won’t be in session for – Republicans somehow will need to pass both operating budgets and a debt ceiling increase to avoid the federal government shutting down all but its most essential services. Right now, it’s hard to imagine this Congress being able to do either. And at last report, the Trump White House hasn’t even tried to prepare any sort of plan for this contingency, which could cost the American economy billions (if not trillions) and trigger a global economic crisis. It would be comically inept were the stakes not so high.
And all of Trump’s (and Republicans’) wounds have been entirely self-inflicted. What happens with the first, inevitable, external crisis: when North Korea decides to try out its new toys, or a hurricane wipes out Miami, or Russia decides to annex Belarus, or somebody blows up the Gateway Arch? Has their ever been a presidency that inspired less confidence in its ability to protect American lives and interests? Has one ever seemed more willing to seize on any excuse to try to suppress threats to its power?
Trump is who he is, and he seems to hire people based solely on loyalty and on having bullying personalities similar to his. There’s a reason that he seems to think he has more in common with Vladimir Putin than any US politician. It’s hard to see how he salvages his presidency from this imminent train wreck by any means other than ending our country’s long, flawed but noble experiment with democracy. His most existential threat is the Russia investigation, and he seems determined not just to (illegally) kill it, but turn US law enforcement into his personal service and an arm of his political power.
Last night, as the Senate prepared to vote on its health care abomination, Bernie Sanders was making the cable TV news rounds, observing accurately that denying health care to millions of Americans, and driving up the cost for the rest of us, all to pay for tax cuts for the extremely wealthy, was only the tip of the current Republican agenda. That includes, among other things, privatizing Medicare, Social Security, the Veterans Administration, and any other economic sector not already owned by the privileged few. This is the oligarchic model Putin (who came from a KGB background and already had access to Russia’s security apparatus to further his goals) used to consolidate power in Russia. By selling off state assets to newly minted oligarchs who owed their personal fortunes to him, Putin was able in turn to buy off Russia’s legislature and courts as well, Now he’s untouchable.
This is who Donald Trump wants to be, and this is the template he’s trying to use. Cable news is full of politico types wringing their hands that Trump doesn’t respect democratic norms, but it’s rather more serious than that.
Now that’s Donald Trump has been elected (with a healthy assist from a hostile foreign power intent on undermining Western democracies), he has no further use for democracy in any form that could threaten his power. Norms of decorum are the least of it. And roughly a third of Americans would be just fine with a dictatorship, especially if it’s wrapped in religion and white nationalism. That’s more than enough to cloud the issues, and grease the skids, at every step in America’s descent. By the time our Dear Leader is killing journalists, torturing dissidents, and both expanding and further privatizing our for-profit prison system, it’ll be too late.
And if Trump wants to remain the most powerful man in the world, he’s pretty much closing off any other avenue of actions. He’s not that dumb.
The Even Bigger Threat
The good news is that the other two-thirds of us want no part of this dystopic future, and that within the halls of power, Donald Trump seems to have pissed off plenty of people who, like John McCain, are just waiting for their chance at payback. For every way that Trump can try to shut down the Russia investigation, Congress, law enforcement, and the courts still have a half-dozen ways to block him. Our government is fast approaching a reckoning in which this circus will do real damage to people who count (and who count their money). Trump can and will be neutralized.
The bad news is that while Donald Trump may be a dangerously ham-fisted, emotionally arrested megalomaniac, he’s still just a symptom, not the problem. Tens of millions of Americans still think he’s awesome. And he’s not the only billionaire who wants the US to become a kleptocratic oligarchy on the model of, say, Putin’s Russia, or China’s unique approach to totalitarian capitalism. The Koch Brothers still personally own several state governments, and there are plenty of other less visible would-be oligarchs who want a Trumpian future, regardless of whether Trump himself is in it.
And if Trump goes? Meet President Michael Pence, a Christian Jihadist who can seamlessly appeal to Trump’s religious fans and who is far more experienced and competent than Trump in making the levers of government work for his ends.
Trump’s dream of being permanent King of the Universe isn’t working out so well at the moment. But it’s what comes next that’s even more concerning. Every US president since Richard Nixon has claimed still more power for the Executive Branch; each successive one, up to and including Obama, has claimed for himself (and thus normalized) the new powers claimed by his predecessor. Even as Trump lies with every breath and tries to trample one once-unassailable check or balance after another in an effort to stay in power and out of prison, he and his party are governing so badly, and he’s personally alienating so many people who (like John McCain) have the power to thwart him, that chances are good the 45th President can be stopped in his bid for total power.
There will be far fewer McCains willing to stand up to the 46th President. There will only be the American people.