Turmoil in Trumpland

| September 8, 2018

Tumult is the Trump administration’s middle name – and never more so than in the last few days.

First the Washington Post previewed some of the scandalous revelations in Bob Woodward’s soon-to-be-released exposé of the inner workings of President Donald Trump’s White House. Just a day later, in timing that seems to have been pure coincidence, the New York Times published a scathing opinion piece by an anonymous senior administration official.

The book and the op-ed depict a chaotic administration riven by dissension and fear (Woodward’s book is titled Fear) and staffed by officials contemptuous of the president.

Many of Trump’s advisers apparently consider him dangerous and see it as their responsibility to save the country (and the world) from his worst inclinations.

Will there be fallout?

As the proliferating spoofs of the op-ed make clear, the portrait of the US government that emerges is that of an autocracy, albeit a weak and ineffective one. At the top is a leader who was narrowly elected but rejects long-established norms and doesn’t have the knowledge, temperament, or inclination to govern responsibly.

Unelected staffers around the president have taken over much of the responsibility of making and implementing domestic and foreign policy.

How will these fresh and often alarming revelations play out in the crucial midterm elections – just two months away – and in the future of the Trump administration? Do they make a Democratic takeover of Congress more likely? Do they provide ammunition for impeachment proceedings?

On impeachment, the answer is simple.

The book and the op-ed don’t describe what would be seen as impeachable offences. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian attacks on the 2016 election continues and seems likely to end with a report that leaves a final decision in Congress’s hands.

On the midterm elections, too, the latest uproar may have little bearing. We will eventually learn the name of the New York Times author, and we may see another resignation added to a long list of resignations and firings.

But the stories that have emerged this week, however sensational, change little.

We have always known that Trump was impetuous, ill-informed and resistant to deep and careful learning. The op-ed writer decries Trump’s erratic behaviour, his lack of adherence to conservative faith in free trade, his affection for Putin, and more, but all of this was apparent in 2016.

Supporters laud Trump’s style

For supporters, however, Trump’s strengths outweigh his flaws.

They respect his anti-Establishment stance, his bellicosity, his support of tax cuts for the wealthy and deregulation for corporations, and his nominations of conservative Supreme Court justices. They are willing to tolerate and even applaud his atypical governing style as a necessary part of how he gets things done.

The stories in the op-ed and in the Woodward book won’t surprise them or change their opinions. Because the op-ed author and the sources in Woodward’s book aren’t named, Trump’s supporters can dismiss them as disgruntled saboteurs or “fake news.”

One of the remarkable features of the Trump presidency has been the consistency of his support in the face of a steady stream of gaffes, flagrant mistakes and outrages that would have sunk any other president.

While garnering the lowest approval ratings of any elected president in memory, his approval ratings among Republicans have been steady and high.

Coinciding with these latest convulsions, some polls have registered a slight drop, but it’s too early to say whether the movement is significant or will be sustained.

For Trump supporters who might be concerned about the workings of the White House as depicted in the last few days, the anonymous author offers some solace; many of Trump’s policies are beneficial and deserve support, this person writes.

Midterm test looms

When the policies are wrong, we are meant to be reassured that “there are adults in the room” – “unsung heroes” who “are trying to do what’s right” by defending genuine conservative ideals.

Ultimately, then, the op-ed – and the tales in Woodward’s book of officials taking documents off the president’s desk to prevent him from making ill-considered decisions – can be used to support the Republican case for the Trump presidency.

A dangerous president doesn’t need to be removed because he is already being contained by his own staff. The Republican Party still has heroic public servants of virtue and honour. The country is being steered, behind the scenes, in principled conservative directions.

The midterm elections will tell us whether this narrative has worked. But if there is one thing we have learned since November 2016, it is that there will be soon be more breaking news from the White House.

This article was published by Pursuit.