There are several ways to understand the political cacophony emanating from Washington over this frenetic past week.
Some of it represents a noxious partisan effort to eradicate everything done by former president Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress, whether it worked or not. This is the kind of tribal revenge more common in primitive societies, a score settling designed not only to crush the other party but also to demoralize and punish the voters who support it. Neither the White House nor the Republican leadership now even bother to make the pretense that they intend to consult or work with Democrats. And Democrats are responding in kind with party line votes against Cabinet nominees. With a Supreme Court nomination next week, this partisan warfare will shift into Defcon 1.
Some of the cacophony is driven by ideological passions and the systematic effort to finally eradicate all vestiges of what hard-line conservatives view as socialism, from civil rights laws to environmental regulations, from consumer and worker protections to public education, from activist fiscal and monetary policy to all manifestations of the redistributionist welfare state. The tea party, you might say, is on a bender, and if its rhetoric is any indication, the aim goes well beyond repealing the New Deal; it is to return the size and scope of government to where it was in 1900, before the Progressive era.
Neither Republican partisanship nor conservative ideology, however, can adequately explain the unconventional behavior of the new president, who spent much of his first week in office spinning tall tales about the size of his inaugural crowds, the massive voter fraud that lay behind his popular-vote loss, the deep respect he has for an intelligence community he once called incompetent or his still-evolving scheme for getting Mexico to pay for the $25 billion wall along the Rio Grande.
Ideology and partisanship cannot explain why the president continues to tweet out policy pronouncements at all hours of the night based on what he saw on the Internet or cable news. They cannot explain why he stubbornly refuses to separate himself from his business interests around the world. They cannot explain why he insists on waging war against the mainstream media, which he views as the enemy.
To the Washington political establishment — the politicians and bureaucrats, the lawyers and the lobbyists, the policy wonks and the campaign hacks — Trump’s behavior seems crazy, counterproductive and comical. But, of course, that’s just the point. From the beginning, his campaign and his political persona have been about one thing — exposing and defeating Washington’s meritocratic elite. And now that he has won the presidency by defeating that establishment, there is nothing that gives him more satisfaction, or endears him more to his core supporters, than flouting the norms of political behavior that the elites have long used to disqualify challengers and keep themselves in power. Trump is not satisfied to have conquered Rome. He means to sack it.
What Trump seems to understand, and what the elites seem to have trouble accepting, is that he won the presidency not in spite of his insulting tweets, his bald-face lies, his lack of knowledge and his refusal to follow political convention, but because of them. And the more he does it, the more he is criticized for it, the longer it allows him to dominate the news and suck the oxygen out of the political conversation, the more power he will have over the governing process.
The political math for the moment is working in his favor. It is true that only about one-third of the country approves of Trump and his antics and share his anti-establishment fervor. But, roughly speaking, there is also one-third of the country that identifies itself as ideologically conservative and another third who are partisan Republicans. The three groups overlap significantly, but not completely, and it was by drawing support from all three groups that Trump was able to eke out an electoral college victory. Now in office, his strategy for holding together that coalition is to offer Republican partisans and die-hard conservatives enough of the what they want so that they are willing to overlook his crazy ideas and governing style.
“This is going to be an unconventional presidency,” acknowledged House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), after Trump got several ovations from Republican lawmakers Thursday at their retreat in Philadelphia. “That is something we are all going to have to get used to.”
At this point, the best hope Democrats have of derailing the Trump Express is not by whipping their own base up in a frenzy, as seems to be their strategy. Rather, it is to persuade a handful of Senate Republicans to jump off the train before it builds up too much momentum, either out of fear for their own personal political survival or out of more high-minded concerns about the direction of policy, the competence of the new administration or the dangers of untethering the political process from long-established norms. All it would take is one high-profile setback on an appointment or piece of legislation for Trump’s coalition of convenience to start to unravel.
In the past, Republican Sens. Ben Sasse (Neb.), John McCain and Jeff Flake (Ariz.), Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), Susan Collins (Maine), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Rand Paul (Ky.), Marco Rubio (Fla.), Mike Lee (Utah), Rob Portman (Ohio), Bob Corker (Tenn.) and Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), have been willing to challenge Trump or break from the Republican ranks. Surely they all understand the consequences of the devilish pact they are being asked to sign. But it would require a genuine profile in courage to withstand the furious attacks and political ostracization that would surely befall any who dared to defect. Never underestimate the capacity of politicians to rationalize the irrational.
Otherwise, we should prepare ourselves for at least two years of weeks like the last one, with wild swings in policy based on “alternative facts,” personal pique, empty boasts and political vendettas. It was the voters, not the political or media establishments, who handed Trump the keys to kingdom, and it may require the voters to take them away.