America is about to enter the most dangerous period in its 242-year-old history. Soon we will know if the House of Representatives has been captured by a justifiably vengeful Democratic Party seeking to block Trump at every turn, and possibly impeach him. The president will fight back, not recognizing any distinction between his political survival and that of the nation.
Just look at what Trump has done recently in an attempt to retain GOP control of Congress: He abused his power as commander in chief by sending troops to the Mexican border. He concocted a threat to national security by falsely characterizing a march of several thousand desperate Central Americans — many of them women and children — as an “invasion” of criminals and, in the words of his sycophants at Fox News, carriers of diseases not seen since the Black Death of the Middle Ages.
Mining the same theme — anti-immigrant sentiment — the president asserted that he had the right to revoke a provision of the Constitution that grants citizenship to anyone born in the United States. This is called “birthright citizenship,” and it has been the law of the land since 1868 . The 14th Amendment was intended to guarantee citizenship to former slaves — not an issue anymore, I grant you, but still the law. It cannot be revoked by executive order.
Things will only get worse with a Democratic Congress. If it blocks Trump’s more egregious initiatives, and at the same time opens numerous investigations, there is no telling what Trump will do. Neither precedence nor propriety will contain him. Unless the Democrats win big, and thereby send a cautionary message to the GOP, senate Republicans — more interested in their own political survival than that of the nation — will continue to constitute the Cowards Caucus.
How will Trump react if cornered? Certainly not in a mature, statesmanlike fashion. More likely, he will be on a permanent rolling boil. He will obsess about impeachment and about being defeated for a second term. He would then go down as a one-term president, becoming the one thing he cannot abide: a loser. He will do anything to avoid that outcome.
As we have learned since Trump’s election, a president has vast powers, but they are not monarchical. The courts have constrained Trump. So has what he thinks of as the “deep state.” In matters of war, however, the president is supreme. Not since World War II has Congress bothered to actually declare war. Since then, it has left that up to presidential discretion.
But this president has no discretion. If he’s in political trouble, he may well provoke or create or blunder into a military crisis as a way of uniting the country. Initially, this can work: George W. Bush, the most hapless of presidents, had an approval rating of 90 percent after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. (He wound up dipping to 25 percent just before leaving office.) Trump, of course, has done something similar by fixing bayonets on the Mexican border, preparing for what he called an invasion, and conflating shoeless migrants with ruthless Central American gangs.
Soon, the president will rid himself of obstinate aides who might thwart him. Gary Cohn and H.R. McMaster are already gone. Yes men are on the way. Yet, Jim Mattis remains at the Pentagon. He’s a stabilizing influence, but he is not beloved by Trump, and he is not at all liked by national security adviser John Bolton and Bolton’s deputy. Mattis has told friends he has no intention of leaving. But ultimately he will, and then Trump, like the brat running Saudi Arabia, will be free to do as he pleases.
An American Nero is on the throne. He would set fire to his Rome before relinquishing power. The Republican Party is inhabited by the spirit of Know-Nothingism. It has not merely lost its traditional base, it has lost its mind. A dangerous period is approaching, and only a new leader can save us. He or she is already here. Look in the mirror — and vote.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.