With President Trump, the abnormal is the new normal
You hear it constantly these days: “This can’t go on.” “Something’s got to give.” The hope that impeachment is around the corner is an unspoken assumption in much media coverage. “Trump Is Just Six Senate Votes Away From Impeachment” blared a recent Newsweek headline. (News flash: He’s not.)
The Los Angeles Times ran a forceful — and largely persuasive — editorial titled “Enough is Enough.” It began, “These are not normal times,” and then followed with a blistering indictment of elected Republicans who refuse to stand up and speak out about the damage the president is doing to the country and his own party.
But maybe the new abnormal is the new normal, as the last line of the piece suggests: “This is the seventh in a series.”
Part of the problem is that President Trump, in terms of both his personality and his behavior, is like a magnet next to a compass, making it very difficult to get accurate bearings. Just as his candidacy was a symptom of larger forces — the triumph of entertainment culture, the breakdown in confidence in elites and their institutions, etc. — his presidency may likewise be masking more permanent changes to politics.
We won’t know if things will return to “normal” until we separate the magnet and the compass. Until then, all of the proposed remedies for the problem of political chaos only promise more chaos.
Consider the departure of Stephen Bannon from the White House. Contrary to a lot of punditry, it is unlikely that the White House will become less gonzo with his absence. (The president sets the tempo for this administration.) But it is almost surely true that the climate outside of the White House will get more absurd with Bannon back at Breitbart.com.
Bannon has boasted that he is a “Leninist.” Like so much of what Bannon says, that’s hyperbole, but he does share with the Soviet revolutionary a worldview of “the worse, the better.” Bannon believes that racial anxiety, populist fervor and widespread resentment help his cause.
It may indeed be the right thing for Republicans to stand up to Trump more. But that won’t restore order either. It will infuriate the president and his biggest supporters and further split the Republican Party.
Likewise the widespread call for Republican legislators to stop voting with the president even when they agree with him. This is insane advice on the merits. Voting against Trump out of spite would be political malpractice. It would also be a gift to the Bannons and Sean Hannitys who are desperate to craft a “stabbed in the back” explanation for the president’s failures.
Republicans are stuck in a Trump-22 for as far as the eye can see. They cannot afford to alienate the core Trump base by being too critical of the president, and they cannot afford to alienate the Trump-critical elements in the party by being too supportive. So, like House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, they have no choice but to focus on the policies that unite both constituencies. The problem, of course, is that absent a president who knows how to move an agenda through Congress, Congress is left looking both ineffectual and opportunistic at the same time.
There’s a similar problem with the calls for mass resignations from the White House. There are still good people there. If they quit, they’ll all be replaced with members of the “let Trump be Trump” school.
Meanwhile the Democrats, who have their own populist challenges, see GOP dysfunction as an excuse not to remedy their own shortcomings — many of which made Trump’s victory possible.
Then there’s impeachment. If Democrats win the House — a big “if” right now — they will probably get to work on impeachment hearings. If they succeeded, they’d still need roughly half of the Republicans to vote to remove him. How reserved and sober-minded would you expect the president — or his supporters — to be during that process? How about after the Senate fails to remove him?
Face it: It’s gonna be weird for a very long time.
Editor’s note: Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor of National Review. You can write to him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or via Twitter @JonahNRO.