Politics & Policy

Trump Short Circuits Washington

President Trump at the White House, January 23, 2017. (Reuters photo: Kevin Lamarque)
The open war between the establishment and President Trump

‘What happened to the honeymoon?” Charles Krauthammer asked last month. The opposition has long granted presidents time to form their administrations, to announce their signature initiatives. Donald Trump’s honeymoon lasted all of 10 days — from his surprise November 8 election to the rude treatment of his vice president at a performance of Hamilton on November 18. After that, divorce.

The same forces that opposed Trump during the Republican primary and general election are trying to break his presidency before it is a month old. At issue is the philosophy of nation-state populism that drove his insurgent campaign. It is so at variance with the ideologies of conservatism and liberalism predominant in the capital that Washington is experiencing something like an allergic reaction. Nation-state populism diverges from Beltway conservatism on trade, immigration, entitlements, and infrastructure, and from liberalism on sovereignty, nationalism, identity politics, and political correctness. Its combative style and heightened rhetoric offend the sensibilities of career-minded Washingtonians of both parties, who are schooled in deference, diplomacy, being nice to teacher, and the ancient arts of CYA.

The message this establishment is sending to Trump? Conform or be destroyed. The outrage at the president’s executive order on refugees and travel was a sample of what is coming. Trump is used to fighting the media and campaign opponents, but he has little experience with the professional and supposedly nonpartisan bureaucracy. That is why his firing of acting attorney general Sally Yates was so important. She ordered her department not to defend an executive order that had been cleared by the White House counsel and her own Office of Legal Counsel. For Trump to have delayed or done nothing would have been an invitation to further subversion. He let Yates go within hours.

The blasé manner in which the media describes opposition to Trump from within the bureaucracy is stunning. “Federal workers turn to encryption to thwart Trump,” read one Politico headline. “An anti-Trump resistance movement is growing within the U.S. government,” says Vanity Fair. “Federal workers are in regular consultation with recently departed Obama-era political appointees about what they can do to push back against the new president’s initiatives,” reports the Washington Post. No one who professes support for democracy and the rule of law can read these words without feeling alarmed. The civil service exists to support the chief executive — not the other way around. And yet, when White House press secretary Sean Spicer said that career officials who disagree with White House policy are free to resign, the collective response in Washington was outrage — at Spicer!

Not only are there two Americas. There are two governments: one elected and one not, one that alternates between Republicans and Democrats and one that remains, decade after decade, stubbornly liberal, contemptuous of Congress, and resistant to change. It is this second government and its allies in the media and the Democratic party that are after President Trump, that want him driven from office before his term is complete. You think I exaggerate. But consider this: When a former Defense official who teaches at Georgetown Law School takes to Foreign Policy to propose “3 Ways to Get Rid of President Trump Before 2020,” and when one of those ways is “a military coup, or at least a refusal by military leaders to obey certain orders,” we are in unknown and extremely unsettling territory.

Congress is doing its best to live up to the public’s dismal opinion of it. Democrats on Capitol Hill are behaving erratically, hysterically, boycotting committee meetings to approve Cabinet officials, threatening to filibuster a qualified and highly regarded Supreme Court pick because Mitch McConnell won a wager with President Obama, and saying they will impeach President Trump over policy differences. The Republicans on Capitol Hill seem as disoriented by Trump’s victory as the Democrats. Congress has been in session for a month. What, besides repealing a mining regulation, has it done? Why is Mitch McConnell not playing hardball with Chuck Schumer on executive branch appointments and Judge Gorsuch? I know, I know: “Things take time.” But time is the enemy. This is something Democrats and other members of the self-described “resistance” understand but Republicans do not. Or perhaps the Republicans understand all too well, and want inertia and entropy to bring us a less populist and more conventionally Republican Trump. The doofuses.

So unlikely did the election of Donald Trump seem to Washington and its denizens that the reality of it still has not sunk in. All of the city’s worst traits — the self-regard, the group think, the obsessions with trivia, the worship of credentials, the virtue signaling, the imperiousness, the ignorance of perspectives and people from outside major metropolitan centers and college towns — not only persist. They have been magnified with Trump’s arrival. There is so much negative energy coursing through the city that circuits are overloaded. That the president still draws support from the coalition that brought him to office, that a fair number of people see his policies as commonsensical, seems not to affect any of Trump’s critics in the least. They will press on until Trump behaves like they want him to behave.

Which means the war between the president and the Washington establishment may last a very, very long time.

— Matthew Continetti is the editor-in-chief of the Washington Free Beacon, where this column first appeared. © 2017 All rights reserved 

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