A 1964 political melodrama, Seven Days in May, envisioned a futuristic (1970s) failed military cabal that sought to sideline the president of the United States over his proposed nuclear-disarmament treaty with the Soviets.
Something far less dramatic but perhaps as disturbing as Hollywood fiction played out this February.
The Teeth-Gnashing of Deep Government
Currently, the political and media opponents of Donald Trump are seeking to subvert his presidency in a manner unprecedented in the recent history of American politics. The so-called resistance among EPA federal employees is trying to disrupt Trump administration reform; immigration activists promise to flood the judiciary to render executive orders inoperative.
Intelligence agencies had earlier leaked fake news briefings about the purported escapades of President-elect Trump in Moscow — stories that were quickly exposed as politically driven concoctions. Nearly one-third of House Democrats boycotted the Inauguration. Celebrities such as Ashley Judd and Madonna shouted obscenities to crowds of protesters; Madonna voiced her dreams of Trump’s death by saying she’d been thinking a lot about blowing up the White House.
But all that pushback was merely the clownish preliminary to the full-fledged assault in mid February.
Career intelligence officers leaked their own transcripts of a phone call that National Security Advisor–designate Michael Flynn had made to a Russian official.
The media charge against Flynn was that he had nefariously talked to higher-ups in Russia before he took office. Obama-administration officials did much the same, before Inauguration Day 2009, and spoke with Syrian, Iranian, and Russian counterparts. But they faced no interference from the outgoing Bush administration.
No doubt the designated security officials of most incoming administrations do not wait until being sworn in to sound out foreign officials. Most plan to reset the policies of their predecessors. The question, then, arises: Why were former Obama-administration appointees or careerist officials tapping the phone calls of an incoming Trump designate (and Trump himself?) and then leaking the tapes to their pets in the press? For what purpose?
Indeed, Trump’s own proposed outreach to Russia so far is not quite of the magnitude of Obama’s in 2009, when the State Department staged the red-reset-button event to appease Putin; at the time, Russia was getting set to swallow the Crimea and all but absorb Eastern Ukraine. Trump certainly did not approve the sale of some 20 percent of North American uranium holdings to Russian interests, in the quid pro quo fashion that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did, apparently in concert with Bill Clinton and the Clinton Foundation — and to general indifference of both the press and the intelligence community.
Why were former Obama-administration appointees or careerist officials tapping the phone calls of an incoming Trump designate and then leaking the tapes to their pets in the press?
In addition, the Wall Street Journal reported last week that career intelligence officers have decided to withhold information from the president, on the apparent premise that he is unfit, in their view, to receive it. If true, that disclosure would mean that elements of the federal government are now actively opposing the duly elected president of the United States. That chilling assessment gains credence from the likelihood that the president’s private calls to Mexican and Australian heads of state were likewise recorded, and selected segments were leaked to suggest that Trump was either trigger-happy or a buffoon.
Oddly, in early January, Senator Charles Schumer had essentially warned Trump that he would pay for his criticism of career intelligence officials. In an astounding shot across his bow, which was followed up by an onslaught in February, Schumer said: “Let me tell you, you take on the intelligence community, they have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you. . . . So even for a practical, supposedly hard-nosed businessman, he’s being really dumb to do this.”
Schumer was evidently not disturbed about rogue intelligence agencies conspiring to destroy a shared political enemy — the president of the United States. What surprised him was how naïve Trump was in not assessing the anti-constitutional forces arrayed against him.
The elite efforts to emasculate the president have sometimes taken on an eerie turn. The publisher-editor of the German weekly magazine Zeit raised the topic on German television of killing Trump to end the “Trump catastrophe.” So did British Sunday Times columnist India Knight, who tweeted, “The assassination is taking such a long time.” A former Obama Pentagon official, Rosa Brooks, recently mused about theoretical ways to remove Trump, including a military coup, should other avenues such as impeachment or medically forced removal fail: “The fourth possibility is one that until recently I would have said was unthinkable in the United States of America: a military coup, or at least a refusal by military leaders to obey certain orders.”
The Atlantic now darkly warns that Trump is trying to create an autocracy. Former Weekly Standard editor in chief Bill Kristol suggested in a tweet that if he faced a choice (and under what surreal circumstances would that happen?) between the constitutionally, democratically elected president and career government officials’ efforts to thwart or remove him, he would come down on the side of the revolutionary, anti-democratic “deep state”: “Obviously strongly prefer normal democratic and constitutional politics. But if it comes to it [emphasis added], prefer the deep state to the Trump state.” No doubt some readers interpreted that as a call to side with anti-constitutional forces against an elected U.S. president.
Hollywood stars such as Meryl Streep equate the president with brownshirts and assorted fascists. A CNN reporter announced that Trump was Hitlerian; another mused about his plane’s crashing. Prominent conservative legal scholar Richard Epstein recently called for Trump to resign after less than a month in office, largely on grounds that Trump’s rhetoric is unbridled and indiscreet — although Epstein cited no indictable or impeachable offenses that would justify the dispatch of a constitutionally elected president. Earlier, Republican columnists David Frum and Jennifer Rubin had theorized that the 25th Amendment might provide a way to remove Trump from office as unfit to serve. The New Republic published an unfounded theory, based on no empirical evidence, alleging that Trump suffers from neurosyphilis and thus is mentally not up to his office.
Former president Barack Obama — quite unlike prior presidents Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush, who all refrained from attacking their successors — is now reportedly ready to join the efforts of a well-funded political action committee to undermine the Trump presidency.
The Police Need Policing
Fake news proliferates. House minority leader Nancy Pelosi and Representative Elijah Cummings recently attacked departing national-security advisor Michael Flynn by reading a supposed Flynn tweet that was a pure invention. Nor did Trump, as reported, have a serious plan to mobilize “100,000” National Guard troops to enforce deportations.
Other false stories claimed that Trump had pondered invading Mexico, that his lawyer had gone to Prague to meet with the Russians, and that he had removed from the Oval Office a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. — sure proof of Trump’s racism. Journalists — including even “fact-checker” Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post — reposted fake news reports that Trump’s father had run a campaign for the New York mayorship during which he’d aired racist TV ads.
Celebrities and writers have attacked Trump’s eleven-year-old son Barron as a sociopath-to-be.
Nor is the Trump family immune from constant attack. Daughter Ivanka Trump was recently cornered on an airline flight, while traveling with her three young children three days before Christmas, and bullied by a screaming activist passenger. Her private fashion business is the target of a national progressive-orchestrated boycott. Celebrities and writers have attacked Trump’s eleven-year-old son Barron as a sociopath-to-be or as a boy trapped in an autistic bubble. First Lady Melania Trump sued the Daily Mail after it trafficked in reports that she had once been a paid escort — a lie that was recently recirculated by a New York Times reporter.
Trump advisers Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka are routinely smeared as anti-Semites and fascists. One Trump critic berated Gorka as a Nazi sympathizer for wearing a commemorative medal once awarded his father for his role in the resistance to the Communist takeover of Hungary.
What has the often boisterous Trump done in his first month to earn calls for his death, forced removal, or resignation?
Dangerous Style or Substance?
The stock market is reaching all-time highs. Polls show business optimism rising. The Rasmussen poll puts Trump’s approval rating at 55 percent.
Compared with Obama in 2009, at the same point in his young administration, Trump has issued about the same number of executive orders. For all his war on the press, Trump has so far not ordered wiretaps on any reporter on the grounds that he is a “criminal co-conspirator,” nor has he gone after the phone records of the Associated Press — Barack Obama’s Justice Department did both, to little notice in the media.
Trump’s edicts are mostly common-sense and non-controversial: green-lighting the Keystone and Dakota pipelines, freezing federal hiring, resuming work on a previously approved wall along the Mexican border, prohibiting retiring federal officials from lobbying activity for five years, and pruning away regulations.
His promises to deport illegal aliens with past records of criminal activity or gang affiliation have, by design, sidestepped so-called dreamers and the illegal aliens who are currently working, without criminal backgrounds, and with some record of lengthy residence.
In his executive order to temporarily suspend immigration from seven war-torn Middle East states, Trump channeled Barack Obama’s prior targeting of immigration trouble spots. At first, Trump’s order was poorly worded and clumsily ushered in; then it was reformulated. It is supported by the public but nonetheless earned a hysterical response from federal judges who seemed to invent new jurisprudence stating that foreign nationals abroad enjoy U.S. constitutional protections.
On more substantive reforms, such as repealing Obamacare, reforming the tax code, and rebuilding infrastructure, Trump awaits proposed legislation from the Republican congressional majority. By all accounts, Trump’s initial meetings or phone calls with British, Israeli, Japanese, and Russian heads of states have gone well.
Trump has had fewer Cabinet appointees bow out than did Barack Obama. Most believe that the vast majority of his selections are inspired. The nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch was a widely praised move. The defense secretary, retired general James Mattis has echoed Trump’s earlier calls for European NATO members to step up and meet their contracted obligations to the alliance.
Clearly in empirical terms, nothing that Trump in his first month in office has done seems to have justified calls for violence against his person or his removal from office. What then accounts for the unprecedented venom?
1) As we saw from his recent free-wheeling press conference, Trump’s loud, take-no-prisoners style is certainly anti-Washington, anti-media, anti-elite, and anti-liberal. He often unsettles reporters with bombast and invective, when most are accustomed to dealing with career politicians or fellow liberal officeholders who share their same beliefs. As part of Trump’s art-of-the-deal tactics, he often blusters, rails, and asks for three times what he might eventually settle for, on the expectation that critics of his style will be soon silenced by the undeniable upside of his eventual achievements. This is a long-term strategy that in the short term allows journalists to fault the present means rather than the future ends. Trump’s unconventional bluster, not his record so far, fuels the animosity of elites who seek to delegitimize him and fear that their reputations and careers can be rendered irrelevant by his roughshod populism. He also has reminded the country that some of the mainstream media and Washington–New York elite are often mediocre and boring.
2) The Democratic party has been absorbed by its left wing and is beginning to resemble the impotent British Labour party. Certainly it no longer is a national party. Mostly it’s a local and municipal coastal force, galvanized to promote a race and gender agenda and opposed to conservatism yet without a pragmatic alternative vision. Its dilemma is largely due to the personal success but presidential failure of Barack Obama, who moved the party leftward and yet bequeathed an electoral matrix that will deprive future national candidates of swing-state constituencies without compensating for that downside with massive minority turnouts, which were unique to Obama’s candidacy. The Democratic party bites its tail in endless paroxysms of electoral frustration — given that the medicine of broadening support to win back the white poor and working classes is deemed worse than the disease of losing the state governorships and legislatures, the Congress, the presidency, and the Supreme Court.
3) Usually conservative pundits and journalists would push back against this extraordinary effort to delegitimize a Republican president. But due to a year of Never Trump politicking and opposition, and Trump’s own in-your-face, unorthodox style and grating temperament, hundreds of Republican intellectuals and journalists, former officeholders and current politicians — who shared a common belief that Trump had no chance of winning and thus could be safely written off — find themselves without influence in either the White House or indeed in their own party, over 90 percent of which voted for Trump. In other words, the Right ruling class is still in a civil war of sorts.
It is no accident that many of those calling for his resignation or removal are frustrated that, for the first time in a generation, they will have no influence in a Republican administration or indeed among most Republicans.
For some, the best pathway to redemption is apparently to criticize Trump to such an extent that their prior prophecies of his preordained failure in the election will be partially redeemed by an imploding presidency. It is no accident that many of those calling for his resignation or removal are frustrated that, for the first time in a generation, they will have no influence in a Republican administration or indeed among most Republicans. Yet, in private, they accept that Trump’s actual appointments, executive orders, and announced policies are mostly orthodox conservative — a fact that was supposed to have been impossible.
4) Since 2000, what might have been seen as irrational and abnormal has become institutionalized and commonplace: record U.S. debt approaching $20 trillion, chronic trade deficits, an often destructive globalization, Hoover-era anemic economic growth, polarizing racial identity politics, open borders, steady growth in the size of government, sanctuary cities, unmet NATO obligations abroad, crumbling faith that the European Union is sustainable and democratic, and a gradual symbiosis between the two parties, both of which ignored the working classes as either demographically doomed or as a spent force of deplorables and irredeemables (or both).
Trump’s efforts to return politics to the center — enforce existing laws, complete previously approved projects, rein in government regulations and growth, recalibrate U.S. alliances to reflect current realities, unapologetically side with friends and punish enemies — were viewed as revolutionary rather than as a return to conventionality, in part because they threatened status quo careers and commerce. Trumpism is more or less akin to the Gingrich-Clinton compromises of the early 1990s or to what Reagan often did rather than what he sometimes said. But what was then bipartisan and centrist today appears revolutionary and nihilistic.
For now, chic Trump hatred and sick talks of coups — or worse — hinge on economic growth. If Trump’s agenda hits 3 percent GDP growth or above by 2018, then his critics — progressive shock troops, Democratic grandees, mainstream media, Never Trump Republicans — will either shift strategies or face prolonged irrelevance.
But for now, ending Trump one way or another is apparently the tortured pathway his critics are taking to exit their self-created labyrinth of irrelevance.