You hear it all the time: President Trump hasn’t been tested, hasn’t faced a real crisis. The events of the last few weeks, however, have made me want to turn that formulation around. Trump doesn’t face crises so much as manufacture them. In a way he is the crisis, and his presidency is in danger of being defined not by any legislative or diplomatic achievement but by his handling of the multiplying and daunting obstacles he creates for himself.
I do not mean that we are in the midst of a constitutional crisis. Nor are we in a crisis of democracy. Trump was fairly elected, the mechanisms of representative government continue to function, the judiciary and bureaucracy and Congress and media constrain the office of the president. What Trump did in firing James Comey accorded with the powers of the chief executive. Indeed, how this political survivalist had managed to last so long was something of a mystery to me. Throughout his time in Washington, Comey had managed to annoy no less than three presidents — Bush on surveillance, Obama on law enforcement, Trump on Russia. Bush and Obama must have worried about the backlash that would ensue if they derailed Comey and appeared to interfere in the workings of the Department of Justice. Trump has no such hang ups.
Violating norms is what he does. The rules that govern public speech, public conduct — what you are allowed to say about your opponents, judges, Islam, immigration, women, how you separate yourself from your company, where you spend your weekends — do not make Trump flinch. His flippancy was part of his appeal. He was the middle finger of the American electorate, a protest against two decades of establishment missteps. He was going to shake things up, drain the swamp, expose that there wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference between the parties, and if he offended his adversaries along the way, well, so be it. Elite consensus had become so petrified, the beneficiaries of globalization so powerful and entrenched, the institutions of the administrative state so disconnected from the sentiments of the people that only a brash tycoon with no political experience could break the deadlock.
Trump brought to his campaign an improvisational and unstructured managerial style, a flair for publicity, a savant-like understanding of social media, and the insight that confrontation and polarization are keys to building a brand. He’d follow one outrageous statement with another, hold strident rallies from which cable television could not look away, announce policies so novel and controversial that they seized immediately the imagination of the electorate. The persistent atmosphere of crisis, of emergency and mess, the sense that it could fall apart at any moment heightened the drama, amped us up, kept us watching. McCain, Graham, Megyn Kelley, Carly Fiorina, David Duke, Heidi Cruz, Judge Curiel, Manafort, WikiLeaks, the Access Hollywood video — none of it was planned, none of it was reasoned. It was the same word-salad, the same tweets, jokes, insults, and poses that had carried Trump from relative anonymity as the son of Fred to global fame as a hotel and casino developer, business icon, and bestselling author, television star, golf course owner and licensing king, nascent president. The Trump persona and its endless cycles of deals, failures, and comebacks had carried him this far. Why stop?
There has always been a self-destructive element to Donald Trump, a tendency to undermine the foundation of his life just as it appears to be settling. Perhaps this is the restlessness of a great man, the constant drive of the lionhearted for something better, greater, richer, higher; he’d probably say so. Whatever the cause, it was foolish to imagine that this aspect of his personality would vanish upon his taking the oath of office. He has had trouble translating the style of leadership that brought him financial and campaign success to governing from the White House. His support is deep but not wide, and is attached to him personally, not to the party he leads and its business-friendly program. His desire not to employ anyone who criticized him during the campaign has hampered his ability to recruit. His assumption that the tools that brought him to power will suffice to enact his agenda seems unfounded: It takes more than tweets and interviews and the occasional set-piece rally to mobilize public support for a reform of Obamacare or a tax cut or an infrastructure bill or an immigration overhaul. The circus did not end on January 20; the ringmaster did not pause. He rushes from one end of the arena to the other at a whim, picking fights, commenting on the scene, introducing the lion-tamer and stuntmen, hamming it up with the clowns. “Donald Trump is an ad hoc president,” wrote Michael Warren. “The decisions he makes are by and of the moment, with his aides and staffers and supporters racing to fit them into a message and a policy.”
It is his desire to rebut the idea that victory was the result of collusion with Russia that has had the most explosive effects in Washington, has done the most to unsettle the city and its residents, has catalyzed institutional resistance to his presidency. Every one of his 44 predecessors would have kept their distance from the subjects of intelligence or criminal investigations, would have focused on domestic and foreign policy, would have delivered anodyne messages of confidence in the intelligence community and Department of Justice, would have trusted allies in Congress and media to be their advocates. Not Trump. Even before Inauguration Day he was lambasting the CIA and the director of national intelligence. By the time he was implicating former acting attorney general Sally Yates in the leak of classified information to the press, official Washington had become so inured to his behavior that it more or less ignored his Twitter account. Firing Comey when he did, and in the manner he did, could not be evaded, written off, easily rationalized, otherwise ignored. Trump can add the FBI to his enemies list. And after a few slow news days, the crisis resumed.
Still, one can’t help noticing the ease with which the president has been able to compartmentalize, separate the controversy of the day from the business of government. His achievements are real enough. The economy appears healthy, illegal immigration has plummeted, Neil Gorsuch was confirmed, regulations are being undone, the American Health Care Act made it through the House, foreign policy is far more conventional than many had anticipated. Perhaps Trump keeps pouring fuel on the fire because he wouldn’t have it any other way, because he thrives in crisis, revels in it, loves the risk and danger and thrill, wants to struggle, does not know what to do if he isn’t fighting, attacking, insulting, offending, agitating, summoning followers to his side and repelling his adversaries. Meanwhile life goes on.
What works for Trump may not work for the Republican party, however. And if Trump’s presidency is to have positive and durable consequences on the border, on the courts, on the markets, on the law, he will need Congress. It’s a relationship strained by the feeling of crisis. The Democrats have calculated that their path to the majority depends on outright opposition to anything associated with Trump, and the GOP majority is relatively thin. Senators have power. They are not moved as easily as the House, which as Trump has learned is not exactly intimidated by him either. Does Trump understand that the strength of his presidency rests on the strength of the Republican Congress, that this strength depends on legislative achievement, that the Democrats will move to impeach him the minute they have the House?
Weird as it sounds, the best-case scenario may be the one in which we live, where a president defined by crisis, consumed by scandal, presides over a humming economy and a relatively stable international scene, where angry tweets and sarcastic letters of termination and eyebrow-raising asides are the price of a center-right presidency that enforces immigration law, puts constitutionalists on the bench, reduces taxes and regulations, spends a little more on the military, incentivizes capital investment, and tightens labor markets to induce wage hikes. The best-case scenario is that the crisis is limited to Trump, who is defined by it, needs it.
And the worst-case scenario?
I leave that to your imagination.