White House

Without a Suitable Enemy, Trump Is Adrift

President Donald Trump boards Air Force One at Morristown municipal airport, August 4, 2019. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)
The end of the Mueller probe has left the president in search of a worthy political foil.

Last week there was a sharp uptick in speculation that President Trump is a few fries shy of a Happy Meal.

Obviously, this is not the first time the idea has popped up that the commander-in-chief’s cheese might have slid off his cracker. Early in his presidency, and again in 2018, there was a lot of chatter that Trump should be removed via the 25th Amendment. Through it all, the president responded by insisting he was a “very stable genius.”

But after what has seemed like a personal best in whackadoodle statements over the last few weeks, cable-news networks and prominent Twitterati are ratcheting up the talk that the president’s wheel might still be turning but the hamster’s dead.

Whether it was his tweet declaring that American companies “are hereby ordered to immediately start looking for an alternative” to doing business in China, or his decision to cancel a trip to Denmark because the Danish prime minister didn’t have a “nice” reaction to his desire to buy Greenland, or his suggestion that Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell might be a greater enemy than China’s premier-for-life, it did seem as if the West Wing’s nurse might have accidentally switched Trump’s meds for M&Ms.

“This is not normal. And I don’t mean that as in, ‘Trump is violating the shibboleths of the Washington establishment,’” wrote the Washington Post’s Megan McArdle. “I mean that as in, ‘This is not normal for a functioning adult.’”

CNN media correspondent Brian Stelter (who often seems to define “media” as Fox News) said over the weekend: “He’s getting worse. We can see it. It’s happening in public but it’s still a very hard, very sensitive story to cover. I’m talking of course about President Trump, about his behavior, about his instability.”

I’ve long thought that Trump was a perfect illustration of the old observation that rich people are never crazy; they’re just “eccentric.” But I am skeptical that the president’s mental state has gotten worse.

Instead, his situation is getting more precarious and that is making Trump’s Trumpiness more obvious. Specifically, I think the fizzle of the Mueller probe was a grievous blow to the president, for the simple reason that it removed an extremely useful political and psychological bogeyman.

Robert Mueller’s investigation allowed Trump to give voice to his persecution complex. In his mind, at least, the “witch hunt” was an all-purpose excuse to whine about “fake news” and distract from other controversies. But it also served the same function for much of the right-wing media, giving them a ratings-and-clicks-rich topic to focus on.

In a sense, Mueller was a substitute for Hillary Clinton. Trump’s 2016 opponent was such a reviled figure on the right, she gave many Trump-skeptical voters the excuse they needed to overlook his shortcomings. After the election, Mueller and his “angry Dems” of the Deep State served as a serviceable alternative to imposing cohesion and message discipline on the Right. Just consider all of the books and thousands of hours of TV programming dedicated to the subject.

With Mueller gone, Trump is left scrambling to find a replacement. The “squad” — the four left-wing Democratic first-term congresswomen — are, collectively and individually, candidates. And they certainly have their political uses, given their radicalism, hostility to Israel, etc. His base is happy to go all-in against them. But attacking four women of color has its limits as a political strategy, especially given that Trump’s electoral Achilles’ heel is suburban moderate women.

Also, they pose no serious threat to Trump’s presidency the way Mueller seemed to, so they do not focus Trump’s mind the way the special prosecutor did.

Right now, the leading candidate for Trump’s Mueller replacement is Powell. And that dog won’t hunt. Trump is clearly convinced that the Fed chair is trying to destroy his reelection chances by not lowering interest rates to goose the economy past the 2020 finish line. Some will think this is bat-guano bonkers, others won’t, but the political reality is that this storyline is just too complicated to replace the Mueller narrative. It doesn’t attract allies the same way, and the talking points required to sustain it are just too convoluted.

Whether or not he’s a stable genius, the Trump on display now is the same one we’ve always seen. What’s changed are the circumstances. Like an unsteady man long held upright by pushing on a locked door, he’s tumbling now that the path is suddenly open. He needs some new enemy to brace against, and he’s flailing around in search of one. That makes him appear wobblier than before, but he’s exactly as unbalanced as he’s always been.

© 2019 Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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