White House

Embracing Chaos in the Trump Era

President Donald Trump holds a campaign rally in Sunrise, Fla., November 26, 2019. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)
The angry Left is irrational, the president thrives amid drama, and the media can’t turn away. Buckle up.

Trump has an amazing ability to excite both his supporters and his critics; rare is the individual who has not taken a side. His strongest partisans think that Trump can do no wrong, and they show a remarkable ability to shift their previous ideological commitments in order to accommodate the president’s latest policy positions. The same Republicans who saw Obama’s deficits as existential threats and chafed at his premature withdrawal of troops from Iraq have kept their silence in the face of rising debt and Trump’s withdrawal from Syria.

Trump’s critics show the same consistency in opposing Trump, even when it means they must abandon their previous positions. The same Democrats who publicly opposed Obama’s dispatch of troops to Syria now refuse to authorize their continued presence or approve Trump’s withdrawal. Many Democrats resist giving Trump credit for embracing the criminal-justice reforms they have long championed — and for doing more than Obama ever tried.

Trump’s critics seem to be in a state of perpetual shock at the president’s mannerisms and rhetorical style. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Trump’s critics and some of his supporters seem to keep hoping that he will change his ways. Whatever one thinks of the President, Trump is perhaps the most transparent chief executive to occupy the White House. He could set Olympic records with the time it takes him to have a thought and then express that thought publicly. To the consternation of some of his aides and party regulars, he has dispensed with the normal Washington cycle of endless consultations to perfect spin and wordsmithing. He has been consistent in his behavior, if not all of his policies, throughout his political career.

His critics protest that he is consistently impetuous, narcissistic, crude, and unfocused. His supporters think this the equivalent of complaining that he does not use the correct salad fork, and they applaud his willingness to take on the mainstream media, party elites, and other members of the establishment they see as arrayed against both him and them. During the Obama years, Republican voters were often angrier at their own leaders than at Obama for betraying their ideals and not fighting harder for their conservative principles. Some voters even had back-handed respect for Obama’s willingness to break convention to accomplish his liberal goals. These Republicans chose Trump to be their president and, more important, their defender, precisely because of his eagerness to upset the apple cart and disrupt the status quo.

Trump thrives in the chaos he helps to create, and it is hard to imagine him pursuing a predictable, mundane path. He could, in theory, sit down and negotiate transportation funding formulas with Pelosi instead of trying to reconfigure decades-old military and trade alliances. That would be bad TV, bad for ratings and bad for the reality star, not to mention a betrayal of the promise of fundamental change he made to voters. His campaign and administration have careened from one crisis to the next: from Hollywood Access video to the Mueller investigation to a trade war with China to a border crisis to the Kavanaugh hearings to a government shutdown to the impeachment inquiry to Syria withdrawal. Yet, far from hurting Trump’s political standing, these crises consolidate his support with base voters and could even help secure his reelection.

The impeachment crisis, for example, both affects and helps fuel voters’ polarization. Republicans who may have been wavering on Trump over concerns about free trade or immigration feel compelled to put on their team jerseys and defend their guy. Moderate voters who may tut-tut over his latest utterance are more repelled by the extreme behavior of his political opponents. Just as many Wisconsin voters who didn’t support Scott Walker’s public-union reforms rejected his recall as a step too far, many swing voters reject impeachment as an overreach.

These constantly emerging crises make for compelling political theater, drowning out as background noise last week’s crisis and allowing Trump to drive the national agenda. Much as the media love to proclaim and demonstrate their antipathy to Trump, they cannot help but cover him obsessively. His partisan critics admit being drawn to his TV appearances and tweets, even if they compare this to rubbernecking at the scene of an accident. His command of free earned media is unparalleled. Good luck to the Democrat nominee, who will inevitably appear small and boring in contrast.

Crises play to Trump’s strengths, allowing him to portray himself as a warrior in an epic struggle against liberal foes determined to bring him (and America) down. In contrast to the routine blocking and tackling of everyday governance, these monumental fights don’t lend themselves to easy resolutions or clearly quantifiable results. Trump can claim victory, defined on his terms, and move on to the next battle. Loyalty is expected by both Trump and his voters during the fight. His supporters are bound to him, preferring not to question their leader while the enemy is at the gates. It’s one thing to disagree with one’s team over the sausage-making that goes into routine legislation; it’s another to abandon the team when the other side is trying to destroy your team.

Whether by design or instinct, Trump creates the chaotic environment in which he naturally thrives. The Democrats continue to play into his hands, getting sucked into these battles time after time, blinded by their hatred for him. They inevitably lose these fights, but, like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football, they keep repeating the cycle, hoping for a different outcome. Voters may eventually tire of the turmoil and turn to a more predicable governing style — one, for example, that prioritizes technocratic competence over ideological purity or one that preaches unity over divisiveness. But don’t bet on it; the Left wants divisiveness and is far too angry to pursue a rational approach. In the meantime, buckle up and enjoy the ride — the intensity and pace are likely to get stronger and faster.

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