White House

Our Nation Is Paying for Trump’s Refusal to Be Presidential

President Donald Trump at a rally in Toledo, Ohio, January 9, 2020. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
The president’s inability to act like a president has further exacerbated our political dysfunction.

I’ve long argued that Donald Trump’s presidency will end poorly because he’s a person of bad character. I still think that’s true, though I very much doubt the impeachment trial now underway will result in his removal. Regardless of its outcome, his impeachment illustrates the damage bad character can do to the presidency, the culture, and the constitutional order.

In monarchies and other systems built around one-man (or one-woman) rule, the leader’s quirks, obsessions, or inadequacies cease to be any of those things, instead becoming fashionable attributes of greatness. Bad jokes that emerge from his or her mouth become hilarious; rudeness, strength. Mispronunciations become fashionable locution. The story of Castilian Spaniards replacing the “s” sound with a “th” sound (“therveza” instead of cerveza) to accommodate King Ferdinand’s lisp is myth, alas (or “alath”). But the moral of the story stands.

We’ve seen something similar happen to large swaths of the GOP. Because Trump is unteachable about how the presidency and our constitutional system are supposed to work, politicians and media figures have dropped their long-held views on foreign policy, the national debt, trade, and even the need for basic civility in order to get in sync with the president.

Arizona senator Martha McSally’s outburst on Thursday is just the latest example. When asked by a CNN reporter whether she’d support allowing witnesses at the impeachment trial, this once sober-minded politician called him a “liberal hack,” creating a viral social-media moment perfectly suited for cable-news preening and digital fundraising.

A new book by Washington Post reporters, A Very Stable Genius, recounts in alarming detail how early members of the Trump administration struggled to teach the president the rudiments of the job of commander-in-chief, only to be rebuffed as “dopes and babies” because they didn’t see our international alliances and military assets as an opportunity to turn a profit. Two years later, he’s surrounded by a coterie happy to let Trump be Trump.

The impeachment drama itself stems from the fact that no one can convince the president that the presidency is more than the whims, desires, and ambitions of the person occupying the job.

Unfortunately, the responses from Democrats, much of the media, and opponents of the president, although emotionally understandable, have often compounded the damage.

My American Enterprise Institute colleague Yuval Levin has written tellingly about the Trump era:

My rule of thumb . . . is that every scandal will proceed in whatever way is maximally damaging to public confidence in our core institutions. Each twist and turn and revelation will give everyone on all sides of our politics . . . just enough reason to believe that their side is in the right, the other side knows it but is corrupt, and the only way to get justice is to recognize that there is no alternative to stretching the norms and rules of our politics a little in this particular case.

The Washington establishment’s rush to get ahead of the evidence on Trump’s unproven collusion with Russia; the constant exhortation that the only reasons someone might agree with Trump policies are racism, cultism, or indebtedness to Vladimir Putin; and the often-voiced determination to impeach Trump before impeachable offenses had materialized might sound like brave resistance to those already converted. But to the unconverted, such rhetoric sounds like evidence of bad faith, warranting more bad faith in response.

Our problems with partisanship and polarization predate Trump’s election, but his presidency has been gasoline on a fire. Trump could have avoided impeachment countless times. Most obviously, he could have not done what he obviously did vis-à-vis Ukraine. Or he could have admitted his error, apologized, and taken the steam out of the impeachment train’s boilers.

Instead, because of his low character, he opted to stand by his claims that his actions were “perfect.” As a result, Republicans must now further deform their character to accommodate his and scramble to protect themselves from hearing the truth at his impeachment trial, on the accurate but embarrassing pretext that the Democrats didn’t expose the truth the right way.

Trump could have avoided impeachment had he governed, from the start, as a servant of all Americans, whether they voted for him or not. But that option was no option at all, because his character would not allow it. Now we are plunging further into dysfunction because the presidency was never designed for a man who could not comprehend what it means to be presidential.

© 2020 Tribune Content Agency LLC

Most Popular

Law & the Courts

Why Wasn’t Andrew McCabe Charged?

The Justice Department announced Friday that it is closing its investigation of Andrew McCabe, the FBI’s former deputy director, over his false statements to investigators probing an unauthorized leak that McCabe had orchestrated. McCabe was fired in March 2018, shortly after a blistering Justice Department ... Read More
Law & the Courts

Why Wasn’t Andrew McCabe Charged?

The Justice Department announced Friday that it is closing its investigation of Andrew McCabe, the FBI’s former deputy director, over his false statements to investigators probing an unauthorized leak that McCabe had orchestrated. McCabe was fired in March 2018, shortly after a blistering Justice Department ... Read More
Elections

The Media’s Bernie Sanders Makeover Begins

Just you watch: By the time Election Day rolls around in November, liberal columnists will be telling us that Bernie Sanders is the “real conservative” in the presidential race. Many among the center–left commentariat are struggling to come to terms with the likelihood that the Democratic Party will ... Read More
Elections

The Media’s Bernie Sanders Makeover Begins

Just you watch: By the time Election Day rolls around in November, liberal columnists will be telling us that Bernie Sanders is the “real conservative” in the presidential race. Many among the center–left commentariat are struggling to come to terms with the likelihood that the Democratic Party will ... Read More
Elections

There’s Zero Chance Bloomberg Would Pick Hillary

There’s no better evidence that Mike Bloomberg’s chances of getting the Democratic nomination are on the rise than the fact that the opportunistic Hillary Clinton is already trying to grab a piece of the action. The Drudge Report startled the political world on Saturday by noting that “sources close to ... Read More
Elections

There’s Zero Chance Bloomberg Would Pick Hillary

There’s no better evidence that Mike Bloomberg’s chances of getting the Democratic nomination are on the rise than the fact that the opportunistic Hillary Clinton is already trying to grab a piece of the action. The Drudge Report startled the political world on Saturday by noting that “sources close to ... Read More

Socialism . . . But?

For once, conservatives were ahead of the curve. American conservatism functioned as a political mass movement in the postwar era not because of the rhetorical gifts of its chief expositors (William F. Buckley Jr. et al.) nor because of the intellectual prowess of its best and most creative minds (ask George ... Read More

Socialism . . . But?

For once, conservatives were ahead of the curve. American conservatism functioned as a political mass movement in the postwar era not because of the rhetorical gifts of its chief expositors (William F. Buckley Jr. et al.) nor because of the intellectual prowess of its best and most creative minds (ask George ... Read More
Religion

Getting Real About Christianity

Charlotte, N.C. -- There were women weeping in a chapel here. One woman named Veronica was nearly inconsolable. She was talking about the crucifixion of Christ as if it was happening right then and there. She was feeling it. She was seeing it as the consequences of her sins. She was overwhelmed by the love of a ... Read More
Religion

Getting Real About Christianity

Charlotte, N.C. -- There were women weeping in a chapel here. One woman named Veronica was nearly inconsolable. She was talking about the crucifixion of Christ as if it was happening right then and there. She was feeling it. She was seeing it as the consequences of her sins. She was overwhelmed by the love of a ... Read More