“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair …, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way …”
Through the miracle (or curse) of the internet, CNN, and the BBC, a cruise on the scenic and tranquil waters of the Rhine and Mosel provided little escape from the news of the day. And of news there has been aplenty just since our departure on July 14. Donald Trump has worked assiduously to vindicate the judgment, first expressed here in July, 2015, and often repeated thereafter, that he is wholly–and dangerously–unqualified for the presidency. Yet the Trump base appears to remain largely undiminished in its giddy enthusiasm, convinced that Trump will somehow Make America Great Again. Meanwhile, the stock market reached new highs and, as the New York Times put it on August 2, “Wall Street, Climbing Sharply, Skips Washington’s Soap Opera.”
The more appalling of Trump’s most recent actions and comments included these:
#Attacking his own Attorney General Jeff Sessions, attacks that conservative Ross Douthat aptly described as “a multitiered tower of political idiocy, a sublime monument to the moronic,a gaudy, gleaming, Ozymandian folly that leaves many of the president’s prior efforts in its shade.”
#Announcing, via Twitter, a ban on military service by transgender individuals, even including those already serving, a radical change of policy so poorly thought out that it drew a thinly veiled rebuke from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
#Making a crudely political (and self-congratulatory) speech to the Boy Scouts, so inappropriate that it prompted a letter of apology from the Chief Executive of the Boy Scouts to the scouting community. Trump then put icing on this fetid little cake with the false claim that he had received a telephone call from the head of the Boy Scouts praising the speech.
#Giving a speech that encouraged rough tactics by police: “When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you see them thrown in rough. I said, ‘Please don’t be too nice.’ Trump went on, referring to officers’ use of their hands to shield prisoners’ heads, ‘Like, don’t hit their head and they’ve just killed somebody.’ I said, ‘You can take the hand away, OK?’” Trump’s Press Secretary, Sarah Sanders, later tried to defend the president’s comments as a “joke,” but they did not amuse the countless law enforcement officials across the country, who promptly and emphatically disowned them.
#Hiring the deplorable Anthony Scaramucci as White House communications director of the White House, an appointment so misguided that Scaramucci lasted only ten days in the job.
#Tweeting that “Our relationship with Russia is at an all-time & very dangerous low. You can thank Congress, the same people that can’t even give us HCare!” Senator John McCain spoke for many of us when he responded promptly with his own tweet: “Our relationship w/ Russia is at dangerous low. You can thank Putin for attacking our democracy, invading neighbors & threatening our allies.”
#Overruling the advice of lawyers and advisers to dictate the content of a deliberately misleading statement that described the meeting of Donald Trump Jr. and others with Russian operative Natalia Veselnitskaya as having involved the “adoption of Russian children.” The White House later admitted that the President did play a role in drafting the statement– contradicting a previous claim by the President’s lawyer that the senior Trump had not been involved with the statement in any way.
In the case of a “normal” presidency, such a remarkable collection of missteps would be widely seen as a crisis, but in Trump’s case they are simply taken to be business as usual. Nevertheless, they are reflected in declining approval ratings in the polls and the latest Real Clear Politics averages show an approval of 38.5 per cent and disapproval of 56.4. On the other hand, Trump continues to command the support of three-quarters of Republicans and the loud support of many. The latter was on display at a Thursday rally in West Virginia, that drew Trump followers from across Appalachia. It has long been clear that Trump enjoys campaigning far more than attempting to govern, and he relished this opportunity to lash out at the investigations of his campaign’s ties to Russia. Such investigations, Trump told a cheering crowd, were a “fake story.” It is not clear what it might take to shake the faith of Trump’s base (or, for that matter, begin to worry Wall Street). If Trump’s support remains at current levels, it would seem to make his re-election problematic, but it is probably sufficient to bar any attempt at impeachment.
Assuming that Trump does remain in office for the balance of his term, the horizon is not entirely bleak. In the White House, the appointment of General John Kelly as Chief of Staff shows early promise of bringing order to that chaotic venue. Kelly’s appointment also appears to have strengthened the hand of Lt. Gen H.R. McMaster in clearing out loyalists of Mike Flynn and Steve Bannon from the National Security Council and replacing them with more qualified personnel. (See Politico, “Kelly gives McMaster cover in West Wing battles.” Ultimately, however, Kelly’s greatest challenge, though he denies that it’s part of his job description, may be to bring order not only to the staff but to the thought processes and actions of the President.
On Capitol Hill, Republicans are beginning to show signs of finding the backbone that they have largely been missing. The most notable example thus far has been Senator Jeff Flake whose book, Conscience of a Conservative, provides a scathing critique of the Trump administration. Apart from Flake’s apostasy, the most striking show of independence on the part of Capitol Hill Republicans was the Russian sanctions bill, a measure that passed both houses with such overwhelming majorities that Trump had no choice but to add his grudging signature. It may be that Congress is an awkward partner for allies in designing the details of sanctions, and it can also be argued that the law intrudes unduly upon the constitutional prerogatives of the President to conduct foreign policy. Nevertheless, given Trump’s feckless Russophilia, Congress had compelling reasons for acting.
On the domestic front, one area for cautious optimism may be, of all things, healthcare. To begin with, Senators Susan Collins, Linda Murkowski, and John McCain are all to be saluted for bringing to an end the attempt to replace Obamacare with a plainly inadequate substitute. Moreover, there are even indications that a bipartisan approach may now find support in both the House and the Senate. Blog No. 134 had pronounced the death of Repeal and Replace (somewhat prematurely, as it turned out) and urged Rescue and Repair instead. It now appears that, against all odds, Rescue and Repair could become a reality. As explained in an August 3 editorial in the New York Times, “Capitol Shocker: Democrats and Republicans Start Working Together on Healthcare:”
On Monday 43 members of the House outlined a proposal to strengthen the insurance marketplaces created by the 2010 law. On Tuesday, the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray, said they would hold hearings and introduce a bill to cut premiums and encourage insurers to sell policies on the marketplaces for 2018.
As the Times acknowledged, many obstacles must be overcome before those efforts can bear fruit, but the mere fact of their having been undertaken is grounds for some optimism. Charles Krauthammer, an iconic conservative and no admirer of Trump, has expressed cautious relief that that Trump’s various excesses have been checked by institutional restraints. In an August 3 column, “The guardrails hold,” he concluded, “At five separate junctures, the sinews of our democracy held against the careening recklessness of this presidency. Consequently, Donald Trump’s worst week proved a particularly fine hour for American democracy.” Whether the guardrails continue to hold remains to be seen.
Looming over everything else, is the growing menace of North Korea, a challenge that would tax even the wisest and most courageous of presidents. But that discussion awaits another day. In the meantime, and to close on a note of mild optimism, consider the words of Ogden Nash, written in 1933 but perhaps of some comfort today:
The American people,
With grins jocose,
Always survive the fatal dose.
And though our systems are slightly wobbly,
We’ll fool the doctor this time, probly.