Trump’s End Game

I haven’t written anything for quite a long stretch about our national crisis. To my mind, there hasn’t been much to say. Trump continues to show daily why he is completely unfit to be President. He does terrible things, and the Republican party shows no inclination to do anything to rein him in. (See for example, my March 21, 2018 piece on Susan Collins.) Daily I read many interesting, illuminating things, but consistently I find I have little to add to the regular commentaries of (for example) E. J. Dionne and Andrew Sullivan.

Every day brings fresh dangers, but deep down they are the same ones over and over. Denigration of national purpose, corruption, risk of war, abuse of power: never rinse and yet repeat endlessly.

On the impeachment question, of course I see the case for impeachment now, and nearly as clearly I see the prudential reasons not to rush into impeachment with the McConnell wall holding so firmly. Moreover a fresh problem could lie in removing Trump to put Pence in a place to run as the incumbent in 2020.

Now I find myself thinking a new thought. The situation is changing. Trump is seeing the same thing that I am: that nothing is changing. He lost the 2018 midterms. His own approval ratings are stuck. (He’s currently at 41.7% approval; 53.0 disapproval.) He has a year and a quarter to secure not just his re-election but his legacy, and that matters to him. He craves ‘greatness’.

Realizing this stuck situation, he is realizing he needs to do dramatic things to unstick the situation. What sorts of dramatic things? Two kinds.

(1) Create crises, blame them on the Democrats (calling them traitors), then conjure a solution of only his own devising. He has used the declared national emergency on the southern border to justify funding for the Wall without Congressional approval and to justify tariffs by fiat.

That cycle of crisis/resolution has the added effect of binding the Republican party leadership (especially those in Congress) more tightly to him. Each crisis embodies an abuse of power. When the Republicans do nothing, they ratify that abuse.

(2) Stonewall completely every investigation or inquiry into his conduct. He’s realized if these investigations/inquiries are going to continue (and they will and they should) then his best defense is a completely forward position. Yield nothing. Allow no testimony. Hand over no documents. Moreover, whatever accusation is made against him, use the Executive branch and the Congressional Republicans to accuse the Democrats (traitors!) of exactly the same behavior. Better to bluster about Executive privilege than to yield an inch. It’s hard to imagine there aren’t things he’s wanting to keep out of the light of day, but it doesn’t matter; the stonewalling is itself abuse of power.

This stonewalling will also have the effect of further binding the Republican party leadership to him. As they do nothing in the face of each episode stonewalling, they ratify these abuses of power as well. What’s more, this binding reaches into the courts, too, even more than the manufactured crises.

He will also continue to slander and lie and divert attention, but he has been on that path from the beginning.

These new dynamics will encounter no meaningful countervailing force so long as only Democrats are opposing him. Trump will stay completely on the offensive. That will be his strategy. The pressure can only continue to build. He needs to up the ante. Otherwise: stuck. He cannot and will not cede initiative to the House leadership. Nothing will change unless he wins it all by crashing the Constitutional order or unless some in the Republican Party decide something else is important to them than having Trump remain in office.

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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