Kind of like how every year is The Hottest Year on Record, every week of the Trump administration seems to be the most dysfunctional, the most self-defeating, and the most embarrassing for America. It’s hard to tease out the hyperbole from the dizzying reports of executive ineptitude and maintain a sense of perspective, especially since it was only last week that Obamacare repeal exploded in Mitch McConnell’s hand for the fourth time. It was also only last week(!) when Trump concocted a ban on transgender Americans serving in the Armed Forces as a way of shoring up support with his base. Oddly, many Republicans and even the military didn’t seem eager to take that one up. (The U.S. military does many dubious things, but it displays loyalty toward its own.)
There was also the attempt to turn the Boy Scout Jamboree into a Hitler Youth rally, although bragging to a bunch of teenagers in West Virginia about your friend who owned and lost a yacht is maybe too crude and meandering to achieve the requisite oratorical lift. And don’t forget that full-throated endorsement of police violence! But all of that was last week, and this week is even more chaotic, starting with the end of Anthony Scaramucci’s 11-day tenure as White House chief of staff.
If you want some hard numbers, here they are: Trump’s approval hit a new low. People really hate the guy. They hate him more than they hated the last two guys — and a lot of people hated those guys. But if you think all polls are skewed — and even Rasmussen, the notoriously pro-GOP pollster, still pegs trump at under 40 percent — or if you prefer to gauge anti-Trump sentiment by measuring the hairline cracks that have been in the Republican windshield for a while now, this week provided proof that they’re beginning to extend into the driver’s field of vision.
Here’s a scathing takedown published Sunday night by the reliably right-wing National Review that stops about an inch short of calling Trump a p*ssy. Here’s another, more measured mea culpa in Politico by Arizona Republican Senator Jeff Flake that basically calls out the entire GOP. That’s a pretty courageous stance, as Flake is running for re-election next year, and his piece is an excerpt from a forthcoming book with the almost embarrassingly grandiose title Conscience of a Conservative. (He wants to be Barry Goldwater, like, bad. But if, between Flake and John McCain, the two GOP senators from Arizona want to become an axis of anti-Trump conservatism-lite, I’ll nuke some Jiffy Pop. Oh, I’m sorry, “nuke” is a poor word choice in the context of Barry Goldwater.)
Today, an even bigger bomb went off. The Washington Post published and summarized leaked transcripts of Trump’s January phone calls with Enrique Peña Nieto, the president of Mexico, and Malcolm Trumbull, the prime minister of Australia. Basically, Trump comes off a desperate whiner who begs Peña Nieto to stop talking about the wall. (He also bashes the entire state of New Hampshire as a “drug-infested den” before saying he won it in the election, which he didn’t.)
A great day at the White House!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 31, 2017
In a normal democracy, like the one we used to be, where time-tested norms and standards held sway, this would be described as “damning.” In a sick but still-functional polity, it would “set the narrative.” It isn’t and it won’t, of course, partly because any transcript of Trump talking for more than 15 seconds is so painful to read that no one would ever willingly do that to themselves, and also because Trump possesses some sort of magical armor that makes him un-damn-able. Like the thousand mortal political wounds he’s already survived, it will barely move the needle at all. Americans are now left with the nearly pitiable hope that this non-damnability is only a personal attribute of our bizarre manchild-in-chief and not some transferable quality that will pass to his successors, otherwise we’re seriously doomed.
In any case, Trump’s one supposed strength, his ability to negotiate good deals, has pretty much been revealed as a total sham. He’s sliding perilously close to total sack-of-shit territory, friendless and without strengths. Nobody should be surprised Trump can’t close a deal — and, in fact, the National Review op-ed was a gender-rooted comparison between Trump and the hapless salesman Shelley Levene from Glengarry Glen Ross — but the Post had definitive proof. Trump is pathetic and easily outfoxed. He had no interest in following through on congressional Republicans’ signature promise (we will repeal Obamacare) and he lied to voters on his own (Mexico will pay for the wall). He’ll never get what he wants on any issue that generates even mild pushback. But again, this is the transcript of a six-month-old phone call that only came to light today, so it doesn’t technically count as something Trump said this week.
And he’s said plenty. Of all the petty, self-serving, mendacious, incoherent, and outright stupid pseudo-utterances that Trump’s maxillofacial perturbations disgorged onto the lap of the body politic, he also told some rich supporters that “the White House is a dump,” compared to the New Jersey golf club he owns and where he’s about to vacation for the next 18 days even though he repeatedly trolled Barack Obama for golfing. Golf magazine reported the incident, the White House called it fake news, and Golf stood its ground because apparently, lots of people heard it happen. (I don’t believe for a second that Golf will be Trump’s undoing, but second only to Teen Vogue, it would be delicious if that’s how the endgame played out.)
In any case, apart from the fact that there’s no daylight between parody and reality, this is a problem. It’s not because James Hoban’s stately civic architecture is sacrosanct, and not because of mealy-mouthed anxiety projection of how the optics will play out in the Rust Belt. It’s because at the Democratic National Convention, then-first lady Michelle Obama said, “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.” That elegant, factually accurate historical accounting drew wide choruses of boos from the right. People dinged her on technical grounds because the building has been renovated since the antebellum period, but her speech mostly got sucked into the same garbage mill of the “Obamas are foreign traitors who disrespect the country” variety. The barest minimum of intellectual honesty and human decency compels us to make this comparison, because you almost can’t find a starker contrast of the way the two administrations are treated, between who “belonged” in the White House and who didn’t.
This Kilauea of liquid-hot bullshit cannot keep erupting forever. American democracy isn’t infinitely elastic, capable of absorbing whatever we ram into it. A breaking point will occur. And even the most gleeful alt-right trolls, whose loyalty was always to the monetize-able lulz, are starting to de-board the Trump train before its inevitable derailment. For all the brink-of-catastrophe talk of Trump creating a full-on constitutional emergency by firing special prosecutor Robert Mueller and pardoning everybody involved in the Russia scandal — and a wave of subpoenas came out Thursday — we might be simultaneously overestimating and underestimating the danger.
There’s always been speculation that unnamed members of the Republican establishment — chief among them, the recently shit-canned Reince Priebus — and/or the Deep State were devilishly orchestrating an intra-party coup using Section 4 of the 25th amendment, which covers presidential incapacitation. By this logic, a nebulous “They” are lying in wait for a time when they can have the president removed on mental-health grounds and install the predictable, controllable Pence instead.
What if Trump suspects exactly that? What if he’s firing people left and right because he’s a paranoiac in panic mode, surrounded by leakers and yes-men and incapable of determining who to trust? What if it’s not narcissism but abject terror that causes him to babble on about his electoral victory to anyone who will listen, over and over, even in completely inappropriate situations?
All this increasingly normal-seeming chaos might be helping to conceal one simple fact: America is governed by a void. We may soon face a situation where the President of the United States is woken up at 3 a.m. with a crisis in the Situation Room. We know Trump won’t — can’t? — read an intelligence summary longer than a paragraph. But instead of listening to “his” generals and advisers, some of whom he appointed as if he were casting them in a role, what if he concludes that the whole thing is all an elaborate plot to oust him, and that they’re all in it? Whatever sequence of events that follows is beyond the political event horizon, but it would not be good.
I am also sorry to report that this was the week when Republicans officially came out against the Statue of Liberty.