America might re-elect a crazy person
There's a numbing sameness to political life during the presidency of Donald Trump. A series of scandalous stories break and fade, and appalling presidential behavior sparks outrage that quickly recedes into oblivion, only to be followed by another round, and then another. Yet even in the context of this seemingly endless cycle of scandal and outrage, the past 10 days or so has managed to stand out as unusually jam-packed with an almost surreal procession of astonishing events.
First, the president of the United States spent a stupefying six days disputing whether he had erred in suggesting that Alabama was at risk of damage from Hurricane Dorian. The fixation even included a comically petty act of doctoring a map with a Sharpie and an apparently successful effort to get someone at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to back him up.
Then there was news that, out of a desire to take credit for a peace deal between the Afghan government and Taliban insurgents, Trump had invited (and then disinvited) senior members of the Taliban to a summit at Camp David just days before the anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. This was then followed by a blockbuster story at CNN alleging that in 2017 the CIA had "extracted from Russia one of its highest-level covert sources inside the Russian government" out of fear that the president and senior members of his administration couldn't be trusted not to expose the spy.
All of which confirms the truth of Peter Wehner's latest essay for The Atlantic, "Trump Is Not Well." Indeed, he is not. But that is far from being the most troubling thing about this demoralizing moment in American political history.
Nearly every day the president shows serious signs, not only of pervasive corruption, but of psychological impairment. Yet he almost certainly will not be impeached. Nor will he be removed from office by way of the 25th Amendment, which speaks of a president who is "unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office." On the contrary, Trump is planning to run for re-election. He's certainly vulnerable, but his defeat is far from certain. Which means that it is quite possible that a president who regularly displays a thoroughgoing lack of fitness for the office he holds could well end up serving as president for two full terms.
Which means that, far beyond Trump himself, it is the American system of government itself that is not well. In fact, it is badly ailing, and we haven't got a clue how to heal it.
It's tempting to blame the institutions of the federal government for our woes, and there's obviously some truth to that. Impeaching a president, let alone removing him from office, is extremely difficult — so difficult, in fact, that it has never happened. The same goes for the 25th Amendment remedy, which is theoretically possible but exceedingly unlikely, in part because the amendment wasn't passed with such an eventuality in mind. (Ratified in the aftermath of the death of John F. Kennedy, the 25thwas intended to clarify procedure and the line of succession in the event that the president was rendered incapacitated as a result of an assassination attempt or other acute medical crisis.)
A simple vote of no confidence, to which members of a country's legislature typically have recourse in a parliamentary system, seems like a comparatively easy and far more effective way of neutralizing an executive. And so it is, at least when viewed in isolation from a particular political context.
In a context like ours — one in which the parties are sharply polarized and the executive's party continues to offer him support — there are no guarantees. The party of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, for example, has lost its narrow majority, faces strong opposition in parliament, and will almost certainly be forced to compete in an election in the coming weeks. Yet polling shows Johnson's Conservatives with a double-digit lead over the opposition Labour Party — demonstrating that bringing down an executive can be quite tricky when public opinion remains polarized and relatively immobile.
In the U.S., Trump is insulated from challenges to his power by a rock-solid core of support from roughly 42 percent of the electorate — and nearly 90 percent of Republicans — that shows no sign at all of abandoning him. With those votes in his pocket, Trump can do or say just about anything, no matter how deranged, without fear of having to face a fundamental challenge to his presidency.
The House of Representatives won't vote to impeach him because, despite being controlled by the opposition party, a significant number of Democrats from more conservative swing districts fear antagonizing the right. Even if they did vote to impeach, there is no chance at all that the Senate, in the hands of the president's party, would defy those nine-in-10 Republican voters to support convicting and removing Trump from office. The same rock-solid base of support will also prevent the (so far) three Republicans who have announced an intention to challenge Trump for the GOP presidential nomination from gaining traction against him.
That leaves the upcoming general election as the only viable means of ridding us of the mad king. A Democrat could certainly defeat him, but it's unlikely to be easy — despite it all — because the president maintains that solid base of support in his own party. All Trump needs to do is demonize the Democratic nominee to such an extent that some of those who had planned to vote for the Donkey Party decide to stay home on Election Day instead.
That's all it would take to ensure a second term for the incompetent loon in the Oval Office. It shouldn't be that way, but it is. Which is why, however ailing the president may be, the American political system as a whole is faring far worse.
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