We are at the moment.
Oh, it might take a few more crises and outrages, but the institutions of established political power in Washington–and in the interstate systems that bind Washington to the world–have arrived at their reckoning with Trump.
David Brooks, of all people, finally has an acute insight: that the entire world is obsessed with trying to figure out a man whose thoughts are just “six fireflies, beeping around in a jar”. Brooks calls Trump a child. I’m going to go with the frequent speculation that Trump is actually cognitively impaired in some serious way, that he has no real filters left and cannot control his impulses. I don’t think he or the people around him are playing ten-dimensional chess.
The moment is dangerous. Three things can happen, and only one of them is good. Two of them risk the end of everything possible and good in the American experiment.
1. The institutions of the national security state, and very possibly following that domestic justice, land management, economic authority and so on, will effectively pursue a soft coup d’etat. They will keep Trump as a figurehead, but he will be a palace captive. He will receive fake news briefings that are intended to provoke predictable tweets from him, he will be allowed to have televisions that only turn to certain channels, and so on. Visiting dignitaries will be shown to him for a handshake, and nothing more. He won’t do press conferences ever again. He’ll be photographed occasionally sitting in the Oval Office or at a Cabinet meeting. The standard recipe for an ailing dictator who needs to be visualized as still being in charge, but who is really not actually running anything. And all of the decisions that are supposed to rest on a President will in fact reside in very real terms with Cabinet officers, with White House staff, with Congress, with anyone bold enough to play the game and seize some authority. Cabinet officers will or will not work out covenants with one another to not step on each other’s toes. Palace intrigues will swirl around who is speaking with the “voice of Trump” at any given moment. These are always unstable situations with considerable potential to explode into conflict and incoherence, but the real danger is this: once this kind of soft coup is fully operationalized, it will not be easily undone later on by the election of a person who is capable of doing the Constitutionally-prescribed duties of the President. A good ruler will find it very difficult to get rid of regents who have gotten a taste for power while ruling on behalf of a previous child-king.
2. Trump himself or the people around him or his loyal base of supporters continue to insist on his retention of authority despite the fact that he’s impaired. We lurch from crisis to crisis, descending every day deeper into shared delirium. That happens too in history, is happening right now here and there around the world: people closest to the void at the heart of political power decide that they themselves are safest if they embrace that void, and amplify its capricious, random perturbations in all directions. We the People, already both mad and slightly maddened ourselves, become caregivers and captives of a mad king. We hope that all we get out of that are follies and whims to amuse later generations, and not catastrophes either caused or compounded by a mind that is vanishing down the event horizon of an imploding ego with the mass of a thousand suns. We hope to endure, to survive.
3. Or we get him out. And I no longer think that impeachment is the way to go, and not merely because the House of Representatives will never permit it under their present disposition. It’s also that at least some of the dangerous or erratic things Trump has done and will continue to do are not “high crimes and misdemeanors”. It’s not a crime for the President to violate classification: he can do it legally any time he pleases. No, I think what’s going to be needed is Section 4 of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. We are going to need people in the White House, in the Cabinet, and in Congress who are willing to say that the President is mentally impaired and cannot fulfill the duties of his office. That also has some gravity to it. It is, in a way, a soft coup as well. But it preserves some semblance of Constitutional order–it does not construct an elaborate system of oligarchic bypass around a President that might endure after that President leaves office. Some Trump supporters may howl in fury at such a move, but I’m beginning to wonder whether others might not be quietly or privately relieved: they would still have sent a strong message about wanting to see dramatic changes in how the government operates, they would have proved their political strength, and they’d have a basically conservative President with a conservative Congress, very likely through 2020. It would even allow them to continue a sympathetic feeling for Trump himself: they could console themselves, believing that he’d been the right man but just at the wrong time of his life, when he was no longer able to do the job. Travis Coates becomes a man when he accepts that it’s his responsibility to kill Old Yeller, after all.