Sunday, January 21, 2018

How to Stop This Man?

[Long, and of interest to only three people. You've been warned.]

Donald Trump has been President of the United States for a year. He shouldn't be. Completely aside from his utterly changeable--and I think most bad--policy preferences, he's not remotely qualified, he doesn't have the minimum level of responsibility, empathy, or basic competency which the presidency ought to presume, and on top of that he's an obviously incurious, narcissistic, vindictive, demagogic, and paranoid human being. Also, he may be mentally ill, and at the very, very, very least, he showed basically no civic allegiance whatsoever to the laws of the country he pledged to enforce in his utterly casual attitude toward offers from various Russian actors, including possibly the Russian government itself, to help him attack his opponent in the general election. So, in short, he's a horrible president and public servant. What do we do about it?

(Is there any new insights in this post? Not really. Is it worth reading anyway? You decide.)

The goal is to get Trump out of the presidency. (There are other goals, but that's the goal I'm talking about in this post.) Setting aside any violent, non-constitutional options, we have about three serious possibilities: impeaching him, having the Republicans drop him as their presidential candidate in 2020 (thus either forcing Trump to run as an incumbent independent president, or obliging him to retire once the election takes place), or defeating him in the general election (this would have to happen even if the Republicans didn't re-nominate him, should he choose to run as an independent, which he very well might). True, there's also the "25th amendment option," but I'm going to lump that in with impeachment, since in both cases it would require, at the present time, members of Trump's own party, either in Congress or in his Cabinet, turning on him.

Of course, given the way the major political parties currently operate, and have operated for nearly a half-century (or really, even longer; the last time it took either the Republicans or Democrats more than a single vote to "decide" who their presidential nominee would be was 1952, and the last time any party refused to re-nominate an actual sitting president was a full century before that), I actually think impeachment or a 25th amendment-style coup is more likely over the next two years than the Republican party going into 2020 with any plan up their collective sleeves besides backing their president in the general election. But since this is an post addressed to political enemies of Trump, let's set that aside, and settle on focus on politics: what political strategies might be employed to convince Republicans to dump Trump, or failing that, convince Republicans not to vote for him in the 2020 general election?

A few friends of mine and I got into an argument about this after Senator Jeff Flake attacked Trump on the Senate floor. There were those who praised Flake, and saw such attacks as crucial: what was needed more than anything else, they thought, was for more Republicans like Flake, Republicans who otherwise agreed with Trump's agenda nonetheless recognizing, and speaking out about, what a corrupt, despicable person he is. But others (including me) disagreed. It's not like we dismissed Flake's speech, but we didn't see what was so useful about him giving it. Was he prepared to oppose Trump's agenda in the Senate? Was he going to actually turn against the Trump administration with the only and best tool he had: his votes? It seemed to us that the most important things was to use every tool available to us--money, organizing, protests, mockery, whatever--to try to convince Republicans that Trump was a drag on their own agenda, and thus that getting Republicans to betray their own president would be a great success--while anything less than that, while certainly not worth condemning, isn't particularly worthy of praise.

The argument made by those in the former camp was that, should we get our wish and Flake and other Republicans start voting--sometimes, strategically, with clearly broadcast talking points explaining the anti-Trump reasons why they are so voting--along with Democrats, then it would be likely that Trump would simply frame such acts as coming from a bunch of RINOs who had joined up with Democrats and liberals, aiming to bring down Trump for partisan reasons, and that would only help him--because nothing serves to fire up Trump's base more than giving him a partisan enemy to beat up in front of his supporters.

It's not a bad argument. It builds upon the idea that Trump's demagoguery, though it relied upon partisan structures and partisan expectations to come to power (that is, the Republican party, much as many of them didn't like Trump, fell in line behind him in order to protect their agenda), is now operating free of the partisan realities which shape the incentives of Washington DC, and is a sui generis threat in the history of America's constitutional order. As such, political suggestions are short-sighted, because our strategy should be focused solely on demonstrating Trump's unfitness for office (as one of my interlocutors put it "talk about his Tweetstorms and not his policies"). A political strategy which attempts to break apart the Republican agenda that enabled his rise to power, by disrupting, blocking, and interfering with the goals of those who allowed Trump to be nominated, perhaps particularly by goading Republicans to stymie their own party in Congress, is all, from this way of seeing things, so much crying over a horse that has left the barn, because now that Trump is in office, convincing Republicans they made a bad choice by working to make Trump and them, collectively, ineffective will only rebound to Trump's benefit. Essentially, since he doesn't really care about the Republican party which he leads, striving to knee-cap it will only give Trump something else he can rant about...maybe all the way back to the White House.

It's persuasive case, but I disagree with it. Sure, party tribalism runs deep for all sorts of psychological reasons. But Republican-thinking voters vote for the Republican party because it does Republican things. If some Republicans helped stop their own party from being able to do Republican things, well sure, Trump would denounce them as traitors. But would it really have no affect on the thinking of all the other Republicans, the ones who want to see Republican things get done, the ones who had "fallen in line" behind Trump? I find that hard to believe. Rather, it seems to me that if Republicans like Flake were to start sabotaging their own party's agenda through their votes, demonstrating to the Republican leadership that the continued presence of Trump at the top of their party is actually making it harder for the party to get anything done, it would be an obvious call to all those Republicans who fell in line that there's no incentive for them to remain in that line any longer. In which case, impeachment or no re-nomination at at least lots of Republican voters staying home in 2020 becomes an even greater possibility than it already is.

I'm not mocking Flake, or saying his words have no significance. Such attacks on Trump are needed so as to build understandings that others may be persuaded by. But insisting that the threat posed by Trump is so sui generis that it is actually hurtful to urge those in a position to do so to hurt him an a partisan, political way, and to affirm instead the need that the attacks on Trump, to be successful, must not be sullied by partisan politics, but instead be expressed in non-partisan expressions about Trump's constitutional unfitness, seems wrong to me. Perhaps that's because I'm simply unable to see a way of talking about politics in a way that 1) actually addresses the realities of power as it is being exercised by a dangerous individual in our country at this moment, and 2) doesn't involve engaging with the partisan realities and seeking partisan leverage. Maybe, in some sense, Trump really is beyond party, because perhaps the real base of his power structure is his Twitter cult and not the Republican party. But even if that is so, it is still a fact of our system of government that his power and influence, whatever it rests upon, is wielded through the aegis of the Republican party, and thus undermining that--through votes!--is fundamental to stopping his reign.

The U.S. Constitution wasn't written with parties in mind. The rise of political parties--which was necessary, if you're going to have a mass democracy; at least, no one has yet seriously proposed any way of running such a polity without them--fundamentally changed how its internal levers of power operate. While it is appealing--and I'm speaking here as someone who likes much of the civic republican rhetoric which shaped those early, non-partisan understandings of democratic government!--to think that Trump ought to be taken down as Trump, the bad president, rather than as Trump, the bad Republican president, I just don't see any reason to believe that such is possible--and I am unconvinced that Trump is so separated from any need for a political party to enable to him to reach those aforementioned levers that doing the latter (I think inevitable thing) will backfire. Maybe it'll turn out that I'm wrong; maybe later I'll change my mind. But for now, it seems to me that, for better or worse, stopping Trump means electorally defeating him everywhere possible--and not simply expressing constitutional sorrow over what a creep he is. If nothing else, it give me a game plan to attempt, in whatever small and local ways I can: and no, as decent a fellow Flake may be, he's not planning, to my mind, the right anti-Trump game.


Anonymous said...

1) in terms of policy, Trump is governing as a Republican, albeit a weird and (to most non-Republicans) off-putting one. why should Republicans turn on him? most of them feel that the damage to the Republic is either exaggerated, or worth it (Supreme Court!), or both.

2) additional dynamic: Republicans are now starting to fear that they'll lose the House in November. that means they have a steadily closing window in which to get stuff done. a blue House not only would shut down Republican legislative efforts, it would also launch investigations and hearings that would dramatically reduce the administration's room for maneuver. that means they should be closing ranks behind Trump, not attacking him.

and this is exactly what is happening. the exceptions like Flake are just that -- exceptions.

Doug M.

Russell Arben Fox said...


Well, as I said, there aren't really any new insights here; much of what we're seeing at the moment is pretty predictable (given the basics of the utterly outlandish situation we're in).

As regards your 1), obviously that explains most Republican members of Congress, and most Republican voters nationwide as well. The question which sparked the whole conversation was about those exceptions like Flake: sure, we think they're doing the right thing, but is the right thing they're doing actually praiseworthy? Is it helping? We know what Democrats (and liberals, progressives, socialists, Greens, etc.) need to do, but what do we do about the Flakes of the world? That's the question.

As regards your 2), I actually kind of disagree; I think it is already more than apparent that to nearly every GOP member of Congress that, while Trump-as-Republican-president is better than no-Republican-president--I mean, they've gotten some stuff done--Pence-as-Republican-president would be much better. As long as they control the House, moving in that direction would electorally risking with their respective bases. But I really do think at least a few of them (maybe even Ryan?!?) actually want the Republicans to take control and initiate impeachment proceedings, so they can wash their hands of the guy. Indeed, to go totally three-level chess here, I can easily imagine Republicans behind the scenes pushing for impeachment, as a way to salvage their brand prior to 2020, while it is Democrats who actually want to go slow, because they'll still want Trump in office to hang on Republicans' neck in November.

Anonymous said...

1) what to do about Flake? serious question: do we need to "do" anything? there won't be a lot of Flakes going forward, and whether or not they have much influence is sort of orthogonal to whatever Democrats do. I guess you could argue that Dem resistance on the health care bill helped flip McCain, but I'd want to see some evidence of that. I'm in the camp that thinks McCain did it out of pure spite -- it's consistent with his known behavior -- and anyway our resistance didn't depend on knowing he was going to bolt; we didn't.

talking about Republican elected officials here. NeverTrump Republican "thinkers" are something else again. from David Frum through Kagan to George Will, there are a lot of these guys -- they're almost all guys, of course -- and there might be some fruitful areas of potential cooperation there.

but elected Republican officials? short list, and you'll notice most of them are retiring anyway.

2) I'm not sure I agree. first, I disagree that congressional Republicans would be happy to see Trump impeached. yeah, Pence would probably be better, but (from their POV) Trump is actually pretty okay, and impeachment would be very damaging to the brand. look what happened to the congressional GOP in November 1974.

second, even if they do want to see him impeached, losing the House hurts like hell. being in the minority is just a lot less fun. before you get to 3D chess you have to get past that.

and third, from a Dem point of view Pence is just about as bad as Trump. so, the obvious Dem strategy would be to slow-walk impeachment, dragging out investigations and hearings all through 2019 for maximum pain and impact. pretty sure the GOP can make that same calculation.

this is testable. predictions: the Congressional GOP will continue to be publicly supportive of Trump, _pace_ a few exceptions, most of whom will be retiring. actual policy disputes with the White House will be rare, and when they do happen, it'll typically be because of Trump (changed his mind, was vague or contradictory, etc.) not the Congressional GOP. public criticism of Trump by Reps or Senators will occasionally happen, but (again _pace_ Flake and a couple of others) will mostly be (a) driven by particular outrages (i.e. Charlottesville) rather than general critiques of his Presidency, and also (b) muted, pro forma, and not sustained. cooperation will continue, and GOP distaste for Trump will not be in any way a limiting factor.

we can check back in six months and see how this is holding up.

Doug M.