A Dangerous Moment

The first norm-shattering, chaotic year of the Trump administration will be remembered for the president’s relentless assault on every democratic institution that threatens his power and ego needs. He delegitimized the press as purveyors of fake news. He characterized bureaucrats as malevolent “deep state” actors. He attacked the judiciary when it refused to rubber stamp his dictates and the FBI and justice department for investigating him. He empowered an election commission determined to disenfranchise minority voters in the name of rooting out nonexistent voter fraud. His actions were met with strong, sometimes overwhelming resistance in the streets, in the courts and at the ballot box by countless individuals determined to check his unquenchable authoritarian impulses. We survived, but this has been the easy part. Things are about to become much more intense.

We are entering what may well be the most dangerous moment of this reactionary period. Two forces are converging to make the next six to nine months especially fraught: Trump’s world is collapsing around him and Republicans in congress are unwilling to sacrifice their power to check his worst impulses.

Robert Mueller’s investigation into the unsavory relationship between Trump and Russia, despite what the president might want to believe, is widespread and expanding. It has already reached into the Oval Office in the form of the plea deal struck with former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, and in the coming months is poised to ensnare Trump’s immediate family and expose the corruption at the heart of his business empire. How will Trump react if his son or son-in-law are indicted? How will he react if the financial dealings he has kept so jealously guarded are made public as part of a criminal prosecution of dubious business practices linked to his relationship with the Russian government and organized crime? If there is a genuine “red line” that Trump is unwilling to let anyone cross, this would be it, and when he is threatened he lashes out to reassert his dominance and eliminate the threat. This could mean anything from attempting to fire Mueller to starting a war with North Korea, and whatever action he sees fit to take or simply takes in a moment of rage could be stopped only by a credible threat from congress that he is crossing their red line.

Every indication from Trump’s first year strongly suggests that congressional Republicans will respond by doing as little as politically possible. The reason why is rooted in the same electoral logic that Republicans have faced ever since Trump glided down that Trump Tower escalator and rallied the party faithful against Mexicans, Muslims, Barack Obama and Washington elites. Congressional Republicans need his voters, and this is an election year. They needed his voters in 2016 in order to win their seats. They needed his voters in 2017 to stave off primary challengers, and they will need his voters in 2018 at least until the primary season is over late in the spring. And that makes the next several months among the most treacherous of the Trump administration, because the way the Mueller investigation is unfolding makes it likely that Trump will feel pushed over the line at a moment when Republicans will face a tremendous political cost if they push back.

The risk of a genuine constitutional crisis in the next few months is higher than at any time since the election, at any time since the Nixon administration. The framers of the constitutional system understood that unprincipled people might one day occupy the presidency, but they imagined congress would act as a co-equal branch and apply the brakes to any effort to subvert republican governance. They did not anticipate that partisanship and shared political self-interest with the executive would overwhelm their institutional commitments. But shared self-interest was the defining characteristic of the relationship between the president and congress in 2017, and the politics holding it in place are not going to change in the next few months. Not until the general election season begins next summer will Republicans in competitive districts with strong Democratic opponents feel the need to take a firmer stand against a historically unpopular president.

So we have to find a way to get through this dangerous season. Without congress to check the president, the task of defending against Trump’s capricious anti-democratic impulses falls to us. There is hope and promise in an orchestrated effort by the umbrella group TrumpIsNotAboveTheLaw.org to pre-plan nationwide demonstrations if Trump attempts to shut down the Mueller investigation. You can read about it here and sign up to participate here if you are so moved. Efforts like this will be critical to tell congress that inaction is unacceptable in the face of a clear abuse of power. More than anything it is a play for time, because congressional Republicans are unlikely to be forced by public opinion to do too much to undermine their political interests. Still, it is critical to establish that a vocal segment of the public will not accept presidential abuse of authority to avoid scrutiny and prosecution, and that anyone who condones it will be held accountable. The first real opportunity to change things will be at the ballot box, an interminable ten months from now. This is why, as I said in my last post, the 2018 election will be the most important we have ever seen. I have trouble imagining how the republic can withstand an unaccountable Donald Trump through 2020, and it should be abundantly clear that the only way to constrain this president is to give Democrats subpoena power.

Once November arrives, I am more than cautiously optimistic about how things will turn out, and that will be the subject of my next post. In the meantime, Happy New Year—and get ready.