Mutually Assured Destruction

Republicans are not going to impeach Donald Trump. They are not going to invoke the 25th Amendment to take away his nuclear toys. They are not going to do these things because for the past ten years Republicans have been committed to finding ways to hold power after their political coalition had fallen apart, and they can no longer hold power without Donald Trump. Talk of Republicans abandoning Trump now that they passed their tax bill misses this point. Trump and the Republican Party have a kind of murder-suicide pact. Either one takes the other with them if they go down.

Donald Trump is a destructive man. He hunts what he wants and takes it, whether for pleasure or enrichment. He acquires things and extracts value, indifferent to how he hurts others as he flattens norms and flaunts the law. Women, contractors, the USFL, Atlantic City, the Republican Party, American democracy, the world—it doesn’t matter to him. He’ll break it if that’s the quickest way to ego gratification or personal wealth. Someone else can come along and fix the damage once nothing remains for him to take.

Trump the predator found a perfect takeover target in a Republican Party that was itself in a destructive cycle, preying on the fears of its supporters in order to survive in a hostile political climate. Wedded to a shrinking core of older white voters, Republican leaders understood the longterm risks of being unable to appeal to an expanding, diverse electorate, but they were unwilling to withdraw to the wilderness and do the hard work of rethinking conservatism in the new millennium in a way that might appeal to voters with different sensibilities about government than the white Reagan-era boomers who had sustained them for years. Rather than retreat following sweeping losses in the 2008 election, they attacked, seeking to obstruct the Obama presidency into oblivion and frighten their base into a frenzy over the alleged anti-American agenda of the black president with the alien-sounding name. The atmosphere they created was a petri dish for Trump’s birtherism, and that was fine with them.

Their methods were as destructive as their objectives. Disenfranchising voters through restrictive registration laws, purging voter rolls, extreme gerrymandering—these (unfortunately) weren’t new ideas, but they took on new urgency and new prominence against a rising demographic tide. Powered by the promise that they would repeal the twenty-first century, Republicans won big in the off-years 2010 and 2014, allowing them to consolidate federal and state power. But the promise to their voters was a cynical one. Generational change persisted. Immigration patterns remained fixed. After Obama was returned to the White House, Trump saw the party’s vulnerability as an opportunity to indulge his ego needs. He called out the Republican leadership for its hollow promises and said if given the chance he would take their agenda to its natural conclusion and build a wall, ban Muslims, and defend a dying social order at everyone’s else’s expense. We know what happened next.

Donald Trump and the Republican Party are now trapped in an escalating spiral of mutual destruction. It’s a general rule of politics that a party is never well served when the national discussion turns to whether their president is mentally incompetent, but if piling on will alienate your shared voters then the best course of action is silence. If the president is under investigation for serious crimes but you need to sidestep the unpleasant burden of holding him accountable, then do everything you can to undermine the investigation. Is this any more cynical or violative of norms and responsibilities than, say, denying an opposition president a Supreme Court nomination by withholding a Senate vote, then casting aside longstanding filibuster rules to confirm your own president’s choice?

The obvious risk of being in this kind of destructive cycle is that it can’t end well, but it is not yet clear whether the victim will be the Republican Party or the republic. Absent a voter uprising next November, Republicans will try to cement their hold on power by enabling the anti-democratic impulses of the man who now leads them. But a massive defeat at the polls would check the party and the administration, putting Republicans in survival mode ahead of the 2020 presidential election. Suddenly, the cost of defending Trump would be huge, and the prospect of voters removing Republicans from power for a long time would be real. Under this scenario, Trump is more likely to destroy the party than the country. Notwithstanding the unfortunately real possibilities of outside interference in the election or massive voter disenfranchisement, it is comforting to know that control over the direction of the country hasn’t yet slipped from our hands. I remain hopeful. But under the burden of this destructive presidency, ten months is a very long time.