The Calm Before the Storm

on August 17, 2018 in Washington, DC.
WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 17: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to the media before departing on Marine One to travel to New York, at the White House on August 17, 2018 in Washington, DC. Trump will attend a fundrai... WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 17: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to the media before departing on Marine One to travel to New York, at the White House on August 17, 2018 in Washington, DC. Trump will attend a fundraiser event in West Hampton Beach, New York. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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A few times over the last month I’ve had the sense that I may actually struggle to acclimate to a post-Trump politics. That doesn’t mean I don’t want it or look forward to it. As basically every sensible person has argued, the rise of Trump has been a catastrophe for the United States and every day he remains in office inflicts greater damage. But recently I’ve been thinking back to the Obama years and – crazy as they often seemed – how comparatively placid they were, even though they were not really placid at all. But the sheer intensity, drama, bad-acting nature of Trump’s presidency is in an entirely different category.

As I wrote before Trump even became President, living with a Trump presidency, at least if your work is politics, is comparable to living in the home of an abuser or someone with a severe personality disorder. People who live in those settings develop tools, coping mechanisms to handle that level of emotional turbulence, aggression, craziness. They can require a degree of unlearning once they find a more healthy environment. The tools you develop living in close proximity to an abuser are usually mal-adaptive when the abuser is no longer present. 

I should state explicitly that the Trump presidency is of course an entirely different experience for those who are its direct targets: undocumented immigrants as the central focus of Trump’s aggression, all immigrants, all non-whites, women, in differing degrees members of the LGBT community. But the ‘living in close proximity’ to an abuser still applies to a lesser degree to everyone who doesn’t view Trump as their champion. Indeed, living in close proximity to an abuser has an effect on those who are not even the primary targets of abuse.

I say all this as a preliminary to saying that I think it is all about to get, if not worse, than more intense, accelerated and more kinetic.

Part of this is the traditional kick off of the midterm election cycle proper, which is Labor Day. We’re gearing up for the two months’ sprint to election day, with all that usually entails. But there’s something more than President Trump on the ballot. Roughly since the middle of August both President Trump’s approval and the so-called congressional generic ballot have both begun to move clearly against the Republicans. The trend is clearer with the President than for the Congress. But is clear in both cases. It appears to be outside the realm of mere noise. Here’s the best place to visualize the trend for the President and Congress. History tells us that the trend in early September is usually, though not always, decisive.

This means more than that it looks likely, but by no means certain, Democrats will have a good cycle. There’s an increasing recognition that a change in control of the House will create a countervailing source of constitutional power in Washington – something that has been entirely lacking for the first two years of Trump’s presidency, in which Congress has deferred entirely to Trump’s power. This is addressed in shorthand as the threat of impeachment. But as I explained here that is both misleading as prognostication and misguided as strategy: the real issue, the real threat to the President is broad, public and constitutionally-empowered investigations, ones that would expose all manner of wrongdoing which has taken place in 2017 and 2018, as well as during the corrupted 2016 election. Over time, those revelations will likely trigger further criminal prosecutions and threaten the kind of collapse of public support which could lead to removal from office.

That prospect also comes as the Mueller probe appears to be accelerating. We don’t know precisely what is happening inside the probe. But we can best read its progress through President Trump’s actions and affect, which have become more threatened, antic and untethered. He is the most readable of men. Trump has already signaled that after the midterm election he will dismiss his White House Counsel and Attorney General, likely for the purpose of issuing obstructionist pardons and dismissing or defanging the Special Counsel investigation.

The United States has been gripped by a profound polarization for almost two years. Yes, the polarization predated Trump’s presidency. But having a maximalist representative of the right in power in the White House has intensified it massively. We’ve had public shouting matches, one-sided legislative fights, political mobilizations and protests. But in a constitutional sense the battle has really yet to be joined. The Courts have played some role restraining Trump. But that has been at the margins. Indeed, Trump’s additions to the Supreme Court signal that he is likely to be backed at the highest level, at least on the ground of presidential power if not immunity to the law. The President has vast powers which are matched, or potentially matched, by Congress. But Congress has been AWOL in the face of President Trump’s abuses and lawlessness for going on two years. There’s a decent chance that is about to change. It will change just as the Special Counsel investigation appears to be arriving at President Trump’s inner circle.

All of this suggests that the pace of events is likely to accelerate and become more kinetic, volatile and potentially dangerous.

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