We’ve Reached Peak Trump

Trump at the United Nations. Photo: WhiteHouse.gov

By now, we have seen it all. The promise to “make America great again” has been broken.

As week 40 of what is known as “the Trump administration” commenced, a recognizable pattern has cemented itself in our national government. While the pattern should be disappointing for anyone hoping for progress, it might be encouraging for those concerned about where Trump would lead us if he knew how.

The success of any administration is often measured in terms of legislative accomplishment. Conservatives in particular have usually taken a different view. Any legislation that expands the scope, size or reach of government is not necessarily a good thing and should not be celebrated as a victory. In Trump’s Washington, Democrats are the new force for ineffective government and they are winning, not by cunning, but by standing to the side and taking in the clown show.

In a small batch of post hurricane polls President Trump’s approval rating has reached 40%, but his continued failure to advance an agenda at home, his irrelevance on the world stage and his penchant for meaningless celebrity conflict will drop those numbers down again by the end of the year, if not sooner. If the current pattern holds (and it has not broken in nine months) we have already achieved peak Trump. We are in for at least another year of stalemate when it comes to the business of government and a campaign year of partisan turmoil.

Trump the Bombastic. President Trump’s speech to the United Nations put the U.S. on the outside looking in. For all the talk from the Trump administration on the power of the “deep state,” none of the government or political professionals allowed close to the president have been able to convince him that while pounding your fist feels good in the moment, it rarely gets results.

In the days following his speech, nearly every country Trump tried to put on notice had turned the tables on the United States. North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, with whom Trump apparently shares a hair stylist and a speech writer, compared Trump to a frightened dog and warned he would “tame the mentally deranged U.S. dotard with fire.”

Once again, President Trump, by sinking to the level of those we wish to persuade, has squandered the leadership power of the U.S. presidency, for the momentary pleasure of winning a personal squabble. Kim would have no voice, no credibility, and no audience if Trump did not constantly engage him in the mis-guided belief the North Korean leader will respond to diplomatic bullying.

Trump’s bellicosity has reached a saturation point. It takes too much energy to keep up with it all, it takes too much time to digest it, it has become something to be ignored. Background noise. As a result, when it comes time for Trump to deliver an important leadership message, the power of the office and the effectiveness of his message are both diminished.

A Do Nothing Congress. The failure of the Republican majority in Congress to move any important legislation since Trump took office, is due in part to the dishonest use of wedge issues throughout the Obama administration. On healthcare in particular, Republicans promised their base full repeal of the Affordable Care Act believing they would never have to deliver on that promise. They are now hostages of their own rhetoric, but President Trump deserves at least equal credit for the legislative catastrophe of the last nine months.

It was obvious during the campaign that he had not even a glib understanding of the issues facing the federal government, or the difficulty of the politics surrounding those issues. He came to office as a sloganeer and he has made no effort to learn on the job. He is still attempting to govern through the use of gesture and bluster. He doesn’t know where to begin when it comes to leadership, because his life has been spent issuing orders to employees not full partners and, when necessary, paying to have things done for him.

The Democrats. In the face of Republican ineptitude and the president’s own self-defeating behavior, Democrats have no incentive to help. The political axiom that you do not waste your own bullets when your enemy is committing suicide applies here. Just as Republicans openly tried to thwart every initiative of President Obama during the previous eight years, Democrats are now in position to do the same. They will only cooperate when President Trump is willing to deal on their terms.

This remains the true tragedy of the Trump presidency. As a Republican in name only, Trump was in position at the start of his administration to seek bi-partisan compromise by building moderate coalitions in Congress. That opportunity is lost.

The Mueller Investigation. Layered on top of the incompetence and the political positioning that creates the conditions for continued gridlock, there looms the on-going investigation into the Trump administration by the special counsel’s office.

Based on what we know, it seems very likely at least two former top associates of President Trump — Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn — are being targeted. Dozens of Trump aides and family members are being interviewed by federal investigators and by congressional committees. At the very least, the multiple investigations are interfering with the focus of the administration. At worse, they will lead to the president himself. It is difficult to concentrate on the work of government when staff is worried about avoiding legal jeopardy.

Several reports have indicated morale is low and suspicions are high in the White House. Colleagues don’t trust each other. Some worry that their co-workers are secretly aiding the investigations. A report in Politico says there is likely to be a mass exodus of White House staff once the administration reaches the one year mark on January 20th. By then, those looking to continue their careers in Washington, D.C. can claim they worked for a meaningful period of time in the White House while getting out before any indictments are issued or impeachment proceedings begin. This would be another complication for an administration that has already had trouble attracting competent help.

The chaos of Donald Trump is now part of the routine of daily life. That does not mean the voters approve. In his quest to dominate the public stage Trump has stymied himself. He can only succeed in his first term if he can show he moved the country forward. Despite the imperative to deliver, everything Trump has done since taking office has provoked further conflict. His administration is stuck in a cycle of failure and blaming others is not the way out.

Unless there is a fundamental change in Trump’s strategy — one that seems impossible based on what we have seen so far — the entire American political system has been placed on a track that guarantees no meaningful progress over the next 14 months and perhaps for the duration of Trump’s term. The daily embarrassments and weekly outrages will continue, but when it comes to the big promises Trump made on the campaign trail he has reached his full potential and it would be wise to keep our expectations low.