DONALD TRUMP FACES THE FIRE STORM

The firing of FBI Director James Comey (5/10) makes it appear that Donald Trump has arrived at a decisive place in his historically unusual first term as President. Commentators will, of course, find ways to compare this to Richard Nixon’s famous Saturday Night Massacre in 1973, when Nixon set about to, in that case, fire a special prosecutor who was investigating misconduct in his administration. For those too young to recall events in 1973, no doubt the commentariat will provide a multitude of explanations and comparisons over the next few days. It does seem clear that both Richard Nixon then, and Donald Trump now, severely underestimated the seriousness of both the official and the public reaction to their respective dismissals. Nixon was able to hang on for months more, but his firing of Archibald Cox, for demanding the famous tapes turned out to be the beginning of the end. At the urging of Senators in his own party, Richard Nixon resigned rather than face certain impeachment.

With FBI Director Comey’s firing it may be a good time to pause and to think more carefully about Donald Trump and his presidency. Students of politics certainly, but all of us, have difficulty dealing with unique events with no historic precedent. Presidential scholars certainly can look at and compare the presidents through the years and find differences in ability, temperament and experience. Those comparative studies have worked because there have been a fairly wide range of commonalities. Certainly since the Civil War at least, all candidates have had a range of political or military experience and all have had an interest in government that has enhanced their functioning after attaining the office. All have been both supported and constrained by their ties to one of the major political parties. Even with those least well prepared (Calvin Coolidge, for example) had the support of, and their loyalty to, a wide swath of the citizenry to help carry them through.

Those same scholars seem completely flummoxed by Donald Trump. He just has little in common with any past president. Most presidential candidates, certainly the afore mentioned Richard Nixon, loved politics (Nixon prided himself on knowing Republican leaders right down to the county level). Most, including Richard Nixon, had some political goals about which they truly cared. Lyndon Johnson and the more recent Barack Obama worked assiduously over several years to achieve policy goals important to them (think civil rights and health care). Although some candidates have been surprisingly profane in private, all were careful to be the soul of propriety in public (The very profane Lyndon Johnson became the unctuous “Uncle Lyndon”.). Barry Goldwater, the Republican candidate back in 1964, the one exception, lost voters because he was mildly profane in public. And certainly several, including Uncle Lyndon, who appeared devoted to their wives in public, were somewhat less than faithful husbands. Others whose marriages were not models of undiluted joy remained married because a divorce would have been political suicide.

Donald Trump has blithely ignored every behavioral convention and flouted every rule. He has simply ignored normal social constraints and has done whatever he wanted to do. His businesses have been able to continue because he used generous bankruptsy laws to make his lenders pay for his business failures. He has faced hundreds of lawsuits rather than pay money owed to workers and to vendors. He has been multiply married and bragged in the press about his affairs during those marriages. And running as a Republican, a party whose members normally prize propriety, he won.

He was able to gain the Republican nomination because the political party leaders here in the United States do not choose their parties’ candidates. Instead candidates are chosen in state party elections (primaries), in which non-party members can participate. Those party elections are held in the spring before the November elections. Very few people come out and vote. Those who make the effort to vote in the Republican spring party elections tend to be the most conservative and, often, the most angry. It was those very motivated people who gained the presidential nomination for Donald Trump. Once nominated, a great many conflicted but good hearted Republicans voted for him because he was the Republican nominee.

Donald Trump was utterly unprepared for the Presidency. He has to be one of most documented candidates in history and that documentation reveals a man with almost no attention span who seems to have few interests that do not support a kind of frenzied narcissism. All observers seem to agree that he does have a amazing energy but very little interest in, or understanding of, the actual world around him. His campaign consisted of landing in his big plane with his name on it and of working up angry crowds. The adulation of those crowds seems to have been his major reason for being in the campaign at all. Just a few weeks ago, he chose to avoid the famous Correspondents Dinner to order to fly out to Pennsylvania to hold one more rally for the adoring.

It has been clear for weeks that the administration is floundering. In his business career, Donald Trump sat atop a family business with about a hundred employees. Now he must deal with a huge bureaucracy whose activities are guided by rules so arcane that they would challenge the most prepared. And, he must do that while getting contradictory advice from people whose careers are based on appearing to be smoothly in control. With little experience and almost no real information of his own it is not surprising that he appears to flail about. Today, the most recent flail led to the firing of FBI Director Comey.

Donald Trump is deeply over his head in the presidency. He has essentially recreated the family oriented executive structure that operated his businesses. His daughter and his son-in-law are there just as they were in New York. And, while it is reasonable to doubt that they have the kind of competency to be in power positions in the White House there has been little protest. People hope that their being there will make the temperamentally unfit president less dangerous. We now hear a great deal about the administration becoming more “normal,” that the Steve Bannons are becoming less influential and are being replaced by “adults”. That is probably wishful thinking because the Twitter storms make clear that the President really is in charge.

So, as Lenin once said in another context, “What is to be done?” We wait! Things go on while the public waits for the next shoe to fall! There is reason to hope. Potential environmental damage may happen but little else has been done. There will certainly be some problems with health care because of the uncertainty caused by the administration’s failed (so far) efforts to do away with the Affordable Care Act. But, the public is becoming aroused. The damage may yet be limited.

The country has survived over two hundred years of presidents. We do have a kind of perfect storm of problems within the government. The Republicans in Congress seem to have lost their way. The Congress as an institution has left too many of its prerogatives to the executive branch. That needs to be righted. The bureaucracy has become weakened because Republican administrations have hollowed it out by contracting out its functions to favored government contractors. But, for now, the economy is strong. Most citizens still good heartedly believe that good government can be achieved. We will survive!

H.J. Rishel

5/10/2017