Rope-A-Dope Politics.

Sheldon Clay
Dec 23, 2018 · 3 min read

In 2017, I found myself in a wry mood and wrote two essays about how the relatively new Trump presidency might play out.

I know, that seems like ten thousand years ago. We have a government that functions like it was inspired by Dante’s description of The Inferno, and when reading the morning news feels like you’re standing in a pool of lava while demons poke metal spikes into your skin — each day is an eternity.

But here we are with the bedlam of 2018 almost behind us, the government boarded up, the economy sent spiraling down the gold-plated presidential crapper, the whole idea of an American Century left to smolder on Ronald Reagan’s ash heap of history, and my two stories are beginning to feel less like satire and more like an answer.

The first piece brought up the old idea that when the legimate ruler of the realm happens to be an infant, the answer is to have some advisor or group of advisors serve as Regent to make sure there’s an actual adult running things:

My second story took a look at how closely the trajectory of the Trump presidency mirrors that of Andrew Johnson, the first U.S. president to be impeached. It’s one of the most-read pieces I’ve written:

Looking back I realize my story about The American Regency gives too much credit to Mike Pence and not enough to Nancy Pelosi, but still I wish it had attracted more readers. I think it’s the more achievable scenario.

For one thing, something like it has worked before. A former U.S. Senator told me that during the Reagan presidency he was part of a bi-partisan group in Congress that worked quietely behind the scenes to protect Reagan from his wilder impulses, helping steer him toward the successful president we fondly remember today.

Of course Ronald Reagan knew how to listen while the current occupant of the White House does not, and within a couple of weeks the last actual adult will have officially left the White House. Which brings us to my second story.

We hear time and again the cautionary tale of how the Republicans over-reached by impeaching Bill Clinton after his poorly covered-up sexual entanglement, and thereby helped insure his re-election. But a careful reading of the history of Andrew Johnson gives us a different view of impeachment.

Johnson was an impulsively combative president with little patience for the rule of law, and by the time the House voted to impeach him it was largely a self-inflicted wound. The effort to remove Johnson from office failed by one vote, but the proceedings dominated the remainder of his term and kept him too preoccupied to do much further damage to the nation until he was finally tossed out in the next election. Chalk up one for our democratric institutions.

You don’t have to squint to hard to see Johnson’s sorry history repeating itself, especially with a newly Democratic House of Representatives coming to power. The spector of impeachment combined with a re-energized Congress acting like the adult branch of government may be sufficient to keep a presidency gone insane from running too far amuck.

Think of it as a sort of rope-a-dope politics. Rope-a-dope being the style perfected by Muhammad Ali in which a boxer keeps moving fast and taking non-damaging punches until he’s worn opponent out, then turns around and lands the haymaker.

The job for the country right now is finding a way to manage crazy, and hopefully come out the other end with our democratic institutions intact and no nuclear weapons detonated. The president has a confidence man’s instincts for spreading chaos and confusion so people don’t have a chance to figure out what he’s really up to. Doing a political rope-a-dope makes those instincts work against him. If Trump keeps fighting harder it becomes the Andrew Johnson scenario. If he decides to become more reasonable, it’s the Regency.

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