The Greatest Disappointment of the Trump Presidency

The institutional fabric of the United States has proven more tenacious and resilient in responding than many feared. The Republican Congress has not.

Leah Millis / Reuters

In late January 2018, 12 months into the Donald Trump era, the military scholar Eliot Cohen looked back at an assessment he had written for The Atlantic in late January 2017, soon after Trump was sworn in.

In his second piece, Cohen pointed out that for most writers, most of the time, the prospect of revisiting old works of journalistic analysis is uninviting. Journalism is the process of offering the best interpretation you can by deadline time. By definition, you know more when you look back than you did when you were hammering away to meet the deadline. More about the basic facts, more about what happened next, more about the context of the events you were doing your best, under time pressure, to comprehend. In nearly all cases, the passing days or weeks have given you ideas of better, sharper ways in which you could have made your point.

This is why newspaper articles, blog posts, and tweets generally aren’t, or shouldn’t be, collected in books. They are valuable as slice-of-time samplings of what people thought, wondered, feared, or assumed from the facts then available to them. (It was explicitly in this slice-of-time spirit that I put together my Trump Time Capsule series over the course of the 2016 campaign.) The existence of a whole special vocabulary for insights you wish you’d had the first time around—pentimento for the sketches beneath finished paintings, esprit de l’escalier for the devastating repartee you think of 10 minutes too late, the term rough draft itself—illustrates the tension between expressing things as quickly as possible, and expressing them as well as you would like.

But when it came to Donald Trump, Eliot Cohen said in his later post, the normal pattern didn’t apply. In reckoning with the man, his capacities, and his effects, early impressions held up later. What Cohen thought at the beginning of Trump’s term, he believed all the more strongly a year further on: “I think now as I did then that Trump will not grow into his job, ‘because the problem is one of temperament and character,’” he wrote, quoting himself from one year earlier. “There is nothing great about the America that Trump thinks he is going to make; but in the end, it is the greatness of America that will stop him.”

The immediate news frenzy surrounding Trump this past week has made me, too, think back on evolving assessments of the man and his times. (I’ll think of this as a “Looking Backward” installment, mainly because I’m always looking for ways to call attention to Edward Bellamy’s Gilded Age novel of that title.) What we’ve learned about Donald Trump in his time in office is surprisingly little. What we are learning about our country is significant, for better and worse.

Of the man himself, even the latest dramatic news has been remarkably unrevealing, because so much was there in plain view by Election Day. Here I’ll follow Eliot Cohen’s lead and quote something I wrote just over a year ago, in July 2017, after returning to Washington, D.C., from six months away—away from the city, and deliberately away from national news—while writing a book:

The fact that Donald Trump wound up as president is a surprise in historical terms—and to me, since I asserted in mid-2015 that no one so inexperienced could be elected. Of course I was wrong, and stopped making any predictions about him after that. But nothing Trump has done as president should qualify as surprising. For any step he’s taken in these past six months—the tweets, the public feuds, the lurches back and forth in policy, the norm-breaking and information-gaffes—there’s a link back to some moment during the campaign. What the Atlantic said in its editorial urging a vote against him was based on what Trump had shown as a candidate but has borne out through his time in office:

“We believe in American democracy, in which individuals from various parties of different ideological stripes can advance their ideas and compete for the affection of voters. But Trump is not a man of ideas. He is a demagogue, a xenophobe, a sexist, a know-nothing, and a liar. He is spectacularly unfit for office, and voters—the statesmen and thinkers of the ballot box—should act in defense of American democracy and elect his opponent.”

I have given up being upset or surprised by Trump. It is like being upset at a toddler for throwing his food. He cannot help himself, or what he does. He is the man we knew him to be.

The ongoing surprises involve reactions to this flawed and impulsive figure. A year ago, I argued that there were reasons for optimism about parts of American’s institutional response to Trump—and also reasons for concern bordering on despair.

The optimism comes from the parts of America’s formal and informal check-and-balance structure that were not overturned starting in January 2017. I think this assessment (by me), from six months into Trump’s tenure, stands up now—and is strengthened by the felony convictions of Trump’s 2016 campaign chair (Paul Manafort) and the guilty pleas to felony charges by his longtime personal lawyer (Michael Cohen):

More parts of the formal and informal U.S. constitutional system are still functioning more normally than might have been expected six months ago. Members of the judiciary are applying standards that predate this administration, and administration officials have complained but complied. A special counsel is building his staff and pursuing his work, with every indication that if Donald Trump were to fire him, some Republicans (along with all Democrats) would object and resist …

As for the non-governmental parts of civic structure, the press has—overall—worked harder and more successfully to pick its way through this new terrain than most people might have foreseen, or feared … Compared with what you might have expected six months ago, reporters and editors have succumbed less either to “normalization” of historically unusual behavior, or boredom or distraction from matters of consequence, than they might have.

And the signs of engagement by Americans who, unlike reporters or civil servants aren’t paid to concern themselves with public affairs, are unmistakable: demonstrations and protests around the country to resist the proposed health-care law or to protect immigrants and refugees. Mayors and governors vowing to pursue climate-policy goals, even if the national government does not. Organized movements and individual decisions attracting new candidates for the hard work of running for office, at levels from Congress down to state and city elections, and including larger numbers of women and veterans of our recent wars.

That’s the good news. Tentative. Fought out every day. Still potentially jeopardized by the next authoritarian spasm from the man in charge of the executive branch. Not enough to offset damage that has already been done, in realms ranging from environmental protection, to domestic race relations, to whatever other areas you might name.

Still: The struggle for the country’s values and future continues, as a struggle, rather than as a settled and tragic result. The complex institutional fabric of the country has proven more tenacious and resilient than many people might have guessed or feared. A generation from now, the verdict on our era could be: irrecoverable tragedy. But that verdict is not yet determined.

Is there a surprise, a disappointment, and a settled tragedy so far? There is. It is the same one I described last year, in the first summer of the Trump age:

The major weakness these six months have revealed in our governing system is almost too obvious to mention, but I’ll name it anyway. It is the refusal, so far, by any significant Republican figure in Congress to apply to Donald Trump the standards its members know the country depends on for long-term survival of its government. A system of checks and balances relies on each of its component branches resisting overreach by the others. The judiciary has done its part; Paul Ryan’s House and Mitch McConnell’s Senate have not. We’re seeing the difference that can make.

At that time, McConnell’s Republicans held 52 seats in the Senate. To constitute a 51-vote Senate majority, which in turn could have begun to put some limit on Trump (by authorizing hearings or issuing subpoenas), three of them would have had to switch their votes to join the other side.

That’s a relatively tall order, especially early in any president’s term. But with Doug Jones’s victory in the Senate race in Alabama, the Republican count has shrunk to 51. And with John McCain’s terminal illness, only 50 Republican senators are available to vote under normal circumstances, while the Democrats and independents together number 49.

This means that just one Republican senator joining the Democrats and independents would give them 50 votes, against only 49 Republicans, on days when McCain did not vote. And even with all members present, a total of two Republican senators have it in their power to create a 51-vote majority and impose limits on an executive they know to be out of control.

Who might those two senators theoretically be? A list I offered early this year still applies:

  • Two like Jeff Flake and Bob Corker who are not running for re-election and have no primary-challenge consequences to fear;
  • Two like Orrin Hatch and John McCain who mainly have their places in history to think about;
  • Two like the young Ben Sasse and the veteran Lamar Alexander who pride themselves on being “thoughtful”;
  • Two like Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski who pride themselves on being “independent”;
  • Two like Rand Paul and Mike Lee who pride themselves on their own kind of independence;
  • Two like Rob Portman and John Barrasso who pride themselves on being decent;
  • Two like Marco Rubio and Tom Cotton with conceivable long-term higher-office hopes;
  • Two like Tim Scott and James Lankford who jointly wrote a statement on the need for broad-minded inclusion;
  • Two like Chuck Grassley and Richard Shelby, who like Hatch and McCain are in their 80s and conceivably have “legacy” on their minds (remember that in the Alabama Senate race Shelby took a stand against his party’s odious nominee, Roy Moore);
  • One like Dean Heller, facing a tough re-election race, plus maybe Lindsey Graham, who used to be among the leaders in blunt talk about Trump’s excesses.

That’s 20 senators total. The current GOP majority includes 31 more, most of whom are even stauncher party-line voters than those listed above and thus would give rise to sarcastic “Oh, sure!eye-roll reactions at the mere idea of their breaking ranks.

But remember: Every one of them swore an oath to defend the U.S. Constitution, not simply their own careerist comfort. And not a one of them, yet, has been willing to risk comfort, career, or fund-raising to defend the constitutional check-and-balance prerogatives of their legislative branch.

They now confront a president who has been named in a felony guilty plea as having directed criminal activities. (It didn’t get this far or this crystal-clear with Richard Nixon.) Who is routinely discussed as a potential security risk by his own military and intelligence-agency officials. Who ridicules their former Senate colleague for not bending fully to his will as attorney general. Who is manifestly unable to contain his impulses and resentments, while holding a job whose most important qualification is temperamental control. Who …

… The list of “who”s could go on, and any one of those 51 senators could complete it. But not a one of them will take a stand against this man, with a vote. Some give speeches. Some write op-eds. Many are “concerned.” Talk is something, but talk is not a vote.

The first-term GOP Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska gave an illustration last night of the powers that these 51 senators might exercise, if only they dared move beyond talk. Sasse, who has an undergraduate degree from Harvard and a doctorate in history from Yale, has so far been notable for his statements of concern about America’s cultural and governing predicament, not backed up by dissenting votes. But Thursday afternoon, on the Senate floor, Sasse said that he would “find it really difficult to envision any circumstance to confirm a successor to Jeff Sessions if he is fired because he is executing his job rather than choosing to act like a partisan hack.” That is, he issued a warning shot to Trump not to fire Sessions, converted by the politics of these times into an improbable rule-of-law tribune, for fear of running into resistance in the Senate.

It wasn’t an actual vote, but it was at least a hypothesized threat of one. The moment was like a baby bird discovering its wings. Imagine if Sasse thought to apply such powers on behalf not just of a former Senate colleague but of, say, Robert Mueller. Imagine if Sasse or any of his colleagues decided to use the potentially enormous powers of any single senator, let alone a group of them, to insist that a sitting president release his tax returns, or that his officials testify about mounting felony allegations. In any circumstances, the Senate’s arcane procedures mean that lone senators, determined to make a stand, can hold up business or block nominees to get their way. When the ruling party holds only 51 seats, the power of any one or two members goes up astronomically. With great power comes great responsibility—a responsibility that in the current crisis the governing party has chosen to shirk.

Let’s hope that, when looking backward, this final sentence is one I have occasion to revise.