Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

So that was not exactly the Cuban missile crisis.

In apparent retaliation for the killing of Iran’s top terror commander, Iran fired short-range ballistic missiles in the direction of military bases inside Iraq. The missiles inflicted no casualties on U.S. or allied forces.

The truly horrible news seems instead to be an accident: the crash of a Ukrainian Airlines flight to Tehran, which killed all 176 people aboard. The largest group among them consisted of 63 Canadian nationals. The cause of the crash remains uncertain. As of early this morning, the Iranian authorities had recovered the aircraft’s black boxes, but said they did not intend to send them to the plane’s manufacturer, Boeing. If a poorly aimed rocket struck the plane, then Iran has truly escalated the crisis. Otherwise, a night that opened with bellicosity closed in the shared grief of accidental tragedy.

But imagine that Iran had gotten luckier (or unluckier) with its missile aiming. Or that the Iranian regime had chosen—or still chooses—a more lethal response to the killing of Qassem Soleimani. Where would we be then?

The Trump administration and its supporters seem to have hoped for a “rally around the flag” effect from the killing of Soleimani. This did not happen. The fundamental geology of Donald Trump’s presidency remains unchanged: A large majority of Americans do not trust him, do not support him, and will not follow him. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has complained that European allies do not support the Trump administration’s actions. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell laments that Democrats in Congress will not support the president either.

The first poll after the killing of Soleimani shows 53 percent of Americans disapproving of Trump’s handling of Iran, a number similar to what other polling registered in September and October. What has changed is that 39 percent “strongly disapprove” of Trump’s policy—a number up 10 points since before the Soleimani killing. Americans do not want war with Iran, and they do not trust Trump to lead such a war if it erupts.

Trump’s governance itself is legally in question right now. The president has been impeached. Unlike the Clinton impeachment of 1998–99, this process commands the approval of a majority of Americans. On average, more than 50 percent believe the Senate should remove Trump from office. That’s not sufficient to force the Senate to respond, especially not a Senate majority that itself was elected with the support of only a minority of Americans. But it’s certainly sufficient to deprive the president of the legitimacy to lead the nation to war.

The United States finds itself in the dangerous situation of having a president in power but without authority.

He is the least trusted president in the history of polling. Two-thirds of Americans regard him as dishonest. Sixty-one percent say he does not respect democracy.  

With the departure of Secretary of Defense James Mattis at the end of 2018, there is no figure left in the administration who does command broad respect from the public, Congress, or American allies—who can credibly step forward and say, “This time, the president is not lying.”

Even the White House press secretary has given up. Unlike her two predecessors, who lied to the media’s face, the current holder of the office, Stephanie Grisham, has abandoned press briefings entirely.

The president, any president, is both the leader of his party and a representative of the entire nation. As the nation polarizes, it becomes harder and harder to combine those roles. But unlike his predecessors, Trump has never tried to do the second job. Even as he sought support from Democrats in Congress, the president retweeted one of his most provocative supporters equating Democrats in Congress to Iranian terrorists. Former Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, ever more brazenly campaigning to replace Vice President Mike Pence on the Republican 2020 ticket, gave an interview on Sean Hannity’s radio show in which she said nobody except Democratic Party leaders and presidential candidates mourned the death of Qassem Soleimani. (Meanwhile, one of the president’s strongest supporters in the Senate, Rand Paul, and one of Trump’s favorite TV hosts, Tucker Carlson, actually spoke out in opposition to the strike.)

Trump supporters are trying to re-create the atmosphere of 2003, to claim the high ground of patriotism and defense of the nation. That can never work for them, because at every turn they and the country confront the weird hold Russia’s Vladimir Putin seems to hold over the U.S. president. Trump defenders angrily denounce the facts of the Trump-Putin connection as a “hoax,” but the country does not believe them. As of mid-summer 2019, only 35 percent of voters accepted the president’s claims of “exoneration.” A majority believe that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to help Trump; a plurality believe that Trump colluded with that effort.

A president regarded by so many Americans as Putin’s puppet cannot plausibly wave the flag against domestic opponents.

Trump himself seems to intuit the danger—which is why he always flinches from foreign-policy confrontations at the last minute, first with North Korea and now with Iran. When you know you’re driving a stolen car, you want to avoid collisions.

But Trump’s supporters in Congress and on TV have not kept up with the times as well as their boss. They imagine it’s still 2003—or maybe 1969. But that history has passed by. When Fox talkers call on all Americans to unite behind the president, they have to carve out mental exceptions for close to half the country. Not New York State or New York City: President Trump has said he hates them “even more than I should.” Not the state of California, home to one out of every eight Americans: “a disgrace to our country.” Not the city of Chicago: “embarrassing to us as a nation.” Not the city of Baltimore: “a rat and rodent infested mess.” Not the city of Atlanta: “in horrible shape and falling apart.”

Trump has never aspired to the job of president of all the United States. He does not understand the job. He cannot do the job. And now the job needs to be done.

Earlier in the Trump administration, it was said that the president was fortunate to have never encountered a crisis not of his own making. Over three years, however, he has contrived to make a great many crises: a trade war with China, a betrayal in Kurdistan, a diplomatic debacle on the Korean peninsula, the ongoing thralldom of Trump to Putin, and now the approach to war with Iran. National crises become no less dangerous for being the fault of the U.S. president rather than some foreign aggressor. Happily, the Iran crisis is paused, at least for the moment. None of these national self-harms will be resolved, however, until this sham president leaves office.

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