Can Republicans Contain Trump?

What happens to the American republic will depend on whether Trump’s fellow partisans empower and enable him.

Mike Segar / Reuters

If nothing else, Donald Trump’s tax-audit troubles will likely soon be over, assuming they ever existed. The present IRS commissioner still has a couple of years left in his 5-year term. Once he departs, whether on schedule or sooner, he can be replaced by someone more congenial.

Trump’s income troubles may soon vanish, too. Kings, dictators, and other potentates may discover a sudden eagerness to license Trump-themed properties. Savvy foreign ministers might book rooms at the new Trump hotel on their visits to Washington.

Bill Clinton pioneered unprecedented methods of self-enrichment in the post-presidency. No president has ever dared test the potential for self-enrichment during a presidency. It is large.

There are checks and balances of course: congressional oversight; the courts; independent agencies. But that machinery of government is machinery by metaphor only. In reality, it is collective human action, and it only operates if those humans decide to make it work.

So it’s on Americans.

Through a career in the public eye dating back to the Carter administration—and over the course of a campaign defined by gutter abuse and brazen lying—Donald Trump has revealed his character. He accepts no limits on his appetite or his willfulness. He identifies with dictators; he despises dissent; he cannot tolerate criticism. He does not comply with law. He respects no institution or principle.

What happens next to the American republic will depend on whether Trump chooses to abide by, or can be restrained within, legal and bureaucratic limits—or whether his fellow partisans, seeking their own immediate political objectives, instead empower and enable him.

The record of Republican elected officials to date is not confidence-inspiring. They have followed Trump’s lead, even when it violated their own declared convictions, even when he personally insulted and mocked them. They have chased power and the realization of their ideological dreams, even at the cost of their own integrity and dignity.

Now comes the supreme gamble: an opportunity to remake America in a way it has not been remade since Lyndon Johnson’s burst of liberal activism in 1965—only this time, without the support of a democratic mandate.

Like George W. Bush in 2000, Donald Trump lost the popular vote. More Americans opposed him than favored him. The constitutional rules allow him and his adopted party to proceed. It’s up to them whether to proceed cautiously or recklessly. The early indications suggest they will push as hard as they can. It’s a risky plan, both for party and nation. The country cannot be governed by partisan imposition. The attempt to bypass democratic consent will not end well. And this time it may permanently damage republican institutions.

The party now titularly led by Donald Trump has gained the right to govern. What’s also needed is a cross-party commitment to protect the institutions despised and threatened by Donald Trump. How to do just that will be the great political theme of the year ahead.