But after two years, it’s also clear that Trump sees strategic value in violating presidential norms. He’s shown that he believes he benefits from immersing all of those around him in constant unpredictability. Probably even more important, he sees barreling through the informal guardrails that have constrained previous presidents as a way of signaling to his core supporters that he will go to any length to defend their interests. From that perspective, the more establishment voices condemn his behavior, the more he signals to his base that he’s fighting for them by any means necessary.
Until the midterm elections, it was common for Trump critics to lament that he paid little price for these excesses. But the November results showed, in a quantifiable way, that Trump’s belligerent and erratic behavior does carry a cost. Democrats won 40 seats in the House—and carried the national House popular vote by a larger margin than the GOP did in its 1994 or 2010 landslides—even though unemployment was below 4 percent and two-thirds of voters described the economy as either excellent or good. A performance that weak for the president’s party should not be possible with an economy that strong. But both independents and college-educated white voters, two groups that expressed widespread doubt about Trump’s temperament from the outset, broke solidly for Democrats last month after narrowly tilting toward him in 2016.
Rather than taking that shift as a sign to reconsider his course, Trump has doubled down on disorder since Election Day. He approaches the New Year engulfed in three distinct crises, all of which he ignited with his own actions.
Trump has precipitated a diplomatic crisis by abruptly announcing his intention to withdraw American forces from Syria. That triggered the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis, which reinforced the initial tremor over the sudden reversal with a powerful aftershock.
Trump has precipitated a governing crisis by forcing a partial federal shutdown through his demand for $5 billion in funding for his border wall—an ultimatum that the administration itself only a few days earlier acknowledged could not win 60 votes in the Senate.
And he’s instigated a financial-market crisis through the shutdown, his saber-rattling on trade with China, and his repeated Twitter attacks on Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell—with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin providing the aftershocks in this case through his amateurish efforts to calm the markets last weekend.
Trump defenders argue that, on the merits, he can win each of these fights politically (though that case seems very tenuous for the border wall, which has faced majority opposition in virtually every public poll conducted during his presidency). But the larger risk to Trump is that the virtues of each of his positions become indistinguishable amid such swelling levels of confrontation and instability; arguing for any individual policy in this environment may be like trying to identify a single wave in a flood tide.