Bonfire of the Insanities

Column: A White House Divided Against Itself Cannot Stand

bonfire of insanities
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July 28, 2017

Where do you start?

With the president who undercuts, insults, lambastes his attorney general, but does not fire him?

With the White House press secretary who resigns from his job only when he faces the prospect of reporting to someone he does not like?

With the White House communications director who tells a reporter he's planning on firing a staffer, then backtracks, then has the staffer resign?

With the Senate amending a bill that does not exist, while hoping that the finished legislation proceeds to a conference committee from which it does not pass?

With the White House communications director who calls a reporter outraged that news of a dinner with the president has leaked, who threatens to fire his entire staff, who blames the White House chief of staff for leaking his financial disclosure form, who uses an obscene metaphor to describe the senior strategist and chief ideologist?

With the president who is encouraging the communications director, loves the backstabbing and conflict and chaos, who privileges personal loyalty above all else?

There are too many options, too many ways to go at the problem. That problem is a White House in turmoil, a Republican Party that does not know what it wants on health care, taxes, and foreign policy, and a nation that remains as confused, divided, and incomprehensible to itself as it was on the day Donald Trump was elected president.

Satire, commentary, analysis—throw it all out the window. What's happening in Washington is beyond parody, beyond fiction. What will happen tomorrow, what will happen in the next hour? No one knows.

For more than a century, Americans have looked to their presidents as steadying hands, calming presences. The current president has a different conception of his office. He is still a business tycoon, a television commentator, an inspirational speaker, a controversialist, a self-promoter, a can-do guy.

Trump doesn't want stability, he wants motion. He isn't interested in details or arguments, he's energized by accomplishments, achievements, placards on the wall. He doesn't have a cabinet, he has employees. And the primary job of those employees is to protect their boss.

Which is what Anthony Scaramucci understands. Like Trump, he's a showman. Larger than life. He's familiar with grand gestures. He's not a D.C. guy.

We are boring in D.C. We are conventional dressers, we have no flash. We are verbalists, rationalists, theorists, speculators, analysts, planners. Weekend brunch is our version of excitement. We expect decorum, we assume things will go, or ought to go, a certain way. And when things don't go the way they are supposed to, we are shocked, disturbed, appalled.

The great story of the last six months has been Donald Trump's collision with Washington. The president threw himself into the job, has dominated the capital, and the national conversation, unlike any president in recent memory. The activity has been frenetic, all-consuming, and at times self-destructive. There have been accomplishments at the border, in deregulation, in the courts. But the overarching conflict has been between the president and the established order, best represented by the national media. And this is a conflict whose outcome remains uncertain.

Last week's hiring of Scaramucci, however, was evidence of another raging battle: Between the president and his administration. The president doesn't trust many of his underlings, lacks confidence in them, and the feeling, it would seem, is mutual. They leak, they mock, they complain, they wander around town shell-shocked, paranoid, defeated, subdued, broken. Trump is disappointed. So the man whom the voters brought in to disrupt Washington brought in Scaramucci to disrupt his own White House. Well, mission accomplished.

The two wars, between Trump and the world and between Trump and his staff, feed on each other. I didn't think it possible, but political coverage intensified this week, became more heated, more alarmist, more electric, more passionate.

Is there a limit, a point past which the dial cannot turn? A few days ago a friend said of the White House, "The wheels are coming off." But how can wheels come off a plane that did not have them to begin with? For more than two years now Donald Trump has piloted his jet barely above ground level, with half a wing, and a fire in the mess. Yet every time you think the plane will crash, will decompose, he gives it lift, he holds it together. He defies gravity. What goes up, though ... .

As it happens I have been reading past issues of National Review, including bound volumes from 1977-1981. I do not know whether Donald Trump fits the historian's model of a "disjunctive" president like Jimmy Carter, but the two chief executives do share this in common: Both campaigned as outsiders, both brought fellow outsiders with them to Washington, and these coteries of trusted advisers did not mesh with the institutions and personalities and manners they found in the city. In both cases there was a culture clash, apparent from the beginning. It soon became obvious that Carter's presidency was not only dysfunctional, but a failure.

Trump isn't there yet. But the dizzying events of the last two weeks cannot be ignored, cannot be dismissed as aberrations, cannot be justified or explained. And they must worry, deep down, even the president's most loyal supporters. President Trump can survive, even thrive, in a war against Washington. What might break him is the war within his White House.