Andrew Sullivan, writing in New York Magazine’s Intelligencer, explains why Trump’s Presidency Isn’t a Dark Comedy — It’s an Absurd Tragedy.
Ouch. I plead guilty to blogging, by text and illustration, about the buffoon now in the WH. I’ve engaged in a little sub rosa snickering about the peccadillos of the Mad King Donald. Here is what’s wrong with that lackadaisical approach. Day after day the true nature of the man has become less like Elmer Fudd in Looney Tunes and more like some vampire in the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
The idea that Donald J. Trump is a president best defined by his weakness has always carried a kind of knowing, world-weary authority. It’s basically the Washington Republican response when you’re freaking out about Trump’s incessant power grabs. Calm down, they tell us; he’s not really effective; he’s a shiny object to keep non-college-educated whites in the GOP’s grip; we’re still having elections; he’s only behaving like presidents before Watergate; the economy is fine; he’s more in touch with America than the rest of you. And so on.
I Sullivan … admire the sangfroid of some non-hysterics. In an age of high emotionality, the calm-down chorus has managed to summon up an air of coolness, detachment, moderation. To take one of the more persuasive advocates of this basic position: New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. He argued a while back that the best way to see the Trump administration was more as LBJ than Mussolini. This week, he described the Trump era as a “black comedy” — something unmistakably dark but ultimately unserious. On February 1, Ross made the broader case that Trump is “a reckless and distracted figure, a serial squanderer of opportunities, who barely won the presidency and whose coalition is united only in partisan solidarity and fear of liberalism. He may not be removable by the impeachment process, but is not a king; he is a widely hated, legislatively constrained president facing a difficult re-election … A failed impeachment doesn’t give him new powers or new popularity.”
And that’s where I Sullivan get off the calm-down bus. The way Trump has been operating since he was acquitted by the Senate suggests to me that he is quite obviously seeking and practicing new powers, as he has been since he was sworn in; and that he has been rewarded, chillingly, with new popularity despite or because of it. He has brazenly pardoned a whole slew of his political allies and personal friends, initiated a purge of anyone in government who exposed malfeasance, fired an acting director of National Intelligence because an underling warned of Russian interference in the 2020 election, and kept suggesting to a judge that if she returned a harsh sentence for one of his goons, Roger Stone, he would almost certainly commute it or pardon Stone entirely. (Since Judge Amy Berman Jackson’s moderate sentence on Thursday, Trump has refused to take a pardon off the table.)
And to make sure we fully understand and witness what he’s doing, he has also declared himself as “I guess, the chief law enforcement officer” of the United States, and made a series of very public assertions that he can do anything he wants in the criminal-justice sphere. For all this, he is at 49 percent high in the Gallup poll, at a yearslong peak of 44.2 percent in the FiveThirtyEight poll of polls and 46 percent in RealClearPolitics’ average.
… What Trump is doing is openly mocking constitutional constraints on the presidency even as he abuses his office — and has prompted only indifference among Republicans and exhaustion among Democrats.
Look at the precedents that have already been set: A president can now ignore Congress’ power of the purse, by redirecting funds from Congress’ priorities to his own (as in the wall); he can invent a “national emergency” out of nothing … he can broadly refuse to cooperate with any legitimate congressional inquiries … obstruct justice, and intimidate witnesses with impunity; he can slander judges … He can wage war unilaterally and instantly, without any congressional approval, while lying about the reason … and denying the consequences …
Are we supposed to believe these precedents will not be cited and deployed by every wannabe strongman president in the future? Are we supposed to regard these massive holes below the waterline of the ship of state as no big deal? And with these precedents in his first term, are we supposed to regard what could Trump get away with in a second term as a form of black comedy? I’m sorry but I don’t get the joke.
… our current president is also threatening the integrity of our elections by his indifference toward foreign influence, his refusal to commit to obeying an election result in advance, his grotesque past claims of voter fraud, and his toying with a third or fourth term. Last year, Trump tweeted a GIF that showed him winning elections in 2024, 2028, and on and on. And it was one thing to swallow all this gamesmanship and trolling from a rogue candidate in 2016 — but from a sitting president heading into an election year? And then we have a genuine potential nightmare: If the election is close, can we be sure that the president will accept the result, and act in the interests of the country, rather than himself?
With Trump, for the first time in the history of the presidency, the answer is no. If you have followed this man’s business career, or witnessed the last three and a half years, you will notice that Trump never concedes anything. So why do we assume he would concede an election? And who would make him? And when you examine the nature of the party he has now remade in his image, and observe its evolution in recent decades, you see that the GOP’s core belief seems to have become that the other party is inherently illegitimate, and must be crushed by any means to hand. Which means to say that the GOP is a party now dedicated to the maintenance of its own power before any other principle. That was the core meaning of Trump’s nomination. It means that we have no idea if we’ll see a normal transfer of power this fall if the president loses.
… confronted with this reality, it is staggering to me that anyone can say we should chill. The nature of Trump’s instinctual tyranny is that it never stops by itself. And, like any psychological disorder, it never rests. It has an energy all its own. Each new beachhead of power is simply a means to acquire more of it in an ever-more ambitious and dynamic form. This is not a comedy; it’s a tragedy we want to believe is a comedy. Because the alternative is too nightmarish.
Look, people. All of the above is a strong case for impeachment and removal from office. That already has been taken away leaving removal via the 2020 election. But what if Trump decrees that the election is invalid? And refuses to leave office? Do we have any protection short of a 2024 election? And what then?