The Trump presidency

The Republican Party is organised around one man

That is dangerous



ALL presidents, Republican and Democrat, seek to remake their party in their own image. Donald Trump has been more successful than most. From the start, the voters he mesmerised in the campaign embraced him more fervently than congressional Republicans were ready to admit. After 15 months in power, as our briefing explains, he has taken ownership of their party. It is an extraordinary achievement from a man who had never lived in Washington, DC, who never held public office, who boasted of groping women and who, as recently as 2014, was a donor to the hated Democrats.

The organising principle of Mr Trump’s Republican Party is loyalty. Not, as with the best presidents, loyalty to an ideal, a vision or a legislative programme, but to just one man—Donald J. Trump—and to the prejudice and rage which consume the voter base that, on occasion, even he struggles to control. In America that is unprecedented and it is dangerous.

Already, some of our Republican readers will be rolling their eyes. They will say that our criticism reveals more about us and our supposed elitism than it does about Mr Trump. But we are not talking here about the policies of Mr Trump’s administration, a few of which we support, many of which we do not and all of which should be debated on their merits. The bigger, more urgent concern is Mr Trump’s temperament and style of government. Submissive loyalty to one man and the rage he both feeds off and incites is a threat to the shining democracy that the world has often taken as its example.

Not what, but how

Mr Trump’s takeover has its roots in the take-no-prisoners tribalism that gripped American politics long before he became president. And in the past the Oval Office has occasionally belonged to narcissists some of whom lied, seduced, bullied or undermined presidential norms.

But none has behaved quite as blatantly as Mr Trump.

At the heart of his system of power is his contempt for the truth. In a memoir published this week (see Lexington) James Comey, whom Mr Trump fired as director of the FBI, laments “the lying about all things, large and small, in service to some code of loyalty that put the organisation above morality and above the truth”. Mr Trump does not—perhaps cannot—distinguish between facts and falsehoods. As a businessman and on the campaign he behaved as if the truth was whatever he could get away with. And, as president, Mr Trump surely believes that his power means he can get away with a great deal.

When power dominates truth, criticism becomes betrayal. Critics cannot appeal to neutral facts and remain loyal, because facts are not neutral. As Hannah Arendt wrote of the 1920s and 1930s, any statement of fact becomes a question of motive. Thus, when H.R. McMaster, a former national security adviser, said (uncontroversially) that Russia had interfered in the election campaign, Mr Trump heard his words as unforgivably hostile. Soon after, he was sacked.

The cult of loyalty to Mr Trump and his base affects government in three ways. First, policymaking suffers as, instead of a coherent programme, America undergoes government by impulse—anger, nativism, mercantilism—beyond the reach of empirical argument. Mr Trump’s first year has included accomplishments: the passage of a big tax cut, a regulatory rollback and the appointment of conservative judges. But most of his policymaking is marked by chaos rather than purpose. He was against the Trans-Pacific trade deal, then for it, then against it again; for gun control, then for arming teachers instead.

Second, the conventions that buttress the constitution’s limits on the president have fallen victim to Mr Trump’s careless selfishness. David Frum, once a speechwriter for George W. Bush, lists some he has broken (and how long they have been observed): a refusal to disclose his tax return (since Gerald Ford), ignoring conflict-of-interest rules (Richard Nixon), running a business for profit (Lyndon Johnson), appointing relatives to senior posts in the administration (John F. Kennedy) and family enrichment by patronage (Ulysses S. Grant).

And third, Mr Trump paints those who stand in his way not as opponents, but as wicked or corrupt or traitors. Mr Trump and his base divide Republicans into good people who support him and bad people who do not—one reason why a record 40 congressional Republicans, including the House Speaker, Paul Ryan, will not seek re-election. The media that are for him are zealous loyalists; those that are not are branded enemies of the people. He has cast judicial investigations by Robert Mueller into his commercial and political links with Russia as a “deep-state” conspiracy. Mr Trump is reportedly toying with firing Mr Mueller or his boss in the Department of Justice. Yet, if a president cannot be investigated without it being counted as treason then, like a king, he is above the law.

The best rebuke to Mr Trump’s solipsism would be Republican defeat at the ballot box, starting with November’s mid-term elections. That may yet come to pass. But Mr Trump’s Republican base, stirred up by his loyal media, shows no sign of going soft. Polls suggest that its members overwhelmingly believe the president over Mr Comey. For them, criticism from the establishment is proof he must be doing something right.

Look up, look forwards and look in

But responsibility also falls to Republicans who know that Mr Trump is bad for America and the world. They feel pinned down, because they cannot win elections without Mr Trump’s base but, equally, they cannot begin to attempt to prise Mr Trump and his base apart without being branded traitors.

Such Republicans need to reflect on how speaking up will bear on their legacy. Mindful of their party’s future, they should remember that America’s growing racial diversity means that nativism will eventually lead to the electoral wilderness. And, for the sake of their country, they need to bring in a bill to protect Mr Mueller’s investigation from sabotage. If loyalty to Mr Trump grants him impunity, who knows where he will venture? Speaking to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 George Mason put it best: “Shall that man be above [justice], who can commit the most extensive injustice?”

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