Four weeks in, and the overwhelming impression from the Trump administration is one of incompetence. Trump is hopelessly ignorant of the most basic functions of government. I expected the extremism, but even I am a little shocked by the stupidity:
- He can't get through a telephone call with the Prime Minister of Australia, one of America's most loyal allies, without causing a diplomatic incident.
- Trump discussed a North Korean missile test with the Prime Minister of Japan in the middle of a public dining room, at a club he himself owns.
- His executive order on immigration was immediately overturned by the courts.
- He was warned Michael Flynn, his National Security Advisor, had illegal contacts with Russia; but took no action until weeks later, when the matter became public and Flynn was forced to resign.
- Retired Vice-Admiral Robert Harward was Trump's first choice as Flynn's replacement; but he has turned the job down, allegedly because he considers the administration a "shit sandwich".
- Republicans in Congress are preparing no less than three separate investigations of the Trump administration's conduct.
- Trump has failed to nominate anyone for most of the deputy- and under-secretary positions in his Cabinet.
The last of these is low-key, but in a way provides more insight into his dysfunction. After his shock election win, Trump had three months to prepare for government. A person with a rudimentary grasp of reality might have made some effort to understand his new responsibilities. Trump is not such a person. He is struggling with even the simplest appointments of personnel.
Trump has been in office for less than a month. All this chaos has been of his own making; he hasn't yet faced any difficult events.
Then came Thursday's extraordinary, unhinged press conference. Trump campaigned for President by shouting insults, empty slogans and brazen falsehoods. When pressed on matters of policy, he retreated into meaningless babble. It is now clear he intends to govern the same way.
Some commentators have tried to explain this away as all part of a cunning plan. Trump is trying to undermine the value of truth, they say, or see who is loyal enough to fail to question his lies.
This gives Trump and his hangers-on far too much credit. Master strategists would not have put so much time and effort into ranting about the attendance at Trump's inauguration. They would not have stumbled into so many avoidable errors. Trump's chief advisor Steve Bannon is a far-right racist and a despicable human being, but that's all. Bannon is not an evil genius; at most, he is an evil mediocrity.
Trump can no more fulfil his duties than my cat can play the saxophone. The disturbing thing is, it won't necessarily bring him down.
It is entirely possible that no matter how deranged and dysfunctional he is, Trump will continue to occupy the Oval Office until January of 2021 at the earliest.
In a past age, this would not have been true. Richard Nixon was forced out of office for misdeeds which pale in comparison to Trump. It's hard to imagine Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton behaving as erratically as Trump has done, without being declared incapable of serving as President and removed from office.
The Republican majority in Congress has the power to remove Trump. They can do so either directly by impeachment; or by confirming a decision made by the Vice President and a majority of the Cabinet, under the Twenty-Fifth Amendment. Most of them don't like Trump. They didn't want him as a candidate, and they don't want him as President.
If they take down Trump, he will be replaced by Vice President Pence, a former Congressman and governor whom they find far more congenial. Pence is a terrifying right-wing ideologue in his own right; but for the modern GOP that is a feature, not a bug.
So why don't they do it? Why don't they pull the trigger and get rid of Trump?
Very simply: They fear the party primaries above all else.
Members of Congress may be cowardly, but in their way they are rational. Especially for House members in safely gerrymandered districts, they are far more vulnerable to a primary challenge than to a general election defeat. They will choose their actions accordingly.
Trump still enjoys the approval of a hard core of Republican voters. These are people who will gladly believe Trump over the New York Times or Washington Post. They live in a bubble of right-wing media, much of it online, typified by the Breitbart website formerly run by Steve Bannon. They are all but impervious to external reality. The Republican party encouraged this development for years, until it metastasized beyond their control and brought them Trump.
Here's the problem: The hardline Trump supporters are prepared to vote in Republican party primaries. They can, and will, remove Republican members of Congress and replace them with candidates more to their liking. This has recently been done on a large scale by the Tea Party faction, and it can be done again. If Trump is impeached, his followers will try and take revenge.
Turnout in party primaries is pitifully low. It took only five percent of the American electorate to give Trump the presidential nomination; and fewer still will vote in Congressional primaries. Those who vote are the most ideological, the most committed. They are likely to support Trump to the bitter end. As long as they do, so too will the Republicans in Congress.
There are two things which might change this calculation. One is if Trump becomes so unpopular, association with him is poisonous in a general election. Either Republicans might take down Trump to try and save themselves; or they could be swept from office and replaced by Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections. While the latter is possible, it would be an uphill struggle. In the Senate, the Democrats are defending 25 out of 33 seats, and so have few potential gains. In the House, gerrymandering means they will need a substantial edge in the popular vote to gain a bare majority of seats.
The other is if Trump's reign becomes so dysfunctional, he threatens the personal safety and comfort of the wealthy elite, including the members of Congress themselves. I fear that if it comes to this, Trump will already have done severe and irreversible damage. Perhaps the most optimistic outcome is for Trump to spend the next four years flailing helplessly, until the electorate has a chance to remove him from office. We can only hope he does not cause too much destruction in the meantime.