“How did things ever get so far? I don’t know. It was so unfortunate, so unnecessary.”
—Don Corleone, “The Godfather”
I keep thinking about the dynamics the past few years between the president and what used to be called official Washington. That relationship is ugly and broken, but it could have been otherwise.
Trump supporters have long held, and deeply believe, that none of the people in what they call the swamp were ever anything but unalterably opposed to him and meant, from day one, to remove him by whatever means possible.
This was true of about half of official Washington. They were predominately Democrats, though there were Republicans too, and certainly the media were against him, overwhelmingly.
But the other half of official Washington, though to varying degrees disapproving of Trump, often for reasons that were almost aesthetic, was willing to be surprised. They were open to persuasion. They didn’t say this but they thought it. They’d give him time and watch events closely.
I’m thinking of the old ambassadors, mostly men in their 60s, 70s and 80s. They’re woven into the town, solid citizens, friends of journalists, occasionally sources, and they know things. They’re mostly retired, and at lunch at clubs in town often begin sentences with “And so I told Zbig . . .” There’s a bit of lost glory with them, but they care about America, are personally invested in it, love it with an old-school love, and respect systems, knowing that creativity—in art, science and diplomacy—can only be born within a certain immediate order.
Donald Trump was not their type. But early on they were willing to give him a chance.
When he came in he was a shock to the system, almost literally. He didn’t act like a liberal or a Democrat, or a conservative or a Republican. It was not clear he thought, as opposed to felt. It was clear he was emotional—lots of resentments, wounds and complaints. As the first year went by and then the second the stories were out there, sometimes from his own aides. He doesn’t read, doesn’t like his briefings, he’s spending time tweeting and watching television. He’s picking fights with celebrities and haranguing the Boy Scout Jamboree about our rotten media. He’s firing people or they’re resigning—the chief of staff, chief strategist, then the generals. The travel ban, Charlottesville, he’s a “stable genius,” he’s shoving the prime minister of Montenegro and blowing up immigration talks.
Pretty quickly and to the entire edifice of Washington, it became clear Donald Trump was not a Jacksonian shock to the system, which is what his supporters think he was. He was a daily system overload, a one-man frying of the grid.
One by one the ambassadors shut down and turned away. Their objections were not about policy, they were about behavior. What they feared was not extreme conservatism or extreme liberalism. They didn’t fear originality or a new synthesis. They feared Madness of King George-ism. They’d come to think the president was, irredeemably, a screwball. In the nuclear age this is a dangerous thing.
Their fears about him weren’t assuaged by trusty old hands inside the White House because those hands weren’t there. They didn’t join the administration, because they didn’t want their résumés tainted or they thought wise counsel would never be heeded. Or because they’d signed a letter opposing him in 2016 and would never be forgiven.
So a lot of good people didn’t come in or weren’t allowed in. And those who did work for the president came to seem strange—fierce, emotional, half mad themselves. There were good people there—the generals were solid—but one by one they left.
Mr. Trump fulfilled every fear a Trump skeptic would have. So they stayed skeptics, or became active opponents. Strangely in a political figure, the president had no particular respect for his critics’ concerns or anxieties. He never understood they could be brought into the tent. They were all enemies; it was all black and white. Some supporters were like that too, but that was understandable: The job of supporters is to fight. He’s the leader, and leaders are forced to deal with reality. He would not lessen his critics’ fears through behavioral change. Heck, he won the election by not changing, why mess with his swing?
He thought he didn’t need the ambassadors. “Experts” are just guys who marinated in a little subset and memorized its clichés. If they were any good we’d be in better shape!
It was all this—the president’s disdain, his well-fed resentments—that not only left Washington thinking Mr. Trump was crazy. It made Washington itself a fertile field for crazy. It was in this atmosphere that the Steele dossier, with its whacked out third-rate spy fiction, became believable, that sober-minded officials reportedly wondered if they should wear wires when they met with the president.
He destabilized the entire town.
That, in my view, is a small sliver of how we got here.
And so a closing word on the Mueller report. I have thought since the beginning that appointing a special counsel to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election was right and justified; that Robert Mueller was an excellent choice because of his experience and integrity. Also his age and stage. He was a patriot looking to finish a distinguished career with integrity. He hired killers, tough lawyers and investigators who were hunting the whale and intended to harpoon it. They did everything they could to get the story. What they produced is a more dreadful portrait of Mr. Trump than his supporters will know, because most Americans won’t read it.
In the end, Mr. Mueller did not bring charges. He left it to Congress.
Should the Democrats move to impeach? No, not for reasons of merit but of national interest.
Progressives will want to proceed with their usual blithe rage. But the investigation lasted almost two years. It was exhaustive and consumed daily headlines. Trump supporters, almost half the country, will feel, understandably, that its work is complete. They would experience an impeachment attempt as proof of what they always assumed: that this whole thing was a cynical attempt by the left to achieve by other means what it could not achieve at the ballot box.
They would see it as subverting democracy. And anything that damages faith in democracy at this point in our national life should be rejected. We need to build trust and faith, not lessen it.
It is 2019. We elect a president in 2020. Democrats would be wise to spend the next year showing America that their party is capable of governing, up to leadership, that its ideas are not crazy but pertinent, that it actually has a philosophy.
Seriousness and calm would be nice, and after the past few years would serve as a welcome counterpoint. There is an unarticulated wish out there to return to some past in which things were deeply imperfect and certainly divided but on some level tranquil, and not half mad.