It seems like about five years ago — and not exactly one week — when I sat down to write that Trump’s moral abdication, with his “many sides” statement that failed to call out neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville, meant that America is essentially functioning without a president. Since then, Trump’s moral compass — which may have never existed — has faltered again and again, and the list of people who on one level or another have abandoned the president just seven months in has ranged from America’s top CEOs to Lionel Richie (hello?) to one-time possible secretary of state Mitt Romney to even a small handful of congressional Republicans who have called out Trump by name, a baby step in the right direction. Some Republican strategists now say they wonder how a Trump presidency can go on like this for another three years and five months.
Welcome to the club.
And that was before Friday’s shocking/not-at-all shocking ouster of top presidential strategist, and the “CEO” of Trump’s 2016 general election campaign, Steve Bannon. Since many people saw Bannon as “the guy behind the guy behind the guy” — Time magazine had even called him “President Bannon” in a cover story — who drove the most incendiary white-nationalist tendencies of the Trump White House, this was supposed to be a huge deal. And yet amid this reality-show presidency where some quirky cast member (does anyone remember “the Mooch”?) gets voted off the island every week, Bannon’s departure felt empty, even meaningless. The most interesting thing that Bannon said was also the most cryptic: “The Trump presidency that we fought for and won, is over.”
But that doesn’t answer the $64,000 question about Trump’s presidency — what the heck was it even supposed to be about in the first place?
I’ve been pondering that ever since I read a remarkable op-ed this week in the New York Times with a headline — “I Voted for Trump. And I Sorely Regret It” — that didn’t really do the article justice. The idea that Trump’s ethical meltdown over Charlottesville caused a backer of the president to jump ship was no big deal — but author Julius Krein was no ordinary Trump voter. He even launched a quarterly scholarly journal called American Affairs which, as he planned, was going to bring intellectual heft toward advancing a pro-Trump ideology.
What was jarring was how Krein explained what he heard when Trump ran for the presidency in 2016. I know that I — a fairly-far-to-the-left registered independent — would have totally voted for the guy that the author was describing as Donald John Trump.
“He talked about the issue of widening income inequality — almost unheard of for a Republican candidate — and didn’t pretend that simply cutting taxes or shrinking government would solve the problem,” Krein wrote. “He criticized corporations for offshoring jobs, attacked financial-industry executives for avoiding taxes and bemoaned America’s reliance on economic bubbles over the last few decades. He blasted the Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz campaigns for insincerely mouthing focus-grouped platitudes while catering to their largest donors — and he was right.” What’s more, argued Krein, his Donald Trump talked common sense on Iraq and Libya and told truths on trade policy and Rust Belt deindustrialization that were (and this is my take, not Krein’s) only matched by a democratic socialist, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.).
You can read that now and wonder if a Donald Trump who was emotionally stable — as opposed to howling his vanity and insecurity into the pre-dawn gloaming of Twitter — and not given to racist pandering of the variety we saw after Charlottesville could have been a great American president, worthy of finding extra real estate on Mount Rushmore.
It’s a fascinating question, but in the end it’s also an academic one — in every sense of the word. For one thing, the Trump that Krein described never really existed. At various times over the last two decades, Trump said random things that — taken out of context — would lead you to believe the billionaire was a liberal Democrat who supports a higher minimum wage, universal health care, LGBTQ rights, and a woman’s right to choose. But he’s also supported stuff like lower taxes for the rich and bombing the (bleep) out of the Middle East. Candidate Trump could have every ideology because he had no ideology — beyond Trump’s own ego and sense of grievance.
Which perhaps is the bigger point: If Trump’s campaign had been the one that Krein heard — the one about policy ideas — he never would have been elected. Trump won because he was able to mind-meld his deeply held personal resentments with the political resentments and hatred of so-called liberal elites, that belong to millions of voters. The Trump who spoke of income inequality was a curiosity, but the Trump who railed on Saturday against “anti-police agitators in Boston” is the one who could actually get elected.
Those resentments are stronger right now than ever, which means it may be premature to write Trump’s political obituary. CEOs are abandoning the president, but not his working-class base. “The guys who wouldn’t like me wouldn’t like Trump,” a Trump voter named Larry Laughlin from Minnesota told the New York Times after Charlottesville, comparing liberal elites to smug jocks and cheerleaders at the “popular” table at high school. “The guys who were condescending to him were condescending to me.”
The President Trump that America got isn’t the one that a tone-deaf intellectual like Krein heard but the one that 62 million people in just the right states wanted. The challenge for 2020 is finding “that guy” — without the racist and xenophobic and misogynistic baloney — and getting her or him over the top. It will not be easy. In the meantime, how does America survive three-plus years of the irredeemable President Trump? Short of impeachment, which doesn’t seem to be truly on the table, I have no earthly idea.