I still have trouble seeing how the Trump administration survives a full term. Judging by his Thursday press conference, President Donald Trump’s mental state is like a train that long ago left freewheeling and iconoclastic, has raced through indulgent, chaotic and unnerving, and is now careening past unhinged, unmoored and unglued.
Trump’s White House staff is at war with itself. His poll ratings are falling at unprecedented speed. His policy agenda is stalled. FBI investigations are just beginning. This does not feel like a sustainable operation.
On the other hand, I have trouble seeing exactly how this administration ends. Many of the institutions that would normally ease out or remove a failing president no longer exist.
There are no longer moral arbiters in Congress like Howard Baker and Sam Ervin to lead a resignation or impeachment process. There is no longer a single media establishment that shapes how the country sees the president. This is no longer a country in which everybody experiences the same reality.
Everything about Trump that appalls 65 percent of America strengthens him with the other 35 percent, and he can ride that group for a while. Even after these horrible four weeks, Republicans on Capitol Hill are not close to abandoning their man.
The likelihood is this: We’re going to have an administration that has morally and politically collapsed, without actually going away.
What does that look like?
First, it means an administration that is passive, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing. To get anything done, a president depends on the vast machinery of the U.S. government. But Trump doesn’t mesh with that machinery. He is personality-based while it is rule-based. Furthermore, he’s declared war on it. And when you declare war on the establishment, it declares war on you.
The Civil Service has a thousand ways to ignore or sit on any presidential order. The court system has given itself carte blanche to overturn any Trump initiative, even on the flimsiest legal grounds. The intelligence community has only just begun to undermine this president.
Trump can push all the pretty buttons on the command deck of the Starship Enterprise, but don’t expect anything to actually happen, because they are not attached.
Second, this will probably become a more insular administration. Usually when administrations stumble, they fire a few people and bring in the grown-ups — the James Baker or the David Gergen types. But Trump is anti-grown-up, so it’s hard to imagine Chief of Staff Haley Barbour. Instead, the circle of trust seems to be shrinking to his daughter, her husband and Stephen Bannon.
Bannon has a coherent worldview, which is a huge advantage when all is chaos. It’s interesting how many of Bannon’s rivals have woken up with knives in their backs. Michael Flynn is gone. Reince Priebus has been unmanned by a thousand White House leaks. Rex Tillerson had the potential to be an effective secretary of state, but Bannon neutered him last week by denying him the ability to even select his own deputy.
In an administration in which “promoted beyond his capacity” takes on new meaning, Bannon looms. With each passing day, Trump talks more like Bannon without the background reading.
Third, we are about to enter a decentralized world. For the past 70 years, most nations have instinctively looked to the U.S. for leadership, either to follow or oppose. But in capitals around the world, intelligence agencies are drafting memos with advice on how to play Donald Trump.
The first conclusion is obvious. This administration is more like a medieval monarchy than a modern nation-state. It’s more “The Madness of King George” than “The Missiles of October.” The key currency is not power, it’s flattery.
The corollary is that Trump is ripe to be played. Give the boy a lollipop and he won’t notice if you steal his lunch. The Japanese gave Trump a new jobs announcement he could take to the Midwest, and in return they got presidential attention and coddling that other governments would have died for.
If you want to roll the Trump administration, you’ve got to get in line. The Israelis got a possible one-state solution. The Chinese got Trump to flip-flop on the “One China” policy. The Europeans got him to do a 180 on undoing the Iran nuclear deal.
Vladimir Putin was born for a moment such as this. He is always pushing the envelope. After gifting Team Trump with a little campaign help, the Russian state media has suddenly turned on Trump and Russian planes are buzzing U.S. ships. The bear is going to grab what it can.
We’re about to enter a moment in which U.S. economic and military might is strong but U.S. political might is weak. Imagine the Roman Empire governed by Monaco.
That’s scary. The only saving thought is this: The human imagination is vast, but it is not nearly vast enough to encompass the infinitely multitudinous ways Donald Trump can find to get himself disgraced.
David Brooks writes for The New York Times.