The best moment for Donald Trump’s presidency came in the early hours of November 9, 2016, when the “billionaire populist” claimed a victory that surprised him as much as it did the rest of the world. It’s been downhill for Trump—and the United States—ever since. The final count revealed that Trump actually lost the popular vote by nearly 2.9 million and only stumbled into the White House because an archaic Electoral College system allows losers to assume the presidency. Trump has never come to grips with the reality that more Americans wanted Hillary Clinton as their president— a fact confirmed by the tweeter in chief’s obsessive griping about his former rival, his outlandish claims about “illegal voting,” and his appointment of a “very distinguished” voter-fraud panel that is itself a fraud. Yet even as the popular-vote loser on election night, Trump was viewed a good deal more favorably than he is now, after nearly a year of reckless governing. Trump garnered 46 percent of the vote last November; now the Gallup tracking poll puts his approval rating at just 33 percent—and there’s good reason to believe those numbers will crumble as Americans absorb the news that the president’s former campaign manager is under indictment for “conspiracy against the United States,” tax fraud, money laundering, and other charges.
The measure of Trump’s presidency, like that of Richard Nixon’s, may ultimately be made with investigations, indictments, and articles of impeachment. But even if Robert Mueller’s inquiry into alleged Russian involvement in the 2016 campaign falls short of taking Trump down, it confirms the assessment of former White House counsel John Dean, who knows a thing or two about what happens when a president goes off the rails. In June, Dean argued that Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey should be seen as “the worst mistake of his young presidency, because the hamfisted manner in which he handled it resulted in Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein—who is filling in for the recused Attorney General—having no choice but to select a special counsel to continue the Justice Department’s investigation into the hacking of the 2016 presidential election by the Russians.” For as long as Trump occupies the White House, he is going to be dogged by the questions he raised when he admitted firing Comey because of the way the FBI’s investigators had approached “this Russia thing.” Trump’s ability to generate fake-news cover for the wrongdoing of his associates, and for his own high crimes and misdemeanors, will dwindle with each new indictment.
But what if there had been no scandals or inquiries? What if Trump had governed without chaos—including the firings or resignations of a national-security adviser, a secretary of health and human services, a chief of staff, a chief strategist, a communications director, a press secretary, and a Sebastian Gorka? He’d still be politically vulnerable. Trump’s personal style is erratic and frightening—especially when he’s threatening to obliterate countries like North Korea. Yet there’s a method to the madness of his political style. Trump knows that his base is on the right wing of the Republican Party, and he plays to it: defending those who march with neo-Nazis as “very fine people,” ginning up attacks on NFL players who express solidarity with the victims of police violence, and issuing an endless stream of “Muslim bans.” He has also kept the Wall Street wing of the GOP on board with promises of massive tax cuts and the dismantling of the administrative state.
The agenda that Trump has embraced—in part because of his own malice, in part because he knows so little about policy that he must borrow from others—is that of House Speaker Paul Ryan and the cruelest conservatives. With cabinet picks and judicial appointments, with executive orders and budget plans, this president has positioned himself on the side of inequality, austerity, and the warped priorities that would rob from domestic programs and run up deficits in order to supercharge military spending and provide tax breaks for billionaires.
For those who resist Trump—in the streets and on the campaign trail, as we head toward a 2018 election in which the Republican majorities in Congress must be overturned—it is vital to strike a balance between the need to hold Trump to account and the necessity of opposing the agenda of what is now the “Party of Trump.” We must harness the widespread disapproval of Trump and make it the fuel to get rid of those who enable him—starting with Ryan, who faces the most serious electoral challenge of his career. We cannot be distracted by the fantasy that Trump’s style is the problem— a delusion exemplified by the empty “defiance” of conservatives like Arizona Senator Jeff Flake. We must also provide clear alternatives to Trump’s policies. A cynically crafted centrism will not mobilize the electorate needed to overcome his determination to divide and conquer, to frustrate and suppress the vote. Trump proved in 2016 that it is not enough to run against him. Instead, it is necessary to run on policies that are diametrically opposed to Trumpism: for taxing the rich and busting up monopolies, for higher wages and Medicare for All, for averting wars and addressing climate change—and for reforming a political system so corrupt that it produced a President Donald Trump.