Published February 19, 2018
The sheer volume and velocity of reasons to worry in the Trump era can sometimes dull our faculty for worry. So it’s worthwhile now and then to really take notice of a few and think them through a little.
A couple of items over just this past weekend can help serve that purpose. They’re the kinds of things that would have been shocking until about a year ago and now can just fly right past us.
This tweet from the president on Sunday morning is one:
Very sad that the FBI missed all of the many signals sent out by the Florida school shooter. This is not acceptable. They are spending too much time trying to prove Russian collusion with the Trump campaign – there is no collusion. Get back to the basics and make us all proud!
This is, for one thing, an example of the president behaving as a kind of spectator of and performative commentator about our politics, rather than a key participant in our politics. Trump doesn’t speak and think as the embodiment of the executive branch, and therefore he doesn’t function as the person — the one person — vested with the executive power in our government. He seems simply incapable of thinking institutionally, and instead he does something like the opposite: He confuses the relationship between the institution he serves and himself, expecting it to serve him. This means we often effectively don’t have a president, in the constitutional sense of the term.
And that points to the other weekend story that caught my eye in this regard. As the Washington Post reported Sunday, “Amid global anxiety about President Trump’s approach to world affairs, U.S. officials had a message to a gathering of Europe’s foreign policy elite this weekend: Pay no attention to the man tweeting behind the curtain.”
Yet again, as happens so often in venues foreign and domestic, senior administration officials and senior members of Congress are asking people with concerns about Trump to just ignore him and pay attention instead to what his administration is doing, which often has fairly little to do with what Trump says.
I’ve written about this pattern here before. It’s a defining feature of this period in our politics, and it is setting precedents that anyone who cares about our Constitution will certainly come to regret. And yet it is hard to argue that it’s not also the proper way for these officials to behave given the realities of Trump’s particular words and actions and his general unfitness for the office he holds.
None of this is news, and these are far from the worst things the president has done or said or tweeted or caused to happen. That’s the point. They’re routine, but they are marks of deep dysfunction, and that’s worth noting.
This routine is fundamentally a function of Trump’s character, though we are now told by some of the president’s defenders that concern for character in leadership is a mere aesthetic luxury we can’t afford. And this routine has some grim implications for American government in our time, though we are asked to see only a tax cut and a great parade of judges when we think of Trump’s governing record. We could believe what we are asked to believe about Trump only by ignoring the disturbing routine, or becoming desensitized to it.
And so we shouldn’t become too desensitized and should take note of the character of some of what now pass for everyday occurrences. To note them is not to charge the president with treason or with any other crime or to suggest he’s becoming an autocrat, nor is it to defend his predecessor’s (or his election opponent’s) misdeeds. To note them is not to deny that anything worthwhile has been accomplished this past year. And to note them is also not necessarily to propose any immediate remedy. A mature citizen knows those aren’t always available.
But to note them is to insist that we should be careful not to get used to the unacceptable, that some problems run much deeper than policy, and that those who have rightly raised worries about the state and direction of our constitutional system in recent decades and called for restoration have their work cut out for them.
Yuval Levin is the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the editor of National Affairs.