Published March 3, 2018
Character is fate. That’s as true for a president as it is for anyone else, and so it’s no surprise that the Trump presidency is engulfed in chaos.
The policy process is broken and incoherent, with the White House lurching from one position to another. Factions are warring. Top aides are embroiled in scandal and bailing out. President Trump is escalating his attacks on his own advisers, especially his attorney general, and is increasingly isolated and embittered.
The Republican Party is learning what should have been obvious from the outset: Mr. Trump’s chaotic personality can’t be contained. Indeed, combining it with the awesome power of the presidency virtually guaranteed he would become more volatile and transgressive. His presidency is infecting the entire party.
In the realm of policy, Mr. Trump is reshaping some traditional Republican views. A party that was once firmly in favor of free trade is now home to a president who just announced plans to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum and declared: “Trade wars are good, and easy to win. Example, when we are down $100 billion with a certain country and they get cute, don’t trade anymore — we win big. It’s easy!”
The Republican Party once championed the principles of liberty and limited government, yet Mr. Trump is indifferent to them.
Republicans once sought to strengthen relations with Mexico; today they delight in antagonizing our neighbor. Not long ago, Republicans made outreach to Hispanics a top priority; today the signals that the president and his party send are that Hispanics are alien, unwelcome, nothing but trouble.
In 2012, Republicans defended Mitt Romney when he said Russia was our biggest geopolitical threat; today they are wholly untroubled by its effort to subvert the 2016 presidential election. While they may not have always lived up to their own ideals, Republicans have long argued that human rights should play a central role in American foreign policy, from the presidency of Ronald Reagan through George W. Bush’s. Today human rights are viewed at most as an afterthought.
On the flip side, Mr. Trump has embraced conventional Republican positions on taxes and deregulation, on judicial appointments and social policy, on health care and funding the military. On policy, then, the marriage between Mr. Trump and the Republican Party has become what marriages often are, with each partner changing the other in some significant respects.
But policy is hardly the whole story. When it comes to the Republican Party and Mr. Trump, the most profound and dangerous shift has occurred not in policy but in the province of disposition and demeanor, temperament and cast of mind. This arena is more amorphous than policy but can be at least as important.
At the national level the Republican Party has become a destructive and anarchic political force in American life.
The president and his acolytes are championing conspiracy theories and a sweeping, uncalibrated, all-out assault on our institutions. There is reckless talk by Republicans about “secret societies,” “silent coups” and the “deep state.” Trump supporters have engaged in a desperate effort to discredit the Mueller investigation.
The president dehumanizes and belittles his opponents and (at best half-jokingly) accuses Democrats of being “treasonous” for not applauding him during his State of the Union speech. Rather than nourishing a sense of gratitude, he stokes grievances. And he tells lie after lie after lie after lie.
One White House aide, asked by The Washington Post whether John Kelly, the president’s chief of staff, could have been more truthful or transparent about the dismissal of the staff secretary Rob Porter, answered honestly: “In this White House, it’s simply not in our DNA. Truthful and transparent is great, but we don’t even have a coherent strategy to obfuscate.” Could there be a more emblematic statement of the low point we have reached?
Yet most Republicans are silent, their moral and civic reflexes seemingly dead.
All of this is antithetical to conservatism. On balance, Republicans are seeking to conserve very little; instead they have become the courtiers and court pastors of a man who delights in tearing things down. It calls to mind the line spoken by Alfred in “The Dark Knight”: “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
Now consider this: The Republican Party once prided itself as a defender of objective truth against postmodernism. Today, it has become the party of perspectivism — the view, articulated by Nietzsche, that all truth claims are contingent on a person’s perspective rather than on fundamental reality. “It is our needs that interpret the world,” Nietzsche wrote in “The Will to Power.”
Evangelicals who once professed the importance of personal character and “family values” now eagerly give the president a mulligan for his immorality.
The national Republican Party, at least for now, has become a vehicle less for advancing high ideals than for exercising raw power. Of course, political parties have always been about the business of pursuing power, and there’s nothing inherently wrong in doing so. Power used in the right way can advance justice. But something very different is going on in the Republican Party today. It has become the institutional expression of Donald Trump’s distorted and impulsive personality.
There are notable exceptions to this in the Republican Party, but that’s the point. They are the exception rather than the rule. Party leaders who were once willing to challenge Mr. Trump, to call him out now and then, are now far more compliant and therefore far more complicit. That’s because among the Republican base, Mr. Trump was and remains the people’s choice — evidence that, while the president has accelerated the worst tendencies of the Republican Party, he is not solely responsible for them. He did not appear out of thin air.
The problem for the Republican Party is that while President Trump is popular with Republicans — 85 percent approve of his performance so far — for most of the rest of the country, he’s toxic. The trauma of the Trump presidency is creating pushback. Americans are longing for a more ennobling, less exhausting political leader.
Joe Trippi, the chief media strategist for Doug Jones, the Alabama Democrat who defeated Roy Moore last year in a special Senate election, agreed recently in an interview with Vox’s Ezra Klein that people are tiring of the incessant conflict created by politics these days. “They don’t want to feel this way,” Mr. Trippi said.
But as long as Mr. Trump is president, they will feel this way. He won’t change, and neither will the Republican Party. That’s how institutional corruption happens, from the top down.
Peter Wehner (@Peter_Wehner), a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, served in the previous three Republican administrations and is a contributing opinion writer.