By now, we have come to know a few things.
We know that it isn’t going to get any better than this, that this heightened state of absurdity can and will be sustained for as long as Donald J. Trump is our president. We know it because we’ve seen it. We’ve seen how Trump feeds off chaos, how he needs something to excite him, validate him, anger or outrage him in every waking moment, and with his powers as president, the world is his plaything. He is unpredictable Zeus, and Twitter provides his lightning bolt.
Our president will provoke controversy where there need not be any; he will create enemies to fight where once there were friends to give assistance, and he will pit American against American because to him, chaos is the fourth essential to life, along with food, water and air. It is his natural element, and he thrives it.
We also know that for all of its constitutional safeguards, the system cannot sustain four full years of this. The stories of dysfunction and barely controlled pandemonium that are coming out of the White House are monumental, and we have to assume that the worst of the stories will be told only after all this has ended. At some point, inevitably, the ongoing effort to constrain Trump is going to fail, because like a drunk on a ledge, you cannot teeter on the precipice forever.
We know that great damage is being done, not just on the surface but deep within the structures that sustain us. Our alliances are under strain, our friends are dismayed. The Republican “leadership” in Congress acts for all the world like an abused spouse, afraid to protect the children for fear that it will become the next target. The State Department has been gutted, the Environmental Protection Agency has been castrated. The Trump administration is doing everything within its power to ensure that Obamacare rates soar and that the health-insurance system collapses, even as it is forced to acknowledge that it has no alternative to replace it.
The same is true of the Iran nuclear deal, of NAFTA, the global climate accord, even NATO … all of the institutions and relationships crafted to contain chaos are under attack, with nothing to replace them. Trump also seems determined to undercut any potential diplomatic solution to the North Korea problem, leaving only a military solution that would leave hundreds of thousands dead at a minimum.
Judging from poll numbers, you could talk yourself into thinking that a tipping point might be approaching. After nine months, a majority of Americans have concluded that the man is simply not fit for the office. In a new AP poll, just 16 percent describe him as level-headed; just 23 percent call him honest. The stock market is still booming; the jobless rate is still at 4.2 percent, yet just 24 percent of Americans believe the country is headed in the right direction, a 10-point fall since June. Among Republicans, the fall has been 16 points. The American people are growing sick and tired of Trump, and I see no mechanism by which that process can be reversed.
But a more isolated and unpopular Trump is also an angrier and more unpredictable Trump, and his personal history says that when he goes down, he takes everybody with him, regardless of collateral damage. His appetite for chaos and his ethos of striking back twice as hard when attacked ensure that it will be a struggle to the political death, and I fear that we will emerge from it a different and diminished country. Whether that will be temporary or permanent depends on forces that we are not given to understand.