One of the few things that President Donald J. Trump’s supporters and critics agree on is that the man takes swings at political norms like a kid at a pinata. Pundits have pointed out that this erosion of norms began long before Trump, and that the American political system, especially the Republican party, has been spiralling into extremism for some time now. It’s easy to see how the noxious stew of paleoconservatism and anti-immigrant rhetoric the Tea Party deployed for the 2010 midterm elections has led to our current president, but this notion neglects one important effect of the president’s brashness: the truly unheard-of extremism he has fueled in both Republicans and Democrats.
This was exemplified on September 5, in an anonymous op-ed published by the New York Times, written by a senior official within the Trump administration. The writer described how they “are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of [Trump’s] agenda and his worst inclinations.” The source claims to not be acting alone; they identify as one of “many … [who] want the administration to succeed … while thwarting Mr. Trump’s more misguided impulses until he is out of office.” Let’s unpack this statement: essentially, an unelected, senior member of the president’s own staff has written in a major newspaper about their plans to “thwart” their own boss’s agenda. Before the Trump presidency, something like this would have been unthinkable. Of course, political allies can turn to enemies, and many a politician has found themselves sabotaged by a former colleague or friend. In the majority of cases, however, the denunciation takes the form of words, not actions.
The strangest part of the whole affair isn’t the way in which the scheming was revealed — it’s the relatively calm way in which the country has accepted it. Try to picture the reaction if a scandal of this magnitude happened under Former President Barack Obama. The natural rejoinder is that “No-Drama Obama” followed the established norms of the presidency, without engaging in “repetitive rants … [or] half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions that have to be walked back.” And as flawed as Obama was, at least he never referred to himself as a “very stable genius.” The problem with this train of thought comes when it reaches its inevitable destination: if Trump is so awful that he invites, or even deserves, different treatment than every other president, then all bets are off. After all, if you truly believe that Trump is an “existential threat to America and the world,” then what measures aren’t valid to stop him?
By far the most prescient question raised as a result of the Trump presidency thus far has been how exactly do we, as a country, respond to a president like this? The anonymous senior official’s answer seems to be resistance. In their op-ed, the writer makes sure to differentiate themself from “the popular ‘resistance’ of the left,” as they should. The official’s is a far more effective, subversive and potentially dangerous form of resistance; protest belongs in a democracy, but stealing the president’s documents, as Gary Cohn supposedly did, belongs among the paranoid Deep State conspiracies of Steve Bannon.
Trump is rapidly beginning to define the new normal. Remember Cory Booker’s “Spartacus” bluster? Back in the halcyon days of 2015, the senator would have been the subject of well deserved ridicule and a few sub-par “Saturday Night Live” skits. These days, he fits right in. That’s not OK.The anonymous official seems to genuinely believe that, while the Trump administration is doing what is best for the country, the antics of the president himself have created a crisis requiring extraordinary measures to weather.
Even so, the true strength of our country lies in our ability to maintain our values even in times of greatest crisis. That’s, no matter what the President Trump says, we don’t censor the free press and why we have a duty to call out faithlessness in the White House when we see it. If the president is truly unfit for office, then we start talking impeachment. Though the official mentions wanting to avoid impeachment, and by extension a “constitutional crisis,” a quieter crisis is no less hazardous to our country or to the norms that the source claims to care so much about.
Stephen Altobelli (22C) is from Westminster, Mass.