The source of Republican stress: Trump is the antithesis of what their party claimed to stand for

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Gage Skidmore / Flickr Donald Trump...
Gage Skidmore / Flickr

The Washington Post notes the same thing we were musing about earlier in the week: It appears to be getting substantially harder for Trump’s top underlings to publicly defend his bizarre foreign policy pronouncements, and they’re getting increasingly pissy in their attempts. The Post, too, singles out both John Bolton distancing himself from Trump’s North Korea claims and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s anger and misdirection in a USA Today interview as evidence of these new frayed nerves.

The exasperation of Trump’s current crop of appointees is evident, but the Post is still gentle, probably too gentle, in explaining the roots of the current problem.

Part of what vexes Republicans is Trump’s unpredictability and insistence on relying on his gut impressions.

That is an extremely polite phrasing of Trump’s primary quirk of office: pulling new policy pronouncements out of his own behind, based on his own whims, with no assurance that he will stick by the same assertions a week later. There is “an element of hubris,” former Trump aide Sam Nunberg allows, in Trump’s pathological insistence that he is the best negotiator to ever walk the planet and that every single foreign policy issue of the last half-century is due to the manifest inferiority of every other American to ever work in government. You don’t say.

Trump’s “unpredictability” is not, by itself, a policy trait. Trump “relies on his gut” and is therefore “unpredictable” because he is, according to a tidal wave of reporting relying on Trump’s own staff as primary sources, ignorant of the issues, and has proven to be impossible to educate. It is the equivalent of having a headless chicken make policy decisions—but with a team of Fox television hosts poking the chicken in attempts to coax it into this or that corner. It is, at heart, a policy of momentary impulse. We are now all quite able to recognize how Trump’s behavior is catapulting America into a host of new “policies” at complete odds with the claimed ideals the Republican Party held to five minutes before he walked onto the public stage, but are still dancing around the substantive dangers to the nation presented by that studiously uneducated, incurious, self-absorbed, reflex-based twitching. Policy by impulse is … not OK. It is not wise. And it is not safe.

Which brings us to the next over-gentle interpretation of administration woes: that the reason Trump’s edicts are so difficult for his Republican underlings to adjust to is because they are in opposition to everything those bottom-feeders professed to previously stand for.

At a fundamental level, the GOP has also flailed in adjusting to Trump because most of its leading policy figures have had their ideas forged over decades through the prism of conservatism and a firm belief in a muscular foreign policy during the Cold War and through the administration of George W. Bush.

Yes. Yes indeed it is. And significantly, when faced with the choice of standing by the principles scribbled out in decades of self-promoting books and thumped at angrily in conservative convention speeches versus adopting whatever Donald J. Trump, Blowhard announces during any given thirty-minute rant, both the party and its votes leap to the defense of the Blowhard as if he were the second coming of Reagan P. Jesus, all those previous books and speeches and think-tank pieces be damned.

That would indeed be stressful for Republican underlings. But it’s perhaps bigger news that it appears not to have been nearly as stressful as it by all rights ought to have been. Numerous key policy organs have been roughly gouged out from the conservative body by new surgeon Trump … and yet the corpse keeps walking, talking, and appearing on Sunday morning television shows, claiming all the while to be much improved by the dissection. Go figure.

So we’ve got two things going on here, and the nation could probably have handled one or the other with a bit more competence than it’s mustered when presented with both. The first is that the “president” is manifestly incompetent. It is acceptable to say so; it is a factual statement, not an ideological one. He is making decisions based on personal whims, with little knowledge and a universally reported intolerance for being briefed on the things he is supposed to be deciding. The second is that the Republican Party has been so wounded by resurgent nationalism and a new aggressive distaste for democratic norms that it has been unable to formulate any response to that first crisis other than retreating into authoritarian-tinged hero worship, a defense of the Head Idiot based on nothing more than his adoption as their Head Idiot.

Granted, it’s not likely we will ever see the problem expressed in exactly those terms in the pages of the Washington Post or the New York Times, but there’s only so many euphemisms that can be mustered, and the papers are already going through them at a rapid clip. At some point we are going to have to address both of these issues rather more bluntly.

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