What Trump Could Learn from Reagan

I generally avoid Rush Limbaugh like the plague, but I decided to take a look at his take on the Jeff Sessions controversy. Part of what he says is very predictable and basically unhinged, but other parts are roughly accurate. My first impression was visceral, though, because he’s still churning out a very powerful form of resentment-fueled populism that the left doesn’t even try to match. This disparity in effort probably explains a lot more than we’d like to admit.

Reading the transcript of what he’s saying to his radio audience, my mind kind of veered off onto another topic. In Limbaugh’s telling, the left-leaning elites and the Washington Establishment are basically trying to eject President Trump like an unwelcome pathogen. I think that’s true, although I’d add that it is more of a bipartisan effort than Limbaugh seems to think.

The #NeverTrump movement is still alive among Washington Republicans and other elites, and it’s a stretch to view the vast consensus of the Intelligence Community as left-leaning. It was very foreseeable that Trump would have problems trying to head this government, and that success would depend on making peace with many of the enemies he had during his campaign. It’s possible for a president to radically change our government and our country, even in ways that they don’t want to change. But it requires shrewdness and patience, and it requires allies across the aisle.

Ronald Reagan radically changed this country, but he did it with a House of Representatives that was controlled by the Democrats for his entire presidency. For the last two years of his presidency, the Democrats controlled the Senate, too. Yet, when his two terms were over, you could give him credit for having to come to Washington and succeeded in completely shaking the place up.

However narrow Donald Trump’s victory was, he did win. And insofar as that gives him any kind of mandate, it gives him a mandate to do things a lot differently than they have been done in the past. What he didn’t anticipate is that he would be resisted and criticized for every radical alteration, and that he wouldn’t have the power to prevail and succeed if he didn’t build support within the power structures he was trying to change.

He’s only been if office for forty days, but he’s been taught this lesson daily. Right now, he’s staggering because his position on Russia and Vladimir Putin simply won’t be tolerated and isn’t seen as consistent with American interests or values. But the same fate met his travel ban. His effort to overhaul Obamacare is faltering because he can’t identify a plan and rally support around it. He has no path to passing his infrastructure bill because he’s alienated the Democrats and labor unions he’d need to get it passed. He seems to want to put the State Department in mothballs, but he will discover a big majority of the Senate won’t even consider going along with that. For such a short time in power, the list of these kind of failures is already long.

During the Democratic primaries, a lot of people wanted to know why I wasn’t supporting Bernie Sanders. To be clear, I did vote for him, but I really was voting for a delegate to the national convention. I didn’t think Sanders would actually be a successful president even though, on balance, I preferred his policies over what Clinton was offering.

The reason I didn’t think he’d be successful as president is because I didn’t think he had enough support among Democrats in Washington to lead them. And I didn’t think he had the personal skills to ever change that. He’d get sworn in and discover that his agenda was as dead as Obama’s had been after he lost Congress in the 2010 midterms, but he wouldn’t be able to keep his own party united behind him. He said we needed a revolution, but I thought his revolution would be dead on arrival.

Maybe I was underestimating Bernie. But Trump’s experience is only a more extreme example of what I feared would happen with a Sanders presidency.

So, as I read what Limbaugh was saying, this all came to my mind again and I thought that Limbaugh was missing something important.

He is railing against the Establishment for trying to destroy Trump and expel him from the body politic, but he’s not giving Trump the advice he needs to hear if he wants to survive. Trump is going about this radical change thing all wrong. If he doesn’t figure it out quickly, he will get impeached because he will have too many enemies on the Republican side. And, even if he survives in a technical sense, if he doesn’t change his strategy his agenda will never get off the launching pad.

The simplest way of understanding this is that Trump is currently outgunned. Bigly.

He’s made mortal enemies out of the media and the Intelligence Community, which has probably been fatal for every leader who has ever lived. But he’s also hardened his political opposition to a degree that Congressional Democrats can’t and do not want to work with him. He’s gone after the State Department too hard, which is only one of several areas where his early actions have increased the divisions within his own party. His foreign policy is simply not trusted by too many Republicans in Congress, and he’s done nothing to smooth out growing schisms on tax reform or health care reform.

Last year, the electorate was definitely restless and clamoring for some radical change. But radical change takes a special kind of leader with hard to come by skills. If you send the wrong person to drain the swamp you just create worse problems.

Finally, any president who came into office behaving like Trump would have problems and be opposed by the Establishment. But Trump has the added disadvantage of being an actual scoundrel. And if you have ethical and legal weaknesses when you arrive in Washington, and you create more for yourself once you get there, then having friends and allies and party unity becomes of paramount importance.

People don’t need to make shit up to rationalize removing Trump from power. They actually need to continually find rationales for failing to do so.

In that sense, Russia may not be the issue. It could be sexual assault. It could be countless acts of fraud. It could be the goddamned Emoluments Clause. Soon it will be some Constitutional violation or another, or even just inescapable culpability for bringing on a foreign policy, environmental or economic catastrophe.

The reason Trump has become so vulnerable so quickly is because he’s treating Washington like the pathogen when he’s the infectious agent.

A better politician might be able to take over the host and turn to it his own purposes, but what Trump is experiencing instead is a massive and determined immune response.

Put it this way. Iran-Contra would have taken out a lesser politician than Ronald Reagan. He survived it because he had earned some good will.

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