It’s now clear that Donald Trump is far more severely impaired than even his worst critics imagined. And the cracks in his presumed governing coalition are starting to show, before he even takes office.
For starters, leading Republicans are pushing back on his insistence that he knows intelligence better than the CIA and challenging the idea that the U.S. should be a puppet of Vladimir Putin.
The best outcome, of course, would be for some constitutional Hail Mary pass to prevent Trump from becoming president: a group of electors who decide that he is just too much of a risk, or some kind of emergency appeal to the Supreme Court, to stay the election because its integrity and validity was hijacked by the Russians.
But, face it, this is magical thinking. Barring divine intervention, Donald Trump will take office on January 20.
If Trump is to be president, the second best line of defense against catastrophe is for a small band of Senate Republicans to form a Sanity Caucus, and put the survival of the Republic ahead of narrow partisan interests. Indeed, it’s becoming evident that Trump is too much of a loose cannon even to serve those partisan interests.
They can start by voting to reject his more bizarre nominees as well as supporting the bipartisan inquiry on Russian cyber-warfare, and making it clear to Trump that he was elected president, not dictator. A few high-profile defeats would teach a salutary lesson—and these may come a lot sooner than expected.
When it looked as if Hillary Clinton would beat Trump, many commentators predicted a crisis for the Republican Party. When Trump eked out a surprise win, most Republicans fell in line, assuming that he could be used for their ideological purposes, weirdness and all. But now, as his florid craziness becomes increasingly clear, the Republican crisis may come after all.
By my count, there are at least nine members of a possible Senate Republican Sanity Caucus. With just 52 Republicans in the Senate, it will take only three to begin imposing some limits.
John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Rand Paul of Kentucky have said they will cooperate with the bipartisan investigation of Russia’s hacking of the Democrats. They’ve made clear that they reject Trump’s alliance with Putin and trust the CIA more than they trust Trump’s intuitions that maybe some guy in New Jersey hacked the Democrats’ emails.
McCain, just re-elected, is in his last term. His war service and long suffering as a POW were mocked by Trump. Now he can perform one final service for his country.
Graham has had doubts about Trump all along. Ron Paul is a libertarian isolationist, but even Paul doesn’t want Russia messing with the United States on its home territory.
If Trump continues to insist that Russian cyber-warfare represents no threat to America and is not even worth investigating, he will be inviting the opposition of innumerable other Republicans. This marks the first of what will be several splits between Trump and a presumed docile Republican caucus—one that has just rediscovered the separation of powers.
Marco Rubio of Florida, repeatedly insulted by Trump during the campaign and a contender to pick up the pieces if a Trump administration blows up, has said he won’t vote to confirm “a friend of Vlad,” as secretary of state, namely the conflicted Trump favorite Rex Tillerson of Exxon Mobil.
Susan Collins of Maine is the last remaining Republican moderate. Most of Trump’s nominees have to be far too right-wing or too weird for her. Will she stand up and vote no? She is immensely popular at home, and doesn’t have to fear the retribution of Tea Party voters.
In August, Collins said she could not vote for Trump. “My conclusion about Mr. Trump’s unsuitability for office is based on his disregard for the precept of treating others with respect, an idea that should transcend politics,” Senator Collins wrote. “Instead, he opts to mock the vulnerable and inflame prejudices by attacking ethnic and religious minorities.” Since then, Trump has only changed for the worse.
Lisa Murkowski of Alaska is not exactly a moderate, but not a wingnut either. Do Murkowski and Collins really want to start hacking away at Social Security and Medicare, as proposed by Trump’s nominee for HHS secretary, Representative Tom Price of Georgia? Murkowski sees the impact of climate change all over her home state. She is on record as saying that it’s real “and we need to fight it.” Does she really want an environment-basher and climate denier to head the EPA?
Jeff Flake of Arizona. There is little love lost between Flake and Trump. Flake, a moderate on immigration, said in September that he could not vote for Trump, but disappointed many when he indicated he’d support Trump’s far-right nominee for attorney general, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions. But as other opposition builds, Flake may yet discover some spine.
Mike Lee of Utah and Ben Sasse of Nebraska. Both are conservative but both have made it clear that Trump is grossly unfit for office. In October, Lee asked Trump to step down as nominee. Sasse, who repeatedly criticized Trump, called on him to step aside in favor of Mike Pence. After the election, both seemed to fall in line behind Trump. But as other Republican senators defect on key issues like Trump’s alliance with Putin, they could recover their voices as opponents.
In theory, some of these senators might seem vulnerable to Tea Party or far-right retribution if they block Trump. But think harder. For every hater who voted for Trump as an avenging angel of personal vitriol, there were many who held their noses and supported him because of pocketbook frustrations, or because they didn’t like Hillary Clinton. There is no groundswell of public opinion, even among Trump’s base, for embracing Vladimir Putin, Goldman Sachs, or for deep cuts in Medicare and Social Security.
It’s increasingly clear to anyone with a brain that Trump’s personal temperament will be catastrophic in the White House. A president is called on to process complex information on dozens of issues, even in the absence of a crisis. Trump will simply be overwhelmed.
If he closes his ears to facts, and governs by rumor, hunch and tweet, God only knows what will happen. This awful truth is beginning to sink in, even to Republicans who imagined Trump could serve their purposes.
It may be wishful to imagine an actual, coherent caucus of Republican Trump-resisters. More are likely shifting alliances, in which some GOP senators block Trump on national security policy and appointments, while others challenge him on such issues as wildly unpopular cuts in Social Security and Medicare; and still others question his penchant for a perverse form of economic nationalism.
But even before Trump takes office, the CIA/Putin affair suggests that the Trump-GOP honeymoon is over. There may even be a few old-fashioned Republicans whose first loyalty is to the Republic. Let’s hope for some profiles in courage.