What has been happening on Capitol Hill over the past few days is crazy, sleazy and deplorable. Majority Leader McConnell has sought to pass several different versions of a bill that was drafted in secret by a small group of men. An awful bill that would inflict hardship on millions of Americans. None of the versions offered ever went through the normal Congressional process of committee hearings and votes. No senators had time to read and really understand everything that was being put before them. This is all unprecedented. McConnell has made a mockery of standard congressional procedure. The overwhelming majority of Republican senators, who have consistently enabled him, share responsibility for this farce. In the end, three Republican senators—only three!—showed the moral fiber to say no, enough, this has to end. And it did end. The Trumpcare zombie seems finally to have been killed.
But to say that this spectacle was unprecedented isn’t the same thing as saying that it was surprising or inconsistent with the normal behavior of its protagonists. The Republican Party has become a party of the radical right, a party whose extreme ideology justifies the routine employment of tactics and strategies that not so long ago would have been viewed as shocking departures from democratic norms. (Yes, I am repeating myself. Some things bear repeating, and repeating, and repeating.)
Is it such a surprise, then, that this party made Donald Trump president? Some conservatives refuse to recognize that Trump is simply the culmination, on steroids, of contemporary Republicanism. The NY Times’s David Brooks, for example, would like to portray Trump as a terrible aberration, an abomination that must elicit the revulsion of decent, thoughtful Republicans. But whatever revulsion Congressional Republicans have for Trump, they haven’t shown it. They tolerate Trump because he’s useful to them, and because they’re afraid of pushback from Republican primary voters who idolize him. And after all, he’s just a cruder version of themselves. So what if he lacks a basic understanding of or even interest in American government? So what if he shows a disdain for the rule of law and other democratic norms? There are more important things, like cutting taxes for the donor class and slashing regulations on business. You can’t have everything.
Hopefully, there are limits that even Trump can’t transgress without meeting GOP resistance. The fairly unanimous GOP reaction against his pillorying of Jeff Sessions suggests some basis for hope.
There’s resistance, thankfully, even within the White House. Trump’s newest closest soul brother, Anthony Scaramucci, has remarked that there are some people in the administration who think it’s their job to save America from the president. Accordingly, Scaramucci intends a purge. The focus seems to be on Reince Priebus. I’ve never been a Priebus admirer, but it doesn’t take much imagination to sympathize with his plight. Unlike his boss and many of his fellow underlings, Priebus isn’t a complete jerk. He probably does see his role as one of working against the odds to steady the impending train wreck that is the Trump presidency. What else can he do? He knows that if he resigns he will just be replaced by someone worse.
Other administration figures who likely view their role in much the same way include Defense Secretary Mattis. I have big differences with Mattis’s view of the world, but I’m sure that like Priebus, he understands that his boss is a dangerous jerk. So, what is he to do? He probably thinks that the patriotic thing to do is to continue to serve the jerk in the hope of restraining him. National Security Advisor McMaster is in a similar situation. I would never have thought that our hopes for averting a foreign policy catastrophe would ride on the likes of Mattis and McMaster.
Similarly, the chances of mitigating the larger disaster that is the Trump presidency in the short term depend in part on the growth of resistance among Congressional Republicans. For reasons indicated, those chances are slender, but the successful popular resistance to Trumpcare, as well as the reaction to the attack on Sessions, show that they are better than zero. In the long run, hope for restoring a basic level of decency to American governance depends on reducing the Republican Party to a clear minority status in our politics. That indeed will be a long slog, but an absolutely necessary one.
The purge has begun: Priebus is out! Will Kelly be better or worse? That depends on your perspective. If he’s better for Trump, he’ll be worse for the country, and vice versa. In any case, Kelly has his work cut out for him. As a military man, he’s used to a clear chain of command. We’ll see how that works for him in the Trump White House.