Yes, the Donald Trump haters are blowing the Ukraine story out of proportion in their frenzied effort to drive him from office just months before Election Day—or at least to humiliate him and his followers with a House impeachment.
And, yes, many of those same partisans carried out a years-long project to destroy his presidency with that so-called Russiagate investigation, which turned out to be based on bogus suspicions and allegations. And, yes, Trump is correct in his complaint that no president has ever before been subjected to the kind of relentless political assault that he has endured from the nation’s political, governmental, and cultural establishment.
But all that misses a fundamental point about American presidential politics—that presidents get the credit for what’s going well in the country and the blame for what’s not going well. And the man most responsible for the current impeachment mess that’s tearing the country apart is Trump himself. His effort to gin up an investigation of his top political rival by a foreign government was so irresponsible, reprehensible, and reckless that he must now own the mess that has ensued from it.
Do his ill-considered actions rise to the level of a firing offense in our presidential system? In ordinary times, probably not. But these aren’t ordinary times in America. The country is rent by crosscurrents of political passion far more intense and divisive than America has seen probably since the Civil War era. At issue is nothing less than the definition of the nation and what kind of country it will be in the next 20 years and beyond.
The nation’s elites and their most fervent followers—globalist in outlook, anti-nationalist by instinct, increasingly contemptuous of national borders—want to remake the country through mass immigration, global finance, and a fierce demand for diversity, all enforced through the bludgeon of political correctness and the weapon words deployed in its behalf. Trump’s followers don’t see why they should simply acquiesce in this transformation that seems destined to leave them marginalized and their heritage in shreds. They needed a champion, and nobody throughout the firmament of American politics seemed interested in the job—until Trump.
But it was a big job, rendered politically dangerous by the ferocious resolve on the part of the elites to continue their transformation project unimpeded. Anyone who got in their way would have to be destroyed, and Trump got in their way.
That posed a profound challenge. He had to galvanize his natural supporters through rhetoric and initiatives favorable to them while at the same time expanding his base sufficiently to forge a governing coalition. This was no mean feat.
Consider, as one telling example, the crudity and rawness of Trump’s rhetoric. On the one hand, it served to stir his natural constituency because it denoted a proud defiance toward those coastal elites that have so rankled many heartland Americans in recent decades, particularly on the issue of immigration. But this rhetorical crudity and rawness, if unconstrained, could turn off penumbral voters needed for that governing coalition. Trump’s inability to find the balance here has contributed to his inability to build his base beyond an approval rating hovering at or near 40 percent. No president has ever been reelected with such low numbers.
Likewise, on a much larger scale, Trump needed to stir his base while luring to his fold new followers intrigued by his narrative of the nation and its future and impressed with the success of some of his initiatives (most notably his tax policies). So far he has failed to address this imperative to any appreciable extent.
Which brings us back to the impeachment drama. Charles de Gaulle once said, “A statesman may be determined and tenacious, but if he does not understand the character of his time, he will fail.” The character of our time is one of division, rancor, and a political kill instinct. There is a widespread feeling that civic competition in America has become infused with a fight-to-the-death mentality.
This is a dangerous turn of events for the country, as most Americans fully understand. And any effort to get us through the crisis will require leadership that rises above the poisonous politics of our time. I’m not referring to any kind of clichéd notion of “bringing us together” through a fanciful middle ground blandness. It requires assembling a majority coalition that can govern. Franklin Roosevelt, after all, never sought to conjoin his new labor support with the captains of industry, which he railed against as “forces of selfishness and of lust for power.” Further, he dismissed “the purblind rich” who despised him by declaring, “I welcome their hatred.” Likewise, Ronald Reagan never sought any kind of coalescence that included the Democratic establishment that hated him; he merely siphoned off former Democratic voters and enfolded them into his potent new coalition.
But neither of those great presidents could have succeeded had they engaged in outrageous behavior that was sure to turn off the middle ground voters needed for their new coalitions. Understanding our time, as De Gaulle admonished, means understanding that missteps will be exploited by opposition forces in a treacherous mortal combat environment.
That’s precisely the kind of misstep that Trump perpetrated with his Ukraine initiatives. Instead of staying above his political foes so he could attack them with conviction and credibility, he sought to do to them precisely what they had done to him with the Russia probe. Now he is in the impeachment crosshairs, which will impede his ability, in the final stretch of his presidency, to expand his 40 percent base into a reelection coalition.
In human terms, perhaps this is understandable. In political terms, it is a profound botch. Richard Nixon said it best as he faced the greatest presidential humiliation in U.S. history: “Always remember, others may hate you—but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.”
Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington journalist and publishing executive, is the author most recently of President McKinley: Architect of the American Century.