Last September, I observed that the choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was a choice between SNAFU — situation normal, all effed up — and FUBAR — effed up beyond all recognition. My argument was that enough voters were sufficiently fed up with the status quo, as personified by Clinton, to gamble on the political outsider Trump, in the full knowledge that the ultimate result might be not to make America great again but to eff it up beyond all recognition.
Last week President Trump took several steps down the road to being FUBAR himself. The question about his presidency is, increasingly, what form the final debacle will take. I still don’t think it’s going to be Watergate II. And I certainly don’t buy the argument made by the Yale historian Timothy Snyder (and many other Ivy League liberals) that Trump is a tyrant bent on overthrowing American democracy.
Trump isn’t Nixon. He most certainly isn’t Hitler, the comparison implied by Snyder’s best-selling booklet “On Tyranny.’’ He’s Trump. And what we have to contend with is not tyranny but trumpery.
Look it up in the Oxford English Dictionary, which offers two definitions: “1. Deceit, fraud, imposture, trickery. 2. ‘Something of less value than it seems’; hence, ‘something of no value; trifles’ (Johnson); worthless stuff, trash, rubbish.”
Following the president’s summary dismissal of FBI Director James Comey last Tuesday evening, Democrats and their media allies predictably seized the opportunity once again to compare Trump to Nixon, invoking the “Saturday Night Massacre” of Oct. 20, 1973, in which the attorney general and deputy attorney general resigned rather than follow Nixon’s order to fire the Watergate special prosecutor, Archibald Cox.
But this really isn’t 1973. I’m sorry to disappoint the would-be heirs of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, but Trump didn’t fire Comey in a desperate bid to keep the net from closing around him. The real story here is not a plot by “all the president’s men,” but rather a complete failure on the part of the president’s men to restrain their boss from impulsive self-immolation.
Multiple reports indicate that Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, argued for delaying the decision. We now know that the memo that justified Comey’s firing was cobbled together by the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, after Trump had made up his mind.
The president’s frenzied tweeting last week suggested that he was genuinely surprised by the force of the backlash. Perhaps he expected a more muted reaction because of Comey’s previous unpopularity with the Democrats for his handling of the Clinton e-mail investigation last year. If so, he underestimated their ability to turn on a dime if they see an opportunity to land a punch on him.
But will the Democrats’ strategy ultimately work? In the Senate, they are now pushing for a select committee (as opposed to a special prosecutor, an option that ceased to be available in 1999) to take over the investigation from the Senate Intelligence Committee. Trump’s sworn enemy John McCain and his friend Lindsey Graham are already on board.
However, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell remains opposed and has the power to keep things as they are. And even if the Democrats can overcome McConnell, I struggle to see their efforts culminating in Trump’s resignation. Nixon’s downfall came after clear evidence had come to light of personal wrongdoing and in response to overwhelming public opprobrium at a time when the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress.
This, then, is the crux of the matter. Suppose Trump really does have something to hide. As things stand, the multi-step procedure for moving an impeachment motion forward in the House requires support from the Republican leadership at each stage. In today’s highly polarized, deeply partisan “House of Cards,’’ that will not be forthcoming. As long as Trump retains the support of 80 percent or more of his original voters — which he does — congressional Republicans cannot afford to turn on him. To do so would be to court disaster in next year’s midterm elections.
At this point, the prophets of tyranny loudly bewail the depravity of the Republican Party. How can they give the tyrant Donald this cover when the Constitution cries out for his impeachment? Give me a break. There have been multiple presidential scandals in the 227 years since the Constitution was finally ratified. Rarely has a party abandoned its man in the White House. That’s not tyranny. It’s democracy.
It will be a different story if Trump’s approval numbers slump and the Republicans get destroyed 18 months from now. In that case, the House Intelligence Committee will be chaired by Adam Schiff, Democrat of California, who will accelerate all investigations into Russiagate with a view to undermining Trump, if not unseating him, ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
The next shoe to drop will be Trump’s pick to take Comey’s place. Putting forward a lackey will only fan the flames. Trump must now act quickly to repair the damage he has inflicted on himself, or face a growing danger that the Democrats will retake the House in 2018 — and take over the Russiagate investigation.
That will be the moment when I publish “On Trumpery’’ — and collect on my bets that this republic is resilient enough to survive even President Fubar.Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.