The debate over the 2016 election will continue to rage for years to come, I have no doubt, but one thing we can now say for sure: Those who defended, deflected, rationalized or overlooked candidate Donald Trump’s completely obvious racism were wrong. Further, in being wrong, Republicans are now going to overcompensate for the present moment by doubling down on the monstrosity that is Trump’s presidency, most recently demonstrated by his remark Thursday referring to nonwhite countries as “shitholes.”
The result is a presidency whose end is being hastened by its namesake, and a Republican Party staving off the inevitable long enough to extract as much as it can while it can. In short, the GOP is playing a very short game.
The Republicans know more than we do about Trump’s overseas financial ties and campaign operatives possibly conspiring with Russian agents to move the electorate against Hillary Clinton. Slowly but surely, special counsel Robert Mueller is reaching into Trump’s inner circle, even raising the prospect of interviewing the president himself. It stands to reason the Republicans knew in December that none of this can endure. If they were going to deliver tax cuts to their mega-donors, it had to be a rush job, even if that meant vaporizing norms, violating traditions and losing control of the House.
Their understanding doesn’t stop there. The Republicans know the president’s mental fitness is worth questioning, but were able to deny that fact until Michael Wolff spoiled things with the publication of Fire and Fury. Making matters worse was Trump's insistence on holding televised discussions Wednesday with Congressional Democrats in order to prove he's a "very stable genius." House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy kept him on course by practically screeching to remind him a clean bill on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, is not in the GOP's interest. Steven Bannon, too, might have been signaling his awareness of end times, when he told Wolff that Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting with Russian agents was "unpatriotic." What do you do when the president's fugue state threatens to bring it all down? Accuse his eldest son of treason.
Bannon’s in good company. According to Axios, “more than half a dozen of the more skilled White House staff are contemplating imminent departures. Many leaving are quite fearful about the next chapter of the Trump presidency.” As the next chapter looms large, the president is increasingly isolated himself—literally. He holes up daily for hours in his residence at the White House, calling people (who in turn leak those calls to the press), watching Fox and tweeting.
The more Americans see of Trump, the less they like. CNN's Ronald Brownstein argued the Republicans "have already placed the bets most likely to determine their fate in November's midterm election.” Washington Monthly’s Marty Longman put a finer point on it : “The Republicans are looking to achieve as much as they can while they have their majorities rather than trimming their sails in the effort to maintain their majorities.”
This presidency is entering a kind of political hospice care, in which Trump's attorneys reportedly lie to him to prevent him from firing Mueller, thus hastening their client's demise, while the Republicans focus on keeping the presidency alive long enough to maximize the value of their inheritance.
Again, it's a very short game, and very high risks. Perhaps the Republicans believe they can ask for forgiveness later. But this confidence depends on two things: Trump and the Democrats’ willingness to impeach him.
It is January, and we have—as of right now—a year’s worth of reasons to impeach, and another year to go before the midterms. It stands to reason we are going to see many more turning points a la “shithole countries.” It looks like 2018 is lost for the Republicans. If 2019 is the year of impeachment in the House, that's means 2020 will be lost too. 2024 is a long time from now, but that might be the price the Republicans pay for choosing to smash and grab.
John Stoehr is a fellow at the Yale Journalism Initiative, a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly, an essayist for the New Haven Register and a U.S. News & World Report contributing editor.
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