Gerson: A commander-in-chief without command of self

Michael Gerson
Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON — Donald Trump offered America a deal: He may cut ethical corners and trash democratic norms, but he would fix the country. After all, the argument went, things could hardly get worse.

They could. They did.

There are serious arguments to be made about the moral bankruptcy of Trumpism, with particular attention to its divisiveness, dehumanization and contempt for the weak. But let us, for a moment, set aside morality for effectiveness, as much of the voting public seemed to do last November. By this standard, how should Trump be judged?

The president could not hold up his end of the strongman deal. Trump is the advocate of power politics who knows nothing about the exercise of power. He is the Machiavellian minus instinct, skill and strategy.

We already have a good idea how historians will recall the first portion of Trump's presidency. When American intelligence services reported Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Trump accused them of incompetence and compared them to Nazis. As the FBI pressed its investigation of ties between Russia and Trump's circle of advisers, Trump fired the director of the FBI and threatened him in public. Never has an American president mocked and attacked the intelligence and law enforcement communities in this way.

These agencies are not the "deep state." They are just the state. Trump was accustomed to belittling and demeaning individuals. It is harder to do with institutions that possess a strong sense of identity and purpose — and possess contemporaneous meeting notes. Tactics appropriate to land-development deals were never going to work on professionals who weaponize information for a living. Trump's foolish alienation of these agencies is at the root of every damning revelation that led to a special counsel — except those revelations made by Trump himself on Twitter.

By all accounts, these early moves against intelligence services and law enforcement were not the result of strategy. It makes no rational sense to invade law's empire with forces so weak. Instead, Trump has been a victim of his own troubled inner life. It is difficult to master others when you are mastered by self-destructive compulsions of revenge. "He who wishes to be obeyed," said Machiavelli, "must know how to command." That is impossible without command of self.

Leadership also requires the ability to critique the self — the kind of mental self-distancing that allows for reflection. A man incapable of blaming himself for anything is a man incapable of learning or changing. To adapt Helen Caldwell's formulation, Trump is not above reproach; he is above self-reproach. This is a serious disability in a leader, who must be able to adjust quickly and adapt personality to reality.

Trump now faces three interrelated crises: A newly empowered investigation at the Justice Department of Russian influence (and parallel congressional inquiries). The matter of possible obstruction of justice by the president or others in the FBI investigation. And the question of basic presidential competence — rooted in a fear that Trump can't be trusted with classified information or national security decisions. While talk of impeachment is premature — and invoking the 25th Amendment is a pipe dream — the future of the Trump administration will depend on the resolutions of these issues.

Those conclusions will not, in all likelihood, be primarily legal. Impeachment involves a political judgment. If there is plausible evidence that people in Trump's circle were complicit in tainting the outcome of a presidential election; that Trump improperly attempted to impede or shut down the investigation; and that Trump has badly compromised the security of the country, the case for "high crimes and misdemeanors" is made. All that would remain is for Democrats to win control of the House of Representatives in 2018, since Republicans are unlikely to show political courage on a sufficient scale.

And why not? Because Trump can carry their policy agenda? That hope is in ruins. Because he has shown loyalty to them? No, Trump made the Republican Party the target of his populism. Because a collapsing political roof might crush them as well? That is the likeliest reason. But it lowers the sights of politics to mere survival. Is that really how elected Republicans want their service remembered?

Ultimately, the ethical aspect of politics can't be ignored. In conflicting assertions between Trump and former FBI Director James Comey, who will trust the president's veracity? Who can depend on the president's word and character? And who will stand for the integrity of our political system against tremendous political pressure? The largest questions are always moral.

Michael Gerson is a columnist for The Washington Post.