Has there ever been a stronger argument for taking a proper vacation? On Thursday morning, the thirteenth day of his disastrous summer break from the White House, Donald Trump returned to Twitter, writing, over several tweets, “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You can’t change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson – who’s next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish! Also the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!”
As Trump was writing these words, yet again aligning himself with the white nationalists and neo-Nazis who have seized upon saving statues of heroes of the Confederacy as their primary rallying cry, the morning papers were full of stories demonstrating that his political legitimacy, or what small reserves he had left of it, was steadily draining away. After days of prevaricating, America’s business leaders were finally abandoning him en masse. Top generals from all five military branches were issuing statements implicitly rebuking him. Many White House staffers were despairing of him. And even some members of the Society for the Protection of Spineless Conservative Politicians, otherwise known as the leadership of the Republican Party, were starting to distance themselves from him, albeit hesitantly and anonymously, via leaks to journalists and statements from well-connected intermediaries. “This has done irreparable damage in some ways,” Joshua Holmes, a former aide to Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, told the Washington Post. “I don’t know of any Republican who is comfortable with where we’re at right now based on the president’s comments.”
Meanwhile, as the world looked on in horror and astonishment at the sight of an American President legitimizing the likes of Richard Spencer and David Duke, some of the foreign leaders who had cozied up to Trump were hurrying to put some distance between them and him. “I see no equivalence between those who propound fascist views and those who oppose them,” Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, said in a statement. “I think it is important for all those in positions of responsibility to condemn far right views wherever we hear them.”
If a single one of these things had happened on a previous President’s watch, it would have been regarded as a major crisis for the White House. It is now clear that when Trump announced on Wednesday that he was disbanding two White House advisory councils made up of C.E.O.s and other business bigwigs, he was telling another one of his tall tales. One of the groups, a council on manufacturing, had already agreed to disband itself, because its members could no longer justify (to their employees, stockholders, and customers) coöperating with the cretin who said there were some “very fine people” among the torch-wielding protesters who marched through Charlottesville on Friday night, chanting “blood and soil” and “Jews won’t replace us.” “In American history, we’ve never had business leaders decline national service when requested by the president,” Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a professor at the Yale School of Management,” told the Times.
As of this writing, none of Trump’s aides has resigned in protest at the President’s statements. But a number of them have been busy getting the story out that they are mad as hell. Three different sources told the Times that Gary Cohn, Trump’s top economic adviser, who is Jewish, was incensed by the President’s remarks. The Washington Post reported that John Kelly, the former Marine general who took over as the White House chief of staff a couple of weeks ago, with a mandate to impose some order on all the chaos, had been left “deeply frustrated and dismayed; Bloomberg reported that Steve Mnuchin, the Treasury Secretary, who was standing next to Trump at Tuesday’s Trump Tower press conference, had gathered his staff together and assured them that he had no idea that the President was going to say what he did.
Amid all this furor, one person who didn’t seem particularly concerned was Trump himself. Before composing his ode to the statues of Confederate leaders, he tore into two Republican senators who had dared to criticize him by name for what he said about Charlottesville: Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, and Jeff Flake, of Arizona. In one tweet, he described Graham as a “publicity seeker.” In another, he endorsed a little-known Republican politician who is challenging Flake in a primary race: “Great to see that Dr. Kelli Ward is running against Flake Jeff Flake, who is WEAK on borders, crime and a non-factor in Senate. He’s toxic!”
Apart from Trump, about the only Republican who seemed to be relishing his apparent determination to re-fight the Civil War was Steve Bannon, the senior political adviser at the White House, who just a few days ago seemed about to become another victim of Kelly’s housecleaning process. “President Trump, by asking, ‘Where does this all end?’—Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln—connects with the American people about their history, culture and traditions,” Bannon told the Times. “The race-identity politics of the left wants to say it’s all racist. Just give me more. Tear down more statues.”
In another new interview, with Bob Kuttner, of the American Prospect, Bannon described the Unite the Right marchers as “a fringe element” and “a collection of clowns.” But that seemed like an effort to have it both ways, which is a familiar Bannon tactic. As the head of Breitbart News, he gave an influential platform to elements of the alt-right but vehemently denied that the site was racist. More recently, of course, Bannon has served as the chief propagandist and rationalizer for Trump’s fevered id, seeking to dress up the boss’s base instincts and prejudices as a semi-coherent political philosophy, which he refers to as “economic nationalism.” “If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats,” Bannon told Kuttner.
According to Bloomberg, Mnuchin also told his staff that they should look ahead and focus on the Administration’s economic agenda, particularly tax cuts. But in order to get any trade or tax legislation through Congress, the White House will need the overwhelming support of Republicans in Congress, which Trump is endangering by equating shaved-headed white supremacists carrying Nazi flags with the protesters who sought to block their way, and also by his repeated attacks on individual G.O.P.ers, including McConnell and Flake. “Trump is using the precious capital of the bully pulpit to talk about confederate monuments in between savage attacks on fellow Republicans,” Holmes, the former aide to McConnell, told Politico Playbook. “Just think about that. Not tax reform. Not repeal and replace. Not North Korean nuclear capabilities. No focused critiques on extremely vulnerable Democrats who have opposed him at every possible turn.”
Of course, it would be wishful thinking to suggest that the Republican Party establishment is preparing to make a decisive break with Trump. While McConnell and Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House, have both put out statements saying that racism and white supremacism have no place in the G.O.P., neither of them has explicitly criticized Trump. Even now, most Republicans are too intent on pursuing their regressive policy agenda, and too frightened of incurring the wrath of the Trump-supporting hordes going into the 2018 midterms, to do what almost all of them must know, deep down, is the right thing.
But, even assuming that Trump will survive this latest horror show, as he has survived many previous ones, his Presidency will be further diminished and tarnished. Outside the arena of national security, the Presidency is a weak office; to get anything substantial done, the person in the Oval Office has to put together coalitions, bringing along powerful people and interest groups. As the health-care fiasco demonstrated, Trump wasn’t very good at that stuff to begin with—forgive the understatement—and he has just greatly compounded his difficulties. By dint of his pigheadedness, or prejudice, or both, he has moved onto political ground that makes it virtually impossible for other people in influential positions, such as C.E.O.s, or the heads of other organizations, or senior government officials, or celebrities, or even his own Cabinet members, to stand with him, or even to be seen to coöperate with him. That is what happens when a President throws away his own legitimacy.
Trump may have convinced himself that he doesn’t need political allies, or corporate advisers, or anybody else—that he can bully his opponents into submission and succeed through simple force of will. Maybe he thinks that invoking the memories of Lee and Jackson, the Southern battlefield commanders, will help his cause. It won’t: the fate of the Confederacy was settled more than a hundred and fifty years ago, and right now, Trump’s Presidency seems headed to a similarly ignominious ending.