The denouement of a failed presidency is a real-life Shakespearean tragedy, and the two I’ve watched over the years have been punctuated by a steady drip-drip-drip of events that surprisingly quickly overwhelmed the incumbent and drove him from office.
I was a college senior in 1968 when Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not run for re-election. The Tet Offensive in Vietnam that year was the beginning of a three-month cataclysmic loss of public support for him and the war.
In 1972, I was elected to the Utah House, and Richard Nixon was re-elected in the biggest Electoral College win ever. He sprinted for a year and a half to try to outrun his Watergate scandal, but a month after the Supreme Court ordered him to hand over his secret tapes, he resigned in disgrace.
In each instance I still vividly remember an instant of spine-tingling realization that a historic event of massive impact was happening — a great Disturbance in the Force, as I learned from Obi-Wan three years later, in 1977.
This week, I felt it again. This past year has been a daily reminder of why this Republican voted for Hillary. Each day has brought a mind-numbing lowering of the bar of effective presidential behavior and leadership.
The congressional Republicans have spent the year staging the scene from “The Fantasticks,” where the bandit El Gallo shows Luisa “the world.” Where there is pain and torment, he urges her to “use the mask” (of indifference and not looking) to avoid seeing the reality of suffering. The GOP masks have been used with numbing effect toward the working stiffs of America and their children, which should be no surprise in the grim world of Paul Ryan and Ayn Rand. But where the masks have been deployed in dangerous lockstep has been toward the character and conduct of President Donald Trump.
This absurdity was wickedly captured by the Trib’s own Pat Bagley in his Thursday cartoon, “Comparing Arsenals.” Even the “bigger button” episode might have slid by with the rest of the ridiculous Tweets, but it hit at the same time two reportorial tactical nukes landed in the Trump White House.
“Donald Trump’s Year of Living Dangerously” by Susan Glasser ran in Politico on Jan. 2. Excerpts from Michael Wolff’s new book “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” arrived the next day. They portray an American president more deranged and incompetent than could have ever been imagined. Perhaps it was unfortunate that I read these shortly after seeing “Darkest Hour.” To contemplate Trump in the midst of an existential national crisis is scary beyond words. Yet that is the sum and substance of the button episode: he doesn’t know, and he doesn’t care that a nuclear exchange with North Korea will be catastrophic.
It really doesn’t matter at this point whether reports are 30 percent accurate or 100 percent accurate. It doesn’t matter whether Wolff sells several million books. What matters is that about 1,000 people around the globe will take much of the combined reporting as true, and those 1,000 are exactly the audience critical to Trump’s presidency and the nation’s security. They are the heads of state, the principal ministers responsible for diplomacy, economic policy, armed services, and the chiefs of intelligence services — whose business it is to assess and evaluate the psychological frame of mind of Donald Trump, as well as his grasp of geopolitical strategy, his probable responses to crises, his reliability as a partner or his cunning and decision processes as an adversary, not to mention his mental agility and stamina in a protracted conflict. And for Russia, can he be co-opted if he hasn’t been already?
The central political questions in 2018 for every Republican candidate for Congress very much need to be: What will it take for you to recognize the seriousness of the threat, on every significant level, now posed by a president who has made himself a figure of ridicule, vast incompetence, and an untrustworthy partner in a very dangerous world? What steps will you be prepared to take to secure the launch codes from the whim of such a man, who gives every appearance of being emotionally unstable to the point of monumental self-delusion?
Mitt Romney, these questions are especially for you.
David Irvine is a Salt Lake City attorney and a former Army strategic intelligence officer.