President Trump tears politics and policy asunder
President Trump’s first weeks in office have not only stood American foreign policy on its head, but party politics at home as well. Both the Republican and Democratic parties are reeling from his deeply divisive tactics.
The leaders of Mexico and Australia have pushed back against Trump’s reckless and distinctly undiplomatic telephone threats. Trump still insists Mexico ultimately will pay for his wall on the southern border. And last week he scolded the Australian prime minister for "the worst call" he had had that day with a foreign leader.
Meanwhile, Democratic Party leaders are at sea over what can be done about the Trump one-man wrecking ball. He has them back on their heels trying to cope with his Supreme Court nominee to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia with a right-wing clone, Judge Neil Gorsuch of Colorado. They have failed to block most of Trump’s cabinet nominees.
The Democrats are still trying to recover from Hillary Clinton’s loss of the presidency. With no clear standard-bearer in sight for 2020, they face the prospect of a rematch of the 2016 primary fight between remnants of the Clinton middle way and the party’s progressive wing.
The party liberals have Massachusetts firebrand Sen. Elizabeth Warren well positioned to assume that mantle. But uncertain at this early juncture is the role former President Barack Obama and his disappointed adherents may play in trying to rally once more his winning cause in the two prior elections.
In a sense, the Grand Old Party establishment of the Reagan and Bush era also finds itself on the outside looking in at the Trump takeover. It was thoroughly humiliated last year in Trump’s drubbing of his 16 mostly moderate to conservative challengers.
The party’s early assumed frontrunner in 2016, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, made a determined but ultimately feeble effort to put down Trump as an unqualified outsider, and his campaign proved to be an embarrassment and the eclipse of his family’s dynasty in the party.
Much of the rest of the old GOP establishment is now reduced to wishful thinking over how to shake the tiger it has by the tail or find a way to accommodate him. So far, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has appeared to achieve the latter. But House Speaker Paul Ryan, who has his own distinct legislative agenda in many respects, appears headed down a more difficult road.
Trump’s map suggests a detour from traditional GOP policy, especially in his declared determination to put "America First" in dealing with existing alliances abroad.
The president’s poorly implemented bans on refugees and on travelers from seven designated Muslim countries reflected poorly on establishment Republicans, showing them to be inept and unable to stand up to his worst instincts.
Trump’s sharp disparagement of NATO, his demands that our allies fully meet their financial obligations and his conspicuous cozying up to Russian President Vladimir Putin have all caused unease among U.S. military and economic partners in both Eastern and Western Europe.
Beyond that, Trump’s outspoken assaults on the press at home and his targeting of Muslim refugees from the Middle East have aroused questions about America’s traditional role as a haven of the persecuted.
Perhaps for the first time since the end of the Cold War, a U.S. president has challenged this nation’s self-image as the bulwark of democratic principles in opposition to authoritarianism around the globe.
The longer Donald Trump acts and sounds like a domineering dictator, the more his legitimacy as president will be questioned by fearful Americans in both parties.
It’s long overdue for Trump to accept that he is now required to live up to the demands of decency, restraint and, yes, respect for the office he legally occupies, including commitments to work with America’s hard-won allies in maintaining peace and harmony beyond our shores.
Jules Witcover’s latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power," published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org.