As eternity-like as the past six months have seemed, the calendar cruelly reminds us that we’re only 12.5 percent of the way through our long national nightmare. A few promising phoenixes did rise from the ashes of this otherwise miserable week, though, offering hope that pushback may be forming not just from the camp that calls itself “the resistance” but from the rock-ribbed institutions that have thus far served as the president’s staunchest allies.
Last week, in two appalling speeches and one ghastly tweet, President Trump crossed rhetorical lines so unconscionable that they triggered rebukes and apologies from historically apolitical institutions: the Boy Scouts of America, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and police departments around the country. The language in the various disclaimers was tepid, especially by our current Mooch-like standards, but their very existence feels like the tremors leading up to a potential earthquake.
Trump’s speech at the Boy Scouts of America’s National Jamboree could have earned him a merit badge for inappropriateness and hypocrisy, as thousands of captive youth bore witness to (and lustily approved) the spectacle of the American president threatening to fire Cabinet member Tom Price if he didn’t deliver the votes on “this horrible thing known as Obamacare.” (Ron Howard–narrator voice: “He didn’t.”) Trump followed that up by strongly hinting to the scouts that they might want to Google “Levittown + Founder + Sex + Yacht” when they got home. He also had the Boy Scouts booing President Obama. It was, by any measure, a grotesque injection of vicious partisan hate into a venerable American institution.
The Boy Scouts’ Facebook page subsequently imploded in outrage, which might have factored into the decision by Chief Scout Michael Surbaugh to issue a measured mea culpa, extending his “sincere apologies to those in our Scouting family who were offended by the political rhetoric that was inserted into the jamboree.” Other officials were more openly apologetic, including Marc Ryan who, in a letter published on the Lake Erie Council BSA Facebook page, lamented Trump’s ad-libbed detour may have “[shaken] your faith in what we stand for.”
On Wednesday, Trump again sprung chaos on an unsuspecting audience, this time tweeting that transgender individuals would no longer be allowed “to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military.” His most senior military advisers learned of this as the rest of us did, via Twitter. In response, there was no shortage of poignant outrage expressed by those directly affected by the out-of-nowhere ban. (And this may have been the endgame; for Trump supporters, outrage from discriminated-against minorities is a feature, not a bug). But perhaps more telling when it comes to the cultural wind direction is the fact that nine Republican senators went on the record deploring Trump’s hateful policy.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff responded to the chaos with calm, noting that there would be “no modifications to the current policy until the President’s direction has been received by the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary has issued implementation guidelines.” It was as if the Pentagon was the DMV, wearily instructing the frantic president to take his request to Window 7, where he would be served at the earliest possible convenience. But that wasn’t even the end of it. On Saturday, John Fluharty, a candidate to succeed Trump’s new Chief of Staff John Kelly at the Department of Homeland Security, noisily removed himself from consideration, citing Trump’s tweet as the basis. The president’s ban on transgender individuals serving in the military “runs counter to my deeply held beliefs,” he said. Fluharty’s boldness underscores not only how far public sentiment has drifted away from Trump’s retrograde instincts, but signals the increased willingness of Republican officials to stand up to Trump.
Finally, the president took his fear-and-loathing road show to Ronkonkoma, Long Island, where he addressed an audience of Suffolk County police officers, ostensibly on the subject of the largely Salvadoran gang MS-13. As with the Boy Scouts speech, he quickly veered off-script, waxing poetic about how “some towns” mistreat prisoners and suggesting he’d like to see other towns explore the joys of police brutality. More lusty applause ensued for the unconstitutional (and Seinfeldian) proposition that cops treat prisoners violently for purely recreational purposes. Decades of efforts by police departments to address and acknowledge legitimate public terror of police brutality was shattered in mere moments of presidential freestyling.
Hours later, the Suffolk County Police Department joined the select but quickly growing club of presidential disclaimants, issuing a terse rebuke via Twitter in the tone of a scolding parent forced to explain first principles. “As a department, we do not and will not tolerate roughing up of prisoners,” the department wrote, noting that violations of SCPD rules would be treated “extremely seriously.” By Sunday morning the list of police departments openly breaking with the president over this issue was rapidly expanding.
Is the story here that three venerable institutions, over the course of five business days, had to apologize to their members and the public for the conduct of a president as if he had drunkenly pawed every guest at a cocktail party the night before? Or is the story that they’re finally feeling emboldened enough to do so?
It may not be mere happenstance that these open rebukes from the scouts, the military, and the nation’s police chiefs coincided with a colossal disaster of a week for Trump on the political front. Trumpcare received a dramatic eleventh-hour shiv from Sen. John McCain, the beneficiary of one of Trump’s most vicious attacks. Lindsay Graham and a host of his GOP colleagues joined to warn the president there would be “holy hell to pay” if he attempted to fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whom Trump continues to humiliate with regular vicious attacks. Many of these same senators had only a week earlier been afraid to go on the record with their concerns over Trump’s attacks on Sessions. By midweek they were stepping up to the mic. Sen. Lisa Murkowski not only refused to be cowed by personal attacks from Trump, but publicly chided him for them.
The lesson here isn’t just about the president losing core support among his base or independents. It’s that the building blocks of his power and authority—the military, the lawyers, the police, Republican officials—are increasingly in the position of having to choose between distancing themselves from him and defending ever-more-deranged conduct. Those who refuse to defend him seem to find it ever simpler to walk away. And those inclined to show continued support must contort themselves in their efforts to work around his intemperate, incautious words.
Paul Ryan announced this week that he just ignores the tweets, just as the Joint Chiefs have done. Which means the United States is currently being run in the manner of a choose-your-own-adventure book, in which key governmental actors are allowed to decide for themselves which bits of presidential ranting they will accept and enforce, which they will ignore, and which require a formal apology.
That’s not terrifying.
In light of this week’s apology trilogy, it’s fair to ask whether everyone’s had enough of all this racist, homophobic, lawless, and violent “truth-telling,” and whether this trend of American institutions holding Trump to account for his spoken words might continue. Maybe the alleged truism that Trump “says what people are really thinking” has become less appealing as institutions come to acknowledge that at least some civic norms—that we need laws and cops and soldiers and, yes, Boy Scouts—are probably a good thing.
The president has enjoyed six months of having his (delicious, chocolate) cake and eating it too with respect to his cowboy approach to the English language. When he says something truly awful or incriminating, he was just kidding or defying political correctness constraints or speaking truth to power. But more and more, those tasked with following his word-salad orders are forced to inhabit and collude in the dystopic world he creates. If that means allying themselves with threats to the special counsel or the rule of law, so be it. If it means endorsing police brutality, OK then. If it means weaponizing Boy Scouts to seek vengeance, let’s give that man a round of applause.
It’s likely that fewer and fewer institutions will be willing to live with the potty-mouthed Magic 8 ball in the Oval Office. Whatever governance and leadership still means in America, waking up every day to roll the dice on what insane presidential statement needs disavowal cannot be what serious people want to do with their lives.