It all feels depressingly familiar at this point: The investigation into President Trump’s ties to Russia makes big news. Trump responds with an outrageous Twitter rant. He is clearly floating the possibility of taking extreme steps to shut the investigation down. We all sit glued to our screens, fearing that things will take yet another turn for the worse, yet hoping against reason that somebody will somehow put an end to the whole sorry spectacle.
What’s strange about this is that we should, at this point, know what comes next. We have, after all, seen more or less the same pattern play out over and over since Trump took office. The White House intimates that it might destroy a key democratic norm that had once seemed unassailable. Pundits on TV confidently opine that Trump would never do something quite as crazy as this. Political scientists predict that he could never get away with crossing such a bright red line in such a brazen manner.
But, inevitably, Trump does do the crazy thing. As we survey the scene through the rearview mirror, the line that had once been red starts to look orange, then yellow, then green. With frightening speed, something that had seemed unimaginable until a few days ago becomes a normal part of our political reality. We return our gaze to the road ahead. “Look at the red line we’re hurtling toward,” somebody says. “There’s no way that he’s going to cross that, is there?”
If the definition of madness is to keep doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different outcome, nearly all of us are in the midst of a serious bout of madness.
So what do we do to regain our sanity?
The first part of the answer is to adjust our expectations for what happens next. If you think Trump would never dare to fire Robert Mueller for filing charges against his associates, you still haven’t understood his character. And if you think that Congress is sure to act when he does, you haven’t been paying attention for the past several months.
The second part of the answer is to try to change what happens next: Instead of being glued to our screens, we need to start doing everything in our power to enforce the red lines before we cross them.
To do that, we urgently need to get out of our defensive crouch. Instead of waiting for Trump to cross a red line and hoping that consequences will miraculously materialize, we need to anticipate what he might do. And then we must organize to force him to change course, and ensure that he pays a high price if he doesn’t.
The people who are best placed to do this, depressingly, sit in the House and the Senate. All members of Congress who care about preserving our democracy (or protecting their constitutional prerogatives) must set out what they are going to do if Trump fires Robert Mueller or pardons the people he indicts. As Ian Bassin, the executive director of Protect Democracy, told me, “Ryan, McConnell, Pelosi, and Schumer must make crystal clear right now that firing Mueller or interfering with his investigation would be met with swift and forceful congressional action, including the opening of an impeachment inquiry against the president and the creation of an independent commission to investigate interference in the 2016 election.”
We still have a tendency to talk about the crucial moment of decision as lying far in the future: If Republican congressmen and senators fail to respond to Trump’s next norm violation with real repercussions, they will be traitors. But the truth of the matter is that it is much easier for them to set out the consequences for extreme norm violations when they have not yet happened. If they are not willing to do so today, it is clear that they are not going to do so tomorrow. And so those like Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, who have already bravely expressed their concerns about the president, need to champion efforts to limit the damage he can do right now. Meanwhile, all of the cowardly conservatives who refuse to speculate what they would do if Trump fired Mueller because they are so “focused on tax reform” need to realize that every day of further inaction effectively amounts to sabotaging the Constitution.
People outside Congress can make a difference, too. When the president crosses the next big red line, it is crucial to show the millions of Americans who are weak supporters of Trump that the revulsion at his action is not merely a partisan move by liberals or Democrats.
The people who are, without a doubt, best placed to signal the gravity of a step like firing Mueller are former senior officials whom much of the public still respects. Over the past weeks, everyone from Barack Obama to George W. Bush has subtly signalled just how worried they are about what is going on in the White House. If Trump obstructs Mueller’s investigation, they must have the courage to speak out openly. Ideally, all the living ex-presidents would step in front of the cameras together to alert us to the depth of the danger we now face.
Perhaps even that won’t help. But if five of the past six presidents denouncing their successor as a clear and present danger to the American republic isn’t enough to stir the conscience of the nation, it’s not clear that anything else could be either.
What about the rest of us though?
We, too, need to stop telling ourselves comforting stories about acts of bravery we will commit tomorrow.
On my social media feeds, there has, over the past weekend, been a lot of anticipation of the protests we will go on once Trump fires Mueller. The determination to do something when the next constitutional crisis is upon us is all nice and well. But the truth of the matter is that we should be pounding the pavement—and ringing up members of Congress to demand action—today rather than tomorrow.
We are about to enter a decisive phase of Trump’s presidency, and perhaps even of our longstanding experiment in constitutional government. The time for action is not tomorrow or next week; it is right now.