Friday, April 13, 2018

Paul Ryan Steps Down

In the midst of a slow-moving crisis, one never knows when a turning point has arrived. After a slow dribble of news for months, how many realized the “Saturday night massacre” was the moment Nixon was done? It was only in retrospect, after Nixon didn’t press the government into a Constitutional crisis, that we could see that was the pivotal moment.

Because so much of what Trump does is orders of magnitude more bizarre and norm-shattering than previous presidents, his tenure seems to resist the “pivotal moment” narrative. And yet, it feels like something has shifted this week.

There’s the usual parade of horribles, though this week was especially bad (the raid on his lawyer’s house, the unfolding Pruitt corruption scandal, Jim Comey’s book, stories about a secret love child, his weird battle against Bezos/post office, etc). But something more significant happened when Paul Ryan stepped aside. Trump’s position of relative strength has always depended on his Congressional lackeys. As long as he could run a deeply corrupt, chaotic, and imcompetent administration without losing their support, he has been untouchable.

Much is arrayed against him, though. His approval is maddeningly high for his actual performance, but historically low. He has made enemies with federal law enforcement and rank-and-file federal workers. Democrats are not just planning their anti-Trump strategy, but using the disaster of his presidency to entirely reorder politics in the US, overturning GOP structural advantages and entirely dispensing with GOP-defined right wing conventional wisdom on issues across the board. So long as that Democratic project looked like typical Democratic blue sky talk they couldn’t deliver on, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

But into this 18-month stalemate of the Trump era, Paul Ryan’s retirement looks like a hole in the dike. If the power centers of the Republican Party can no longer manage the balance between their rabid base and the realities of this administration, Trump’s position becomes far more tenuous. We tend to think of his problems as fundamentally legal—that’s the footing of the Mueller probe—but they’ve always been political. There is no Constitutional remedy for Trump except the political (the use of the 25th amendment, in this case, very much included). Trump has survived not in spite of his corruption and incompetence, but because of Congressional GOP support. If that softens, things could change quickly and dramatically. This week, it felt like that softening was becoming real.

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