How do progressives defeat Donald Trump? The first step is learning to expect the unexpected

We keep acting as if history, tradition and precedent have some meaning. But in the Trump era, all that is gone

Published June 12, 2018 1:00PM (EDT)

Donald Trump listens to a question during a news conference at the G-7 summit, June 9, 2018 (AP/Evan Vucci)
Donald Trump listens to a question during a news conference at the G-7 summit, June 9, 2018 (AP/Evan Vucci)

If there has been anything predictable about Donald Trump it has most certainly been his unpredictability. Every 24-hour news cycle since he announced his candidacy has been dominated by a general sense of “What’s he doing now?” and with rapt attention and palpable anxiety the country has waited for the newest twist, latest scandal and most recent development in this seemingly never-ending roller-coaster ride.

Last weekend saw a new wrinkle as President Trump, after leaving the G7 summit in Quebec, reacted to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s comments on trade by calling the hosting leader “Very dishonest & weak.” On Sunday, the administration seemed to escalate this war of words with our neighbor to the north when Larry Kudlow, a trade adviser to Trump, called Trudeau’s comments “a betrayal” and Peter Navarro, another adviser, appeared on “Fox News Sunday” and insinuated that there was “a special place in hell” for the prime minister. (Kudlow reportedly suffered a heart attack on Monday, which may not be unrelated to the stress of his job.)

This turn of events was especially alarming considering Trump’s performance at the G7 meeting left many scratching their heads. Though he claimed his relationships with allied countries were “very good,” Trump arrived late and left early, claiming that the United States was a “piggy bank that everybody was robbing.”

Trump’s attacks on Trudeau took place as he made his way to Singapore ahead of his highly inconclusive meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, a man with whom Trump has engaged in nuclear brinkmanship while labeling him “little Rocket Man.” Those talks had already been canceled and then un-canceled in recent weeks and last Thursday Trump told reporters, “I don’t think I have to prepare very much. It’s about attitude.”

That statement left pundits and critics alike bewildered, but perhaps it shouldn't have. Such bafflement has been a constant in Trump’s political life. Whether it was his unlikely ascent to the Oval Office or his continuous battles to save himself from the grips of scandal, Trump’s path to success has been paved by his ability to defy expectations and work outside everything we've come to assume is possible in American politics. For those wishing to defeat Trump -- at the ballot box, through the legislative process or by other means -- it will be necessary to start thinking outside the box and quit expecting tradition and established systems to do the hard work of containment.

*  *  *

Donald Trump’s political life has been unconventional from the moment he rode the Trump Tower escalator down to his very first podium. On that day nearly three years ago, Trump planted his flag firmly in the field by attacking immigrants from Mexico, infamously saying, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. . . . They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with [them]. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

Immediately it became a consensus that Trump had already written his own political obituary, before his candidacy had even taken form. Pundits reasoned that nobody capable of uttering such racist drivel could possibly be a legitimate candidate. Trump’s speeches were relegated to the status of sideshows the major networks would air before cutting back to the studio, where hosts and assembled analysts collectively shook their heads and rolled their eyes.

Despite their naysaying, Trump soldiered on from one scandal to another. When he questioned Sen. John McCain’s status as a war hero a month later, most thought it was the death knell of his candidacy. Former Texas governor Rick Perry stated that Trump showed that he was unfit to be commander in chief, while Sen. Lindsey Graham predicted primary voters would loudly reprimand him, saying, “Here’s what I think they’re going to say: You’re fired.” Former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney would later rebuke Trump in a scathing speech in which he called Trump a con man and appealed to the conscience of the party.

Look at them now. Perry accepted a position in Trump's Cabinet as secretary of energy, Graham became at least a sporadic defender of the president’s agenda and Mitt Romney would grovel for a post he’d never receive before predicting that Trump would “solidly” win re-election in 2020.

Those three stalwarts of the Republican Party failed to see Trump’s rise in power for what it was because they were guilty of the same kind of faulty logic as pundits like New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who wrote, the October after Trump’s announcement, that “No major party has nominated a figure like Trump . . . and I don’t believe the 2016 G.O.P. will be the first.”

In order to predict the future, these men first looked to the past for precedent, and in the history of their party they had never seen anyone like Trump succeed.

“Have faith,” a pundit friend told me the week before the election. "There’s no way Trump wins. This country’s done some crazy things, but nothing that crazy.”

But that logic was beyond faulty. Just because something had never happened before didn’t mean it wasn’t possible. There was always room for precedent, and Trump’s politics and the lengths he was willing to go to win were most definitely unprecedented.

*  *  *

The first time I heard a rumor about the Trump campaign colluding with the Russian government, I didn’t know what to believe. This was on the first day of the 2016 Democratic National Convention. I was heading to the arena in Philadelphia when I received my first communication about whispers about shady dealings. I was a young independent journalist attempting to keep up with a runaway election cycle; trying to separate fact from fiction on the campaign trail was a full-time job. It felt like the stuff of conspiracy theories, the manifestations of fever-dream paranoia.

My sources inside the Trump campaign were adamant. They’d been with the operation since the early days under Corey Lewandowski, and when Paul Manafort was brought onboard in March to help with a potentially brokered convention, they worried that something bad was brewing. Manafort was a political dinosaur who hadn’t been relevant in years. With his suspicious ties to Russian interests, there was concern he was steering Trump and the campaign in an alarmingly pro-Russian direction.

That story remained the stuff of conspiracy theory until it was revealed that Manafort, along with Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner, had met with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya for “info” on Hillary Clinton that was, according to associate Rob Goldstone, “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” This development, along with discoveries that Kushner had sought a backdoor contact with Russia and that several others, including future national security adviser Michael Flynn and future Attorney General Jeff Sessions, had suspicious contact with Russian officials, blew the case wide open and allowed the conspiracy theory to be taken seriously in reputable circles.

Whether Donald Trump personally colluded with Russian interests or whether the contact was relegated to people within his orbit is still a matter of debate. But the flirtations with Russia took place before our very eyes. Under Manafort’s guidance, the Trump campaign pressured the Republican National Convention to weaken its language on Russia's incursion into Ukraine, Trump began to criticize the U.S. partnership with NATO and the candidate even used a nationally televised press conference to call on Russian hackers to unearth Hillary Clinton’s missing emails.

Certainly this was all circumstantial evidence, but there was sufficient smoke for people to go searching for fire. What kept journalists, pundits and citizens alike from questioning the confluence of events was that the idea of a major party’s nominee conspiring with a foreign power to tip the balance of an election was so outlandish a thought that, despite the dots being there right in front of us, we refused to connect them.

Now, with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation proceeding, it’s a regular topic of conversation on nearly every network whether some form of collusion with Russian agents took place. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that Mueller has already garnered multiple guilty pleas from Trump associates and has brought charges against various others. Members of the "Resistance” are engrossed now with every headline leaked from the investigation and treat Mueller like a folk hero of sorts who is always working toward pursuing justice and possibly bringing the Trump presidency to an end.

Unfortunately, reality is a little messier than that. Mueller’s investigation is most assuredly a well-oiled machine, but the possibility that it will lead to an indictment or impeachment is nowhere near a certainty. Scholars are divided as to whether Trump (or any other sitting president) can be charged with a crime, and as recently as last week the president floated the prospect of pardoning himself, an action that would doubtless lead to a constitutional crisis and possibly widespread civic and political chaos.

Those who are certain Mueller will succeed are holding onto a valiant hope that the system will overcome, that the checks and balances set forth by the Founding Fathers will survive this stress test. They want desperately to believe this story will have a happy ending, because it just has to.

We simply have no way of knowing.

*  *  *

Last August, The Washington Post published the results of a phone survey that stopped me in my tracks. Citing Donald Trump’s fictional accusations of voter fraud, 52 percent of Republicans answered that they’d support postponing the 2020 presidential election if Donald Trump proposed it.

Even in an era of polarization, this poll absolutely stunned me. We could argue about reality and we could disagree about what constituted fake news. But I never once thought anyone would be OK with suspending free elections. But that assumption was my mistake for assuming that past results translate into future realities.

The truth is that Trump has tapped into one of the darkest and most closely held secrets of politics, which is that our system has always worked on trust. The rules we rely on to guide our democracy forward have always been arbitrary, and the Founding Fathers expected participants to play the game with honor and reverence to tradition. Over the decades, those expectations have been stretched to their breaking point through public relations, spin and flat-out lying. Trump and his associates have simply discarded them altogether.

Some have lauded Trump for what they call his political instincts and ability to tap into the public zeitgeist, but his true talent lies in his willingness to color outside the lines. When politicians battle inside the legislative arena they have routinely done so with a courteous agreement to operate within a set paradigm – Trump recognizes that standard but refuses to play along.

The system we have is dependent on public servants having the best interest of the republic at heart. There’s simply no way to prepare for a figure with no allegiance to that order.

What we are watching now has no precedent because we’ve simply never dealt with anyone like Donald Trump. Past presidents entered office with a dedication to civic responsibility and a reverence for our institutions, even if they fell short of honoring them. Our checks and balances work only as long as the figures susceptible to them recognize their power. Trump has consistently raged against every check and balance and has openly sought control over the Department of Justice while turning his bully pulpit into a weapon against citizen, ally and foe alike.

There is no way of knowing what the future holds with this president. After his summit with Kim Jong Un, will we find ourselves aligned with the North Korean leader against our Western allies of old? Robert Mueller might find the smoking gun, and it might not even matter. Maybe Trump will be re-elected in November of 2020, and maybe there won’t be a single ballot cast.

The point is, it’s time to stop expecting the expected. Until we wrap our heads around the inevitability of the inconceivable, until we can accept that everything is possible and nothing is certain or sacred, then we will continue to be caught unaware, and we will remain powerless in our disbelief.

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By Jared Yates Sexton

Jared Yates Sexton is the author of "American Rule: How A Nation Conquered the World but Failed Its People," to be published in September by Dutton Books. Currently is an associate professor of writing at Georgia Southern University.

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