President Trump is stuck in a vicious downward spiral. The worst possible crisis arrived in COVID-19, one that tugged at every weakness of the president and the nation. After three chaotic years, we have finally arrived at the final phase of the Trump era, the long-feared crisis and unraveling, argues Thomas Wright. This piece originally appeared in The Atlantic.
We are in the Götterdämmerung now, the final phase of the Trump era. We began with the axis of adults that imperfectly constrained him. We then entered the age of hubris and action during which he systematically rid himself of the adults and was free to follow his whims. The third phase was the reckoning as he began to bump up against the contradictions of his own approach, on China and Iran in particular. Now we have finally arrived at the long-feared crisis and unraveling.
For three chaotic years, Donald Trump muddled through, at least in the eyes of Republicans, buoyed by the strong economy he inherited from his predecessor and powered forward by the long GOP wish list, which included, among many items, judicial appointments, deregulation, and the undoing of the Iran nuclear deal. Virtually every consequential and sympathetic analysis of the Trump administration, though, included a caveat: A serious crisis would upend any Republican progress and test the ill-equipped and vindictive president. Deep down, we all hoped the country would get lucky and slip through these four years without a paradigm-changing incident. But if luck is earned, we had no right to it.
The worst possible crisis arrived in COVID-19, one that tugged at every weakness of the president and the nation. It demanded scientific literacy, discipline, trust in authority, sacrifice, and patience. And then another crisis arrived with the economic depression. And then another, with the brutal murder of George Floyd. Now more than 100,000 people are dead, more than 40 million are unemployed, and violent protests have spread across the country.
Trump is stuck in a vicious downward spiral. He is incapable of undertaking the policies necessary to address any of these three crises, so he grasps for actions that shock the senses—accusing journalists of murder, pulling out of the World Health Organization, trying to prosecute Obama-administration officials. These actions simply make matters worse, but he still doubles down again and again.
Foreign policy is not the most important issue facing the country right now, but a 48-hour period last week highlights the sheer chaos Trump is now fomenting at all levels of government. On Thursday, the Chinese Parliament ratified a new security law for Hong Kong that would effectively end the “one country, two systems” model. The governments of the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia released a joint statement condemning the move and promising action. The European Union condemned the law but was unable to agree on any punitive measures. Behind the scenes, U.S. diplomats were organizing an in-person G7 summit for late June at which the leaders would present a unified front on Hong Kong, backing it up with concrete steps—possibly imposing sanctions on China and having some G7 members granting refugee status to Hong Kongers. Trump tweeted that he wanted to gather in person as a sign of a return to normal after the pandemic shutdowns. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and French President Emmanuel Macron suggested that they would attend. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was more circumspect but said she would participate in the G7 in whatever form it took “to fight for multilateralism.” A G7 agreement was not a done deal, but senior administration officials believed the prospects looked good.
On Thursday night, protests broke out over Floyd’s murder. On Friday, Twitter issued Trump a warning for threatening violence with his tweet stating, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Trump responded by trying to distract. He gave a press conference at 2 p.m. in which he declared that he would terminate relations with the WHO and unilaterally announced a response to China’s actions against Hong Kong. Within hours, Angela Merkel let it be known that she was withdrawing from the summit. Miffed, Trump said the next day that he was postponing the summit and inviting Russia, Australia, India, and South Korea to join.
The postponement destroys any hope that a multilateral organization would condemn China’s actions against Hong Kong. Moreover, Russia is a staunch supporter of China’s position that Hong Kong is a purely internal matter that should be of no concern to the rest of the world. Some observers thought the invitation to more countries was designed to isolate China, but its practical effect was to deliver Xi Jinping a big win.
The damage did not end there. China has more leadership roles in United Nations organizations than the other four permanent members of the U.N. Security Council combined. To their credit, some officials in the Trump administration were attempting to build an international coalition to push back on this influence. They scored a victory earlier this year when they helped deny China the chair of the World Intellectual Property Organization. Trump’s termination of relations with the WHO dealt a death blow to this effort—other countries will not follow Washington’s advice on how U.N. organizations should be run if they believe the U.S. is disengaging. This decision clears the way for China to march forward in its effort to overturn global liberal and democratic norms. It also damages vital U.S. interests with respect to global health.
The inclusion of Russia in the G7 summit, a long-standing goal for Trump, also contradicted the official White House China strategy, released on May 20. Modeled on NSC-68, one of the most important documents of the early Cold War period about the threat from the Soviet Union, this assessment went further than the administration has gone before in unpacking the rationale behind its rivalry with Beijing. Although it does not mention Russia, it does speak about a systems competition between democracy and authoritarianism in which the U.S. needs a global alliance of like-minded democracies. The G7 provides the basis of how to build it, but not if Russia, one of the world’s most dangerous autocracies, is included as a member.
The net effect of Trump’s actions over that 48-hour period was to swing a wrecking ball at his own administration’s efforts on China. If this is what he does to his own administration’s policy, which actually had some chance of success if exercised with patience, discipline, and restraint, one can only imagine how concerned he will be that his actions may negatively impact the issues and people he does not care about. This is what to expect for the next five months. The worse the multiple crises get, the more he will lash out, to less and less effect, except to render the U.S. impotent and irrelevant. The American people will pay the price.
There is no way back from the Götterdämmerung in the remainder of the Trump era. The question facing responsible senior administration officials (there are several at the principal and deputy level), Republicans in Congress, and allied governments is not how to persuade Trump to do the right thing, but how to limit the damage so the government can be repaired after he is gone. This may mean not urging Trump to take action on crises even if it is merited; circumventing the president wherever possible; Republican governors declaring their independence from their party leader, trying to craft a bipartisan approach in Congress on foreign-policy issues such as competing with China in international institutions and protecting against Russian interference; and using distractions of their own to divert his attention from truly consequential decisions. Call it fortification—of constitutional democracy and America’s international interests. There are 231 long days with nothing but stormy weather left.