Leaving Washington

I’m tired. I’ve now been in Washington for three weeks, where I have been engulfed by political myopia fed by a certain detachment from the rest of the country. Politics is Washington’s major industry, and like any company town it is infused with an insider’s sense of how things are done that can look quite different from how they appear on the outside. Normally at the end of my Washington program I hunger to return home to regain my perspective. But this year is a little different because my perspective became sharper the more I spoke with very smart and well-connected people who wondered why they didn’t see the Trump wave coming or why Bernie’s supporters won’t go away. They get that people are angry and frustrated but they often can’t figure out why voters have turned aside candidates who understand how the company town works. All that anger and frustration is directed at them and they can’t see it.

People here are trying to figure out how to deal with Donald Trump. This is especially true among Republicans and conservatives who are tense and worried about the future. In their uncertainty, they seem to be falling back on the comfort of routine—that insider’s sense of how things are done—where the default answer to Trump is to deal with him the way you would deal with any nominee-to-be. Political parties exist to win elections, so once you have a nominee you have to consolidate around him and mobilize the party apparatus to support him. Where there are rifts you seek common ground and if that’s not possible you paper over them. Those senators who pledged never to support him because he was a danger to the republic and unsuited for office, well, people say things during primaries. That’s the past. Even the reluctant House speaker found a way to endorse him, kind of. The polls are tightening, so maybe he can pull this thing out. If he wins he’ll need to staff the government, and conservative think tanks are on the ready to make sure he chooses the right people. Let’s keep our fingers crossed and move ahead. That’s how it’s done.

During ordinary times, this is the type of thinking that helps perpetuate institutions and secure the positions of those who lead them. But Trump is so clearly not just any nominee-to-be. He doesn’t take instruction, doesn’t modulate his behavior, doesn’t care much for the party he has acquired. This much is obvious to everyone here, hence the unease among those who soldier on even though they are apprehensive about what’s going to happen.

Conventional thinking during extraordinary times can lead to unpleasant results. It’s unlikely that Donald Trump can be managed by the proprietors of politics in this city, whose helpful suggestions about toning down his language and beefing up his staff thus far have been ignored. People here understand that Trump rose to prominence in the Republican Party on the strength of his personality, but it doesn’t compute that he won’t pivot to a more acceptable general election posture. Once you’ve established a maverick brand you’re supposed to rely on conventional tactics to broaden your market. Any professional will tell you that, but judging from Trump’s actions he seems convinced that he doesn’t have to make any meaningful adjustments because he believes that people will continue to be drawn to his personal amazingness.

If conventional thinking will not address the angst this cycle is causing Washingtonians, a more fruitful direction would be to contemplate something out-of-the-box. On that score I have a few suggestions, which I plan to sketch out in the coming days. I need some time for my DC experience to crystallize, so at this point I will say only that my suggestions involve making difficult short-term political choices in order to protect long-term political options and, in a larger sense, to protect the democratic process from someone who disrespects it. The burden for doing this will fall on the Republican Party and affiliated interest groups. My recommendations cut against everything political parties are designed to do, and because of that they would be excruciating to implement. But Republicans find themselves with a nominee-in-waiting who cuts against everything political parties are designed to do and who is proving to be excruciating to support. In the days ahead I will lay out my argument for why their best move, then, is not to support him.

More on that soon, from Philadelphia.