Every spring for the past decade I have led a group of Villanova students through official Washington, and every year Washington feels a little different depending on the political circumstances of the moment. During my first trip in 2008, the Bush administration was winding down, twenty-somethings had replaced veterans in responsible jobs, and Republicans were on the market in anticipation of a Democratic victory in the fall. By the following year, hope-and-change fever had swept the Potomac and Democrats owned the city, prompting a tense exchange between a few of my more conservative students and a party official who flaunted his role in Obama’s victory. All hints of arrogance were erased in 2010, as Republicans anticipated and Democrats braced for the drubbing they would face the following fall.
These years and the six that would follow were marked by a kind of certainty produced by the familiar rhythms of the political cycle. Presidents come and go, party fortunes ebb and flow, and professional members of the political class adjust to predictable changes in the political climate, much as you adjust your clothing to suit the month on the calendar. But not this year. This spring in Washington feels like a season upended by global warming, when the date on the calendar doesn’t align with the weather. Four months into a new administration is supposed to be the heart of the presidential honeymoon phase, when legislative progress is made, press stories are friendly, and public approval is high. Instead, we are four months into what just about everyone realizes is a bad marriage. There are some divorce rumors but few are willing to say so out loud.
People are exhausted. Talk to journalists, congressional aides—pretty much anyone who makes a living in the corridors of power—and they will tell you they want to put a stop to the cascade of outrageous statements and damaging stories that now define official Washington, but they know they can’t because chaos defines Donald Trump, who (to the surprise of some) really is the undisciplined, angry, impulsive person we saw during the campaign. It surprised me to find some intelligent observers of the process who themselves were surprised that the Trump campaign wasn’t an act. Perhaps it was wishful thinking, but no matter. Everyone is now living inside Donald Trump’s psyche, and it’s not a pretty place.
The problem is particularly acute for congressional Republicans, who are being squeezed by a base that remains loyal to Trump and an energized resistance movement threatening to overwhelm them at the polls. This is the monster they created by not standing up to Trump in the primaries, when their opposition would have cost them precious support among core voters but would have spared them the anger of the rest of the electorate. Their dilemma was highlighted as the week went on and they were forced to defend an increasingly indefensible set of revelations about a president who thinks he can strong-arm the FBI Director as though he’s doing a questionable New York real estate deal. Strong tribal impulses and the potential wrath of Republican voters have kept many in line or at least silent for now, but they risk permanently undermining their credibility if they wait too long to push back.
Events are moving quickly, but the politics is moving much more slowly. There is a surreal quality to Washington as Republicans scramble for an exit strategy but can’t find one that doesn’t put their party and their careers in jeopardy, leaving them to move without the urgency that the news of the past week should require. They sense an electoral wave building, but it will take one and a half years before it has the opportunity to crash against the shore, during which it could dissipate or build to a ferocious intensity. Right now, just about everyone is betting that it will build. Longstanding conventional wisdom that the House is gerrymander-proof until the next census has given way to a new conventional wisdom that Democrats could and likely will win it back. Aides to a vulnerable House Republican spoke to me of waging a campaign around the claim that their guy isn’t part of the problem, but when I asked how soon and how much they would break from their party to make sure that claim is credible, they just looked to the sky.
It is as though Republicans feel they are on the Titanic in the moments after striking the iceberg, scrambling for a solution that isn’t there and watching their fate reveal itself in slow motion. Their silence isn’t a sign that they are ignorant of the stakes. To the contrary, Republicans know quite well what’s happening. But there are no good options, and they don’t know what to do.