The capital of the United States is a peculiar place. An unusually high portion of the people who live in the city and its environs either work for the government, contracts with the government, services the government or exists in order to influence the government. There are opinion makers aplenty. Thought leaders, talking heads and think-tankers, too. It’s positively lousy with journalists.
Having so many ambitious, opinionated and well-educated people gathered in one place can be a fine thing, but it also makes Washington uniquely susceptible to certain problems. When half the city is trying to figure out what other people think, and the other half of the city is trying to convince other people of what they should think, Washington can get very interested in itself.
Right now, Washington has a nasty case of Trump Fever.
Two weeks ago, President Trump set off a firestorm by sacking the director of the FBI, James Comey, who also happened to be the man in charge of investigating Russian meddling in the last election. That was, at the very least, bad form. President Trump’s surrogates issued a variety of not entirely consistent explanations of why the firing happened when and how it did. Then the President trod all over his own press operations with an entirely different story. Then he invited the Russian foreign minister and ambassador into the Oval Office where he trashed the recently dismissed FBI director (bad form) and then shared highly classified information with said Russians. Very bad form.
The speed with which the various scandals have been unfolding has been disorientating. The press is falling over itself to report each new development. The trickle of leaks coming out of the administration and various intelligence agencies has become a torrent; the partisan spin doctors can barely keep up. No one wants to fall behind the story and no one wants to get too far out ahead and risk embarrassment when events take an unexpected turn. This collective shortsightedness is aided by cable news and abetted by the colossal echo chamber that is Twitter.
That recent weeks have been a disaster for the Trump administration is not much in dispute. The President’s approval numbers are in the tank. When the words “Watergate” and “impeachment” are bandied about, the administration is surely going through a rough patch. The collapse of trust in the impartiality of the press, the unseemliness of rampant, anonymous leaks from the government, and the constant drumbeat of partisan spin means that an inordinate amount of time and energy gets spent talking about what one thinks about what others think about what one ought to think about what the President did or didn’t do, usually with regard to Russia.
It’s telling that the current crisis in Washington comes on the heels of an election that was widely seen as a rejection of the governing elite, that is, a popular rejection of almost everything about Washington DC. Washingtonians know this. Some have taken the criticism to heart. Some resent it. Some are intent on resistance (whatever that means). Some have shamelessly tried to commandeer the anti-elite bandwagon. Others prefer to mock the poor rubes in flyover states who think they know better. And some are content to rub voters’ noses in the collective mess they’ve made on the national carpet by electing Donald Trump.
The problem with this is that the only justification for the existence of the massive political, intellectual and media apparatus in Washington is that it serves the public interest – or, as Catholics would have it, that it serves the common good. Obviously the means to that end are not easily agreed upon. And these days disagreement goes beyond disagreement about means and extends to deep disagreement about the ends of our common life itself. Too often Washington has been like an immune system gone wonky. Rather than responding to illness in a way that heals the body, Washington’s response to Trump has been like an allergic reaction: an out of control autoimmune response that is at best irritating, at worst life-threatening, and all without fixing any underlying problem.
None of which is to say President Trump deserves a pass for his incompetence, vanity or pettiness. Quite the opposite. But a proper and effective response to President Trump cannot be self-serving. You can’t out-Trump Trump.
The crisis of the Trump administration is also a crisis of legitimacy: not for the President but rather for those institutions which make their home in Washington and which purport to serve the common good. Tearing down Trump alone won’t restore that legitimacy; our President is a symptom as much as a cause of the national fever. Washington can help break that fever, but it will have to get over itself before it does. Like most things worth doing, that’s easier said than done.
Stephen P White is a fellow in the Catholic studies programme at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington DC and author of Red, White, Blue, and Catholic (Liguori 2016)
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.