Like millions of people around the world, I was reassured to learn that Donald Trump is a “Very Stable Genius.” You see, if he weren’t — if he were instead an erratic, vindictive, uninformed, lazy, would-be tyrant — we might be in real trouble.
Let’s be honest: This great nation has often been led by mediocre men, some of whom had unpleasant personalities. But they generally haven’t done too much damage, for two reasons.
First, second-rate presidents have often been surrounded by first-rate public servants. Look, for example, at a list of Treasury secretaries since the nation’s founding; while not everyone who held the office was another Alexander Hamilton, overall it’s a pretty impressive contingent — and it mattered.
There’s an ongoing debate over whether Ronald Reagan, who was given a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s five years after he left office, was already showing signs of cognitive deterioration during his second term. But with James Baker running Treasury and George Shultz running State, one didn’t have to worry about whether qualified people were making the big decisions.
Second, our system of checks and balances has restrained presidents who might otherwise have been tempted to ignore the rule of law or abuse their position. While we’ve probably had chief executives who longed to jail their critics or enrich themselves while in office, none of them dared act on those desires.
But that was then. Under the Very Stable Genius in Chief, the old rules no longer apply.
When the VSG moved into the White House, he brought with him an extraordinary collection of subordinates — and I mean that in the worst way. Some of them are already gone, like Michael Flynn, who Trump appointed national security adviser despite questions swirling even back then about his foreign ties, and who last month pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about those ties. Also gone is Tom Price, secretary of health and human services, done in by his addiction to expensive private plane trips.
Others, however, are still there; surely the thought of Steve Mnuchin at Treasury has Hamilton rolling over in his grave. And many incredibly bad lower-level appointments have flown under the public’s radar. We only get a sense of how bad things are from the occasional story that breaks through, like that of Trump’s nominee to head the Indian Health Service, who appears to have lied about his credentials. (A spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services says a tornado destroyed his employment records.)
And while unqualified people are marching in, qualified people are fleeing. There has been a huge exodus of experienced personnel at the State Department; perhaps even more alarming, there is reportedly a similar exodus at the National Security Agency.
In other words, just one year of Trump has moved us a long way toward a government of the worst and dumbest. It’s a good thing the man at the top is, like, smart.
Meanwhile, what about constraints on presidential misbehavior? Hey, checks and balances are just so 1970s, you know? Republicans may have cared about unlawful actions by the president during Watergate, but these days they clearly see their job as being one of protecting the VSG’s privileges, of letting him do whatever he wants.
Count me among those who found the revelations from the new Michael Wolff book not all that shocking, because they just confirm what many reports have told us about this White House. The really important news from last week, as I see it, involved indications that leading Republicans in Congress are increasingly determined to participate in obstruction of justice.
Until now, it wasn’t entirely clear whether pro-cover-up members of Congress, like Devin Nunes, who has been harassing the Justice Department as it attempts to investigate Russian election interference, were freelancing. But Paul Ryan, the House speaker, has now fully taken Nunes’ side, in effect going all in on obstruction.
At the same time, two Republican senators made the first known congressional referral for criminal charges related to Russian intervention — not against those who may have worked with a hostile foreign power, but against the former British spy who prepared a dossier about possible Trump-Russia collusion.
In other words, even as much of the world is questioning Trump’s fitness for office, the only people who could constrain him are doing their best to place him above the rule of law.
So far, the implosion of our political norms has had remarkably little effect on daily life (unless you’re living in hurricane-battered Puerto Rico and still waiting for electricity thanks to an inadequate federal response). The president spends his mornings watching TV and rage-tweeting, he has wreaked havoc with the government’s competence and his party doesn’t want you to know if he’s a foreign agent. Yet stocks are up, the economy is growing and we haven’t gotten into any new wars.
But it’s early days. We spent more than two centuries building a great nation, and even a very stable genius probably needs a couple of years to complete its ruin.
Paul Krugman is a columnist for The New York Times.