We philosophers strive to understand the universe under the aspect of eternity, sub specie aeternitatis, but I find myself now in the midst of a whirlwind, and the training of a lifetime is of little help in grasping the significance of the events that flash before my eyes. We are now barely ten days into the Trump presidency. It is impossible for me to foresee what a second week will bring, let alone a month, or even, God forbid, a year. Let me comment briefly on two quite disparate phenomena.
First, we are all transfixed by the reaction to Trump's ill-considered, poorly drafted immigration order, an order almost certainly thrust upon him by Steve Bannon, who is rapidly emerging as the puppeteer of this administration. In rapid succession, we have seen the order, the public reaction, the temporary stay ordered by a Federal District Court [I hope I have this right], and the initial refusal of various officials, ostensibly acting for the Trump administration, to comply with the stay.
A number of commentators have begun to talk of a Constitutional crisis. I think that talk is premature, although the situation has the potential to develop into such a crisis. I believe, without actually knowing, that American legal history is replete with instances in which the Federal Government has failed to comply with court orders, and we all know that there have been many such failures by State governments.
How might things become dramatically worse? Well, if Trump orders the Justice Department to challenge the court order at the appellate level, if the courts rule against the Administration, if the case is taken to the Supreme Court, and if it too rules the ban unconstitutional, and if Trump then declares that as President he does not have to abide by the decision of the Supreme Court, THEN we have a constitutional crisis. But we are a long way from that.
We must keep in mind that the power of the President consists entirely in his or her ability to get large numbers of strategically placed people [including the military] to do what he or she says. TR was in good shape, and Lincoln was tall, and Jackson, I imagine, was a pretty good fighter, but neither they nor any other presidents ruled literally by being the biggest, toughest person in the room, able to compel obedience by force of arms. The very thought is ludicrous. Recall Karl Marx's lovely footnote in Chapter One of Capital: "[O]ne man is king only because other men stand in the relation of subjects to him. They, on the contrary, imagine that they are subjects because he is king."
It is for this reason that the efforts to delegitimize Trump are so important. Which brings me to my second observation, vastly less important, but indicative nonetheless. There have been reports that folks in the White House are 'demoralized" by the drumbeat of negative press coverage since the Inauguration. This has spilled out into public first with Press Secretary Sean Spicer's extraordinary attack on the White House Press Corps sitting in front of him, and then yesterday by Kellyanne Conway's intemperate cri de coeur that media people relentlessly attacking Trump should be fired. It is Conway's outburst that I want to talk about, because I think it gives us a peephole into the Bunker.
Conway is a successful career Republican pollster. She is smart, quick-witted, glib, and relentlessly on message in her media appearances. Like everyone in her line of work, she understands in her bones that her job is to get favorable press coverage for her boss, whomever her boss is at the moment. It is therefore quite astonishing to hear her attack so violently the people it is her job to woo. I think [I do not know, of course] that such behavior can only reflect the sort of bunker mentality inside the White House that only developed in the last stages of the Nixon presidency or in the Johnson presidency before he withdrew from the 1968 race. That even so seasoned a professional as Conway should be reduced to this state in ten days is astonishing and revealing.
Mind you, I would guess that Steve Bannon is delighted by the war with the press, but Conway is a different sort of person entirely. She is a fifty-year old professional married to a partner in a Wall Street law firm, with four children at home. She may be despicable, but she is not a nut. The atmosphere in the West Wing must be toxic!