Ross Douthat joined The New York Times as an Op-Ed columnist in April 2009. Previously, he was a senior editor at the Atlantic and a blogger for theatlantic.com. His most recent book is “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics” (Free Press, 2012). He is also the author of “Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class” (Hyperion, 2005) and the co-author, with Reihan Salam, of “Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream” (Doubleday, 2008). He is the film critic for National Review. A native of New Haven, Conn., he now lives in Washington, D.C.
THROUGHOUT the 2016 primary season, two sentiments took turns reassuring Republicans as they watched Donald Trump’s strange ascent:
At some point, Trump will start behaving normally.
If he doesn’t, he’ll self-destruct or quit - or else somebody in authority will figure out a way to jettison him.
It isn’t surprising that people once believed these things; I clung to the second sentiment myself.
What is surprising is that after everything that’s happened, so many people believe them even now.
The reaction to the sacking of James Comey is the latest illustration. Far too many observers, left and right, persist in being surprised at Trump when nothing about his conduct is surprising, persist in looking for rationality where none is to be found, and persist in believing that some institutional force - party elders or convention delegates, the deep state or an impeachment process ? is likely to push him off the stage.
Start with the president’s Republican defenders. Not the cynics and liars, but the well-meaning conservatives who look at something like the Comey firing and assume that there must be a normal method at work, who listen to whatever narrative White House aides spin out and try to take it seriously.
In this case this meant saying, well, there was always a reasonable case for firing Comey over his handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation, the president was just following his deputy attorney general’s advice, and anyway it would be simply nuts to fire someone out of pique while they were investigating your campaign’s ties to a foreign power, because that would just bring more attention to the investigation, so surely not even Trump would be that crazy, right?
Wrong. First the White House sprung more leaks than a cracked dike in a North Sea flood, most of which suggested that the president had acted out of personal frustration with Comey’s perceived disloyalty to Trump himself, and annoyance at what he saw of the F.B.I. director on TV. And then the president went on national TV himself to explain that he would have fired Comey regardless of what his attorney general’s office recommended, and by the way he had indeed been thinking about the Russia investigation and how it detracted from his glorious electoral victory when he made the decision to get rid of the man supervising it.
This last remark was not exactly the admission of obstruction of justice that liberals quickly claimed, since Trump immediately added that he accepted that firing Comey could lead to a longer investigation, which he wanted “to be absolutely done properly.”
It was, instead, a window into an essentially sub-rational and self-sabotaging mind (as were the tweets that swiftly followed), whose obsessions make it impossible for Trump not to act on impulse, whose grievances constantly override the public interest and political self-interest both.
But it was not a new window: This same self-destructiveness was evident at every turn in the campaign. So the only mystery is why otherwise-rational Republicans persist in hoping for anything save chaos from a man who celebrated clinching the nomination by accusing his rival’s father of having had a hand in killing J.F.K.
Similarly mysterious, meanwhile, is the assumption among liberals that Trump’s behavior must be motivated by some dark but ultimately rational calculus - that if the president fired Comey in part out of annoyance at the Russia investigation, there must be some great conspiracy he’s desperate to cover up, which if brought to light would make impeachment a near-inevitability.
Of course there might be such a conspiracy, which is why the F.B.I. investigation must proceed - and even if it only exposes shady business ties it’s entirely worth pursuing. But given what we know about Trump’s personality, what’s in the public record, and what’s been leaked by forces with reasons to despise him, Occam’s razor still suggests that shadiness is all we’ll find, and that Trump is lashing out childishly not out of guilt but because that’s simply what he does - whether the target is Ted Cruz’s family or Judge Curiel, the Khan family or now Comey.
Childish behavior can still lead to abuses of power, of which the Comey firing will not be the last. But liberals need to accept that the strongest case for removing Trump from office is likely to remain a 25th Amendment case: not high crimes and misdemeanors, not collusion with the Russians, but a basic mental unfitness for the office that manifests itself in made-for-TV crises and self-inflicted wounds.
And since a 25th Amendment solution would require Republican leaders, beginning with Mike Pence, to not only go along with his removal but take the lead in instigating it, it’s about as realistic as was the idea that those same leaders would somehow intervene against Trump at the Republican convention. Pence, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell - these men made their peace with Trump’s unfitness long ago. It will take more than further proof of that unfitness to make them move against him now.
This week reminded us why Donald Trump should not be the president of the United States. But if you wish to remove him, think on 2020. The rest, for now, is noise.