Incapacity in the chief executive is not a new thing in American history. James Garfield spent half his short presidency dying slowly from a gunshot wound. Richard Nixon’s condition in his final days was dire enough that his secretary of defense effectively cut him out of the nuclear chain of command. Woodrow Wilson’s stroke and his wife’s influence thereafter produced the immortal — if, of course, highly #problematic — complaint from one of Wilson’s senatorial critics that “we have a petticoat government! ... Mrs. Wilson is president!”
What’s different about Donald Trump is that his inability to handle the weight and responsibility of his office is not something that crept up gradually, not something imposed by an assassin’s bullet or a stroke or a late-in-the-presidency crisis. Instead it’s been a defining feature of his administration from Day 1 — and indeed was obvious during the campaign that elected him.
This means that the president’s unfitness is not really a Harvey Weinstein-style “open secret,” an awful reality known to insiders but kept from hoi polloi, as The Atlantic’s James Fallows suggested this week amid the mania over Michael Wolff’s gonzo inside-the-White-House book. Indeed, it’s not any kind of secret: Even if it’s considered politically unwise for prominent Republicans to mention it, anyone who reads the papers (this one especially) knows that some combination of Trump’s personality and temperament and advancing age leave him constantly undone by the obligations of the presidency.
In a column early in his tempestuous first year, I suggested that this obvious fact potentially justified the invocation of the 25th Amendment, which permits a president’s Cabinet in consultation with the legislative branch to remove him from the White House.
The material in Wolff’s book provides more grist for that argument; the book may be dubious in some particulars but as the consummate insiders Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen wrote Thursday, the parts about Trump’s capabilities and mental state “ring unambiguously true.” (And again, one does not need to be a well-sourced insider to recognize this fact; one need only have access to the president’s own Twitter feed.)
But Op-Ed provocations notwithstanding, the 25th Amendment option isn’t happening — not without some major presidential deterioration in the midst of a major crisis, and probably not even then. And while I blame Republicans for a thousand things that brought us to this pass, it’s too extreme to blame them for not pursuing an option that’s never been tried before, against a president who was recently and (yes) legitimately elected, especially when that option requires extraordinary coordination across the legislative and executive branches and could easily fail ... with God-only-knows what kind of consequences.
So unless Robert Mueller has more goods than I expect, we are going to live for the next few years in the way that America lived during the waning days of Nixon, the end of the Wilson administration, and perhaps at other moments known only to presidential inner circles — with our own equivalent of the petticoat government, which in this case includes military uniforms, dress suits and whatever outfits Ivanka and Kellyanne Conway favor (but not, any longer, the layering of collared shirts perfected by Steve Bannon).
Which means the central question of these years is not a normal policy question, or even the abnormal sort that the Resistance and other fascism-fearers expect to face. The idea of a right-populist agenda died with Bannon’s exit from the White House, the standard-issue GOP agenda has little left after the tax cuts, and Trump’s authoritarian impulses, while genuine, seem unlikely to produce even aggrandizement on the scale of past presidents from FDR to Nixon, because he has no competence to execute on them.
Rather, the big question is organizational, managerial, and psychological: Can the people who surround Donald Trump work around his incapacity successfully enough to keep his unfitness from producing a historic calamity?
They have done so for a year, with some debacles (Puerto Rico) but also some genuine successes (the defeat of the Islamic State). People may laugh at Wolff’s assertion that “the men and women of the West Wing, for all that the media was ridiculing them, actually felt they had a responsibility to the country,” and for some figures (perhaps especially in the press office) the laughter will be justified. But for others the work has been necessary and important, and the achievement of relative stability a genuine service to the United States.
Can it continue in the face of some greater crisis than Trump has yet confronted? Can it continue if the Democrats take a share of power or if the president’s own family faces legal jeopardy? Is the American system more able to correct for presidential incapacity than some of us have feared?
The past year has given us some reason to think the answer to the last question might be “yes.” May the new year give us more, because our president’s chaotic mind isn’t going anywhere.
Ross Douthat joined The New York Times as an Op-Ed columnist in April 2009. Previously, he was a senior editor at The Atlantic.