So far, Donald Trump is on his way to being merely a bad president rather than the worst. (That could change; please, Fates, do not pounce.) Yet I doubt any president has had more people saying, only months in, “This guy’s gotta go.” I admit I’m often one of those people myself, even though I consider Trump’s proven misdeeds to be technically minor so far. A small but growing number of people on the right are calling for Trump’s removal, too. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has called for Republicans to launch a palace coup against the president, and American Conservative writer Rod Dreher has suggested that Congress impeach Trump “to protect the integrity of our constitutional order.” Even Trump supporters have sometimes hinted at frayed patience, watching their agenda slip away over yet another “modern day presidential” tweet.
What we’re learning, it seems, is how much propriety, even in purely ritualistic form, matters in a president. What some of us (like this writer) are struggling with is the question of whether an absence of sobriety can ever justify something so drastic as premature removal from office.
As absurd as it may be only months into a presidency, impeachment is already getting lots of attention, and it’s as much because of unhinged tweeting as it is because of policy. Last weekend, thousands of Americans took to the streets to demand Congress take action. California Democrat Brad Sherman has written a proposed article of impeachment. Maryland Democrat Jamie Raskin has rounded up 25 congressional colleagues to support a presidential “oversight” commission that would monitor the commander-in-chief for soundness of body and mind. “I assume every human being is allowed one or two errant and seemingly deranged tweets,” Raskin told Yahoo News. “The question is whether you have a sustained pattern of behavior that indicates something is seriously wrong.”
Officially, of course, collusion with Moscow or obstruction of justice is the reason we’re supposed to want to go after Donald Trump. But allegations of outright criminality are far ahead of what the evidence permits so far. Certainly, like other bad presidents, Trump has made some horrible policy choices, including ramping up tensions with Iran, proposing to put health coverage out of reach for millions of Americans, withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, and doing Saudi Arabia’s bidding in the Middle East, to name a few. But crimes? No. Nothing has been close to proven, at least, and we can’t reasonably call for impeachment based on suspicions.
Even if it turns out that a G.O.P. operative contacted Russian hackers (in vain) to get ahold of the deleted e-mails of Hillary Clinton, such a sin seems minor in comparison to that of, say, launching a war based on false assurances (hello, George W. Bush) or of violating an arms embargo to sell missiles to Iran and diverting the profits to a Central American guerrilla group (please stand, Ronald Reagan). Perhaps it’s worse than directing hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to fraudulent plaintiffs in what appears to have been a crude effort at vote buying (don’t be shy, Barack Obama), but it’s still debatable whether it’d put Trump in a league of his own. It grates especially on the soul—my soul, at least—to hear pious denunciations of Trump from the same people who served with Dubya as the U.S. established an archipelago of dark sites in which captives were tortured, sometimes to death. You’re going to talk about character?
But, still, they have a point. When Trump tweeted that Mika Brzezinski was bleeding from a facelift, people joked that it was the end of civilization—and it wasn’t entirely a joke. For many Americans, this author included, it prompted another round of “This guy’s gotta go.” And that in turn raises the question of why. Why should style ever matter more than substance? Selling arms to Saudi Arabia is a matter of life and death—mostly death—for thousands of innocent people, but no one would suggest Trump be impeached over it. By contrast, tweets about Mika Brzezinski hurt barely anyone apart from Mika Brzezinski, and yet they left everyone disgusted and spooked.
The only answer I can come up with turns out to be painfully conservative. I say “painfully” not because there’s anything wrong with conservatism per se but because, if Trump got anything right about our times, it was that we’d come to a radical moment. Bernie Sanders picked up on the same thing. Many Americans, whether on the left or right, didn’t just want a few adjustments but a re-examination of fundamentals. Trump’s willingness to scandalize the garden party was proof of his willingness to take on this task. Somebody needed to throw a few teacakes at the guests, and conservatives don’t do that. But Trump never moved on from there. He just stuck around to throw everything else. Instead of conforming to the dignity of the office while rebelling against the establishment, he’s largely conformed to the policies of the establishment while rebelling against his office.
Normal heads of state either possess many of the traditional Roman virtues—a trip to Google reminded me of some favorites: gravitas, veritas, humanitas, frugalitas, pietas, severitas, salubritas—or at least try to fake them. Donald Trump exhibits almost none of them, ever. He can just barely pull off a joint appearance with a visiting dignitary before the limits of his self-control kick in and he’s back to being himself. That’s alarming. Whether in ancient Rome or ancient China, nothing portended calamity like an emperor who flouted the formalities.
Yes, Donald Trump loves his country, and perhaps to that extent offers a favorable contrast to a tiny but vocal god-damn-America cohort that unfairly but inescapably tarnishes the brand of his opposition. But he loves it in the manner of someone who thanks you effusively for the gift of a Rodin statue and then uses it as a doorstop. What Trump says and does is often funny—hilarious, even—but mainly because it violates our sense of sacredness and decency. We’re reminded almost daily that iconoclasm is one of humor’s great wellsprings, but when it comes from our head of state, the laughter is mighty bitter. Caligula was funny, too.
And so it is that people think seriously about palace coups or impeachment—are forced to think about it—even as most liberals would generally prefer Trump’s policies to those of Mike Pence, and some of us would rank his worst sins much lower than those of several presidents who appear on our legal tender. As it turns out, we’re far more tolerant of constitutional subversion than of outright insurrection, and perhaps for legitimate reasons. Nibbling away at constitutional norms is terrible, and presidents from both parties have done it, but the very threads of civilization feel at risk when our head of state flouts the few formalities that we have. We need what Confucius called “the rites.” We want our judges in robes, not T-shirts and shorts. And we want an emperor who can handle what might be the most important requirement of the job: to keep up appearances.
If Trump is impeached, we’ll tell ourselves it’s for breaches of the law. But the truth is it’s going to be for breaches of decorum. And it’s getting harder and harder to dismiss the thought that that may be cause enough.