The feverish tweets of President Donald Trump are now so familiar they’ve become background noise. Yet if we pay attention to the literal meaning of his words, they are often startling. Last Thursday, he tweeted:
Trump is accusing “the top ranks” of the FBI of corruption, an outburst that would cause controversy for any other president but now barely rates a yawn. But Trump’s rhetoric is an important clue as to how he plans to steer his way through the scandals that plague his administration, particularly the slow-dripping revelations from special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia inquiry.
“Trump’s language is getting darker and more ominous, suggesting the FBI’s activities during the 2016 elections were ‘bigger than Watergate,’ and yesterday claiming a ‘criminal deep state’ conspiracy to get him,” Mike Allen wrote in Axios. “We might be numb to so many attacks on so many groups so often that it obscures how President Trump has torched virtually every institution that could one day hold him accountable.”
Allen provided a daunting list of targets of Trump’s recent attacks: Mueller, the special counsel’s prosecutors, the media, the Justice Department, the FBI, the intelligence community, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, New York state investigators and prosecutors, Democrats on intelligence committees, and unreliable GOP senators. The commonality of the targets is that they are all people or institutions that could check his power.
Trump’s strategy on tearing down institutions might well work, especially given the support he has among congressional Republicans. As journalist Charles Pierce argues in Esquire, “This president is willing to pull the temple down on his own head, and the Republicans are willing to compliment him on his renovation.”
With his reference to pulling the temple down, Pierce is alluding to the Biblical hero Samson. It’s an apt analogy, as Trump has practiced his own version of the Samson Option, coercing consent by threatening to annihilate everyone around him in addition to himself.
Trump’s “torch-it-all strategy,” as Allen calls it, is a return to form for the man who, as a presidential candidate, defeated his rivals with political nihilism. Unlike career politicians, he wasn’t bound to his political party by a shared ideology or web of social connections. He might have had hidden financial debts, but in political terms he was not beholden to anyone in the GOP and, unlike other politicians, didn’t have to worry the costs of alienating the party.
In short, Trump had nothing to lose, so he was willing to say anything to win, ranging from petty insults (“Little Marco”) to bizarre conspiracy theories (like the claim Ted Cruz’s father was connected to the assassination of John F. Kennedy) to ideologically heterodox statements (saying George W. Bush lied about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction).
Trump had the freedom to tell the GOP that they had to give him what he wanted, or he would destroy them. And there was no way he could be disciplined. Whenever the party tried to rein him in, he just threatened to run as a third-party candidate, effectively dooming the GOP. As he reportedly told a friend early in his presidential run, “If I’m going down, then [Jeb] Bush is going down with me. He’s not going to be president of the United States.”
This was a perfect expression of Trump’s Samsonian attitude, which has continued as president. What are his rants about the Deep State and the FBI but an assertion that if he is challenged, he’ll happily tarnish and discredit the institutions of government? As Allen contends, this strategy has had some effect since the reputation of the institutions Trump has attacked have “been diminished, at least among Republicans, by the president’s use of this tactic.”
Trump is unique in American politics in having no real institutional, ideological or partisan loyalty. He’s really out for himself, which makes his threats to bring down American institutions all too plausible. This is one of the key traits that distinguishes him from another scandal-plagued Republican president to whom he’s often compared: Richard Nixon. While Nixon was also willing to attack his enemies’ “witch hunt,” ultimately he was enough of a party man to realize that his fate was tied to the GOP. Once the Republican Congress turned against him in 1974, Nixon resigned.
There is little reason to think Trump would emulate Nixon in making a gracious exit. Quite the reverse.
Nixon was motivated by the fact that he could’ve lost his government pension if he was impeached and removed from office. For Trump, such a pension would be a minor consideration since he can make much more money through his brand, which would be best preserved by fighting as hard as possible so he keeps the loyalty of his most enthusiastic supporters. Maintaining that loyalty doesn’t require him to respect the Republican Party or the institutions of government. Rather, Trump’s brand will flourish as he further rebels against the establishment.
Because of Trump’s commitment to the Samson Option, the norm-breaking we’ve seen is only the beginning. The deeper he sinks in scandal, the more mud Trump will sling. He may well pull the temple down on himself and those around him, shouting, “Let me die with the Washingtonians!”