As the Trump administration lurches toward its second anniversary, a pro-Trump narrative has emerged that, “This is what having a president who is nontraditional looks like.” In context, however, “nontraditional” is a euphemism for governing in the absurd, and it likens Trump’s presidency to Samuel Beckett’s famed absurdist play “Waiting for Godot.”
In “Waiting for Godot,” the characters Vladimir and Estragon wait every day for the arrival of someone named Godot. Day after day they wait, assured that Godot is coming soon, but he never arrives.
Our nation now collectively waits for the Godot presidency. We wait for Trump to act with dignity and character. We wait for him to treat the office of the presidency with respect. We wait for a return to normalcy.
But just as Godot never comes, it’s time for the nation to realize Trump will never become the president the nation needs him to be.
Two years in, despite what the “nontraditional” moniker implies, President Trump is not a transformative figure in American political life. He is merely a disruptive figure. The courts, Robert Mueller and now a Democrat-controlled House have sufficiently checked Trump’s most nontraditional, or outright illegal, impulses and actions.
Trump is non-transformative because he is not creating strategic opportunity or new paradigms from the whole-cloth challenges before him. His policy choices seek only to reframe American ideals in his own narcissistic image, which too often embraces racist, isolationist and autocratic notions.
Arguments Trump possesses a core competency as president are themselves absurd. After two years, he has time and again proven he is without interest in fully comprehending geopolitical complexity or issues contrary to his base. His transactional view of the presidency itself has produced only politically adroit slogans (“America First” and the ubiquitous “MAGA”) where principled policy objectives, strategies and tactics were required to truly advance American interests both domestically and abroad.
Yet, Trump’s personal mastery of divisive political populism comes without a trace of competency to govern. Trump’s failure to understand the fundamentals of governing America, or leading the world, precludes reshaping either and only leaves rogue nations free to impose in their own interests.
Lack of character aside, governing is Trump’s personal Achilles’ heel, as well as his administration’s. The manifestations of the Trump administration’s spectacular incompetency are legion: From overtly unconstitutional policy role outs, including the initial “Muslim Ban,” to embarrassingly corrupt Cabinet officials; to the subjugation of America’s foreign policy to the most despotic of the world’s authoritarian regimes; to three chiefs of staff, three national security advisers, three attorney generals, two defense secretaries; as well as to the explosion of the federal debt and deficit, which were ironically insufficient to keep either his government open or build his odious border wall.
Two years in, Trump is causing great damage to the presidency and confidence in American institutions, however. That, too, is sadly undeniable. But, Trump is damaging them in the same way a major hurricane decimates, but does not reshape, the coast upon which it lands.
Still, the damage is immense. Trump’s America willingly sacrifices American honor. It is one that ignores human rights. It surrenders American strategic positions throughout the world and abandons our most steadfast allies — sometimes while they remain on the battlefield — for little more than a tyrant’s whispered promise in the course of saying “nice things” to him on the phone.
For the Trump era to have meaning, it must be this generation’s stress test of our democracy. Thomas Jefferson foresaw that Americans would be prone to such periodic stress tests. “God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion. The people cannot be all, & always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty.”
In the modern era Vietnam, Watergate, the Clinton impeachment, the Iraq War, the Great Recession and now Trump all stressed the American system in substantial, if not existential ways. But in each instance, American institutions, and most notably our faith in equal justice under the law, proved a steadfast bulwark against the chaos of the times.
As markets roil, fearful of his mercurial whims, another option beacons beyond waiting for Godot. With American democracy imperiled, Republicans must act in her defense, as the time for lethargically awaiting a savior tomorrow is at an end.