It’s Mueller Time | The New Yorker
Late last year, Vintage Books reissued “Night of Camp David,” a political thriller from 1965 that seemed to rhyme with the strangeness of our era. The novel centers on a Commander-in-Chief named Mark Hollenbach, who is gradually coming unwound. President Hollenbach is in the habit of summoning confidants to his cabin in the Maryland woods, where, at night, he turns off the lights and rants until dawn about the conspirators encircling him. He rails against pernicious legislators, disloyal appointees, and craven reporters. For no coherent reason, he intends to distance the United States from Western European allies and make common cause with a Kremlin leader named Zuchek. He also wants to tap every telephone in the country, declaring, “No respectable citizen would have a thing to fear. It’s the hoodlums, the punks, the syndicate killers, and the dope peddlers we’re after.” Lacking Twitter, he writes deranged letters. One key character is a Supreme Court Justice by the name of Cavanaugh. The marketers at Vintage shrewdly wrapped the reissue in a black-and-white cover emblazoned with a question intended to play upon the country’s collective jitters: “What Would Happen if the President of the U.S.A. Went Stark-Raving Mad?”
The author, Fletcher Knebel, wrote a popular syndicated column in the nineteen-fifties and early sixties, called “Potomac Fever,” before turning full time to fiction. “Night of Camp David” was published the same year that Congress passed the Twenty-fifth Amendment, which clarified the procedure for removing a President who is no longer able to carry out his duties. Half a century later, Potomac Fever has reached new heights; for the past two years and two months, it has been hard not to think periodically about that crucial addition to the Constitution.
The Trump Presidency has, from the first, represented a threat to truth, liberal democracy, and the rule of law. Donald Trump’s contempt for basic norms of governance is accompanied by a lack of decency, empathy, and psychological stability. This was never more evident than this week, when Trump, seemingly rattled by the imminence of the Mueller report, set off a fusillade of unhinged tweets, called the spouse of one of his senior advisers a “whack job,” raged about the late Senator John McCain in front of a military audience at a tank plant in Lima, Ohio, and pronounced the Democratic Party “anti-Jewish,” deepening, at every turn, the impression that he is unfit for government work.
The perils of such instability are incalculable. Sidney Karper, the wizened Defense Secretary in “Night of Camp David,” says of Hollenbach, “It is sheer folly to have that man anywhere near the command and control machinery.” In the novel, a self-appointed council of party leaders, Supreme Court Justices, and members of the security establishment secretly deliberates on how to deal with the delusional President, and catastrophe is averted. Hollenbach coöperates in his own removal from office, and, in the end, he is deemed to have “the finest heart in America.”
Current realities offer no such reassurance. Trump has the psyche of an emotionally damaged toddler. You hear this not only from his ideological opponents but from countless departing confidants, lawyers, and advisers. He is devoted not to public service but to feeding the demands of his ego and his appetites.
The pressures on Trump will inevitably increase now that the Mueller report has been delivered to the Attorney General. Meanwhile, a raft of investigators on various congressional committees and in outposts of the Justice Department are accelerating their searches into matters including hush-money payments, money laundering, irregular security clearances, foreign interference in the 2016 election, illegal use of inaugural funds, and improper use of foundation money. And yet it is impossible to imagine Trump changing his behavior. He retains the support of the Republican leadership; the odds of his completing his term are considerable. Trump’s affinity for the autocratic likes of Rodrigo Duterte, Mohammed bin Salman, Jair Bolsonaro, and Vladimir Putin suggests that he might refuse—as his former satrap and attorney Michael Cohen warned he would—to give up power without trying to undermine the legitimacy of the American political system. What’s more, given Trump’s skills in the dark arts of campaigning and the general public satisfaction with the economy, no matter its inequities or vulnerabilities, it would be foolhardy to discount his chance of winning reëlection.
The emergency that the Trump Presidency represents leaves the Democratic Party’s cast of candidates with a singular responsibility—to win the election—and two colossal reclamation projects. The first involves the environment. Presidential debates in past elections have largely ignored the costs of climate change. But public opinion on the topic is moving, and there is cause for at least some political optimism in the fact that many Democrats have gotten behind the idea of a New Deal-scale effort to address the issue. Candidates who can best give shape to that impulse and find a plausible way to make it a legislative reality deserve the most urgent attention.
The second reclamation concerns Trumpism. Somehow, sometime, Trump will leave the political stage; but the moral and material corruption he has inflicted will be with us for a long while. Who has the vision and the language to confront xenophobia and white-supremacist ideology? Who has the dexterity and the pragmatism to enact reforms on voting rights, health care, immigration, mass incarceration, and campaign finance, and so strengthen a stressed democracy? Who has the political acumen to argue for policies adequate to resolve our crises and, at the same time, to win back the millions of voters who cast a ballot for Barack Obama and then shifted to Trump?
Trump will be dropping loaded hooks in the water every day, but Democratic candidates ought not take his bait. He’ll use “socialism,” “Jexodus,” or whatever comes to mind as a means of distraction and division. It is perfectly legitimate to test the candidates and their potential weaknesses: Are Biden and Warren and Sanders too old? Is Beto O’Rourke the second coming of Robert Kennedy, or does he just look like him when you squint? And so on. But the kind of serious campaigns and debates that are never found in political novels are precisely what’s now required. ♦