If your puppy makes a mess on your carpet and you shout “Bad dog,” the puppy’s ears will droop, his head will bow and he may even whimper. Even a puppy acts ashamed when caught misbehaving. That is not true of Donald Trump. We’ve never had a president with no shame — and it’s become a huge source of power for him and trouble for us.
What makes Trump even more powerful and problematic is that this president with no shame is combined with a party with no spine and a major network with no integrity — save for a few real journalists at Fox News like the outstanding Chris Wallace. No one inside his party or base is going to stop Trump from being himself and doing whatever he bloody pleases.
Don’t be fooled by the last-second tut-tutting of GOP senators about Trump’s kowtowing to Vladimir Putin in Helsinki and spurning of our intelligence agencies. Until and unless the GOP-led Congress passes legislation that protects special counsel Robert Mueller, enacts into law deeper sanctions on Russia if it is ever again caught trying to tilt our elections, secures Trump’s tax returns or obtains the transcript of his private conversation with Putin, it’s all just talk to cover the GOP’s behind.
The fact that Trump’s party and his network always look for ways to excuse him has been hugely liberating for Trump. He can actually deny he said things that were recorded — like his trashing of the British prime minister. He can take one side of any issue (like trashing key NATO allies to satisfy his base) and, when he gets blowback, take the other side (claim to love the Atlantic alliance). And he can declare that he really meant to ask why “wouldn’t” Russia be the one hacking us instead of why “would” it, as he did say. If you believe that last one, I have a bridge near the Kremlin I’d love to sell you.
“Hey, give him a break,” say Trump’s supporters, “there is a method to his madness.” And that is true. What they don’t admit, though, is that there is tremendous madness to Trump’s method.
For instance, Trump is right: We do need to confront China on its trade restrictions, forced technology transfers and nonreciprocal trade arrangements. But then, look at the madness to his methods. How would you try to influence China on trade if you were thinking strategically? Not by blowing up the Trans-Pacific Partnership, blowing up relations with the EU and confronting China alone — an utterly mad method that I do not believe will produce the meaningful, sustainable trade realignment with China that we need.
And then there is the sheer madness. Threatening the UK that if it doesn’t do a full Brexit it will not get preferential trade treatment from Trump, calling the bloc a “foe” on trade, and sneering at the number of refugees it has admitted.
Where do you start? The EU is the United States of Europe — the other great center in the world of free markets, free people, liberty and democracy. It has kept the peace in Europe and its economic growth as a trading partner has made both America and the EU steadily richer and more stable. It is sheer madness to believe that it is in U.S. interests to see the European Union fracture!
The only way to change this situation is not by hoping the president develops some shame or that this version of the GOP develops some spine. It is by Democrats winning the House, the Senate or both in the midterm elections.
Only by dealing an electoral defeat to this version of the GOP in the midterms will we possibly get a healthy conservative party again (which we need) and curb Trump’s power.
Everything else is just words — and words without power change nothing.
Thomas Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.