President Trump is probably guilty and innocent, which means we are going to be stuck in this political “Groundhog Day” for at least another two years.
Trump is likely guilty of something, whether it be paying off a mistress or two in possible violation of campaign finance laws, tax shenanigans, or something else. Many of his associates, from his former campaign manager to his lawyer, were certainly crooks. Trump may even be indicted (although it is arguable that the payoffs were not a crime, and the Department of Justice considers sitting presidents immune from prosecution).
Regardless, it seems likely that the president is innocent of the charges that really matter: criminal collusion with Russia regarding the 2016 election.
Maybe Guilty Of Something, But We’re Not Sure What
Perhaps the Robert Mueller investigation will reveal a criminal conspiracy between Russia and Trump or evidence of other serious crimes by the president, perhaps related to his business interests. If that happens, Trump will justly be impeached by the House, and the Republican Senate should vote to convict and remove him from office. If the president engaged in a criminal conspiracy with a foreign power to influence the election, he should be booted from office. Ditto if he is revealed as guilty of other serious crimes.
But it seems unlikely that Mueller has that sort of evidence against Trump. The Trump campaign, business, and family were rife with amateurs and bunglers who were sometimes easily played by Russia (like in the infamous Trump Tower meeting), but no criminal collusion regarding the election seems to have taken place. Instead, it seems like Trump will be revealed as exactly who reasonable people thought he was: sleazy, boastful, susceptible to flattery, and not above cutting legal corners—but not a traitorous agent of a foreign power.
If so, it will be another turn of the wheel in the political “Groundhog Day” we are trapped in. Phil Connors, the arrogant weatherman played by Bill Murray in the 1993 movie, got stuck reliving Groundhog Day over and over; we, too, will be condemned to relive the same debate we have been having since 2016. Trump’s critics will point to the latest evidence of his sins, and his supporters will respond by noting that Trump was known for these sorts of sins when he was elected. Is anyone really surprised that Trump might have violated campaign finance rules by paying off a Playmate mistress?
We are repeating the same debate: how bad is too bad? The president’s detractors will judge him against the rules; his supporters will judge him against his rivals and the standards they set. One side will declare him unacceptable; the other will insist he was better than the alternative and should remain in office, an argument that will be aided by the apparent overselling of the Russia investigation.
Trump will also benefit from the Clintons’ ability to escape punishment, especially their decisive victory regarding Bill’s impeachment. Conservatives may prefer that presidents be held to high standards, but the precedent is clear: process crimes and lies about sex do not, in fact, merit removal from office.
Moral Compromises and Political Benefits
Those who despise Trump and his policies will want him gone regardless. But for those who deplore the man while celebrating at least some of his policy achievements, it is less clear. Conservatives know, as Edmund Burke did, that politics is all too often a choice between competing goods, or even between competing evils. There is no formula for calculating the acceptable ratio of moral compromise to political benefit. Such deliberations require prudence and sound judgment, which reckon with the world as it is as well as how it should be.
This truth was eloquently expressed by conservative journalist Whittaker Chambers in a letter to National Review founded and public intellectual William F. Buckley:
Those who remain in the world, if they will not surrender on its terms, must maneuver within its terms. That is what conservatives must decide: how much to give in order to survive at all; how much to give in order not to give up the basic principles. And of course that results in a dance along a precipice. Many will drop over, and, always, the cliff dancers will hear the screaming curses of those who fall, or be numbed by the sullen silence of those, nobler souls perhaps, who will not join the dance.
The Trump era may be an acute manifestation of this challenge, but the problem of balancing principle against political efficacy is perennial, and it is exacerbated by disagreement about what those principles should be. Legal conservatives, for instance, have gotten much more from Trump than deficit hawks, and therefore may be more willing to forgive many of his indiscretions.
Productive dialogue over these differences requires honesty. Those who ally with Trump should be honest about his flaws, as well as what they believe they are gaining by tolerating them. Those who oppose him should reflect on the political sacrifices that rejecting him might entail, as well as on the failures that made Trump a palatable option for so many.
Donald Trump is not an unprecedented monstrosity. His worst features are an amalgamation of the corruption and sins that were excused, tolerated, and even celebrated, both in DC and in the broader culture. This commonality of sin, combined with Trump’s knack for identifying his opponents’ weaknesses, makes it easy for him and his defenders to redirect the charges leveled at him––ignorance, incompetence, graft, sexual misconduct––back against his foes.
Is there a way out of this recursive litany of accusations and hypocrisy? Check the film. Eventually wearying of his recursive immorality, Phil tried to escape Groundhog Day by killing himself and even the groundhog. But his only way out of the long winter of the soul was repentance and regeneration. There might be a lesson in that.