One measure of the despair caused by Mr. Trump’s behavior is that we find ourselves strangely comforted by things that in any normal presidency would be cause for concern. One of these is the sheer incompetence that this president has displayed. Apart from threatening environmental, safety and financial protections with largely unfulfilled executive orders, a demonstrably cruel deportation policy, and lamentable court appointments, the worst of Mr. Trump’s plans have thankfully faltered, like destroying the Affordable Care Act, while others are nowhere in sight.
Here is yet another oddity, another upending of traditional expectations. Americans accustomed constitutionally and politically to civilian leadership now find themselves relying on three current and former generals — John Kelly, the new White House chief of staff; H. R. McMaster, the national security adviser; and Jim Mattis, the secretary of defense — to stop Mr. Trump from going completely off the rails.
Experienced and educated, well-versed in the terrible costs of global confrontation and driven by an impulse toward public service that Mr. Trump doesn’t possess, these three, it is hoped, can counter his worst instincts. This is at best a weak reed, though, given the training of military leaders to follow the lead of the commander-in-chief and Mr. Trump’s tendency to confuse criticism with “disloyalty.” And the idea of three military men at the top of strategic policy making gives further pause at a time when the State Department has been robbed of expertise and traditional diplomacy has been marginalized.
Some people, optimists in our view, believe that Mr. Trump’s worst instincts can be controlled or at least moderated after the exit on Friday of one of the White House’s darker forces, Stephen Bannon. Mr. Bannon doubtless reinforced and gave bogus intellectual cover to Mr. Trump’s cramped views on immigration and race, but his influence appears to have been fading, by order of Mr. Kelly, and in any case his departure does not solve the main problem, which is Mr. Trump himself.
There are some signs that our democratic system is working to contain Mr. Trump. The failure of his efforts to deprive millions of Americans of health care coverage, the continuing investigation of his administration by the F.B.I., court challenges to his immigration and environmental edicts, and a new willingness by self-interested allies to desert him all suggest he is not immune to the forces that have felled bad presidents before him.
Is it fair to place any hope in the Republican Party, in particular its congressional leadership? For reasons of ineptitude and ideological complicity, the party’s leaders did almost nothing to counter the Trump phenomenon, nor did they seek in any sustained fashion to temper his worst excesses, beginning with his false claims about President Barack Obama’s birth and proceeding onward through his demagogic Inaugural Address.
It thus seems beyond unlikely that Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, or Paul Ryan, the weak-kneed speaker of the House, would entertain any thought of strong action, like censure. But it’s fair to ask: Purely as a matter of political self-preservation, wouldn’t a concerted effort to drag Mr. Trump away from the fringes make sense? His approval ratings are drifting south of 35 percent while he continues to romance the fewer than one-quarter of Americans who say they can’t think of anything he could do to shake their support. Heading into an election year, is that where Mr. McConnell and Mr. Ryan want to be?
The deeper question, to Mr. Trump’s remaining supporters, is not political but moral. It is whether they will continue to follow a standard-bearer who is alienating most of the country by embracing extremists. Yes, other Republican leaders, while claiming the mantle of Abraham Lincoln, have subtly and not so subtly courted bigots since the days of Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy.” But Mr. Trump has now made that subtext his text. Last week, he stripped away the pretense and the camouflage. In deciding to split Americans apart rather than draw them together, he abandoned the legacy of Lincoln for the legacy of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis. He chose to summon not America’s better angels, but its demons.