If you were an all-powerful Democratic strategist out to subvert the Republican Party from the inside, you would be hard pressed to devise a more effective plan than the remarkable scene that unfolded on Wednesday afternoon in a televised meeting at the White House between the president and congressional leaders.
In the two weeks since the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida, public opinion has shifted sharply in favor of gun control, with a series of corporations breaking longstanding ties with the NRA and retailers making it more difficult to buy certain guns. That puts Republicans in a precarious position, forced by the staunchly pro-gun grassroots of the party to oppose the new regulations for which the broader electorate is clamoring.
So what did the Republican president do in front of the cameras? Instead of following the script that any halfway competent White House staffer would have laid out for him — expressing concern for victims of gun violence while holding firm against any but the most minimal infringements on the freedom of individuals to purchase whatever guns they want — Trump broke radically from his own party to embrace a series of ideas for gun regulations favored … by the other party. This came just a few days after the president repeatedly proclaimed his support for preventing school shootings by arming teachers, a far-right proposal formerly backed by few besides the most staunchly pro-NRA politicians in Washington.
Call it a vindication for Jeb Bush, who perfectly captured President Trump's political character in a pithy phrase way back in December 2015, six weeks before the start of the Republican primaries. Trump, Bush claimed, was "a chaos candidate" who would be "a chaos president."
So he was, and so he is.
This doesn't mean that Trump is entirely lacking in political talents. On the contrary, he's an intuitive genius at demagogic manipulation of certain segments of the electorate. His uncanny ability to motivate these voters are what led to his wildly implausible and absurdly narrow victory in November 2016.
He also has extremely sharp political instincts that far outstrip those possessed by many leading Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan. It's no doubt these instincts that led Trump to lurch suddenly in the direction of gun control, just as he briefly undercut his own staunchly anti-immigrant position in a televised January meeting with congressional leaders by championing a bill that would extend DACA and protect from deportation the children of parents who came to the U.S. illegally.
The irony is that Trump is right to sense that on both issues (not to mention several others) the center of public opinion overall is moving away from the position that prevails among the Republican rank and file. If he were knowledgeable enough on policy and temperamentally even keeled enough to undertake it, one could imagine Trump attempting to shift the GOP away from some of its less popular stances to affirm other views that could strength its electoral position going forward. If the effort proved successful, that would make him a truly transformative president who helped to bring about an ideological realignment of the American party system.
But of course, Trump is nowhere near knowledgeable enough on policy or temperamentally even keeled enough to pull off something of that magnitude. He's not even capable of muddling through his own presidency without doing serious damage to his own party by continually injecting it with jolts of high-voltage ideological turmoil. One day he sounds like a press release from the NRA. The next he leaves Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein with a giddy smile on her face, while also attacking the attorney general of the United States, who just so happens to be a former senator well liked by Republicans on Capitol Hill. And the day after that? He badly divides his own party by announcing the imposition of steep global tariffs on steel and aluminum.
No doubt Trump will reverse himself on guns any hour now, with his impulsive changes of position accomplishing little besides antagonizing one of the right's most powerful special interest groups — and one that until now has been extremely loyal in support of the president. Policy-wise, the end result will be the same as if hadn't gone off script — the Republican-held Congress will do nothing substantial in response to the rising tide of mass shootings. But the internal damage done to the Republican Party will be considerable, and for no good reason at all.
Supporters of the Democrats should be happy that the more disorder and confusion Trump sows in the GOP, the likelier it will be that his party gets thoroughly creamed in the upcoming midterm elections. But Americans who care about the longer-term good of the nation should also find it supremely disconcerting to see one of the country's two main parties (and the country itself) led by a man who actively spreads ideological disarray and institutional dysfunction to everything he touches. But that, apparently, is where we are.
The chaos candidate has become the chaos president. And none of us has any choice but to ride out the storm.