There’s a hint or two that Trump Derangement Syndrome, or TDS, which has so savaged the chattering class, may be subsiding, if only a little. There’s no cure for TDS, but the passion that drives it eventually exhausts the afflicted.
The nut beat goes on for now, to be sure. Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota, who was exiled from “Saturday Night Live” in his gorilla suit, sounds as if he’s still on his meds. He cites Republican voices in his head telling him that President Trump must be crazy. Meryl Streep, the last of the authentic Hollywood movie stars, says she is pursued by “armies of brownshirts and ‘bots and worse” for her overheated criticism of the president. But actresses are trained to read words written for them, so it’s not entirely fair to hold her responsible when she goes off-script and tries saying things on her own.
Nevertheless, Trump Derangement Syndrome, which looked for a while to be an unstoppable epidemic, like something from the Ebola River valley, may be edging toward remission in certain quarters. Bad hair days for the White House are coming, of course; such days eventually afflict every White House. One or two may be already be here, and these will distract the chattering class from obsessing solely on Donald Trump.
The rap on the Donald, some of it rhymed and some of it not, is not only that he’s nuts but that he hasn’t yet been in the Oval Office for a month and his administration is already in disarray. He can’t keep his Cabinet in line and his senior aides are squabbling in public with each other, and taking shots at his tweets and his unorthodox way of conducting business.
But some president watchers are beginning to think it’s the Donald who’s the sophisticated original, that his detractors are so stuck in the ruts of the old way that they can’t see what’s really going on. He has staffed his Cabinet with capable men and women in whom he has confidence and unlike most presidents, he does not demand that they speak only in talking points written, poll-tested and polished at the White House. “I want them to speak their minds,” he tweeted the other day, “and express their own thoughts, not mine!”
Unorthodox it may be, but he is setting no precedent in presidential strategy. Such freedom of speech for senior officials and aides is not new; presidents, beginning with George Washington, encouraged it before him. Washington surrounded himself with strong-minded, strong-willed men and let them off the leash, beginning with John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
He learned the limitations of autocratic rule by watching British senior officers in the French and Indian War, and noticed that fractious and independent American military leaders were frequently called on to speak to the moment and the problem at hand. He realized that he needed something new for the army fighting the American Revolution.
“This led Washington to devise a new form of war council,” Chris DeMuth of the Hudson Institute writes in The Wall Street Journal. “Instead of handing down battlefield assignments, [he] was devoted to hearing out impassioned arguments over strategy and tactics among officers of distinct backgrounds and inclinations. Washington listened and asked probing questions. When he made his eventual decision, everyone understood why, and knew that it took full account of the risks and uncertainties that their deliberations had revealed.”
When he became president he extended his “war council” to domestic political warfare. Washington’s carefully calculated aloofness, observes Chris DeMuth, “permitted opinion to mature in Congress and the states, allowed new coalitions to form, and led to serviceable compromises on what had been impossibly divisive problems.”
Later presidents reveled in what the pundits are eager to call disarray, but what probably was not disarray at all. Neither Lincoln nor FDR were constrained by ideology. Lincoln encouraged aggressive disagreement even in time of a war that early on was not going well at all. “My policy,” he said, “is to have no policy.”
Roosevelt, who sometimes shifted right and sometimes left, was secretive and manipulative and liked to pull surprises. He enjoyed keeping his staff and the public guessing.
Donald Trump does, too. In fact, the rigid ideologues in the modern White House were usually Democrats. Jimmy Carter, perhaps from his experience in the Navy, did not like controversy. Barack Obama, as columnist George Will observed, “never learned anything from anyone with whom he disagreed.”
Donald Trump seems comfortable with controversy, dissent and even with something outrageous. His skepticism of nearly everything but his own ego leads him into the high weeds, but his talent for spreading outrage distracts the opposition. If he’s crazy, as some Democrats insist, it might be the craziness of a fox.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.