Two major things happened in U.S. politics this week:
- President Trump nominated a new Supreme Court justice, Brett Kavanaugh, who could tilt the court to the right for years to come.
- President Trump tore through Europe like a bull in a china shop, attacking both Germany and British Prime Minister Theresa May — and, in the estimation of some, threatening the very existence of the Western alliance.
These two things are inextricably tied.
Trump has become more powerful in his own party — and by extension, the country — thanks to his power to reshape what is arguably the country’s most important branch of government. That power seems to have redoubled his insistence upon shaking up long-standing alliances across the Atlantic. And even if it wasn’t a strategic decision on his part, it does reduce the likelihood that any Republican will truly stand in his way.
Whatever Trump’s overall approval rating is, his power derives from the fact that Republicans control Congress and that the GOP base is almost completely — and passionately — behind him. GOP members of Congress who have clearly been taken aback by Trump’s behavior and are wary of his flirtation with Russian President Vladimir Putin have been muted by the simple fact that criticizing Trump comes with massive personal and political costs. It’s why Trump’s biggest critics are almost uniformly those who are retiring or don’t have to face voters again.
The moment Justice Anthony M. Kennedy retired was arguably the moment that the GOP’s brand bargain with Trump truly paid off. Suddenly, a solid 5-to-4 conservative majority on the court became likely. Suddenly, all those blind eyes that were turned and all those halfhearted statements about Trump’s actions were easier to justify. If you’re a conservative, it’s easy to convince yourself that Trump’s presidency will wind up being a net positive, barring some huge disaster. And it’s probably possible to dismiss all of these events in Europe as an unimportant sideshow — the ramblings of a man with basically no diplomatic pedigree.
But what if it’s not?
Whatever his ultimate aims, Trump will always flirt with upheaval. And this week, that came in the form of saying Germany was “totally controlled” by Russia and denouncing May’s “soft Brexit” strategy. He even suggested that she disregarded his political advice. Both comments drove wedges through already divisive situations — Germany’s agreement to build a pipeline to Russia was already a sore spot within NATO, and May is fighting for survival as Brexit-related officials resign — and Trump seems intent on exacerbating them. Beyond that, he’s just launched a trade war with both China and Western allies in the European Union and North America.
The GOP response, save for retiring Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and somewhat from Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), has been almost completely muted. And while most of the GOP supported a resolution critical of Trump’s tariffs, it was a purely symbolic and toothless move.
It was easy to see the strategy behind Trump’s NATO comments; Trump, after all, was trying to get other countries to chip in more to the common defense. But the comments in Britain are much more difficult to place in that context. Maybe Trump is trying to help his ally Boris Johnson in a bid to replace May. Maybe he’s just doubling down on his nationalist, anti-immigrant policies.
Or, as more and more are suggesting, maybe he’s seriously trying to undo the United States’ most important and long-standing alliances with Western countries. Perhaps this is the culmination of Trump’s gradual move toward a more isolationist or even pro-Russian stance. It’s becoming harder and harder to dismiss that possibility.
But thus far we’ve basically heard crickets from Republicans. And critics of this approach probably shouldn’t hold their breath, given what’s happened domestically in recent weeks.