Witcover: Two parties and a president, all at sea

Members of the President's Committee on Arts and the Humanities, all holdovers from President Barack Obama, condemned President Donald Trump's handling of violence in Charlottesville, Va., as 16 of 17 resigned.

The latest breakdown in American law and order, seen in the Charlottesville, Va., street violence, parallels a broader political breakdown in the country. The two major parties are simultaneously struggling to restore their traditional roles in our democratic system under an outsider president who pays only lip service to its basic tenets.

President Trump in his first seven months has treated his lofty office as a personal playground. He is trying to run it as if it were another business operation, tightly controlled for personal profit and self-aggrandizement much like his real estate and branding empire.


The customary moderating influence of the parties on the president's words and behavior has been pretty much muted or ignored. Mr. Trump basically disregards the Democrats as enemies and yet has no political or ideological allegiance to his fellow Republicans.

Indeed, he generally displayed either indifference or contempt toward the latter as weak and ineffective rivals in the 2016 primary elections, in which he easily disposed of them.

His disregard for many aspects of the Constitution and the other governmental branches has been well demonstrated, from his offhanded dismissal of the emoluments clause barring foreign gifts and attachments to his scorn for judicial and legislative oversight.

The Charlottesville episode has moved several Republican senators to speak out against Mr. Trump's tardiness in condemning the white supremacist movement by name.

Also, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, now apparently back in the president's nominally good graces, has announced a federal civil rights investigation into the death of one onlooker and the injury of 20 others in the intentional car crash into random demonstrators.

Meanwhile, the Washington's summer recess drags on, amid continuing nervousness over the North Korean threat of a nuclear showdown with the U.S. and the investigation into Russia's meddling in our election. There is a growing sense that the wheels are coming off not only the Trump administration but off our whole political process as well.

The disintegration of Republican Party cohesion under the chaotic and erratic Trump presidency leaves it in current confusion and concern over its unpredictable future, even for a year or two down the road. How long will Mr. Trump survive, and what happens if he doesn't?

As for the Democrats, they continue to bear the scars of the Hillary Clinton campaign debacle, with no apparent heir to the presidential nomination in sight. While most of the party activists struggle to salvage Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act in some form, Sen. Bernie Sanders continues to push for a single-payer plan in the Canadian mode.

But as Mr. Sanders and his disciples preach "revolution," it appears most Democrats would settle now for "restoration" of a predictably more moderate progressivism under a newer face, also not yet in sight.

So, for now, the political story line here in the nation's capital seems destined to remain that of a country locked into a riddle inside the enigma of Donald J. Trump, flying by the seat of his pants in a job conspicuously beyond his capabilities for selfless public service.

From the start of the Trump administration, the absence of compromise between the parties has blocked any real legislative progress. The new president is committed to a my-way-or-the-highway game plan in dealing with both Democrats and Republicans.

At the same time, Mr. Trump is at war with his own Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, for failing to repeal or replace Obamacare, which in turn has exposed Mr. Trump's deficit of presidential clout to achieve that prime goal.

Meanwhile, American foreign policy has gone to hell in a handbasket under a woefully inexperienced and unprepared president, a high-powered oil executive as his secretary of state, and an understaffed diplomatic corps.

Instead, Mr. Trump packed his Cabinet with military men brought aboard to provide the discipline he himself lacks in a so-far failed effort to convey a sense of order and cautious purpose — the qualities the Republican Party often claimed for itself in the presidencies of Eisenhower, Reagan, the two Bushes and even Nixon.


Seldom has the Washington political scene seemed so dismal and dysfunctional as it does right now.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is