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Six days in May: The rise of the Banana Republican

President Donald Trump exits Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC, on May 13, 2017.
Olivier Douliery | AFP | Getty Images
President Donald Trump exits Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC, on May 13, 2017.

The president has not been in office for a year, and already there is talk of impeachment. He is a man of means, in his seventies, and accustomed to getting his way. He seems genuinely confused by the situation.

He came into office after seeing off a corrupt and venal woman — one he had once supported — promising a new beginning, a restoration, an act of national salvation in which the good of the people was finally to be given precedence over the desires of the elites.

Immediately, there was trouble. There were relationships — and payments — that didn't look quite right, and a hostile press gleefully digging into them. High government officials came forward with claims that the president had pressured them to do favors for political allies. The words "obstruction of justice" began to be spoken with some anger. There was talk of covertly recorded conversations, and federal authorities sought documents that might or might not establish presidential wrongdoing.

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Congratulations, America: You have at last, after all these years, transformed yourself into Brazil.

Nobody outside of Latin America cares very much about the prospects of Brazil's President Michel Temer being impeached, though his situation at the moment does bear more than a few parallels to that of the American president. The Brazilian president before him, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached, too. That sort of thing happens in countries such as Brazil, which achieve short-lived periods of stability and prosperity and suddenly turn astray for no obvious reason.

But the United States is not that kind of country.

Or at least it wasn't, until recently.

The situation in the United States is this: The Republican party chose as its nominee an inept and obviously unfit candidate, and the American electorate chose that candidate over Hillary Rodham Clinton, an inept, corrupt, and obviously unfit candidate. Mrs. Clinton was by 2016 a familiar figure, one who was, as P. J. O'Rourke put it, "wrong about absolutely everything, but wrong within normal parameters." The fundamental tension of the moment is between Trump's unfitness for the office and the fact that he was — and no amount of wailing about the Kremlin will change this — legitimately elected.

"Republicans who rallied to Trump are now learning that it is very difficult to steer the ship of state with one middle finger."

The Democrats, stung by the reversal of what they believed to be their candidate's inevitable ascent to the presidency, have attempted to resolve that tension by removing one of its two constituent elements: Trump's electoral legitimacy. Trump is surrounded by shady and self-serving people, but there is not any meaningful evidence that his campaign colluded with Moscow, or that such collusion, if it existed, changed the outcome of the election, which was decided by a few thousand blue-collar and middle-class voters in areas that Mrs. Clinton's campaign took for granted. This is an exercise in intellectual dishonesty and, perhaps, a coping mechanism for a party and a movement that cannot believe its standard-bearer was rejected for an atavistic George Wallace–style populist with one game show and two pornographic films on his résumé, a man capable of responding to (not unreasonable) accusations of anti-Mexican prejudice with an advertisement for Trump Tower Grill's taco bowls and a tweet reading "I love Hispanics!"

Republicans, in spite of their commanding political position, are for the moment essentially frozen. One suspects that this suits Senator Schumer just fine. Getting the schoolmarms in Minneapolis all riled up is good for fund-raising, and the Democrats have been laid so low that they do not have very much to lose.

Trump is of course incompetent, but this cannot be a surprise. During the campaign, it was obvious that he did not know, e.g., how a bill becomes a law, or what the limits of presidential power are, or how the Constitution works. He cannot staff his own administration — thousands of positions remain vacant, including a number of critically important ambassadorships — and complains that he cannot control the leaks in his administration, apparently unable to understand that it is not yet his administration and will not be until he puts his own people into office. He has a great deal of work to do.

And so he left for Saudi Arabia with Toby Keith in tow. But here's the thing: For all the risible and irresponsible cries of "Treason!" and "Obstruction of justice!" there is not really much reason to believe that Trump has done much of anything wrong — though perhaps the special counsel will learn otherwise — certainly nothing that rises to the level of a treason charge (this is ridiculous talk, but it nonetheless must be taken seriously), or the "high crimes and misdemeanors" that would lead to impeachment, or to the incapacity that would allow for his removal under the 25th Amendment. Trump does not know what he is doing, and he is not very good at this job, but there's no law against that. It is not unconstitutional to be a fool.

The doings in Washington have a distinctly tropical feel to them, and it isn't global warming. Republicans who rallied to Trump are now learning that it is very difficult to steer the ship of state with one middle finger. American institutions are very robust, and this moment's banana-republic stuff probably can be digested, provided there is not too much more of it. But there is no sign that Democrats will be satisfied with paralyzing the administration — at the grassroots, it is plain they will be satisfied with nothing less than driving him from office, and maybe not even with that.

But that is not how constitutional, democratic republics work.

There will be another election in 2020, at which time the American electorate can render its judgment on Trump.

Commentary by Kevin Williamson, a roving correspondent at National Review. Follow him on Twitter at @KevinNR.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.

©2017 National Review. Used with permission.