Trump's Slow-Motion Mutiny

In our storm-tossed vessel, the question is how we should respond to an overwhelmed leader.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

“If you’d been loyal to Queeg, do you think all this would have come up?” Lt. Greenwald asks Lt. Maryk in their confrontation at the close of the classic 1954 movie of The Caine Mutiny.

Lt. Maryk answers sheepishly, “It probably wouldn’t have been necessary.”

Here is where I lean close to watch for the lesson in leadership that is missing these days in the typhoon of resistance and disregard directed at the Trump administration.

Greenwald turns again to the drunken Caine officers who have been celebrating their vindication by the court-martial board after they turned against Humphrey Bogart’s Captain Queeg, who’s crumbled into self-damning paranoia on the witness stand trying to account for how he lost his crew.

“You don’t work with the captain because of his hairstyle,” Greenwald tells the silent mutineers. “You work with him because he’s got the job, or you’re no good.”

He finishes, in disgust: “The case is over. You’re all safe.”

Watching the movie, I ask myself: Are we today witnessing a slow-motion national mutiny against the duly elected president?

There are warrants to worry that the daily ad hominem attacks on the president and his counselors are not commonplace partisan dissent by those out of power but instead a mounting cry for regime change well before 2021.

Just as the Caine’s know-it-all, Lt. Thomas Keefer, says of Queeg—“Has it ever occurred to you that our captain might be unbalanced?”—those accusing Trump suggest his leadership is so perilous that it must be blocked by extraordinary means.

The Caine crew list of those suggesting something must be done to Trump grows longer and bolder weekly, with much attention to the favorite plot device of White House fiction, the 25th Amendment, ratified in 1967, which permits the vice president and a simple majority of the Cabinet to remove a president who is “unable to discharge the powers and duty of his office.”

Eliot Cohen, director of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced Studies, former Bush official, prognosticates in the Atlantic: “It will not be surprising in the slightest if his term ends not in four or in eight years, but sooner, with impeachment or removal under the 25th Amendment. The sooner Americans get used to these likelihoods, the better.”

The Georgetown Law professor Rosa Brooks, former Obama official, writing in Foreign Policy, also points to the avenue of the 25th Amendment—and then tops everyone with speculation on a scenario that “until recently I would have said was unthinkable in the United States of America: a military coup, or at least a refusal by military leaders to obey certain orders.”

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The New Yorker correspondent John Cassidy observes that the Republican Congressional leadership either could stop Trump’s “illiberal proposals” or could use the 25th Amendment. Then again, Cassidy does note that the “overwhelming likelihood” is that the Republicans will do nothing of the kind.

The Georgetown Law Center professor David Cole, an ACLU official, writing in the New York Review of Books, agrees that the Republican Congress is unlikely to hinder or to remove its own party’s leader; and so he proposes the cryptic, “If the Constitution is to be enforced, it will have to come at the insistence of the people.”

Significant elected officials are joining in the calls for dramatic events. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi speaks ominously of impeachment demands: “When and if he breaks the law, that is when something like that will come up.”

Democratic Governor of Washington Jay Inslee also speaks forebodingly about Trump to Politico, “The nation needs checks against a president who’s prone to rogue behavior, and governors will assume a more important place in the democratic system.” Inslee then went on to mention a “subterranean alliance” with Republican governors.

Washington Post conservative Republican columnist Kathleen Parker joins in rooting for the 25th Amendment to dislodge Trump; however, there is also a back-up plan that predicts the Democrats will sweep back into power in Congress in 2018 and ignite impeachment hearings for a trial by the Senate as soon as Speaker Pelosi wields the gavel.

If you regard the scenarios above as improbable, consider that polling already shows 40 percent of the American people approve of impeachment, and that London bookmaker Ladbrokes has 11/10 odds that Trump will leave office by impeachment and conviction or by resignation in the first term.

The bookmakers do not give odds on the 25th Amendment; and why not?

Perhaps because the amount of explanation needed to convince a wagerer that the 25th is a credible device while President Trump is walking around the White House requires excessive magical thinking.

Perhaps because the whole exercise of imagining Trump will vanish before the 2020 presidential canvas is an illustration of fooling some of the people all of the time.

Or perhaps because my colleagues in the national media do not recall an unhappy lesson of The Caine Mutiny that can be applied spookily today to the contest between the president and his doubting critics.

Queeg was arbitrary, devious, relentlessly petty, overwrought, unsympathetic.

Queeg’s behavior before the court, rolling the ball bearings in his pocket and lashing out about fake news of stolen strawberries, remains a mesmerizing portrait of man going over the edge.

And yet Queeg, at the moment of his betrayal, was the captain of a warship in a storm-tossed sea. To usurp his duly-sworn authority on the basis of collective opinion was far more reckless than anything Queeg could have done—even foundering the Caine.

There are protocols to rescue the crew of a ship in distress. There are no protocols to rescue mutineers.