Why Trump supporters don't give a damn about his critics

by Paul Thomas / 11 November, 2017
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US President Donald Trump. Photo/Getty Images

Two former presidents have joined the rising chorus of Trump condemnations, but his supporters don’t give a damn about Republican critics or outraged metropolitan opinion.

On the face of it, things are going from bad to worse for US President Donald Trump.

In recent weeks, his behaviour and “leadership” style have been condemned by Republican Party elders, such as former presidents George HW and George W Bush – “bigotry, conspiracy theories, outright fabrication” – and 2008 presidential nominee John McCain – “half-baked, spurious nationalism”.

Those comments were faint praise compared with the denunciations made by Republican senators Bob Corker and Jeff Flake. Corker, touted as a potential running mate before Trump settled on Mike Pence and early on seen as one of the Administration’s key supporters in Congress, memorably labelled the White House “an adult day-care centre”. Moving from the figurative to the literal, he accused Trump of “debasing the country”, being “utterly untruthful” and setting the US “on the path to World War III”.

Flake had never boarded the Trump Train, declining to endorse his candidacy and releasing a critique/manifesto, Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle. Nevertheless, his recent speech on the floor of the Senate was as eloquent and ominous as any anti-Trump statement, with its unmistakable reference to the rise of Hitlerism and the question that haunted post-war Germany: “When the next generation asks us, ‘Why didn’t you do something? Why didn’t you speak up?’, what are we going to say?”

Corker and Flake aren’t Rinos, the contemptuous acronym derived from “Republicans in name only” that zealots bestow on elected representatives considered insufficiently gung-ho in the conservative cause. Nor are they products of the old East Coast, Ivy League Establishment. Corker, one of the wealthiest members of Congress, is from Tennessee. Flake is from Arizona; his book’s title is a nod to Barry Goldwater, a previous Arizona senator who began the process of transforming the GOP into a party that elevated ideology above pragmatism.

There’s the drip, drip, drip of Russia revelations, the latest being that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, a wealthy industrialist and long-time Trump pal, has a shared business interest – a stake in a Russian shipping line – with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s son-in-law that he failed to disclose during his confirmation hearings. Even if this is the last such revelation, which seems unlikely, we’ve reached the point where only the credulous or blinkered could think it’s mere coincidence that so many members of Trump’s circle have financial ties to Russia and inadequate powers of recall.

Special counsel Robert Mueller: a remorseless investigation into Russian meddling. Photo/Getty Images

Tax-fraud charges

Then there are the polls. The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll shows Trump with an approval rating of 37%, the lowest of any president at this point in his term in seven decades of polling. No other president, going back to Harry Truman, who took office in 1945, comes close to matching Trump’s net negative rating of 22%. The next worst is Bill Clinton at net positive 11%.

And special counsel Robert Mueller has rolled out the first indictments of what appears to be a remorseless, no-stone-unturned investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. The news that Trump campaign foreign policy adviser – or “coffee boy”, in the White House’s generous recollection – George Papadopoulos has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI over his many contacts with Russian officials was deemed more significant than the tax-fraud and money-laundering charges against Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and business associate Rick Gates, since the latter are unrelated to the election.

Papadopoulos’s co-operation may be a step towards establishing collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, specifically with regard to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s hacked emails, and could implicate more senior campaign officials. However, the money-laundering charges against Manafort and Gates are intriguing precisely because they’re unrelated to the election. Mueller seems to be sending a clear signal that he’ll pursue any indication of illegality that crops up during the investigation, whenever it occurred and whether or not it’s directly related to the question of Russian meddling.

If Manafort is fair game over his financial dealings unconnected to his short-lived, unpaid role as Trump’s campaign manager, presumably the same applies to Trump’s financial dealings preceding the launch of his candidacy. As previously outlined (Listener, July 29), there are many suggestions that Trump’s business empire has benefited from, if not been kept afloat by, funding from Russia, and that various slippery Russians have laundered money through Trump real-estate ventures.

Republican Senator Bob Corker, Senator Jeff Flake, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross. Photo/Getty Images

Republican Senator Bob Corker, Senator Jeff Flake and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross. Photo/Getty Images

Battle lines being drawn

So, the metaphors are out in force: the walls are closing in; the noose is tightening; the oven is heating up; and it’s only a matter of time before the goose is cooked. It’s arguable, though, that these developments aren’t as significant as they seem on first acquaintance. Perhaps we’re witnessing battle lines being drawn rather than walls closing in.

Take Trump’s Republican critics. Bush Sr is 93, in a wheelchair and has just been outed as something of a dirty old man, not that that should diminish him in the eyes of the Republican faithful. During the primary season, Trump made George W Bush’s presidency a millstone around younger brother Jeb’s neck, a strategy that had the desired effect. McCain is 81 and was recently diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of brain cancer for which the average survival time, with treatment, is 14 months. And despite the right’s heart-on-sleeve patriotism and declared reverence for the military, there’s ample evidence that, when it comes to politics, they don’t practise what they preach, hence their indifference when Trump the draft-dodger insultingly dismissed McCain’s five-year ordeal in a North Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp.

For all their verbal defiance, both Corker and Flake are retiring from the fray, having announced they won’t seek re-election. In part, at least, this reflects an awareness that the Republican Party is becoming the Trump Party and there may no longer be a place for them therein. If Flake did seek re-election, he would face a primary challenge from a Trump-backed conspiracy theorist who has described Flake’s attitude to Trump as “treacherous”.

In his Senate speech, Flake declared, “It is time for our complicity and our accommodation of the unacceptable to end.” Afterwards, a number of Flake’s Republican colleagues told reporters what a fine fellow he was, but none answered his call to join the resistance.

Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore. Photo/Getty Images

Furthermore, the Trumpification of the Republican Party will only intensify in the coming months. Equipped with a war chest provided by reclusive hedge-fund billionaire Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, Trump’s former consigliere Stephen Bannon has declared a “season of war” against the GOP Establishment. This will entail bankrolling ardent Trump supporters in primary challenges against incumbent Congressmen and women who fail his purity test.

Bannon already has one scalp, having successfully backed a far-right candidate against the Establishment’s choice in the run-off to select the Republican candidate to contest next month’s special election for Alabama’s vacant Senate seat. Given that Alabama went 62%-34% for Trump over Hillary Clinton, the state’s next senator is likely to be 70-year-old Roy Moore.

In the considered opinion of GQ’s Jay Willis, “Moore’s career is riddled with details indicating the man is, objectively speaking, a despicable lunatic … In any sane world, Moore would be exiled from his party, from politics and from society at large.”

But in the hysterical and bigoted world of contemporary US conservatism, Moore is seen as just the sort of uncompromising absolutist needed to help Trump make America great again. A former judge, he was twice removed from the Alabama Supreme Court for refusing to comply with court orders that offended his religiosity.

Like other religious crackpots, he believes 9/11 was punishment for America’s sins, and he rejects the theory of evolution. He also believes homosexuality should be outlawed.

Once in Washington, he will give legislative priority to securing the impeachment of the five Supreme Court justices who supported same-sex marriage. (The last attempt to impeach a Supreme Court justice failed. That was in 1804.) The progressive movement’s ultimate goal, he says, is to “drive the nation into a wasteland of sexual anarchy that consumes all moral values”.

George Papadopoulos, former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, now facing tax-fraud charges, and Rick Gates, charged with money-laundering. Photo/Getty Images

George Papadopoulos, former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, and Rick Gates. Photo/Getty Images

Deeply divided country

The fact that an obvious fringe-dweller is likely to be elected to the US Senate is a reminder – not that we need one – that America is a deeply divided country whose political system is tilted in favour of the heartland: sparsely populated, deeply conservative rural states. This effective gerrymander has been compounded by Republican majorities in various states redrawing electoral boundaries to make congressional districts virtually unlosable. And when a party has no need to choose candidates with sufficiently broad appeal to attract support across the spectrum, it can end up nominating “despicable lunatics”.

So, although Trump’s polling numbers are, in the parlance, “in the toilet”, the headlines they generate don’t reflect an electoral map and associated arithmetic that have resulted in Republican majorities in both houses of Congress.

Buried deep in the commentary on the Washington Post-ABC poll was the finding that Trump retains overwhelming support among those who voted for him. Over and over again, his base has demonstrated that it doesn’t give a damn about things that outrage metropolitan opinion and trouble the GOP Establishment.

A New Republic headline neatly captured this divergence: “Trump is President, but Kevin Spacey can’t even play one on TV”. The magazine could have reinforced the point by noting that Trump is President, but NR’s president/publisher has just resigned over allegations of improper conduct.

The expectation that Mueller’s investigation will bring Trump down assumes it will be permitted to proceed for however long it takes and wherever the evidence leads.

But nothing in Trump’s business career or indeed his conduct since becoming President suggests he’ll continue to give Mueller a free hand if he becomes convinced that the special counsel is out to get him. And if, despite the bluster, Trump knows that Mueller will eventually uncover unequivocal wrongdoing, an intervention to shut down or curtail the investigation is inevitable.

The Roman poet Juvenal posed the question “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” – Who will guard the guards themselves? Although there’s debate among scholars over Juvenal’s intent, his question has become a political expression meaning, “Who will act as a check on those in power?”

In the context of the US presidency, the answer is Congress. During the Watergate scandal, President Richard Nixon’s fate was sealed when he lost Congressional Republicans’ support, but that was a very different time and a very different Republican Party. Indeed, some Congressional Republicans are already calling for Mueller’s investigation to be drastically restricted and/or defunded.

If a thoroughly Trumpified Republican Party controls Congress after the 2018 mid-term elections – and Bannon will be doing his utmost to ensure both those outcomes – then Trump might be able to get away with worse things than shooting someone on Fifth Avenue.

This article was first published in the November 18, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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