How is this possible: facing impeachment, his conduct increasingly outrageous, Donald Trump is favoured to win a second term as US President.
“We have some serious repairs and healing to do in our country for what he’s done so far.” Pelosi says.
To begin with, an already deeply divided nation would become even more so. Among the dark realities Trump has embraced is that a polarising figure such as himself would struggle for traction in an environment in which consensus is valued, radicalism is viewed as destabilising and politics is largely conducted on the middle ground.
In a famous 1964 essay, historian Richard Hofstadter identified “the paranoid style” in US politics characterised by “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy”. The paranoid, wrote Hofstadter, “is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated or compromised, in the manner of a working politician.” Remind you of anyone?
Given that Trump and his supporters would interpret his re-election as a total vindication of his political style and behaviour, and a total repudiation of all qualms and criticisms, the theme of a Trump Inauguration Day address on January 20, 2021, might well be, “You ain’t seen nothing yet”.
And we’ve already seen plenty, so much in fact that some of it barely registered. For instance, the US Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service has produced a report saying the 2017 tax cuts benefited well-off farmers disproportionately, economist Paul Krugman noted in the New York Times recently. ERS staff had previously refused to “cook up” reports justifying other Administration policies. Their reward for doing their job with integrity was to be summarily ordered to relocate from Washington DC to Kansas City, prompting a predictable – and, no doubt, desired – flood of resignations.
Teeing up a summit
Trump would flout clauses in the Constitution forbidding a president from profiting from the office even more brazenly. Next year’s G7 intergovernmental summit was to have taken place at his Miami golf resort, Trump National Doral, thereby putting tens of millions of American taxpayers’ dollars into his pocket. The Administration claimed it was far and away the most suitable of the dozen or so properties looked at. Critics pointed out that, unlike the secluded and therefore easily sealed off locations at which such gatherings are usually held, the Doral would present nightmarish security issues.
Demonstrating that he actually does have an ethical bone in his body, Trump responded to the outcry by tweeting that he understood and accepted the concerns and, accordingly, the G7 won’t be held at Doral after all.
I’m kidding, of course. The criticism, he tweeted, was just “media and Democrat-crazed and irrational hostility”. News reports indicated the volte-face was in response to pushback from Congressional Republicans. And perhaps it dawned on Trump that his apparently rather tatty property would require a major refurbishment to withstand the international scrutiny it would have attracted.
In what could be regarded as an “Ugly American” mission statement, the stridently pro-Trump website The Federalist applauded the original decision on the basis that “Trump was elected to shake things up, to take [German leader] Angela Merkel into a gaudy ballroom and proudly tell her that he personally approved every chandelier there. He is meant to bask in his own glory as a proxy for our nation’s, and to remind the other powers just who exactly they are talking to.”
Betraying the kurds
The other powers don’t need reminding; they’re painfully aware. Trump has been a bull in the international china shop, usually to the discomfort of the US’ traditional allies and the delight, if not material gain, of its traditional adversaries. His latest such gambit was the betrayal of the Kurds, his withdrawal of US troops clearing the way for a Turkish offensive in northern Syria.
Writing for the Daily Beast website, international-relations scholar David Rothkopf summarised Trump’s decision: “We are supporting an enemy of democracy, [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan, to help him defeat a heroic ally of ours, the Kurds, which will help reinvigorate our No 1 terrorist foe, Isis, reward bad actors like Iran and the Assad regime, and help Russia gain influence as we lose it. In short, Trump has, for the first time in our history, actually aligned the US with our enemies and against everything we should be standing for and that is in our interest.”
As usual, Trump’s attempts to explain/justify his conduct degenerated into an extravaganza of clownishness. “Sometimes you have to let them fight a little while. It’s like two kids in a lot, you got to let them fight and then you pull them apart.”
He noted the Kurds were conspicuous by their absence at the D-Day landings in World War II when the US could have used some help. He sent Erdoğan a letter in which he threatened to destroy the Turkish economy and concluded, “Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool! I will call you later.”
When the letter was made public, according to one commentator, “Every sentient creature in the universe reacted, ‘This can’t possibly be real.’” Either because he is sentient or was insulted, Erdoğan apparently darted it straight into his wastepaper bin.
Ilham Ahmed, a leader of Syrian Kurd forces, slammed the troop withdrawal as “akin to genocide”.
After Trump’s former defence secretary James “Mad Dog” Mattis, who resigned last December over Trump’s Syrian policy, warned that the withdrawal would lead to the resurgence of Isis, Trump called the retired four-star general “the world’s most overrated general. You know why? He wasn’t tough enough. I captured Isis. Mattis said it would take two years. I captured them in one month.”
Mattis delivered a stinging riposte, telling a New York audience, “I earned my spurs on the battlefield and Donald Trump earned his spurs in a letter from a doctor.” (In 1968, Trump was granted a medical exemption from serving in Vietnam after being diagnosed with bone spurs. Last year, daughters of the New York podiatrist who made the diagnosis claimed their father did so in order to ingratiate himself with his landlord, Trump’s father.)
The pair continue to spar, Mattis quipping: “I think the only person in the military that Mr Trump doesn’t think is overrated is Colonel Sanders.”
Above the law?
After all the lies, the diplomatic gaffes, the tweets, the insults, the shakedowns – how is it possible that Trump could be re-elected? Will he even be the Republican candidate? As I’ve argued before, the notion Trump won’t seek re-election is a pipe dream, since the presidency affords him the greatest possible protection against legal jeopardy.
Trump’s claim that a sitting president is immune from criminal investigations was recently rejected by a New York federal judge in trenchant terms as “repugnant to the nation’s governmental structures and constitutional values”. The decision was immediately appealed. The judge also cast doubt on the Justice Department’s policy that a sitting president can’t be indicted.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that a sitting president, backed by an army of lawyers and a staunch and bloody-minded ally in Attorney-General William Barr, and whose compliant party controls the Senate, is as immune from criminal investigations as any American citizen can possibly be. It’s entirely possible that a part of Trump bitterly regrets ever contemplating a run for president, but that’s by the by. Now that he’s in the White House, he’ll do whatever it takes to stay there.
Furthermore, winning re-election would enable Trump and his supporters to argue that any subsequent attempts to remove him from office would be illegitimate and undemocratic – a “coup”, as he often puts it.
In the context of this “will of the people” argument, Edward Foley, a professor at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law, makes the point that the sitting president’s solicitations of help from Ukraine and China to discredit his potential 2020 opponent are themselves an attempt to tilt the electoral playing field and therefore thwart the will of the people.
That prospect is one of several reasons the Democrats have little choice but to press ahead with impeachment proceedings that would appear doomed and quite possibly electorally counter-productive. It’s a manoeuvre Trump has likened to “a lynching”.
Another is Trump’s revival of disgraced former president Richard Nixon’s assertion that “if the president does it, it’s not a crime”. If the president is beyond the law, then the only check on the executive branch’s power – and abuse of power – is Congress, via the impeachment process. Therefore, for the Democrats to decide not to proceed with impeachment for fear that it would harm their electoral prospects would effectively render impeachment obsolete. That, in turn, would amount to dereliction of their constitutional responsibilities.
Regarding Republicans’ tacit support for Trump’s claim that he’s above the law, writer Erin Gloria Ryan tweeted, “It should be a debate question: ‘You’re the president; you can do any crime you want. What crime do you do and why?’”
Although impeachment will probably happen, it will almost certainly fail. Recent polls showing a shift in public opinion in favour of impeachment will have encouraged the Democrats to press ahead, yet the same polls contain findings that will only have hardened Congressional Republicans’ resistance. According to a recent Politico/Morning Consult poll, only 9% of Republicans support impeachment proceedings, with 24% of those polled agreeing with the proposition that “there’s almost nothing Trump could do that would cause me to support impeaching him and removing him from office”.
All for one
Throughout Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of foreign interference in the 2016 election, Congressional Republicans generally stuck to the Trump line that it was “fake news” and a “witch-hunt”. Trump and his campaign were being investigated for things – encouraging and colluding with foreign interference, obstruction of justice – that simply didn’t happen.
Then they saw a White House summary of Trump’s phone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in which he asked for “a favour”. Next, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney admitted – and, when he realised he’d committed TrumpLand’s cardinal sin of telling the truth, denied – that what was being talked about was a quid pro quo in which military aid would be held up if Ukraine didn’t assist with a smear campaign against Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.
Several diplomatic and security officials have now testified to Congress that there absolutely was a quid pro quo that came straight from the Oval Office. They are now the targets of smear campaigns.
Between times, Trump stood in front of the White House press corps and asked China to investigate the Bidens. After all that, the “nothing burger” defence is past its use-by date. Now, with a very few honourable exceptions, Republicans are saying “get over it”, or “it’s not an impeachable offence”, or nothing at all.
The most honourable exception is Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential candidate, now a senator representing Utah, who described Trump’s sordid manoeuvring as “appalling”, among other things. The Club for Growth, a conservative advocacy group that opposed Trump in 2016, immediately ran TV ads in Utah claiming Romney is a secret Democratic asset “plotting to take down President Trump with impeachment”.
Former Republican senator Jeff Flake, a Trump critic, explained that “there is a concern that [Trump] will get through it and he’ll exact revenge on those who didn’t stand with him. There is no love for the President among Senate Republicans … but they know it’s the President’s party and the bargain’s been made.”
Writing for The Bulwark, a conservative anti-Trump website, Robert Tracinski put it more strongly: “For the last few years, outside observers have believed, time and again, that surely the latest revelation will be so blatant that conservatives will have to draw back from their support of Trump.
“Well, that’s not how it works when you have sold your soul. Once people are corrupted and drawn in, there is a kind of sunk-cost fallacy that pulls them farther down. Having already compromised their principles to go along with Trumpism, they need to keep on justifying their original investment by minimising or making excuses for every new awful thing he does. They have to keep on justifying Trump, because otherwise they would have to face up to the reality of how foolish and venal they have been all along.”
The economy, stupid
So, barring some extraordinary new development – and we’re talking extraordinary by Trump’s standards, not normal standards – the Senate Republicans will ensure that Trump isn’t impeached and will be the GOP candidate in November 2020.
Will he be re-elected? Well, a bunch of economists think so. In fact, their modelling is predicting Trump will win by a significantly more comfortable margin than in 2016, when he gained 304 Electoral College votes to Hillary Clinton’s 227 but lost the – electorally irrelevant – popular vote by 46.1% to 48.2%.
Says Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, “If the economy a year from now is the same as it is today, or roughly so, then the power of the incumbency is strong and Trump’s election odds are very good, particularly if Democrats aren’t enthusiastic and don’t get out to vote.”
Oxford Economics, whose model emphasises employment, inflation and real disposable income growth and has accurately predicted the popular-vote outcome in all but two presidential elections since 1948, has Trump winning 55% of the popular vote barring a “significant downturn” in the economy.
The popular vote may be electorally irrelevant but any candidate winning 55% is going to sweep the Electoral College. In 1980, for instance, Ronald Reagan won 50.7% of the popular vote to incumbent president Jimmy Carter’s 41% and romped home in the Electoral College by 489-49.
Trend Macrolytics, whose model also focuses on the economy and incumbency and predicted every presidential election victor since 1952, projects Trump to win 354 Electoral College votes. An absolute majority of 270 votes is needed for victory.
Although Moody’s argues that the current economic settings outweigh the discernible “negative exhaustion factor” arising from a chaotic presidency and Trend dismisses Trump’s mediocre approval rating as having little “predictive power”, they acknowledge their models focus on the economy and incumbency to the exclusion of almost all else. The Oxford model excludes “non-economic factors about a candidate’s record that are vital in most elections,” admit the report’s authors, and “pays little attention to attributes such as race, gender or likeability.”
Other economists are looking at a bigger picture, including the fact that the US economy isn’t distributing its gains evenly and the core of urban working-class and rural voters who delivered for Trump in several key states in 2016 aren’t among the beneficiaries.
According to Will Wilkinson, a fellow at the Niskanen Center, a Washington think tank, “small towns and rural areas, along with some Rust-Belt metros, are falling ever further behind booming urban dynamos, leaving many heavily Republican regions in a deepening morass of economic deterioration, joblessness, substance abuse and declining life expectancy”.
And all agree the picture changes markedly if the economy starts going south. Enter stage right, with an intriguing theory, Scottish-born, US-based historian and public intellectual Niall Ferguson. He argues that the rise of Elizabeth Warren, a progressive populist who has vowed to regulate big business and has supplanted Biden as the Democratic frontrunner in recent polls, could trigger an economic downturn. “As investors digest the rising probability of a Warren presidency,” says Ferguson, “I predict a Wall Street sell-off. Businesses in the targeted sectors are going to cut investment and that in turn is going to cause lower growth. Three years ago, Trump ran on a promise to double the growth rate, but already the economy is projected by the International Monetary Fund to grow by just 1.9% next year. If it tips over into a recession, Trump is done.”
And, of course, there’s the Trump factor. The projections that show Trump waltzing back into the White House next November are predicated on the assumption that it will be a presidential election like any other. Trump, though, is a president like no other in the modern era and possibly ever.
A JP Morgan Asset Management analysis of the 2018 midterm elections, in which the Democrats took control of the House of Representatives and made significant state-level gains, concluded it was the worst loss by a sitting president’s party for at least a century, measured against the strength of the economy. “The GOP failed to make it a referendum on the economy,” says Michael Cembalest, chairman of market and investment strategy. In what’s surely a contender for understatement of the year, Cembalest adds that the midterms were instead a referendum “on the unusual circumstances surrounding the way this administration functions”.
This aligns with polling analysis that suggests Trump’s approval rating, bumping along in the low 40s, is around 20% below where an incumbent would typically be with consumer sentiment at current levels. But, although it seems the number of Americans who despise Trump exceeds those who adore him, elections are a choice and at this stage it’s impossible to be serenely confident that the Democrats will offer a compelling alternative.
For some months now, the polls have indicated the Democratic candidate will be one of the following: a gaffe-prone moderate regarded with suspicion by progressives for his past policy positions on race and women’s issues and who will turn 78 two weeks after the election (former Vice President Joe Biden); a self-styled democratic socialist who continues to equivocate over whether he actually is or isn’t a member of the Democratic Party, who has just had a heart attack and will turn 79 two months before the election (Senator Bernie Sanders); and a former law professor from New England who earlier this year apologised for identifying as Native American and whose signature policy of Medicare for All is widely regarded as impossible to fund without raising taxes on the middle class and a political pipedream, a progressive version of Donald Trump’s Wall That Mexico Will Pay For, as one commentator put it (Senator Elizabeth Warren).
In fairness to this trio and the dozen or so others seeking the Democratic nomination, the primary process in which they’re now engaged – or, perhaps, mired – doesn’t necessarily enable them to showcase the political style, policies and core messages they’d deploy against Trump in the general election. Indeed, there are fears that, given the Democrats’ leftward shift powered by Sanders and Warren, the star power of young New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and revulsion at the Republicans’ determination that the rich should get richer and the poor poorer, it’s getting harder by the day for a candidate moderate enough to beat Trump to secure the Democratic nomination.
One such moderate is Colorado Senator Michael Bennet. He despairingly points to rhetoric, such as [former] presidential contender Beto O’Rourke’s, “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47”, and an emerging policy mix summarised by Politico’s Tim Alberta as “seizing guns, banning fracking, guaranteeing health coverage to undocumented immigrants, raising taxes across the board, imposing political litmus tests on churches and eliminating health insurance for more than 150 million Americans”.
It’s not that Bennet is anti-progressive across the board – he actually favours banning assault weapons and wants to outlaw high-capacity magazines, for instance. He argues, however, that gun control is only politically possible in small, incremental steps and that to boast that you’re going to take away people’s guns just makes entry- level reform, such as universal background checks, even harder to achieve. Plus, of course, it gifts Trump potent attack lines.
However, Bennet did not reach the polling threshold needed to be one of the dozen hopefuls who participated in the last Democratic candidates’ debate.
We’re still in a phoney-war phase in which the candidates haven’t had to – and haven’t had a chance to – demonstrate that they and their policy packages are vote winners. Like the economists’ modelling that assumes a strong economy guarantees the incumbent will be re-elected, the assumption a progressive can’t win the US presidency may fail to take into account that, from the moment on November 8, 2016, when Trump’s Electoral College vote tally hit 270, all conventional wisdom went out the window.
And a year is a very long time in politics. History is littered with developments that people didn’t see coming, yet, when viewed with the benefit of hindsight, seem inevitable. Trump’s hardcore support base and Republican firewall in the Senate look locked in, but an avalanche begins with one rock and a few rocks have shifted recently.
Republican senators will have registered that there was safety in numbers in their collective criticism of Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds. One imagines they’ll be monitoring the reaction of the party faithful to Romney’s breaking of ranks over the Ukraine shakedown almost as closely as they watch the economic indicators, the polls and straws in the wind.
In the same week that Mattis mocked Trump’s Vietnam War draft dodging, another retired military hero, William McRaven, penned a New York Times op-ed headed, “Our Republic is Under Attack From the President”. In 2011, then-Vice-Admiral McRaven oversaw the mission to eliminate Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. He wrote that the US was neglecting its duty to protect the less fortunate. “If our promises are meaningless, how will our allies ever trust us?”
He has previously called Trump’s attacks on the media “the greatest threat to democracy in my lifetime”.
As riveting and, at times, perversely entertaining as the Trump Show is, the narrative of endless conflict isn’t sustainable. People grow weary of the acrimony, the tension, the constant discordance. They begin to yearn for normality. Conflict is exhausting and, when it’s not waged in a worthy cause, degrading.
With each passing week, more Americans become aware, albeit dimly in some cases, that their President is degrading their country. There will be a tipping point. The question is: will it happen in time?
This article was first published in the November 2, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.