Friday, March 03, 2017

Trump Will Hang On Because the Press Will Enable Him

by Neil H. Buchanan

Over the past few months, there have been times when sane people could take heart about the future of the country.  It looked like a long struggle, with no guarantee of success, but it was becoming clear that the sheer incompetence of the Trump team was saving the country from bigger problems.

Even better, the reaction to the Muslim ban (and people's -- including judges' -- willingness to see past Trump's claims that it was not really a Muslim ban), as well as public condemnation of Republicans' attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, suggested that there could be a real opposition among the three-fourths of American adults who did not vote for Trump.

We always knew that this would be a roller-coaster ride, with good weeks and bad weeks.  But the last week's developments strongly suggest that Trump will not face any serious roadblocks to rigging his reelection in 2020, much less surviving any calls for impeachment in the meantime.  The latest evidence, moreover, does not merely relate to how Republicans are treating Trump, but also to how what Trump calls the "enemy of the American people" -- the free press -- is going to treat him going forward.

Although I am worried about what we have seen very recently, it is important to begin by acknowledging something that has been true ever since Trump became the nominee, if not even earlier: The simple fact is that Trump's voters will never abandon him.

There are many reasons why Trump is being compared to Richard Nixon, from his Saturday Night Massacre-like sacking of an acting Attorney General to his subordinates' lying to Congress.  One of the things that people forget, however, is that Nixon maintained the support of one-fourth of the American people even on his worst day.

I was very young when Watergate unfolded, but I was old enough to follow the story in the newspapers.  I distinctly remember that Nixon's approval rating stayed stubbornly at 23 percent even as he was forced to resign in disgrace.  His supporters included my maternal grandparents, who assured me that Nixon had done nothing wrong but had been framed by a bunch of liberal lawyers.  (In what those lawyers would call "pleading in the alternative,"  my grandparents also told me that everything Nixon had done wrong was not unique to him -- even though he had done nothing wrong.)

Fast-forward to 2017, and Nixon's core 23 percent rock bottom number would appear to be north of 40 percent for Trump.  Granted, Trump has not (yet?) gone through a wringer like Nixon did, but the people who support him really support him.

Blame it on anything you like, from stubbornness to the Fox news bubble in which Trump's supporters live to a core of angry and hateful people.  No matter the reason, it is now difficult to imagine anything turning off Trump's supporters.  When clear ties to Russia -- Russia!! -- do not bother Trump's people, what other conclusion could we draw?

Beyond that high floor of support on which Trump relies, recent events suggest that Trump will not receive any serious resistance on political matters.  I continue to think that the courts and the civil service will continue to serve important roles in preventing Trump from getting too far out of hand, but neither of those sources of resistance write the laws or shape the political conversation.  The Republicans do the former, and the pliant press does the latter.

How far gone are the Republicans?  Within hours of revelations that the Russia-Trump connection is deeply troubling and should at the very least result in the firing of Attorney General Jefferson Sessions, we saw headlines like this: "Sticking With Trump, Republicans Resist Call for Broader Russian Inquiry."

Even better/worse, that news article quoted Utah's senior Republican Senator, Orrin Hatch, issuing the following complaint: "My concern is, why are our Democratic senators so doggone rude?"  Yes, the senator from the Republican state that was most uncomfortable with Trump, the senator who at age 82 is now in his forty-first year in the Senate, is so committed to supporting Trump that he is reduced to scolding the Democrats for bad manners.  (I wonder what Miss Manners would have said about Republicans' treatment of Judge Merrick Garland.)

The point is that it is now impossible to imagine what could cause Republicans to break with Trump.  Hatch is actually considering running for reelection again next year, but even though his state's voters wish he would quietly go away, he would surely win even if he stood up against Trump -- certainly if he stood up against Trump to protect Americans from Russian meddling.

Another octogenarian senator, John McCain, has gotten some good press recently for making noises that sound like loyal opposition, yet it is hard to see anything that he has actually done to back up his (not all that strong) words.  He could have been the deciding vote to block the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary.  Where was McCain, who voted not only for DeVos but for every other cabinet-level appointee except the budget director, who wants to cut military spending?

And McCain won reelection in 2016, which means that he is in office until 2022, when one would hope (at age 86) that he will retire.

Why are these lions of the Senate so spineless?  I suppose it is possible that they fear losing something that they care about.  In the extreme, one could imagine Majority Leader Mitch McConnell leading an effort to punish dissenters by taking away their committee chairmanships.  How depressing is it to think that the made men of the Senate can be so easily intimidated?  But it is difficult to see a different explanation for their failures to stand up.

As I wrote above, I am now more worried than ever that Trump will survive (and maybe even succeed) politically.  The most important reason for my renewed pessimism is the press's response to Trump's State of the Union-equivalent speech to Congress on February 28.  The response was almost gooey, as Team Trump reportedly "basked in its best news cycle since he took office 41 days ago."

But why?  It was all about "tone," apparently.  Even reporters who were deeply skeptical about Trump's speech, and who noted that the White House has already denied a change in substance, nevertheless marveled: "Striking that presidential tone, as Mr. Trump did on Tuesday, was an important political move."

What, exactly, was that presidential tone?  He did not yell, and it was deemed "a conciliatory speech in which the word 'we' outnumbered the word 'I' by three to one."  Ooh.  Pinch me.

Why was anyone surprised that Trump could read from a teleprompter?  Back in August, he tried to sound like an adult by reading a speech in Detroit on economic issues.  And guess what?  The press fell for the act that time, too.  Trump has also appeared on talk shows and successfully put on a scolded schoolboy look, which is his version of looking modest and reasonable.

Writing in The New York Times, Andrew Rosenthal referred to Trump as having mastered the art of low expectations.  There is a lot to be said for that characterization, but I think it misses something important.  People can see through low expectations  No matter how much benefit of the doubt people gave Rick Perry, for example, he was never deemed a success merely for not saying "oops" in his second campaign for president (or for wearing eyeglasses).

The more sobering (that is, depressing) explanation comes from Alex Pareene, writing on The Concourse, who began yet another one of his trenchant columns with this observation:
Here’s what you have to understand about the sort of people who become anchors, nonpartisan pundits, centrist columnists, and cable news political correspondents: They didn’t sign up to be the resistance. They don’t want Donald Trump to fail. They want him to “pivot” and “act presidential.”
Not only did most of the mainstream press not sign up for the resistance, but they are affirmatively scared about living in a world in which there is a need for resistance.  For weeks, people have been talking about the importance of a free press, calling it a guardian of democracy and saying that it is time for the ink-stained wretches to show their worth.  Nothing short of our way of life is at stake.

I have no doubt that this soaring language stirs the hearts of the boys on the bus, but it is also deeply uncomfortable to find oneself suddenly expected to be ... gulp ... brave.  It is much better to tell oneself that Trump is not the existential threat that he is, and to grasp at any opportunity to say that we can get along just fine if everyone calms down.

One of the big worries over the past few months is that Trump will become "normalized," by which we mean that a steady stream of abnormal behavior will start to seem unremarkable -- and that it will become simply too exhausting to continue to chronicle his many outrages and to fight back on so many fronts.  That seems not to be happening so far, but it is always a danger.

But this is bigger than all of that.  With a large core of supporters who will follow Trump off any cliff and a Republican Party that is led by people who are (at best) too scared to stand up to him, it is especially dangerous to have a press that is willing to grab onto any evidence that Trump is being presidential and setting the right tone.

Over the past few months, I have noted that Trump and the Republicans will do everything possible to rig future elections, such that Democrats will have to run up an increasingly steep hill even to compete.  Now that it is clear how easily the press can be played by "presidential Trump," I fear that the intensity necessary to sustain the opposition will be all too easily dissipated by people who just want their worlds to be comfortable again.


Unknown said...

Wonderful observational and discernment of TRUTH...I wish and pray that the author can broadcast this truth to all to understand and discern..Erick Vinther

David Ricardo said...

Wonderful post and the revulsion to the media for their sudden love affair with Trump echoes what many of us felt. Not all the media was taken in, here is the great Margaret Sullivan writing in the WaPo right after Trump's 'Presidential' speech.

"Call it the revenge of the reporters over the pundits.

Tuesday night was a low point for “the media” — if such a multi-headed beast can be described in those two words — as cable-news talking heads gushed over President Trump’s address to Congress.

Will Oremus of Slate put it like this: Trump “managed to speak for an entire hour without sounding like an unhinged demagogue. For that, he was hailed by TV pundits across the spectrum who acted as though he’d just single-handedly defeated the Islamic State and restored the fortunes of the American middle class.”

But certainly it is a lot to worry about. The Republicans have lost whatever little integrity they had, just think of their reaction had a Democratic AG lied to the Senate in his confirmation hearing. So it is only a minority made up of Democrats that is left to hold the fort against the Republicans, Cable News and an easily manipulated media.

One other point, Mr. Buchanan talks about the core Nixon supporters and compares them to the core Trump supporters. But the numbers are different and far worse. Whereas Nixon had maybe 20-25% of the electorate as un-movable, Trump has 40%. If the Never-Trump also has 40% this leaves only 20% to be fought over which means a much more polarized America. Add to that the gerrymandering and election rigging and Republicans have this huge advantage.


Shag from Brookline said...

I was a big fan of Steve Allen and his late night cast going back pre-Jack Paar. He had a periodic feature on Letters to the Editor in newspapers voicing concern that reading such letters might not get across the true feelings of the letter writers. So steve, with his newspaperman's felt had snug on his head, would read actual letters from newspapers, but in a tone he felt reflected the writers' feelings, adding body language as appropriate. Trump's joint session (no, the audience was not toking!) speech was read by Trump in a much different tone and body language than his campaign speeches and his Inaugural speech. Alas, Steve is no longer with us, but in his memory a late night host - or perhaps Alec Baldwin - should read Trump's joint session speech in the manner of Trump's campaign and Inauguration speeches and body language to compare with Trump's new tone Pay per view might work with proceeds to go to a worthwhile cause: "Make Trump Grate Again!"

Shag from Brookline said...

The Republicans' "Repeal and Replace Obamacare" might be called "Trumpscare." There might be other scary moments. In the joint session speech, on the Yemen raid, Trump quoted Sec'y. Defense "Mad Dog" Mattis to the effect that the results of the raid yielded much beneficial intelligence. I wonder if congressional committees might question "Mad Dog" on his role in approving the raid and its results, including the accuracy of the quote Trump attributed to "Mad Dog." Trump said:

“I just spoke to General Mattis, who reconfirmed that, and I quote, ‘Ryan was a part of a highly successful raid that generated large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future against our enemies,'” Trump said. “Ryan’s legacy is etched into eternity. Thank you.”

There has been some skepticism expressed by some Republicans on the wisdom of the raid. Perhaps Trump pre-empted Benghazi type committee hearings.

Shag from Brookline said...

The cover-up helped to destroy Nixon in his second term. Trump has been President just over a month and the acne of his administration is applying cover-up. Is there or was there a Trump cosmetics brand called "Scandal"?

The Newyorker Radio Hour includes an interview with John Dean, former counsel to President Nixon on NPR.

Joe said...

We shall see. It helps when the Washington Post has articles entitled:

"Trump, citing no evidence, accuses Obama of ‘Nixon/Watergate’ plot to wiretap Trump Tower"

Trump et. al. has yet to give the press the chance to have some extended period of normalcy. That's good. The opposition has to keep up the pressure. If headlines will note how the guy in the White House (not "the President" btw) says things without actually having any apparent basis, there is a basic loss of legitimacy.

Another test is scheduled later this month -- the Gorsuch confirmation hearings. There is, with respect, no f-ing reason for the Democrats to let this guy be confirmed for the April sitting. At the very least, let the term go out with eight justices. And, the media has to constantly remind why we have a hearing NOW.

The media is ultimately a conservative institution in part because their audience is. As the Declaration of Independence says, we are naturally inclined to take a lot before being willing to go into the scary unknown. This includes not accepting the basic normalcy of the person in the White House, even if we don't like his or her politics etc. in various ways. There are signs though. See, e.g., Rep. Engel suddenly not shaking hands, something he did each time until now.

Shag from Brookline said...

Perhaps Trump forgot about his praise for Richard M. Nixon not that long ago.

Could Trump as President find out if the Obama Administration had wiretapped Trump Tower?

Shag from Brookline said...

Assuming Trump's accusation of Obama is false, it's defamatory and Sullivan v. NYTimes would seem not to protect Trump in a libel suit. Some see the accusation as an admission by Trump of calls between his Trump Tower and Russian officials. Or perhaps it was the Russians who wiretapped Trump Tower. Trump has reverted to his pre-joint session speech style of being presidential. Now where in the world is Sec'y. of State Rex Tillerson?

Joe said...

So, the question is if Trump has shown "actual malice."

In a constitutional sense, of course.

Shag from Brookline said...

Of course President Trump's EO travel ban shows actual malICE.