Trump and his allies are badly rattled by impeachment — but they will do absolutely anything to win
On Wednesday, Donald Trump will likely be impeached by the House of Representatives for high crimes and misdemeanors against the United States Constitution, American democracy and the rule of law. Even though Trump will certainly be acquitted in the Senate by his Republican minions, his impeachment is long overdue and very much earned.
On Sunday night, the House Judiciary Committee released its 658-page impeachment report, summarizing Trump's crimes:
He has abused his power in soliciting and pressuring a vulnerable foreign nation to corrupt the next United States Presidential election by sabotaging a political opponent and endorsing a debunked conspiracy theory promoted by our adversary, Russia. He has engaged in a pattern of misconduct that will continue if left unchecked. Accordingly, President Trump should be impeached and removed from office.
On Monday, Trump released a totally unhinged six-page letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, attacking her, the House Democratic majority and the entire impeachment process. It is a truly astonishing document, unlike anything ever previously written (or dictated) by an American president, a semi-literate display of false claims, victimology and grievance-mongering. As Daniel Dale and Tara Subramaniam of CNN have written, "It was on White House letterhead. It read like a string of President Donald Trump's tweets. And it was just as dishonest."
In total, Donald Trump is the nightmare scenario envisioned by the framers. He is precisely why they included impeachment and removal from office in the Constitution as a remedy for a tyrant or other usurper of democracy and the rule of law.
Historian Jeffrey Engel, co-author of “Impeachment: An American History”, explained this to Sky News:
Their primary examples of when a president would need to be removed from office all involved a president who worked with foreign powers, who came under the influence of foreign powers, and in particular … who in some way lied or disseminated in order to achieve office, and then achieve office again, to keep their first commission of crimes from being found out. So I think this is the one that is the closest to what the founders actually feared.
Contrary to warnings by Beltway insiders and others that impeaching Donald Trump would lead to a backlash against the Democrats among voters, so far the opposite appears to have happened.
Since the Ukraine scandal first hit the news, opinion polls have shown a growing level of support for impeaching Trump. In fact, more Americans now support impeaching Donald Trump than supported the impeachment of Richard Nixon in 1974.
Even Fox News, which functions as Trump state-sponsored media, has been forced to admit that almost half of registered voters want to see Trump impeached and removed from office. Their result was very close to the average of 48 percent or so across a range of other polls.
In response, Donald Trump lashed out at Fox News on Twitter condemning their poll as “[A]lways inaccurate, are heavily weighted toward Dems. So ridiculous — same thing happened in 2016. They got it all wrong. Get a new pollster!"
Trump’s opponents and critics have reason to feel ebullient: Even the network that is Trump’s most stalwart defender and ally has evidence that the public mood has turned increasingly hostile toward him.
But Trump should perhaps be happier if he looked more closely. And his detractors should moderate their gloating.
A closer examination of the new Fox News poll shows that support for impeaching Donald Trump is largely a function of extreme political polarization and the power of the right-wing disinformation machine. The president’s Republican voters continue to support him in overwhelming and consistent numbers.
The Fox News poll also shows Trump being defeated by all of the leading Democratic presidential candidates, with Joe Biden leading Trump by seven points. But viewed in a broader context, that poll also indicates that Trump’s overall job approval has remained steady throughout the impeachment process and for most of three years in office.
Writing at the Atlantic, David Graham explores this phenomenon:
The lack of movement over the past few weeks, given the overwhelming evidence, is certainly disheartening. As Michael Tesler writes in The Washington Post, the most persuadable voters aren’t paying much attention to the impeachment. Most voters are likely following their party affiliation: “A long line of social science research shows that when political elites are this sharply divided, the public follows their lead. Partisan messaging is so powerful that Americans tend to adopt their party’s standpoint even when that position runs counter to science and objective facts.”…
Thus the paradox of impeachment politics: Supporting impeachment is anathema for Republicans. Supporting impeachment seems to be hurting vulnerable Democratic politicians, at least marginally. But support for impeachment remains remarkably strong, and also, Trump’s approval remains as stable as ever.
Centrist Democrats and their allies in the news media who still insist on dispensing conventional wisdom about the enduring strength of America’s political institutions, and about the inherent decency of Trump’s voters, are incapable of accepting a basic fact: Donald Trump is loved by his supporters — and has the highest level of base support among any president in the history of modern polling — largely because of his disregard and disdain for democracy, the rule of law and basic human decency. Impeachment will not change that fact. In the worst-case scenario, impeachment may make Trump more popular not less. This will happen because of Trump's shared "victim" narrative with his supporters — and because Trump's criminality gives his supporters a deviant thrill.
For Trumpers and other conservatives, impeachment by the Democrats embodies the “political correctness” they pathologically rail against and obsess about.
Donald Trump lies — now more than 15,000 times since taking office, as tallied by the Washington Post. His supporters do not care.
Trump’s supporters have also told pollsters that they are “concerned” or wish that he would “tone down” his crude and other horrible behavior. Yet they also assure pollsters that their support for Trump is unwavering. Research has shown that the most ardent Trump supporters and other followers of the global right are attracted to chaos and destruction. They view Donald Trump as a tool for advancing that goal.
Although Trump is an unrepentant and avowed sinner, a cruel and greedy man who puts babies and children in cages, and an abusive lecher who has been credibly accused by numerous women of sexual harassment and sexual assault, a recent poll by PRRI shows that white Christian evangelicals are near-unanimous in their support. These so-called Christians have twisted their own mythology to convince themselves that Trump is God’s tool or prophet and therefore fulfills divine purpose in America and around the world.
Trump’s dangerous behavior is not some type of outlier or a special and unique case. In many ways, he is the distillation of today’s Republican Party and conservative movement, which is dedicated to using both quasi-legal and illegal means to keep nonwhites and other likely Democratic voters coalition from voting at all.
Social science research shows that many white Americans embrace authoritarianism as a way of maintaining absolute power as a group instead of sharing power with nonwhite Americans in a multiracial democracy. This echoes repeated findings that racism and racial animus overdetermined Trump support, rather than "economic anxiety" among the white working class. Other research shows that white Republicans, and especially Trump supporters, are much more likely to be racist than are white Democrats.
From the end of the civil rights movement forward, American conservatism has become increasingly allied with white supremacy. As such, today’s conservatives view America’s multiracial democracy as an existential threat. The election of Barack Obama created a full-on state of white rage and racial paranoia about “the browning of America." This victimology and white rage metastasized into the fascist Trump movement.
Political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, authors of the bestselling book “How Democracies Die," explain this in their September New York Times op-ed, “Why Republicans Play Dirty”:
The growing diversity of the American electorate is making it harder for the Republican Party to win national majorities. Republicans have won the popular vote in presidential elections just once in the last 30 years. …
The problem runs deeper than electoral math, however. Much of the Republican base views defeat as catastrophic. White Christians are losing more than an electoral majority; their once-dominant status in American society is eroding. …
American democracy faces a Catch-22: Republicans won’t abandon their white identity bunker strategy until they lose, but at the same time that strategy has made them so averse to losing they are willing to bend the rules to avoid this fate. There is no easy exit. Republican leaders must either stand up to their base and broaden their appeal or they must suffer an electoral thrashing so severe that they are compelled to do so.
Today’s Republican Party has cornered itself with a base of ever older, whiter, more male, more rural, more conservative voters. Demography can take a long time to change — longer than in progressives’ dreams — but it isn’t on the Republicans’ side. They could have tried to expand; instead, they’ve hardened and walled themselves off. This is why, while voter fraud knows no party, only the Republican Party wildly overstates the risk so that it can pass laws (including right now in Wisconsin, with a bill that reduces early voting) to limit the franchise in ways that have a disparate partisan impact. This is why, when some Democrats in the New Jersey legislature proposed to enshrine gerrymandering in the state constitution, other Democrats, in New Jersey and around the country, objected.
Taking away democratic rights — extreme gerrymandering; blocking an elected president from nominating a Supreme Court justice; selectively paring voting rolls and polling places; creating spurious anti-fraud commissions; misusing the census to undercount the opposition; calling lame-duck legislative sessions to pass laws against the will of the voters — is the Republican Party’s main political strategy, and will be for years to come.
Republicans have chosen contraction and authoritarianism because, unlike the Democrats, their party isn’t a coalition of interests in search of a majority. Its character is ideological.
Trump and the Republicans' embrace of authoritarianism and other anti-democratic behavior is a symptom of other, larger problems in America’s political culture as well.
Too many Americans treat politics as a team-sports contest instead of as a serious, important debate where the country’s future and present are being decided by responsible, reflective citizens. As demonstrated by Patrick Miller and Pamela Johnston Conover in their 2015 Political Science Quarterly article “Red and Blue States of Mind," 41 percent of respondents who identified with the Democratic or Republican parties believe that winning is more important than policy goals or advancing a particular ideological agenda. Thirty-eight percent of respondents believed that their political parties should use all available means — including cheating, censorship, and violence — to win.
Given what is known about asymmetrical polarization in America, the sports team logic of the Republican Party, its media and supporters has repeatedly shown itself to be especially toxic to American democracy and society.
In the final analysis, President Donald Trump is being impeached because he is a political thug and a dreadful person. But these contemptible qualities and behaviors are exactly why so many of his followers are so attracted to him. What Democrats and other decent people see as sins, Trumpers instead see as virtues. This dynamic is a function of the political deviancy and moral inversion common to sick societies.
The way most Democrats and liberals understand of the power and allure of Trumpism — and what lies ahead, after impeachment and the 2020 election — is hamstrung by an unwillingness to accept precisely why Trump’s hold over his supporters is so absolute and powerful.
“When they go low we go high!” and other such high-minded incantations will not defeat authoritarians like Donald Trump. If Democrats want to win in 2020 and beyond, they must fight both harder and smarter than they have been willing to fight so far.
Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.