It sickens me to say this, but you know something? As naked, narrowly self-interested political calculations go, I’m not so sure that Donald Trump’s reaction to Charlottesville was a bad one.
I want to believe the exact opposite. I want to believe that his serial roll-out of repugnancies damaged Trump politically as much as it indicted him morally. I want to believe that the moment when the President of the United States lustily defended those gathered for an explicitly-advertised white extremist rally partially on the grounds that “they had a permit!” was the moment when some giant light bulb switched on in the collective head of his non-Nazi voters, casting into utter darkness the notion that swallowing such bile is a payable price for a conservative Supreme court and (maybe) tax reform, or whatever. I want to believe that by choosing to praise the imaginary mild-mannered Robert E. Lee statue enthusiasts he claimed to see at that rally rather than reassure the real Americans terrified by the marauders who were actually there, he severed some critical vein of support.
In short, I want to believe that enough has finally become enough. But the truth is: I don’t.
Maybe I’m just over-correcting for how extremely wrong I got everything back in November: how grossly I underestimated the number of people who thrilled to Trump’s rise, and overestimated the powers of reason and revulsion to quell it. Maybe, after crediting too many polls that turned out to be too full of bull, I’m falling too far on the side of skepticism that any of the curtains-for-Trump approval-rating data is really data. But in my gut, I just can’t join so many others in the assessment that with last Tuesday’s Maine-to-California projectile vomit, the president finally went “off the rails” and into some state of political purdah. In my gut, I fear that while he may well have hurled the Republican Party into a gorge, Trump has kept himself right on track.
Think about it:
For any incumbent, the first task of getting re-elected is to retain every single vote garnered in the first place. For Trump, as for anyone else, that means constantly feeding, watering and flattering the truest of the true believers, and fanning out from there.
To start with the truest of Trump’s true believers, it is, alas, possible to start right there in Charlottesville. Of course, it’s not only the proudly pro-Trump Nazi-flag-wavers on parade. It’s also people who either like something about that kind of spectacle, or aren’t any more upset about it than they are about lots of other developments that they consider disturbing, such as the election of Trump’s Muslim-Kenyan-communist predecessor. These people aren’t quite fanatics themselves, but they clearly find some kind of affirmation or comfort in Trump’s ease among fanatics. They might never carry a physical torch at a rally, but they always carry an emotional one for a past they picture as simpler, more abundant, less fraught with diversity and its demons. These are the people who spent the whole campaign taking Trump’s bursts of misogyny and Muslim-baiting as refreshing dips in the pool of “authenticity.”
Of course, It’s hard to know how many of these folks exist. But seven months into their hero’s tenure on top of the world, it is well past time to stop thinking of them as a crazy little handful. Needless to say, the whole Charlottesville episode has done nothing but burnish his brand in their eyes.
Widening the circle, we arrive at a separate but equally-committed category of the Trump base. These are the hard-core, vineyard-toiling ideological conservatives who might dislike Trump’s antics regarding race, but not nearly as much as they love his actions on their core issue or set of issues – the fight against abortion, perhaps; the rollback of business or environmental regulations, or the promotion of their concept of “religious liberty.” On some of those things, week in and week out, the Trump administration has been quietly rocking out and locking in a further layer of support.
Granted, most of these activists would be perfectly thrilled for a magic wand to be waved that turns Mike Pence into their president. But absent some independent force – i.e., Robert Mueller -- that makes that happen, they will stick with the guy who’s using every tool that is truly at his disposal to make their long-held dreams come true. So weaving further fibers into Trump’s safety net, there is a substantial, sure-to-vote, conservative-activist cohort that is not going to abandon their president because he has drawn a gross moral equivalence between neo-Nazis and liberal counter-protestors, whom conservative media have been trying to morph into one big, scary ball of antifa from day one.
How about the bigger pool of less fervent, more moderate Republicans? Is there no significance to be read into the fact of GOP elected officials falling all over themselves to emphasize how they hate the KKK even more than they love tax cuts? Isn’t it amazing, unheard-of, unprecedented for lawmakers of a president’s own party to question his stability, morality, competence, as several senators did on Thursday? Sure. But don’t forget the reason why so many other GOP elected officials have failed to chastise Trump over Charlottesville or anything else: their constituents. If race-baiting were some sort of a deal-breaker among the Republican rank-and-file, Trump wouldn’t have made it out of the gate in the primaries. Sanity-based GOP members of Congress have spent almost two years now enduring the push-pull of dreading Trump while representing his fans. By now, the lot of them have come to resemble nothing so much as a bunch of hostages who arranged their own abduction. Having gone into cahoots with the shady crook in order to split the ransom loot later, they are suddenly horrified to realize that the guy is really crazy and has no qualms about killing them. So here Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell and the rest of the crew are all stuffed in the trunk of Trump’s limo, hoping against hope that somebody will come along to save them before they suffocate or careen off a cliff. But who, pray tell, would that be? The voters in deference to whose fevered Trumpophilia they made this catastrophic deal in the first place? The president who got elected in large part by promising to "drain the swamp" they dug? I know that this very, very late-breaking wave of opprobrium feels like the turn of the tide, and perhaps it is. Still I wonder: exactly how is Trump mortally wounded by being rejected by an establishment he made a great big show of rejecting first?
Oh wait a minute, I know: Things have changed since the campaign. Now that Trump is actually governing, he needs his friends in Congress to pass the big GOP agenda.
Pardon me for chuckling, as I always do when anyone says that, because it’s so cute. Newsflash, cupcake: Trump is Trump’s agenda, and he often seems to think he serves it best by skinning his allies – let alone his enemies -- alive. Yes, it will be a political disaster if, despite its total control of the federal government, the GOP hits the broken-promise trifecta and fails to deliver on health care, tax reform, and infrastructure. But given the fact that as of today, Trump remains (astonishingly, breathtakingly) more popular among their voters than they are, his Congressional colleagues still have more to lose from shunning him than he has to lose from shunning them.
So much for Republicans. How about the all-important swing vote? That mysterious blend of Rust Belt Democrats and independents who voted for Obama, perhaps even for Sanders -- but then, high on some mix of craving change, crushing on a reality-TV billionaire, and hating Hillary, voted for Trump? Hasn't this turned them off, once and for all ?
Possibly. But I wouldn’t count on it.
Unlike many of my fellow liberals, I have always thought it was wrong to brand all Trump voters as bigots. That said, they are, by definition, capable of tolerating an awful lot of bigotry in a leader. I would hope that, particularly for undecided-type voters, an actual president defending a gathering of actual Nazis should be enough to shoot the needle on the unacceptably-racist meter from “meh” to “oh my God!” Then again, I used to think that a presidential candidate who spent five years peddling birtherism would end up as an asterisk.
Look, maybe everyone is right. Maybe this time really is different from all the other times. Maybe this time, Trump has finally fallen so far that he can only keep falling. But just for the heck of it, imagine what has now become unimaginable. Imagine that when disaster struck in Charlottesville, our president had done the absolute right thing. Imagine that he had come out with an immediate, heartfelt condemnation of the whole disgusting spectacle. Imagine that he had lambasted the right-wing protestors who love him and defended the left-wing counter-protestors who don't. Imagine that he had dropped everything, flown to Charlottesville, locked arms in unity with a multi-racial line of civic and political leaders, and walked in lockstep with them toward a future of harmonious diversity. Would I have praised the president for doing that? Would I now be writing, “Wow, generally speaking I think Trump is the very definition of disaster, but today I have got to admit: he really rose to the occasion”? Yes. Would I thus consider voting for him? Not in a hundred million years.
Now imagine how that alternative scenario might have played to the base to whom Trump clearly fancied himself appealing with his actual disgraceful display. Not just the supremacists, but the Trump voters two or three ripples out from that. The people who don’t consider themselves at all racist, but like to point out that there’s no such thing as white history month. Who hate the feeling that no matter what struggles or indignities they suffer, they need to atone for their “skin privilege.” Who love Trump for shoving “political correctness” and revel in the permission his presidency seems to give them to shove it, too. Had Trump done what everyone else considers to be the right thing, might some of those voters have considered it wrong? Might some of them put it together with the survival of Obamacare and the lack of brick one in The Wall to conclude that maybe Trump isn’t so different after all? That maybe he’s just another media-minded panderer, cow-towing to coastal elites' demand that he denounce and decry some of his most loyal followers until they say he can stop? Might just a few of them start to think about sitting out his rallies and, eventually, his re-election? I think they might.
And don't forget: for Trump voters, racially-charged and not, there's another form of bigotry at play here. It's the bigotry that flows toward Trump himself; the one that his once-maligned, now fondly-missed predecessor, George W. Bush, called the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”
If Donald Trump has succeeded at anything in the first seven months of his presidency, it is in lowering the bar for himself so far that he could trip over it. At this point, “non-impeachment” or “absence of nuclear winter” feels like something of a moon shot. Against that backdrop, imagine the following:
Charlottesville starts to wash away in a series of fresh news cycles, as even it will do. Awful subsequent race riots take place, but some of them gift Trump with images of violence from the lunatic far-left and thus shifting some of the focus from the fascist dabblings of the president to the criminal excesses of his beloved “both sides.” Over weeks and months, Democrats and the media somehow start to come across as overplaying the hand of moral outrage; as refusing to “move on” from Charlottesville to jobs and whatnot.
Meanwhile, no thanks to him, the winds of economic recovery remain at Trump’s back. Barely-noticed administration initiatives aimed at boosting employment or vanquishing opioids bear modest fruit in a couple of strategic spots on the electoral map. Robert Mueller concludes his Russia investigation without recommending criminal charges against Trump personally, which the right-wing media trumpets as sterling vindication; proof that the whole thing was a witch hunt. An elderly Supreme Court justice takes his or her leave, allowing the administration to produce Gorsuch: The Sequel. And proving that there is a first time for everything, Trump goes three days straight without causing a major apocalypse, thus allowing his supporters to fancy him "growing into the presidency."
Even if all this were to happen, I would still think that Trump is vile, inept, divisive and unfit. But I have thought that all along. What would the bulk of his own voters – base and beyond -- think? Beats me.
As a test of Trump’s basic moral worthiness to lead the American people, his reaction to Charlottesville has been an irretrievable calamity. But as a pure political calculation pertaining to himself and himself alone?
Again, it sickens me to say this. But I am not sure.