Fear of a Trump Wipeout

The Trump kiss of death. Presidential campaign billboard September 2016.

Congressional Republicans have a Trump problem. Mr. Trump has made himself so toxic, conventional wisdom has it, that the losses normally suffered by the party that holds the White House in an off-year election will be so catastrophic as to rock the foundations of Republican hegemony.

Republicans, both in Congress and in various state houses, have warned of a “blue wave,” a liberal tide that will sweep away all of their good works of the last few years and open the country to an orgy of gay marriage and immigration, all of which will be facilitated by the imposition of Sharia Law.

Let us put aside for a moment the, perhaps more alarming, proposition that this is actually the more sane and moderate slate of ideas on the political right in the United States at the moment. As weirdly alarmist and contradictory is the above may sound, it is still a world away from Pizzagate, #Qanon, and the other various conspiracy theories currently germinating in 4chan and Reddit circles.

Viewed superficially, there have been signs that might be read as ominous. Legislative losses in Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Alabama, as well as the recent ballot for the Wisconsin State Supreme Court have become the fodder for mass mailings and alarming television ads designed to gin up the Republican base. Yet, for the all the apparent gloom and doom on the right, and the concomitant triumphal shrillness on MSNBC, congressional Republicans don’t seem to be acting like a group that feels the need to attract votes from outside the tent.

One might think that a party facing the prospect of imminent ruin and would want to clearly distinguish themselves from the source of their possible ruin. Given the scandals currently swirling around Mr. Trump, from Russia to Stormy Daniels, to Michael Cohen, and a host of others, one might think that the bad press alone would be something from which Republicans in the legislative branch would shy away. Worse yet, the prospect that Mr. Trump might spark some sort of constitutional crisis by intemperately firing Robert Mueller, his current chief tormentor.

One might then be surprised to find the trogloditic Senator Mitch McConnell refusing to allow a measure protecting Mr. Mueller from even coming to a vote. Senator McConnell said that he saw “no indication” that the president was likely to fire Mr. Mueller. Of course, one has then to ask the question: how hard was he really looking. Mr. Trump’s persecution complex, visible from space at the best of times, has been in high gear for months now and achieved an even higher pitch of fury when the offices and hotel room of his personal attorney had been raided by the FBI.

Exactly what reason Senator McConnell has for discounting the flood of angry and wounded tweets emitting from the president’s account, or his press secretary’s statement that Mr. Trump was of the opinion that he had the power and the right to fire Mr. Mueller at will, is difficult to know. Or it would be if one actually believed that this was Senator McConnell’s view. A rather more plausible proposition is that Senator McConnell views the firing of Mr. Mueller in a positive light (or simply doesn’t care whether it happens which in this case amounts to the same thing).

Recent polling suggests that something like 70% of Americans are sympathetic to Mr. Mueller’s efforts. Yet the Republican congressional delegation seems oddly unconcerned about the prospect (which seems increasingly likely) that he will be given his walking papers by a president who could hardly spell self control, much less exercise it.

While Mr. Trump has been temporarily distracted by a renewed round of rage at James Comey (a man who seems determined to be loathed at every point on the political spectrum), the closing of the noose around the guy who (figuratively speaking) buried the bodies for Mr. Trump for years suggests that his malign attentions will soon be refocused on more clear and present dangers.

So why is it that no one on the right side of the aisle seems to care? A better question is: why would they? Even with a few electoral setbacks, the Republicans still have the House of Representatives firmly in their grasp. They only really need control of one wing of Congress in order to maintain the “gains” wrought during Mr. Trump’s presidency. With the extensive gerrymandering of districts in the last decade, the prospect of the Democrats taking control of both houses of Congress seems extremely remote. Clearly too, the calculation made by Senator McConnell (and my others like him) is that the firing of Mr. Mueller might be greeted with a good deal of sound and fury, but that its practical effects would be limited.

In this, they are probably correct. While the actively pro-Trump faction makes up a relatively small proportion of the Republican Party, the passively pro-Trump group is a lot larger. Many of the latter would have to get disaffected enough to stay away from the polls before significant electoral losses would need to be contemplated. And, of course, if all else fails, Mr. Trump could simply be impeached. There are an awful lot of things currently in evidence that could rise to the level of a high crime and/or misdemeanour. Getting rid of Trump presents the appetising prospect of a Pence presidency, which is really what Senator McConnell and his ilk would prefer anyway.

In the meantime, Mr. Trump continues to produce outcomes that congressional Republicans view as positive. He had given them cover to deal out a lot of legislative pork (pace their calls for austerity throughout the Obama Administration). His enormous bump in the defence allocation sits well with their partisans both in the military itself or among its legions of fetishists. Mr. Trump provides the perfect political figure for a politics of the spectacle. Because his connection to the Republican Party is of the “one-time use” variety, his virtues can be claimed while his vices are regretted (or ignored).

Much as liberals may decry the many wounds that Mr. Trump has visited upon the body politic in the United States, it must be said that he has had a salutary effect as well. No figure in recent memory his so clearly shown that the emperor is not wearing clothes. American political life has, since time immemorial, been governed by behavioural and strategic nostrums: one must maintain decorum, corruption will be punished, our political agenda must at least pass the chuckle test.

Now all of these comforting truths have been shown to be empty. Trump’s sexual exploits are so wide-ranging that neither the president nor his flunkies seriously bother to deny them. Mr. Trump is a walking violation of the Emoluments Clause, but tax cuts for the top 1% of the income distribution make this a matter of little import. Mr. Trump’s online presence resembles nothing so much as that of a bratty, entitled, adolescent, but his political partisans behave is if this is just par for the course.

Against this tide of organised political ridiculousness, the rational weapons of moderate liberalism have been (and continue to be) singularly ineffective. The problem for the moderate left is that they have no Plan B. After having spent the best part of three decades divesting themselves of the labour movement and making clear that they were only interested in the lower orders to the extent that they were willing to manifest bourgeois social mores, the Democratic Party has hardly any avenue available to it for pressing the struggle in more with more aggressive tactics and horrified disapproval.

It may be that liberal capitalism will be brought low by the right and not the left, a situation which seems deeply ironic given that which obtained in the industrialised world 50 years ago. Yet capitalism, as has been repeatedly shown, can work with a wide variety of social formations. The upside of Mr. Trump, if that it can be called, is that he provides an opening by battering down the supports of the system that it exists. The danger of Mr. Trump is what he may create a space for.

Photograph courtesy of Steve Baker. Published under a Creative Commons license.