Politics & Policy

The Trump Tipping Point for Conservatives?

(Reuters photo: Joshua Roberts)
The burden of rationalizing the steady stream of Trump blowups is a serious GOP problem

The anti-Trump resistance — especially its mainstream-liberal-media battalion — wakes up every day and turns on the news expecting to hear that Republicans are finally abandoning the president en masse. It hasn’t happened yet, and it may not ever happen.

The still-unsubstantiated charges about collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians didn’t do it. Nor did the firestorm about firing FBI director James Comey. And though many of the talking heads on the cable news channels thought yesterday’s scoop about the alleged passing of classified information to the Russians would do the trick, as of now there’s no sign that most conservatives have decided to throw in the towel on President Trump.

But no one in White House or the Republican party, in or out of Congress, should be all that encouraged by this trend. Even if Trump voters are, as polls continue to show, sticking with the man they voted for last November, come hell or high water, the burden of rationalizing and/or defending the president is still exacting a high price from the GOP. If they have to continue paying it on a daily basis, it will have a serious impact on the ability of Congress to push ahead on any major conservative projects, such as tax reform. Just as important, in the long term it could prove to be a crucial factor in determining whether 2018 will be the wave election Democrats are currently dreaming about.

The reason the conservative base is sticking with Trump even as his White House mismanages a series of debilitating controversies isn’t hard to figure out. No matter what Trump does, says, or tweets, two factors always serve to mitigate any damage it might do him with his voters.

The first is that in our bifurcated society, in which the nation is roughly divided between those who read, listen to, and watch one set of media and those who watch another, nothing that is reported by the Washington Post, the New York Times, NPR, CNN, or MSNBC is likely to influence conservatives. Most on the right assume, not without cause, that the liberal mainstream media is out to paint Trump in the worst possible light, even if what the president has done on any particular day isn’t all that terrible. They also understand that leaks from inside the government may be politically motivated.

Just as crucial is that whenever the usual cast of media characters start arguing that the latest outrage is the worst thing Trump has ever done, and that this will finally be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, most conservatives smile. Even if what we’re learning about Trump’s disclosure of Israeli intelligence is deeply troubling, it’s clear that such issues aren’t viewed in isolation. We are now at the point where anything — even news stories involving national security that would in other circumstances upset conservatives — that outrages liberals is seen by many on the right as somehow a good thing. The Right may have spent all of 2015 and 2016 demanding that Hillary Clinton be held accountable for her refusal to treat classified information seriously, but it’s likely that many Republicans may be ready to treat the story about Trump’s indiscretion as either fake news or not such a big deal. If that makes them hypocrites, they will simply answer that Clinton’s Democratic and liberal media apologists are in no position to talk about Trump.

That is why Trump’s support among his voters has — despite an all-out media assault since he was elected in November — stayed strong.

As Democrats showed us in the last election cycle, rationalizing and defending the prevarications of your party’s leader isn’t all that hard. You just put your head down and refuse to accept the premise of the other side’s questions, no matter how reasonable they might be. At this point, there just isn’t any place in our political culture where sensible people can find common ground. In this case, even those on the right who know that Trump’s behavior and comments — and the circus that is his White House — are bad for the country also understand that the alternative is a liberal “resistance.” Surrendering to the other side could mean not just Trump’s undoing but the unraveling of the entire conservative project, much of which the president has supported in his first months in office.

As Democrats showed us in the last election cycle, rationalizing and defending the prevarications of your party’s leader isn’t all that hard.

But the assumption that Republicans can go on like this indefinitely is equally unfounded. Conservative voters, even the most loyal members of the Trump base, may not be willing to join forces with his critics, but they are being exhausted by the effort required to stick with such an undisciplined and constantly off-message president.

That doesn’t just apply to pro-Trump talking heads, whose numbers have dwindled in recent days because anything you might say in defense of the president’s position on any issue is likely to be undermined by the next morning’s tweets from @realDonaldTrump. While Trump’s fans love it when he’s outrageous, they can’t derive the same enjoyment from his contortions as he balances the need to appear presidential on national-security issues with his compulsion to vent his spleen at his critics or boast in private meetings.

The sheer effort of having to discount the endless stream of controversies is taking a toll on conservative energy and activism. Where are the legions of tea partiers who turned out to hound Democrats at town halls a few years ago, or to cheer at Trump rallies in 2016? They may still be out there waiting to be mobilized, but having to defend an incumbent who seems unable to stick to a position or put forth an easily understood narrative about his actions is not a factor that helps sustain a party or a movement. Trump voters may think that the Russia-collusion story is a crock, that Comey deserved to be fired, and that disclosing Israeli intelligence to Moscow isn’t treason, but neither are there any signs that they’re all that excited about what this administration is doing.

The enthusiasm gap between Trump supporters and those of Clinton last year played no small role in determining the outcome. Can anyone on the right pretend that this factor isn’t now working in the Democrats’ favor, and that the reason is Trump’s often indefensible behavior? This will act as a drag on congressional Republicans as they labor to turn the country’s attention back to the issues they want to work on in the year and a half they have left before the next election. It will also hamper their ability to compete effectively in the midterms. While we’re a long way from the Democrats’ being able to credibly claim that they will do a 2010-in-reverse next year, each Trump controversy gives them more confidence and further depresses GOP morale.

There may be no such thing as a Trumpian act that will constitute a tipping point in the sense of making Republicans openly abandon him. The real tipping point for Trump may be the moment when he will have so depressed his base that it will no longer constitute an effective counterbalance to the Democrats’ resistance media machine. When that point is reached, GOP majorities and any hope that Trump can successfully govern may be gone. If that isn’t something that will scare the Trump White House into a genuine if probably futile attempt to keep the president’s loose lips in check, nothing is.

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