We spend a great deal of time talking past one another in our political discourse. As the impeachment pageant plods through Act 2, we are having two different conversations about President Trump. And, as usual, we are not quite listening to one another.
Writing in the New York Times under the headline “Republicans Are Following Trump to Nowhere,” Jamelle Bouie notes that Trump has suffered a string of humiliating defeats in state-level races with which he has involved himself. Impeachment was not a central issue in any of those elections, but it is omnipresent: “Voters could have shown they were tired of Democratic investigations,” Bouie writes. “They could have elevated the president’s allies. Instead, voters handed Trump an unambiguous defeat. And that is much more than just a blow to the president’s immediate political fortunes.”
The proverb holds that nothing succeeds like success, but the more powerful dynamic in public life is that nothing fails like failure. From the point of view of conventional political analysis, it is not only Democrats who must be wondering why so many Republicans remain so committed — even blindly committed — to remaining on the sinking USS Trump. Principle does not seem an especially likely explanation.
Trump critics on the right (both of us) take an even more unsparing view than those who are focused on the recent elections. Trump’s hallmark campaign promise — build a wall and make Mexico pay for it — has not been made good on and almost certainly will not be. That the president failed to make any progress on that issue while his party controlled both houses of Congress ought to be particularly vexing to those naïve partisans who put their faith (literally, in Ann Coulter’s case) in the promises of Donald Trump, something that historically has not been a wise move. Republicans who sold their souls in 2016 are today trying to convince themselves that they got a really good deal on it.
And so the central effort of Republican politics in November 2019 is attempting to cover up or distract from Republican embarrassment at the failures, both ethical and practical, of the Trump administration: The same Republicans who indicted Barack Obama over 2.5 percent economic growth now insist that the economy is “booming” at 1.9 percent growth. (Take a look at the chart if you want a real sense of our growth trends.) That “great and easy to win” trade war with China has U.S. manufacturing in a recession and has decimated the farm economy. Its point was supposedly to alter the balance of trade, but the trade deficit is larger today than when Trump took office, not smaller. (The trade deficit is the wrong criterion, but it is the one Trump and his allies have chosen.) The great recalibration of U.S. foreign policy has not happened. The Trump administration cannot even work up the commitment to enforce its own sanctions on Huawei. (The Chinese telecom company has just been offered yet another reprieve.) Trump bested the Republican establishment in the 2016 presidential primary, and his two great achievements as president have been signing the tax bill that Jeb Bush would have signed and appointing the judges Ted Cruz would have appointed. He rage-tweets all evening while the actual affairs of state are carried out in the main by holdovers from previous Republican administrations, to the extent that they are able to work amid the chaos and incompetence around them.
You would think that this would be giving Republicans second thoughts. You would be wrong.
To the modest extent that our politics is driven by policy, Trump’s partisans are not judging the president’s performance in office on its own terms or in comparison to some notional Republican baseline; they are comparing it to the counterfactual case of the Hillary Rodham Clinton administration, the hypothetical deficiencies and outrages of which can be exaggerated to whatever scale is necessary to comfort them and keep them from thinking too much about the merits of the Democrats’ case against the president. (Here are two things that are simultaneously true: 1. The Democrats would be working to impeach Trump even if he had a record in office of unblemished virtue; 2. Trump does not have a record in office of unblemished virtue.)
Republicans have convinced themselves that backing Trump is a necessary emergency measure — perhaps regrettable in some ways, but the only prophylactic against Democratic machinations that many of them believe, or profess to believe, would result in the end of the republic. Democrats of course tell themselves the same story: that given the existential threat the Republicans pose to all that is good and decent, his opponents enjoy moral license to employ any means necessary.
Hence the dopey “Elections are binary!” rhetoric, which is a way of attempting to end the political conversation rather than begin one. Though “Compared to what?” very often is the most important question in political matters, it is not the last or only question, and the business of citizenship in a republic does not begin or end on Election Day.
But snarling partisanship, while effective in the short term, is in the end a self-defeating strategy, inasmuch as the sense of emergency among the partisans on the other side is reinforced by their rivals’ categorizing them not only as political opponents to be defeated at the polls but also as moral monsters to be driven from public life and personally ruined financially, when possible. If you understand the man on the other side as your enemy, he will understand himself that way, too. That is a fine strategy for demagoguery, but a poor one for republican self-government.
And so Bouie et al. have it wrong in the sense that Trump is not leading Republicans “nowhere.” He is, for better and for worse, leading them against the Democrats, which is enough for them for now. And luring them away with conciliatory measures — Bouie is correct that health care still presents an opportunity for Democrats — is very difficult to do while you are simultaneously attempting to shame them into quiescence.
One of the little political ironies of our times is that both parties have the same opportunity in front of them, and both of them are missing it for the same reason: Mutually reinforcing radical partisanship is a stupidity arms race with no possibility of real victory.