With great fanfare, the New York Times published a major feature on Tuesday headlined “Intimidation, Pressure and Humiliation: Inside Trump’s Two-Year War on the Investigations Encircling Him.” This investigative report chronicled a truly breathtaking pattern of Donald Trump acting about as guilty and corrupt as a human being can: Firing anyone he fears might expose him, hiring loyalists and pressuring them to cover up for him, encouraging associates to commit perjury on his behalf, intimidating witnesses, lobbing false accusations, bullying congressmen into covering for him — the list goes on.
Anyone who dropped into American politics after having been out of it for the past five years would be floored, wondering how on earth Trump and his associates aren’t in jail already. But for most people who read the article, the takeaway is quite different: It’s useful to have a thorough accounting of the horrors at the halfway point of this current hellish journey, but this journalistic behemoth will change nothing.
Anyone who wasn’t already convinced that Trump is a corrupt criminal will be unmoved. We still have to wait to find out whether Trump has lost even the tiny fraction of voters necessary to kick him out of office in 2020. We’ve got two more years of this: Stories about Trump’s corruption and criminality that should shock everyone but won’t, Trump voters blithely dismissing the overwhelming evidence against him as “fake news” and people who see the truth standing by, helpless to change things.
The Times reporters grasp this reality, noting in the article that “many Americans have lost track of how unusual” Trump’s behavior has been. Since much of his obstruction of justice occurs right out in the open, it may not seem as criminal and conspiratorial as it actually is.
No doubt, as the Times reporters argue, “the president’s brazen public behavior” has numbed the public to the seriousness of the situation, which is no doubt exactly what Trump is hoping for. But Trump’s own behavior, and even the behavior of those Republicans who actively cover up for him, is only part of the story. In truth, Republicans have been priming their voters for decades to accept, defend and even adore a shameless criminal in the White House.
The key to Trump’s defense with his base, I would argue, is not that he tries to convince them he’s innocent, at least not in the traditional sense of “someone who didn’t do the crimes he’s suspected of.” Instead, the strategy is to suggest that all politicians are corrupt, everyone is complicit and therefore all investigations are just bad-faith power grabs conducted for purely partisan reasons.
That strategy is working with Trump’s base because that’s exactly the message Republicans have been instilling in their voters for decades.
First, Republicans normalized the idea that all politicians are corrupt by electing a series of deeply corrupt politicians themselves. Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush have all been warm-up acts to Trump. Watergate, the Iran-Contra affair, falsified intelligence to justify the Iraq invasion: Every one of those presidents helped train their voters to defend political corruption if it was conducted for supposedly meritorious ends.
With Watergate — a bush-league burglary gone wrong — the training wheels hadn’t come off. But by the time Bush administration lies had led us into the disastrous quagmire in Iraq, your average conservative had not only become adept at making excuses for political corruption, but had fully accepted that doing so is a normal and expected aspect of supporting the Republican Party. It’s honestly not that big a leap from defending the corrupt Bush administration to defending the corrupt Trump administration.
Second, Republican politicians trained their base to think of investigations as bad-faith political power grabs by themselves using investigations primarily, if not solely, for this purpose. Ever since the Bill Clinton presidency, Republicans have invented a steady stream of Democratic “scandals” to gin up fake umbrage, from Whitewater and Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky to whatever the hell was supposed to be scandalous about “Benghazi.”
(A note for the #MeToo era: Whatever you might think about Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky, which was clearly inappropriate behavior, it’s safe to say that Republican outrage over it was in bad faith.)
All these endless, pointless investigations and scandal-mongering over Democratic behavior that wasn’t corrupt, much less criminal, has primarily served to indoctrinate the conservative masses into believing that “investigations” are never truly serious, but just a tool for partisans trying to score political points. They are now throughly primed to interpret the investigations into Trump’s very real corruption as nothing more than Democrats seeking revenge for decades of mistreatment by Republican hacks.
That’s why polls that measure whether Republican voters “believe” Trump is telling the truth are somewhat beside the point. The real problem is that they don’t believe it matters whether Trump is a criminal, and even the proverbial “smoking gun” wouldn’t shake them from that belief.
The polling data that’s more useful is data showing the surge in Republican support for Russia and belief that Russia is an “ally” since Trump’s election. Which is to say that the increasing evidence that Russian intelligence interfered with the American election, and attempted to bribe a candidate into ending sanctions levied on Russia for human rights violations, has only made Republicans love the Russians even more. That isn’t the result of ignorance. It’s evidence of a widespread belief that criminality is no problem if it helps their team win.
Trump’s electoral victory was a “black swan” event and likely won’t happen again. But the widespread acceptance of his corruption among Republicans is a sign of a much deeper problem, rooted in decades of party officials and propaganda outlets like Fox News and Rush Limbaugh training the conservative base to be indifferent to corruption, and to see investigations as little more than political weapons to be wielded against your opponent.
Remember, the structural advantages Republicans enjoy under our electoral system means they don’t really have to win voters outside their base to hold power. And their base simply doesn’t care if the party’s leaders are criminals. That’s a deadly combination, one that suggests that the age of Trump won’t really be over even when he’s finally out of office.