One of my preoccupations here at the Editorial Board is getting people to see the problems we face are much bigger than one terrible president. Donald Trump is a symptom of political and institutional rot as much as he is a catalyst. Yet too many people, especially white liberals, seem to think things will get better once he’s gone.
They won’t, because they can’t.
Things can’t get better when so many Americans believe the president more than they do the empirical evidence of their own senses. Things can’t get better when so many Americans are ready to go to war with democracy itself to win. Things can’t get better when so many Americans are ready to sacrifice their own lives to make an ideological point. Things can’t get better when so many white liberals think these people will snap out of it once it’s clear to them that Trump is a lying, thieving, philandering sadist.
They can’t, because they won’t.
To snap out of it means they’d be wrong, and they can’t be wrong. To snap out of it means the Democrats would be right, and the enemy can never—ever—be right.
Not long ago, it was thought the president might lose support in the most unlikely of places—big farming states like Nebraska and Kansas. Trump’s trade war with China was in its infancy, and the business press kept waiting for the moment when the pain of losing access the world’s biggest food market would spark a revolt against Trump.
It never came.
The revolt never came because people no longer vote for their economic self-interest, something the business and political press have taken for granted since at least the early 1990s. But there’s another reason the revolt never came. A lot of Americans support this president not so much because of judges or tax cuts or other traditionally conservative objectives but because he is explicit about who should be punished.
Conservatism under Trump is less about slowing the pace of change—assuming that’s what it means in practice—and more about hurting the right people for the fun of it. But sadism has a flip side, as I argued on June 11, 2018. “Republicans will continue to harm, even mutilate, themselves, with gladness in their hearts for God’s gift of granting the glory of a Republican president.” I called it Republican masochism.
Now apply this school of suicide-bomber politics to the rapidly expanding global pandemic in which the United States is on track to be the world’s top hot spot.
The president didn’t do enough to retard its spread; indeed, his decisions, such as the travel ban from Europe, almost certainly accelerated it. Trump won’t lead or take appropriate action, because leadership and appropriate action would mean more testing for the new coronavirus, and more testing for the coronavirus would be mean higher official numbers of the sick and dead, which is bad. It makes Trump look bad.
At the same time, there are people inside the administration who are pushing the president, as he kicks and screams, in the direction of leadership and appropriate action—for instance, declaring a national emergency that frees up federal funding for cities and states to use on the outbreak’s front lines. But even as he takes some action, Trump is aware the national economy has come to a stand-still, thus threatening a political metric he believes will make or break his chances of getting reelected.
Moreover, as the Post reported late Monday, the president is feeling personally and financially the pain of an economic shutdown. Six of his seven top revenue-grossing properties here and around the world—luxury hotels, golfing resorts and the like—are hemorrhaging cash. He surely had this in mind over the weekend when he floated the idea of easing restrictions. The cure can’t be worse than the disease, Trump said.
That wouldn’t so bad if it weren’t for the rest of the Republican Party getting behind the idea, especially Republican governors. Some of them appear to be ready to lift shelter-in-place orders or not bother ordering them at all. They understand the pandemic is hurting the economy and that a hurt economy is hurting the president. The best way to protect Trump is blame China for the pandemic or make-believe it isn’t terrible. Or worse: pretending that dying for “principles” is an act of heroism.
Reasonable people can’t believe this. I don’t blame them. But reasonable people suffer from two things. One, a mistaken belief that most Americans are reasonable. Two, a mistaken belief that Republicans leaders, not Republican voters, are the real problem.
I’ve always found that perspective lacking. It denies voter agency. Yes, it could be that regular Republican voters don’t understand that the GOP puts a higher premium on money and power than it does on real human lives. But it could be that regular Republican voters understand that. It could be that they understand that perfectly. Indeed, it could be that they understand that so well they’d risk their lives for it.
The problems we face are much bigger than one terrible president.
Even after Trump is gone, we can’t let up.