Almost a year later, Donald Trump is still president. Powerful men in entertainment, media and even politics have seen their public lives implode almost instantly under scandal for months now, but Trump holds on.
If you’re among the majority of Americans who oppose Trump, you probably can’t understand why. And it’s making you furious. I saw the same thing happen in my native Venezuela with the late Hugo Chávez, who ruled as precisely the sort of faux-populist strongman that Trump loves to praise. Chávez’s political career (which ended only with his untimely death) seemed not just immune to scandal but indeed to profit directly from it. Why? Because scandal is no threat to populism. Scandal sustains populism.
Pundits have been predicting Trump’s fall since before he won office. It should have happened in October 2016, when the infamous “Access Hollywood” video was released. Or in January 2017, when then-Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. testified in a Senate hearing that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election in an attempt to help Trump win. Or in February, when Michael Flynn was forced to resign as national security adviser because of his undisclosed communications with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador. Or in May, when Trump fired FBI director James B. Comey, who was leading an investigation into the growing Russia scandal. Or in August, when the presidentfailed to plainly criticize white supremacists for the Charlottesville protests that led to the death of one counterprotester. Or after four people with senior roles in the Trump campaign were indicted in connection with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation. Search for “Trump impeach” on Google, and you will find that every month of 2017 brought new, different predictions of his imminent political death from all sides of the public spectrum.
Sure, his overall approval rating has dwindled to below 40 percent , but his base — the only people Trump appears to think he should answer to — still loves him. In one November poll, only 7 percent of his supporters from 2016 said they’d vote differently if they could. Which is to say, in the face of all this scandal, Trump is not even close to collapse. He and his supporters are simply grinning back at you.
If you want to fight Trump effectively, you have to learn to think like they do and give up the prospect that scandal will one day undo him.
To do that, take a step back and analyze the news cycle from outside the daily ups and downs, the tweets, the Fox News defenses. Once we leave behind the moral outrage, the sense of injury, the distinct cadence of each scandalous speech, it is clear that 2017 Trump is not very different from 2016 Trump on his way to power. Everything he’s done in the White House is more of the same: An enemy (unpatriotic minorities, the lying liberal media, anyone who doesn’t fit into the side of good in his Manichaean vision) is cartooned, blamed for all of society’s evils and offered in sacrifice as a scapegoat for the United States’ problems. The purported solution remains simple: Shame them, silence them, build a wall around them. The basic premise is still that the restoration of the country lies in the destruction of its enemies.
The only difference is that Trump, now in power, paints himself as a fighter under siege — even more so than as 2016’s outsider candidate. The Russia scandal, the occasional betrayals by members of his own party, the condemnation of so many of his actions are all attempts to “stop” him. What you call scandal is only a sign that he is fighting back. Indeed, that he is fighting you. To his supporters, this is no scandal at all — he’s doing exactly what he promised he would do.
It does not matter that he is eroding the nation’s democratic institutions. That this combat is dangerous, hypocritical, built on lies. That you, after all, are innocent. His supporters are sure that you are to blame. Until you can convince them otherwise, they will cheer him on. The name of the game is polarization, and the rookie mistake is to forget you are the enemy.
Normal politicians collapse in the face of scandal because it shows them dozing on the job or falling short of their promises. To get elected, they offer a bargain: “Vote for me. I will make you richer/fight for your rights/assure your progress.” Scandals reveal that they can’t do that, and thus, they tumble. However, like all populists, Trump offered a much different deal: “Vote for me. I will destroy your enemies. They are the reason you are not rich/have fewer rights/America is not great anymore.” Scandal is the populist’s natural element for the same reason that demolishing buildings makes more noise than constructing them. His supporters didn’t vote for silence. They voted for a bang.
So where you see Mueller making progress at getting to the truth of Russian election interference, Trump supporters see an altogether different scandal. When Trump’s aides are indicted but Hillary Clinton isn’t, the probe serves as proof that the system is corrupt. Or when the Muslim travel ban is not enforced, it means the “deep state” is plotting some sort of coup.
That’s how populism works. As long as Trump is still swinging back, scandals help him to polarize the country further. The scorn of his adversaries, in the eyes of his supporters, proves that he’s doing exactly what they want him to do: dismantling a rigged system that they believe destroyed their hopes.
I know how you feel. You are outraged. What did you ever do to these people to deserve their hate? What can possibly be going on? How can they, for example, make sense of so many former Goldman Sachs men in the Trump Cabinet? Weren’t the bankers supposed to be the enemy? Not to mention Russia? All your senses (and your Facebook friends) tell you that, with all this hypocrisy, justice demands that Trump be impeached — indeed, it should have happened long ago. For your sake and for his supporters’ sake, too. Instead, it continues, and each day that goes by, it makes less sense to you. As Venezuelans used to tell one another: Ch ávez te tiene loco. Trump is making you crazy. Making you scramble for ways to make this end.
Look, I’ve been there. And I don’t have all the answers; Chávez is dead, but chavismo lives on. But I do know that before trying to convince Trump supporters that he is a hypocrite who must be impeached, that the news is not fake, that your statistical charts and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are in dire need of their attention — before you try to convince them that they are being racist or, worse, ignorant by believing in Trump — you should ask yourself: Will this help show them that I am not their enemy? Because what can really win them over is not to prove that you are right. It is to show that you care. Only then will they believe what you say.
Sheer outrage at the president’s scandals is pointless. When directed at Trump, your anger gives him rhetorical ammunition to point toward his besiegers (“We should have a contest as to which of the Networks, plus CNN and not including Fox, is the most dishonest, corrupt and/or distorted in its political coverage of your favorite President (me)”) or to bolster his claims to be fighting for his base (“Drain the Swamp should be changed to Drain the Sewer — it’s actually much worse than anyone ever thought, and it begins with the Fake News!”). But worse still is directing your anger at his supporters. Then you’re doing the same thing Trump is: believing your side is all right and the opposite side is all wrong. Rejecting your common humanity and sense of country, you’re playing into the polarization game instead of defeating it.
This is not a call for appeasement, only for efficiency. If dwelling on scandal too much can be counterproductive, then the focus must be elsewhere. I believe it should rest on understanding and empathizing with the grievances that brought Trump to power (wage stagnation, cultural isolation, a depleted countryside, the opioid crisis). Trump’s solutions may be imaginary, but the problems are very real. Populism is and has always been the daughter of political despair. Showing concern is the only way to break the rhetorical polarization.
Finally, there is indeed a place for your legitimate moral outrage: not the dining table but the voting booth. Just ask Alabama Democrats.
So as the second year of Trump’s administration approaches, stop. Take a deep breath. Let all the hatred circle from afar. Don’t let it into your echo chamber. Try to hush it, pause it. Don’t let it close your eyes and tear your own society, your own family, apart. Remember: There’s more to life than politics. And scandal, for a populist, does not end in a noisy downfall. It ends in silence.