The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A most depressing fortnight

It has been a bad two weeks for the country. There will be more bad weeks to come between now and November.

The U.S. Capitol is seen at dawn. The Senate has begun its annual attempt to pass government funding bills. Success is hardly assured, but President Trump has warned Congress that he will never sign another foot-tall, $1 trillion-plus government-wide spending bill, and he insists that he’ll get full funding for his border wall. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

President Trump has had a busy fortnight. He went to a Group of Seven summit and successfully insulted every other allied head of state who was present. He then flew to Singapore and held a summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un that produced little of substance but far nicer rhetoric than that directed at, say, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Trump has continued to lobbyfor Russia to be re-admitted into the Group of Eight. He has also pushed for a tete-a-tete with Russian President Vladimir Putin when he goes to Europe for the NATO summit, yet another example of him thumbing his nose at the alliance.

Trump topped all this off with a bogus claim that Democrats were to blame for the appalling and immoral family-separation policies at the border. This triggered a weekend of conflicting explanations of the administration’s border policies:

Oh, and on the domestic side of the equation, Trump is rooting out dissidents in the GOP, making headway delegitimizing special counsel Robert S. Muller III’s investigation, and watching his approval ratings trend up.

It would be easy for the majority of Americans who do not support Trump to despair that this is the new normal in the United States: alienating democratic allies, befriending bullying authoritarians, putting immigrants seeking asylum into cages.

The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts is not going to sugarcoat the past fortnight: It has been pretty God-awful. But it is worth stressing that none of this is necessarily permanent. Indeed, the status quo might shift relatively soon — just not as soon as one may hope.

To understand the current political moment, you need to comprehend three things. First, after a first year of fumbling, Trump has finally realized that he can boss the executive branch around. Consider this anecdote from The Washington Post about his desire to meet with Putin:

The president’s interest in a meeting with Putin became public in March after the Kremlin disclosed that Trump extended an invitation in a phone call with the Russian leader. But U.S. officials say Trump privately has been asking his aides for a bilateral meeting ever since he met with Putin in Vietnam in November on the sidelines of a multilateral economic summit.
“After that meeting, the president said he wanted to invite Putin to the White House,” one U.S. official said. “We ignored it.”
At the time, top aides in the National Security Council opposed the idea of a meeting and said they didn’t view Trump’s interest in a summit as an order to set one up. “They decided: Let’s wait and see if he raises it again,” said the official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue.

Trump did a lot of dumb things in 2017, but, like minding a toddler, his aides blocked him from doing even dumber things. As Trump has burned through staff, he has been able to eliminate bureaucratic impediments to his ideas, no matter how dubious they might be. He is no longer an impotent leader of the executive branch. An emboldened Trump, convinced that he’s invincible, will continue to do even dumber stuff than usual.

Second, many of Trump’s ideas are not all that popular. The Daily Beast commissioned a poll to see what Americans thought of the child separation policy at the border. Gideon Resnick reports that it is pretty unpopular with most Americans.

The poll of roughly 1,000 adults aged 18 and over, and conducted June 14-15, asked respondents if they agreed with the following statement: “It is appropriate to separate undocumented immigrant parents from their children when they cross the border in order to discourage others from crossing the border illegally.”
Of those surveyed, 27 percent of the overall respondents agreed with it, while 56% disagreed with the statement. Yet, Republicans leaned slightly more in favor, with 46% agreeing with the statement and 32 percent disagreeing. Meanwhile, 14 percent of Democrats surveyed supported it and only 29% of Independents were in favor.

Trump can get away with this in the short run because a plurality of Republicans support it, even if many party elites do not. Of course, they are simply following Trump’s lead on this; that same poll showed GOP respondents had a slightly more favorable opinion of Kim Jong Un than Nancy Pelosi.

Elections have consequences, and Americans are now paying the wages of 2016. What is frustrating about the moment to those who oppose Trump is that the November midterms seems like a long way off.

Still, elections are coming, which leads us to the third thing. If Trump’s inner moral compass does not exist, and the inner moral compass of a plurality of Republicans is broken, there is one final check on their actions: the midterm elections. They do not necessarily bode well for the GOP. The National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar, who was prescient about Trump’s success in 2016, is bearish on how the midterms will play out for him:

One of the biggest red flags for President Trump’s reelection emerged this week from a region that he can never stop talking about: the Rust Belt. The president still frequently likes to remind reporters about his conventional-wisdom-busting victories in the blue-wall states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, but he isn’t paying attention to how much they’ve reverted to Democratic form lately.
Senate Republicans are all but conceding that Democratic senators will be coasting to reelection in Midwestern states that Trump narrowly carried. . . .
The political movement in Ohio is headed in the opposite direction, even with Trump’s recent uptick in popularity. Trump’s job approval in the state is at 43 percent with 54 percent disapproving, according to a new Quinnipiac survey. Nearly half of respondents to a Suffolk University poll of Ohio voters said their midterm vote would be a check on the president, compared to 28 percent saying their vote would be to support Trump’s agenda. . . .
There’s a reason Democrats are encouraging their candidates to focus on the economic anxieties many Americans still feel despite the macroeconomic boom. Health care is now polling as the top issue among voters, driven by middle-class Americans worried about rising expenses for medical care. Trump may be shattering traditional Republican economic dogma, but his blunt-force approach to politics isn’t convincing his newfound fans to vote for his adopted party.

Kraushaar does not even mention in his column the way that Trump’s blunderbuss trade protectionism threatens to devastate farmers in the region.

What I wrote last December still applies today:

The absolute best way for Trump and Trumpism to be repudiated is through democratic and not merely legal means. If Doug Jones defeats Roy Moore in Alabama despite a presidential endorsement, that represents a blow to Trump in the same way he was humiliated by the Virginia state elections last month. If the GOP loses badly in the midterms despite a healthy economy, that is an even bigger repudiation of the head of the Republican Party. And if Trump loses bigly in his quest for reelection in 2020, such a resounding defeat might shock the GOP into repudiating white identity politics.

It has been a bad two weeks for the country. There will be more bad weeks to come between now and November. The response by those who believe this administration is out of step with small-l liberal values is not to grow dispirited. It is to make sure that Trump’s brand of populism is repudiated at the ballot box.

This is not the short play. It will take time, resources, effort, and endurance. It will still be worth it.