Donald Trump may well have an impact nearly as far-reaching. But in his case, it’s the way he is dragging our politics down to his depraved level. And he’s able to accomplish it only because of the enthusiastic support of his party. That’s the vital part of this picture, the element that takes the poison Trump injects into our political bloodstream and sends it coursing through the entire body politic.
It took President Trump 601 days to top 5,000 false and misleading claims in The Fact Checker’s database, an average of eight claims a day.But on April 26, just 226 days later, the president crossed the 10,000 mark — an average of nearly 23 claims a day in this seven-month period, which included the many rallies he held before the midterm elections, the partial government shutdown over his promised border wall and the release of the special counsel’s report on Russian interference in the presidential election.
Try to remember when the president telling a single lie was considered worthy of headlines and condemning editorials. It wasn’t that long ago. And now? Democrats shout about Trump’s pathological dishonesty, the media dutifully documents the rushing river of lies, and Republicans insist that it doesn’t matter. They won’t try to claim that Trump is anything but a liar; instead, they’ll wave away the question of honesty as something no one cares about anymore.
This is, at its root, the implicit Republican case to the public about Trump. So long as he’s pursuing policies they like, it doesn’t matter what he does or says, because there should no longer be any objective moral or ethical standards by which a president is judged. Power is all that matters.
Let me offer one vivid example. The White House made clear last week that it would refuse to comply with any subpoena from the House of Representatives (“We’re fighting all the subpoenas,” Trump said), an unambiguous expression of contempt for the Constitution. So people went back and found an video of a 1998 speech by Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, then one of the most aggressive advocates of Bill Clinton’s impeachment and now one of Trump’s most ardent defenders.
In his speech, Graham notes that one of the articles of impeachment for Richard Nixon concerned Nixon’s refusal to comply with congressional subpoenas, his argument being that Clinton should meet Nixon’s fate.
The point of spreading this video may have been to criticize Graham for his hypocrisy, which he certainly deserves. But at the very least you can say that in 1998 he was standing up for a principle. However cynical his motivations might have been, he argued that when the president violates not only the law but the standards to which we ought to hold a president, we should consider removing him.
But what principle is Graham, or any Republican, arguing for now? What standard of presidential behavior are they encouraging us to uphold? Where do they now perceive the line between acceptable and unacceptable conduct?
The answer is that they are arguing for no principle at all. There is no line that Trump could cross that would make them say, “Now he has gone too far.” There is no volume of lies he could tell, no extent of his corruption that could be revealed, no amount of bigotry he could spread, no number of family members he could appoint to high positions in government, no degree of profiteering off the presidency, no amount of admiration he could express for authoritarian dictators, no obstruction of justice he could engage in, no assault on the integrity of his office too appalling for them not to enthusiastically defend him.
And when they do so, they barely bother to hold up a principle that could broadly be applied to justify behavior like Trump’s. That’s no longer how they argue. Even as they shout “No collusion," Trump’s lawyer says, “There’s nothing wrong with taking information from Russians,” and when asked whether the Trump reelection campaign plans to welcome the Kremlin’s help in 2020, Trump’s spokesperson refuses to say no.
So why do I say Trump threatens to transform our politics in ways other presidents couldn’t? The comparison with Nixon is instructive. When Nixon’s crimes and corruption were revealed, the specific acts found few defenders. Republicans didn’t rush to the TV cameras to insist there was nothing wrong with breaking into the other party’s headquarters to steal information, or with paying hush money, or with trying to enlist the CIA to quash an FBI investigation. They did what they could up until the end to minimize the damage, but they didn’t claim that those acts themselves were perfectly fine.
Yet closely analogous actions when committed or celebrated by Trump have not just been defended; they have been defended by almost the entire Republican Party. With just a few exceptions here and there, one of our two great parties has committed itself to the proposition that there is no longer any such thing as standards of presidential behavior that need to be upheld.
We won't know for sure how far Trump has degraded our democracy until some time after he has left office. We don't yet know how long it will take to revive the idea that the president should be a person of strong character — or at the very least, not the embodiment of everything you'd teach your children not to be. We'll have to wait to see how long it will take the nation to recover from the infection of Trump and Trumpism, from the way he encourages us to always cultivate and elevate the worst in ourselves.
But we can say this: If you aren’t disgusted by Trump and what his party does to defend him — and what together they’re doing to American politics — then you’re helping him make things worse.