The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s insulting the troops is just the latest episode of the ‘nothing matters’ presidency

Trump supporters pose for a group photograph after participating in a caravan convoy circuit in Adairsville, Ga., on Saturday. (Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters)
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At the end of James Michener’s Korean War novel, “The Bridges at Toko-Ri,” an admiral notes the bravery of aviators who are flying perilous missions against the enemy. “Where do we get such men?” he asks.

Apparently President Trump wonders the same thing — but not in a complimentary way. The Atlantic’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, quotes Trump telling aides that the men and women who have given their lives for their country were “suckers” and “losers.” “I don’t get it. What was in it for them?” he reportedly asked his then-homeland security secretary, retired Marine Gen. John F. Kelly, as the two men stood by the grave of Kelly’s son, who was killed in Afghanistan. Trump’s own view of the military seems to echo Sonny Corleone’s. In “The Godfather, Part II,” the mafia scion says of the men enlisting after Pearl Harbor: “They’re saps, because they risk their lives for strangers.”

The Atlantic report clearly stung. Witness Trump’s frenzied denials; he even called in the first lady to defend him. But a president who has lied or deceived more than 20,000 times has no credibility — and his defense quickly fell apart. Trump denied having called the late Sen. John McCain a “loser,” yet he did so in 2015. The Atlantic report was confirmed in short order by the Associated Press, The Post and — the cruelest blow — even by Fox News.

Confirmation from a Fox reporter did not, of course, prevent Fox hosts from calling the report a “hoax,” but if history is any indication, it won’t be long before they pivot from “he didn’t do it” to “yeah, he did it, so what?” Indeed, a “senior administration official” already tried out that defense with the Daily Beast: “The president means no disrespect to our troops; it’s just that the way he speaks, he can sound like an a------ sometimes.”

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Why do Trump supporters even go through the motions of trying to discredit the latest allegations? Their support hasn’t been shaken by all of the other things the president has done. He has welcomed Russian election help; called white supremacists “very fine people”; put children in cages; gotten impeached for trying to blackmail an ally into helping him politically; kowtowed to Vladimir Putin and avowed his love for Kim Jong Un; unleashed security forces on peaceful protesters; fomented violence; espoused insane conspiracy theories; refused to say that he would accept the election results; and, most recently, urged his fans to vote twice in violation of the law.

He has erased every red line, and none of it seems to matter to his base. He entered office with 45.5 percent approval in the FiveThirtyEight poll of polls. Today he stands at 43.5 percent. Nearly four years of craziness — and his numbers have barely budged.

Most remarkably of all, even Trump’s catastrophic mishandling of the covid-19 pandemic and of the economy haven’t dented his popularity. If you had asked me at the beginning of the year what one thing could cause Trump’s support to crater, I would have said a recession. Well, we’ve had the worst recession since the 1930s, combined with the worst pandemic since 1918. Nearly 200,000 Americans have already died — and a widely respected polling model predicts 400,000 deaths by January.

Trump’s response has been a combination of inertia, denial and fantasy. He said, “I don’t take responsibility at all,” and he mused about injecting bleach. One study found that at least 70 percent of the U.S. deaths could have been averted if our response had been comparable to that of other wealthy countries. In other words, some 134,000 Americans might still be alive today if Trump were a competent president.

And yet his poll numbers remain remarkably steady. His malign incompetence has certainly cost him some support: He is the one president in the history of polling to never crack 50 percent approval, and he has not gotten the kind of polling bump that other leaders have seen during the pandemic. But neither has his support cratered as, by rights, it should have. Richard M. Nixon, who was far more competent and ethical than Trump, saw his approval fall to 24 percent. Trump remains within striking distance of reelection.

How can this be? The only explanation I can see is that his supporters place party loyalty above all else. Trump is the leader of red America, and red America will stick with him no matter what, because, despite all evidence to the contrary, it is convinced that Joe Biden will somehow be worse. There is nothing, literally nothing, that Trump could do to shake the support of the Fifth Avenue Republicans.

This is the Founding Fathers’ nightmare. Alexander Hamilton called “Party-Spirit” the “most fatal disease” in “governments of the popular kind.” That disease is ravaging America: Were it not for Party-Spirit, Trump could have been impeached and removed before he had a chance to mismanage the coronavirus. And now Party-Spirit is likely to inoculate Trump from the political fallout of his insults to our military. Truly this is, as the kids would say, the “LOL nothing matters” presidency.

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Jennifer Rubin: Republicans never flinch in their support of Trump — even when he insults our troops

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