There is a madness running through our nation’s public life. Our country seems nearly powerless to counteract it because it’s built into the structure of American politics, the belief system of Republican voters and the polarization of opinion in Congress.
The coming week is likely to give us more of the same. The news media will stay focused on what a grand jury in New York may or may not do, and on the accelerating pace of Justice Department special counsel Jack Smith’s investigations into the former president’s role in the 2021 insurrection and Trump’s handling of classified documents.
The journalistic obsession with Trump is certainly part of the problem. “I can’t tell you the number of calls I’ve gotten from reporters asking me about the implications of Trump being indicted,” Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, told, well, this reporter. “They were asking me about the implications of something that’s unknowable because it’s without any precedent in our history.”
But there is something the Trump-obsessed news media did not cover because it didn’t happen: There were no widespread Republican criticisms of Trump’s unhinged attacks on Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg as an “animal” and “a degenerate psychopath,” no official GOP condemnation of Trump’s wee-hours-of-the-morning threat on Friday that an indictment could lead to “potential death and destruction.”
On the contrary: Violating his party’s incessant claims to believe in states’ rights and local control, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) wrote to Bragg demanding materials related to the investigation of hush-money payments to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels. It’s bad enough to be silent about Trump’s abusive rants, but to make a chamber of Congress part of Trump’s defense team reveals the depth of the rot.
Unfortunately, the incentives and current architecture of politics make it unlikely that any of this will change. Two studies this month highlighted why. Let’s start with an analysis of all 435 congressional districts conducted by the Equity Research Institute at the University of Southern California in conjunction with the Atlantic. It found that 142 of the House’s 222 Republicans represent districts with low levels of racial diversity and that are dominated by White voters without college degrees.
As a result, wrote the Atlantic’s Ronald Brownstein, “the energy in the party over recent years has shifted from the small-government arguments that drove the GOP in the Reagan era toward the unremitting culture-war focus pursued by Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.” What Jordan is doing, in other words, represents the prevailing attitudes of his caucus.
Another study released last week, by Alan I. Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University, traced the dramatic change in the makeup of the American electorate over the past 40 years. The study, published by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, found that “racial and cultural issues, rather than economic ones,” have driven the enormous gains Republicans have made with noncollege Whites.
In the meantime, Abramowitz noted in an interview, Democratic gains with White college-educated voters reflect the decay of what had once been the political base for more moderate Republicans, particularly in the Northeast. Again: The pressure in the party is to the cultural right — and to Trump.
No wonder that Trump’s favorability among Republicans in the latest YouGov poll late last week stood at 78 percent, compared with 34 percent among independents and 12 percent among Democrats.
Even Republicans who are fully aware of the damage Trump is doing and the cost of Trump-backed candidates to the party’s electoral fortunes thus hold back from criticizing him. “They know this is disastrous, but they are reluctant to speak up, and they don’t know how to stop it,” Abramowitz said. Which just allows the show to go on.
Ayres, the Republican pollster, sees his party as divided among 10 percent “Never Trump” voters, 30 percent “Always Trump,” with the remaining 60 percent in a category he calls “Maybe Trump.”
The Maybe Trumpers are open to alternatives, he said, but having voted for Trump twice, “you will never, ever get these folks admitting they made a mistake,” meaning they do not take kindly to criticisms of the former president. This is why Trump’s rivals for the nomination have been so reluctant to take him on directly. The Republican Party’s swing voters are in a see-no-evil, hear-no-evil mood.
A substantial majority of the country would like to be done with Trump and the nastiness he sows. Many Republican leaders may quietly agree, but their electorate and the nature of the places they represent push them toward timidity. Until the incentives change or the party’s leaders discover the fortitude to defy them, we’re stuck in the world that Trump’s neuroses create for us.