In college, I had an anthropology teacher who roamed the Earth studying bizarre folkways. But the people who most fascinated him happened to be in his own back yard — New Yorkers who could remain asleep on a screeching subway train as it started, stopped and even when the power failed and the lights blinked, finally going as dark as President Trump’s cold reading lamp.
I now wonder what he would make of official Washington, a place where Republicans await the messiah-like return of a splendidly presidential Trump — gone from political tramp to prince of politicians by occasionally behaving himself. We saw that happen in February when Trump delivered an address to a joint session of Congress and did not break out into 1930s-era German. This was hailed as a historic moment when the new president “normalized himself” and would henceforth presumably read some books, listen to his advisers and tweet no more. Alas, Trump seemed to have not gotten the message and quickly resumed being who he was — President Kong, with Vice President Pence playing the hapless blonde in his fist.
More recently, the task of imagining a new, improved Trump fell to lawyers at the solicitor general’s office. This month, they had to argue in a petition to the Supreme Court that Trump did not really mean what he once said about Muslims. The lawyers said that when he called last year for a “Muslim ban” on entry to the United States, he was in a campaign mode, apparently some kind of hallucinatory trance in which irresponsible speech is excused. The official document begins “Donald J. Trump, et al., Petitioners.” It is a stitch.
“Taking that oath marks a profound transition from private life to the Nation’s highest public office, and manifests the singular responsibility and independent authority to protect the welfare of the Nation that the Constitution reposes in the President,” the lawyers maintained.
Almost immediately, Trump showed that he had not profoundly transitioned at all and that what really reposes in this president is a furious need to strike back. No lawyer was going to make Donald John Trump seem reasonable. In a series of tweets, he used capital letters and flung lightning bolts of exclamation points at the court and his own lawyers: “I am calling it what we need and what it is, a TRAVEL BAN!” He cited “certain DANGEROUS countries” and insisted that anything less than a ban “won’t help us protect our people!” The Supreme Court may differ.
The second type of Trump supporter my anthropology teacher might want to examine is the one who steadfastly insists that the old football adage has it right: Winning is indeed the only thing. Often this is put in crass terms: Get over it, he won. The people have spoken. A variant is the argument that Trump’s supporters are real Americans while his critics are elitist fops. But a more genteel approach was recently outlined in an op-ed by Gary Abernathy, the publisher and editor of the Times-Gazette, a small-town Ohio newspaper, one of only six in the nation to have endorsed Trump. Abernathy shot to sudden fame with that endorsement. Coincidentally or not, Trump won 75 percent of the vote in Abernathy’s area.
In a recent Post op-ed, Abernathy mentioned that in the 30 states where Trump won the popular vote, hardly any newspapers endorsed him. “Could there be better evidence of the gulf that exists between what is called the ‘mainstream media’ and millions of Americans?” he asked. Yes, of course there’s a gulf — but to be on the losing side of a gulf is not proof of error or overweening arrogance.
A gulf also existed between the handful of Southern newspapers such as Hodding Carter’s Mississippi’s Delta Democrat-Times, which fought Jim Crow, and their communities, which routinely elected segregationists. Alabama Gov. George Wallace vowed “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever” and took great glee in attacking the out-of-touch press as “pointy-headed intellectuals.” He was enormously popular in his region. Jim Crow was defeated in the courts, not at the polls — as it happens, by pointy-headed civil rights lawyers.
The odd behavior of many Republicans — the stated belief that Trump, like cheese, will get softer with time or that his truculent ways will be modified by experience — may someday fascinate social scientists like my old teacher. Meanwhile, the GOP’s excuses are laughable and its defenses self-serving. Republican members of Congress demean politics with their silence. They are precisely what Trump thinks they are — swamp creatures who slink from taking a stand. Trump has taken their measure. So, in time, will history.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.