The post-summit poll numbers are instructive. While 50 percent of Americans disapproved of the way Trump handled Vladimir Putin, his Republican base stayed both loyal and comatose. In a Post-ABC News poll, 66 percent of Republicans approved of Trump’s performance. An earlier Axios-SurveyMonkey poll put the GOP figure at 79 percent, not only more impressive but also downright eerie.
It is safe to say that these numbers might have surprised even the shaken White House staffers who flew back to Washington with Trump. The commentariat was already on the air, reporting on the summit as if it were a multicar Beltway collision. Even Fox News was critical, and Newt Gingrich, whose wife is Trump’s ambassador to the Holy See, called the meeting “the most serious mistake” of Trump’s presidency — an extremely high bar.
National security adviser John Bolton got to work. On the plane, according to the Wall Street Journal, he went about the painful business of damage control and hammered out talking points advising Trump on how to reclaim reality. One idea was for Trump to assert his support for the U.S. intelligence community, the sort of prosaic statement, like a belief in God, that no president had ever had to make. Trump, of course, did so — and maintained this stance for almost a day.
There is such a thing, we are told, as Trump Derangement Syndrome. It is an ideological version of a speech disorder, which causes certain people to denounce Trump in obscene ways. It has come over the likes of Robert De Niro and, when it came to Ivanka Trump, Samantha Bee. It has prompted others to call Trump a traitor, which is a slanderous accusation too often used for crass political reasons. Sen. Joseph McCarthy called the Roosevelt-Truman administrations “20 years of treason.”
Yet, the more dangerous variant of the syndrome is the willingness of most Republicans to support Trump no matter what. One of the first outbreaks of this occurred in the 2016 South Carolina Republican primary, which Trump won handily. He did so running against fellow Republicans, not the reliably useful Hillary Clinton. He even swept the evangelical Christian vote, beating such staunch conservatives as Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Ben Carson, both of whom have been married only once. The thrice-married Trump, in vivid contrast, had run casinos and exchanged countless smirky remarks with Howard Stern. His piety was in question.
As far as the evangelical community is concerned, nothing has changed. Trump has been accused of adultery and of buying the silence of his alleged paramours. He has referred to impoverished nations as “shithole countries” and — unforgivably — belittled the wartime torture of Sen. John McCain. None of this shook his base. On the contrary, his support within the Republican Party has risen and solidified. It now stands at around 90 percent, which is what tin-pot dictators get in rigged elections.
The upshot is that we now have two political parties — one pro-Trump and one anti-. Some celebrated Republicans — George F. Will, for instance — have already declared their apostasy. Will is now “unaffiliated,” but no one runs for president as that. In this country, if you’re anti-Trump, realism says you’ve got to vote Democratic. (Please, no more of this Libertarian or Green Party nonsense.)
It’s impossible to say at this point whether the pro-Trump/anti-Trump dichotomy is just about the man himself or represents a wider and more permanent political realignment. (Who’s the next Trump?) But it’s clear that something beyond economics — and certainly not foreign policy — motivates Trump’s people. My guess is that it’s a low-boil rage against a vague and threatening liberalism — urbane, educated, affluent, secular, diverse and sexually tolerant. It is, in other words, some of the same sentiment that once fueled European fascism.
Those of us who write newspaper columns know that sheer brilliance, should it happen, gets a silent nod of the head, but affirmation — saying what readers already think — gets loud hurrahs. This is Trump’s appeal as well. He validates the thinking — some of it ugly — of many Americans. To them, Helsinki doesn’t matter and even Putin doesn’t matter. Only Trump does. To them, he hates the right people.
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