Defending Donald

For the first time, Trump’s support is divided. What does it mean?

David MacMillan
Oct 6, 2019 · 10 min read

An old boss of mine used to talk about tipping points in business. There can be a dramatic difference between something that is nearly completed and something that is truly completed, even if the two don’t seem far apart. “Water at 211 degrees is just hot water; water at 212 degrees boils and turns steam engines.”

It was a powerful metaphor, though not strictly true. Water in a pot on your stove doesn’t instantly flash into steam the moment it reaches 212 degrees; 212 is simply the hottest it can get as a liquid. To actually turn it all into a gas, you have to continue adding energy: more energy, in fact, than it took to heat the water from room temperature to boiling point in the first place.

But sometimes the metaphor holds.

During three years of wriggling, squirming, and whining, Trump’s unprecedentedly unpresidential antics have kept the country at a simmer, just below boiling point. Every reprehensible act — whether the orchestrated separation of refugee families, the tacit approval of racism and neonazism, the xenophobia toward Muslims and anyone from “shithole” countries, the open obstruction of the probe into Russia’s cyberattacks, his conspiracy in campaign finance fraud with Michael Cohen, his rejection of the Paris Agreement, his courtship of murderous dictators, and so many more — has only produced enough disapproval to engender an equal and opposite surge of support from the far right. It seemed nothing could possibly be enough to turn the tide.

Every reprehensible act has only produced enough disapproval to engender an equal and opposite surge of support from the far right.

After the Mueller report dropped, I felt certain Trump’s clear and unambiguous attempts to obstruct the investigation would trigger a groundswell of indignation. I wrote:

There has never been any question as to the end game. Mueller already has the narrative he needs, directly from the very person at the center of it all. It means he hasn’t been looking for evidence of collusion and conspiracy all this time; he’s been quietly collecting it. He knows what happened and he knows where to look.

But I was wrong. After the Mueller report dropped, Democrats and moderates were outraged, the GOP stayed united, and everyone went back to business as usual. It was obvious, in hindsight. Despite how clearly Robert Mueller laid out a case for impeachment and removal, the Democrats had no consistent message or theme and no central focus. Some called for impeachment, some for censure, and still others for continued congressional inquiries.

In a very real sense, the staggering breadth of Trump’s incompetent calumny worked in his favor: all the Democrats agreed he was a dirt bag, but simply couldn’t decide which of the many brown smears to focus their energies on. All the while, the White House-led GOP repeated the same mantric rejoinder to every assault. “No collusion!” “Fake news!” “Witch hunt!”

Pokemon meme, Trump, Democrats, Corrupt Demagogue, It’s Not Very Effective
Pokemon meme, Trump, Democrats, Corrupt Demagogue, It’s Not Very Effective

Now, just a few short months later, all that is reversed. While the nation focused on Robert Mueller’s testimony on July 26, Trump was secretly blocking defense aid to Ukraine in violation of federal law. It was not, as could have been understandably assumed, an overture of gratitude to Ukraine’s adversary, Russia. Instead, it was the surprisingly calculated setup of a classic extortion scheme. Trump called a foreign ally, discussed the withheld aid, raised the question of reciprocity, and said “I need you to do us a favor, though” before proceeding to request dirt on a political opponent. It was indeed a “perfect” call if you wanted a call that shows clear abuse of power.

As House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff said, “It would be funny if it wasn’t such a graphic betrayal of the president’s oath of office.” The White House then tried to hide the notes on the call by placing them in a code-word classified server meant for national security data.

Trump called a foreign ally, discussed the withheld aid, raised the question of reciprocity, and said “I need you to do us a favor, though” before proceeding to request dirt on a political opponent.

What makes this different, compared to every other scandal, crime, obstruction, and obtusity is that the messaging has inverted.

The president’s defenders have no idea how to defend him. Sometimes, they repeat the same “Witch Hunt” and “Hoax” mantra as before; at other times they try to shift blame, and at yet other times they try to contest the admitted facts. Some claim the whistleblower who brought Trump’s call to light is a partisan hack who should be arrested (or worse); others say the whistleblower should be protected. Some, following the president’s lead, say his actions are “only about investigating corruption” and should be lauded.

The initiation of an impeachment inquiry by Speaker Nancy Pelosi has thrown the right into yet another maelstrom of incoherence, with some, including Trump, advocating the impeachment of various members of Congress (evidently unaware that members of Congress cannot be impeached).

Puppets appointed by Trump, like Attorney General Barr, are doing their utmost to distract, either by revisiting investigations of 2016 election interference in the hopes of contradicting the consensus of the intelligence community or by directly investigating the president’s past, current, or future opponents. Even others are admitting Trump’s actions are “imperfect” but nitpicking the grounds for impeachment, or simply ignoring the controversy altogether and trying to focus on conservative policy. The farthest on the right howl about the fictional “Deep State” and threaten civil war if Trump is not protected.

The effect is a bewilderingly far-flung mismash of incoherent excuses, convoluted rhetoric, confusing protests, and tortured conspiracy theories which convince no one. In contrast, the move to impeachment on the basis of the whistleblower complaint by Pelosi has created refreshing uniformity among the president’s detractors. The facts are simple, the implications clear. The president abused his office for political gain and covered it up, and must be removed. No one has to explain it and there are no competing narratives. Unlike before, where investigation into Trump’s Russian collusion carried with it the baggage of the fiercely partisan 2016 election and the Republican hatred of Hillary Clinton, there is no barrier for moderate Republicans to accept the clear facts.

In the past, the Democrats were throwing missiles from every conceivable angle in the hopes of making something stick while the president’s defenders maintained a tight, impenetrable phalanx. Now, progressives (and decent people everywhere) are at the helm of a single battering ram, and the far-right’s defense is scattered and disorganized.

It is no surprise, then, that the tide has turned. As shown by poll aggregator and analysis machine FiveThirtyEight, Trump’s disapproval rating has risen and his approval rating has dropped…but his approval rating has gone down faster than disapproval has gone up. It makes sense: people who already loathed the president may loathe him more now, but disapproval is a binary value, not a qualitative measure. In the meantime, his supporters are quietly backing away: unwilling to say they disapprove out of baseline conservative loyalty, but equally unwilling to maintain their cult-of-personality allegiance. So, as sharply and cleanly as anyone could hope, the tide of public opinion surged away to favor impeachment and removal:

American views on impeachment

Public support for impeachment has long been considered a prerequisite for any serious consideration of the move, and cited as one reason why the Republican impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998 hurt them so badly. It seems here that Pelosi’s announcement of impeachment proceedings did as much to spur a groundswell of support as the scandal itself. Likely, many Democrats who disapproved of the president but felt uncertain of the political risks of impeachment became more confident when the House leadership came on board.

But this was not merely a partisan overflow of repressed animosity. We know this because the surge in support for impeachment among Republicans was actually larger than among Democrats. The average Republican today is 54% more likely to support impeachment than he was three weeks ago, while the average Democrat today is only 12% more likely to support impeachment than she was two weeks ago:

Support for impeachment, by party

Granted, this makes sense: a sizable majority of Democrats already supported impeachment, so they had less distance to travel in comparison to the Republicans. But the swing speaks to something far more dramatic than anything Pelosi’s actions alone could have wrought. The evidence of corruption and abuse of power, so cleanly attested in that “perfect” call, shocked the consciences of all but Trump’s most fanatical adherents.

Where does this leave Trump?

After an initial scramble to come up with any sort of defense, one of the first lines was that the call with Ukrainian president Zelensky showed no quid pro quo, or explicit agreement to provide one thing in exchange for another. But with former Ukrainian envoy Kurt Volker surrendering text messages that show a lengthy and clear progression of exactly that sort of agreement, that defense evaporated. Not only did the texts make it clear that Zelensky was expected to announce targeted investigations of Biden’s family and a discredited 2016 conspiracy theory in exchange for favors, but Trump’s people insisted that Guiliani and others have the opportunity to edit the announcement in advance.

If any smoking gun can be found among the smoldering, radioactive rubble that is this scandal, it is this September 1 exchange between Bill Taylor, former US ambassador to Ukraine, and Trump-loyal ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland:

Public support for impeachment and removal is now greater than it was in the weeks following Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre. It is greater than it ever was during the Clinton impeachment scandal. This was true even before a rapid flurry of increasingly adverse events for Trump:

  • October 2: Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo admits he was present during the ill-fated call with Zelensky, after previously denying knowledge.
  • October 3: Trump publicly calls for China to investigate Joe Biden, to widespread bipartisan censure.
  • October 3: Rudy Guiliani admits former ambassador Marie Yovanovitch was fired for her reluctance to pressure Ukraine into investigating Biden.
  • October 3: Rick Perry, the Secretary of Energy whom Trump sent to meet with Zelensky after the latter’s inauguration, will resign by November.
  • October 3: Text messages surrendered by Kurt Volker establish clear background of quid pro quo with Ukraine.
  • October 4: The release of Kurt Volker’s prepared statements paint broader context of Trump’s views on Ukraine and the development of a quid pro quo exchange, while establishing Volker as a probable adverse witness with firsthand knowledge.
  • October 4: The White House admitted to moving the notes from a June 2019 call with Chinese president Xi into the same code-word server, and admitted that the call involved both discussions of Trump’s political opponents and a favor from Trump concerning Hong Kong.
  • October 5: House Republicans reveal that Trump attempted to throw outgoing Rick Perry under the bus for holding the call with Zelensky, while still protesting that the call was “perfect” and involved nothing inappropriate.
  • October 6: A second whistleblower comes forward, this one with firsthand information on Trump’s interactions with Ukraine.

At this point, impeachment in the House is all but inevitable. The question is whether the unfolding impeachment inquiry will continue to develop enough public criticism of Trump to make conviction in the Senate a possibility.

Although Mitch McConnell said on September 30 that he would “have no choice” but to hold a trial in the Senate if the House impeaches Trump, that many not be entirely true. With 51 votes and control of the floor, McConnell could try to change procedural rules to effectively block the trial altogether, as one derelict right-wing activist proposed. However, such a move, even if successful, would likely spell political suicide for both Trump and the Republican party in general. Once the trial begins and Chief Justice John Roberts takes the gavel to preside, McConnell’s options are limited.

In this uncertainty, many are looking to moderate Republicans who have previously criticized Trump, like Mitt Romney, Ben Sasse, and Susan Collins. Mitt Romney has been the harshest in criticism of Trump’s behavior to date and would likely be one of the first to cross the aisle and vote to convict:

However, the handful of more moderate (or, at least, less spineless) Republicans will not reach the threshold of 19 needed to remove Trump from office. Removal will only be possible if a large group of widespread loyalists from solidly conservative, pro-Trump regions defect.

The first indication this might be happening came with far-right Trump loyalist and Fox host Tucker Carlson breaking with Trump’s established defense on his “perfect” call:

Of course, Carlson still says the call did not rise to an impeachable offense. But the failure to toe Trump’s party line speaks to a greater divide. If Trump’s defenders cannot agree on a defense, they will splinter and crumble.

David MacMillan

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Anyone with really good ideas will always be looking for better ones. Writing about law, fundamentalism, and science denial…book to follow.

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