The lesson we refuse to learn about Republican voters
A surprisingly large number of supposedly knowledgeable and sophisticated analysts have learned nothing from the tumult and churn of the past three years of American politics.
From the moment Donald Trump descended the escalator at Trump Tower to launch his presidential campaign, pundits and prognosticators have dismissed him. His quest for the White House would go nowhere, they said. His high standing in the polls was ephemeral, they believed. His insults, vulgarity, know-nothing bluster, ideological unorthodoxy, and seemingly self-destructive behavior would doom him. His early primary victories wouldn't last. His nomination would be blocked at the GOP convention. His contest against Hillary Clinton would end in humiliating defeat.
And on it has gone through the first 19 months of his presidency, in both sober centrist and unhinged "resistance" forms. They thought firing FBI Director James Comey would finish him. They were sure Special Counsel Robert Mueller would bring him to his knees. Charlottesville would inspire his supporters to abandon him in droves. The disastrous press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki would leave him politically powerless.
And now it's the conviction of Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and the plea deal reached by his long-time personal lawyer Michael Cohen that supposedly spells the end. We're finally at an inflection point. His presidency is now illegitimate. Impeachment is at hand.
No, it isn't.
How any informed observer of American politics could come to such a conclusion defies comprehension. More than anything it demonstrates the astonishing capacity of otherwise thoughtful and decent people to deny an unpleasant reality staring them in the face.
Yes, nearly a half-century ago, Richard Nixon was driven from office by evidence of criminality. But as we've seen over and over again since Trump burst on the scene, we now live in a completely different political world — one in which those old rules and expectations simply do not apply.
This isn't just because Trump is a uniquely effective demagogue — though he is. It's also because the bulk of Republican voters simply do not reside in the same moral and epistemological world as the rest of the country, including its centrist establishment. These Republicans don't believe or trust anything they read in the mainstream media, or anything a Democrat or Republican critic of the president says. And they have no interest in or respect for high-minded statements of principle (about, say, the rule of law) that purport to transcend partisanship.
What these Republicans care about is prevailing against their opponents, period. Accusing these GOP voters of double standards is beside the point. It's true that if any Democratic president had been accused of even one-tenth of the charges swirling around Trump, Republicans would be calling for blood. But what does it prove to point this out? That Republicans are hypocrites? Sure they are. Proudly. They hate it when their enemies break norms and laws, and they love it when their teammates do the same thing. That's the mindset of someone willing to fight dirty. That's what they think it takes to win.
Pundits know that Republican voters view the world this way, because they confront evidence for it every single day. Yet they seem incapable of adjusting their analytical frames to take its implications into account. No matter how many times a revelation about Trump's awfulness fails to produce a collapse in his support, the next one raises the same hope that this will be the one that finally does him in.
We don't know for certain that nothing could break the spell. Maybe something slightly worse than gunning down someone on Fifth Avenue in broad daylight, with the act caught on camera and verified by Tucker Carlson and Alex Jones, would finally, at long last, do the trick. But violations of campaign finance laws? That's what's going to get Trump impeached? Don't be ridiculous.
Impeachment and removal from office don't take place automatically when officeholders are shown to have broken the law. They are political acts. And the fact is that Trump holds a lot of political cards. Most obviously, he enjoys the support of roughly nine out of 10 GOP voters. As long as that remains true, Republicans in Congress aren't going to turn on him, no matter what he's shown to have done.
Beyond the GOP, Trump's general approval ratings are relatively low but extremely steady, hovering between 40 and 43 percent for the past six months. His support will probably take a modest hit from Tuesday's bombshells. But he has a long, long way to fall. At this time last year, he was stuck between 36 and 38 percent, a significantly lower floor of support. Even if the Cohen and Manafort news brings him back down to that range, that would keep him safe from plots hatched by members of his own party.
But what if Democrats take one or both houses of Congress in November? Surely then he'd be doomed, right?
Wrong. If a Democratic majority in the House voted to impeach the president, that would be big news, but Trump would almost certainly respond with relentless attacks on those behind the effort. That would likely buoy his own-party support. And the resulting trial in the Senate? Unless Democrats make the impossible happen in the midterms and end up winning the 67 seats required to convict and remove the president (an event that has never occurred in the whole of American history), Trump would be acquitted.
The chance of Trump's presidency imploding before our eyes is exceedingly small, no matter what Mueller's investigation turns up. Our analysts and pundits would be much better off recognizing this reality and learning to live with it. Then they could turn their talents and attention toward a task that is far more achievable: the decisive defeat of the president and his party at the ballot box.