One of the distinctive marks of the Trump era is the perpetual sensation that we've reached some fundamental inflection point, some major shift in the prevailing political dynamic, when in fact nothing fundamental ever changes.
We've all seen it countless times. Trump says or does some outrageous, racist, corrupt thing, which is promptly followed by a chorus of pundits asserting, "OMG, I can't believe Trump said or did this outrageous, racist, corrupt thing! He's doomed! Bound to be impeached! Guaranteed to be universally reviled!" And then he isn't. Until the next time. And then the next.
Or how about, "There's no way his supporters, or elected members of his party, will stick with him through this latest affront against everything the GOP has always claimed to stand for!" This is maybe followed by a Republican senator or two grumbling about being gravely "troubled," and a 1-2 point drop in Trump's approval rating that lasts a week or two only to rebound as we all move on to the next round of insult and injury.
Is this time different? Will Trump's astonishing conversation with the president of Ukraine, the revelations contained in the whistleblower report, and the decision of the Democrats to pursue impeachment prove different? Did last week really change everything?
It did not. Much that we have all learned to live with since Trump won the presidency remains intact and in place. The epicycles of outrage, hope, and disappointment are sure to continue as they have. Those who oppose the president still face unique challenges, just as American democracy writ large confronts numerous ominous threats.
But that doesn't mean nothing has changed. Some things have — and they just might prove capable of breaking the endless repetition and pointing the way forward to something beyond the dramas and indignities of the Trump presidency.
First, the continuities.
Trump is still civic poison. The president will say anything, and threaten everything, to save his own skin — including, as we've seen in recent days, calling the whistleblower a spy, suggesting that he or she be punished severely for acts of "treason," warning that his own impeachment and removal from office could spark a civil war in the country, and threatening to arrest the chairman of the House intelligence committee. These are slightly worse than Trump's outbursts during other difficult moments, but they aren't different in kind.
The White House is still staffed by incompetents. For all the focus on the whistleblower, the real damage to Trump last week came from the release of the so-called transcript of the call between the president and his Ukrainian counterpart — a document that was released voluntarily by the White House, on the apparently sincere assumption that it would be viewed as exculpatory. The Trumpist right has done its best to portray it that way, but everyone else, including plenty of Republicans, recognized immediately that it was horribly damning instead. In the annals of self-inflicted wounds, this is a doozy.
Republican politicians are still self-aggrandizing cowards. They might rail against the evils of Washington, but Republicans would lie and say or do anything to keep their precious, cushy sinecures in the nation's capital. There is no reason at all to assume that their privately expressed but publicly suppressed revulsion at the president will motivate them to act against him, either in voting with Democrats in the House to impeach or voting to convict and remove in the Senate, since doing so would risk antagonizing their constituents and therefore jeopardize their jobs. As long as this remains the case, we will stay right where we've been since the opening days of the Trump presidency.
So what has changed?
For one thing, Trump's entire defense against the Mueller investigation boiled down to the assertion that it was a witch hunt engineered by far-left Democrats and pursued by a hostile special counsel. Some Republican voters probably didn't care and just stayed by the president's side out of nothing more complicated than tribal loyalty. But others undoubtedly bought the "witch hunt" line. This is a highly dangerous constituency for the president — because they have now learned, along with the rest of us, that after the investigation of the 2016 election was complete, Trump actively attempted to do precisely what he was accused of doing by the special counsel: seeking to advance his domestic political prospects by soliciting help from a foreign power. This could well be leading some Republicans and independents to re-evaluate what they have believed about Trump and to reflect on precisely how much political treachery they are willing to stomach in the name of making America great again.
Then there is the effect of glimpsing Democrats doing something they never see from Republicans these days: showing some civic spine, doing what they think is right, regardless of the political consequences. Yes, some on the left think they have all good things on their side — morality, patriotism, the law, and public opinion. But that isn't what Pelosi believes, and it's not what the right believes either. The right thinks the Democrats are bound to lose. That will lead some Republicans to laugh sadistically at the suckers and chumps on the other side. But among others it might awaken some dormant memories of a less polarized and rancorous politics — a politics when it wasn't inconceivable for partisans to set aside, at least on occasion, their own interests for the good of the country.
And this brings us to a final change — one that has yet to materialize but that still might, especially if these other two changes persist for a while.
Trump's victory in 2016 was incredibly narrow. He has kept a stranglehold on his party ever since by maintaining something close to 90 percent approval from Republicans. Trump wouldn't need to lose all that many of these people for that number to fall to, say, 70 percent. But a drop of that size, perhaps facilitated by an already perceptible decline in support from conservative media outlets, could make a big difference in freeing up some Republicans in Congress to take a stand against the president without fear of provoking primary challenges and the threat of losing their upcoming bids for re-election.
That is what we need to be looking for — some sign that some Republicans have finally had enough, some indication that they're ready to cut loose the dead weight of a sinking presidency.
Unless and until that happens, nothing else is likely to change.
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.