Here’s a fact to which there is no alternative: The President of the United States, commander-in-chief of the world’s most powerful military, is either a pathological liar or a serial fabulist unable to distinguish fantasy from reality—or, perhaps, a chillingly sociopathic combination of both.
In the aftermath of his amateurish and incompetent attempt to ram through an abominable Republican health care bill whose substance he never bothered to understand even though it would have deprived 26 million working and middle-class Americans of their insurance while giving the rich a massive tax cut, Trump lied about who was responsible: Not him, nor the fratricidal congressional Republicans nor their prissily duplicitous leader Paul Ryan; it was the Democratic minority whose votes neither Trump nor the GOP congressional leadership ever sought.
Nothing new here. FBI Director James Comey’s testimony to Congress that there is no evidence to back Donald Trump’s charge that Barack Obama had the telephones in Trump Tower tapped was, in fact, a confirmation rather than a revelation. Nor is it surprising that Trump continues to insist that he will not retract a preposterous allegation that now has been explicitly dismissed not only by the FBI, but also by the Department of Justice and both U.S. and British intelligence agencies. Somebody somehow and somewhere must have spied on his presidential campaign, he fumes, because. . .well, because, he says so. This, after all, is a guy who still insists that Trump Tower is 10 stories taller than it really is.
Nothing surprising in that line of defense, either. As a malignant narcissist and sleazy fly-by-night huckster, Trump has spent his entire life manipulating the people around him. He believes the world runs on a fix because he’s always scheming to put the fix in. His insatiable taste for maliciously fantastic conspiracy theories is the fruit of a lifetime spent surreptitiously plotting to take advantage of others. Unscrupulous in both word and action, no president since Richard Nixon has evinced as much disrespect for such foundational pillars of our democracy as separation of powers, the rule of law or simple common decency. Nixon, at least, had a sufficient sense of shame to attempt to conceal his malfeasance under cover of darkness; Trump, who knows no shame, treats the presidency like a reality TV show and, as his tweets during the House Intelligence Committee’s hearings demonstrate, seems to conceive government as a kind of chat room.
Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee had matters right in his party’s radio address Saturday: “When a President of the United States makes claims that are proved baseless, it weakens the Presidency and undermines our security and standing in the world. Presidential credibility, once squandered, may never be fully regained.”
All this, appalling as it may be, is a given at this point. Anyone who hasn’t spent the last couple of years at their get-away home on the dark side of the moon knows all this. A majority of the American people, who after all didn’t elect Trump, certainly do. His approval ratings, as reported by Gallup are at historic lows for a president in his first year. And yet, none of this seems to matter. Any previous president who behaved as Trump has so far would have been buried under calls for his resignation or impeachment. The crucial question is why Trump is getting a pass?
In part, it’s because even his opponents have been cowed by his superficial successes into accepting his boorish behavior, pathetic braggadocio, ugly xenophobia, utter disregard for truth and invincible ignorance of everything but golf, real estate and self-promotion as the new normal. That’s only part of the answer. Three other factors, crucial contributors to our deep and, now, probably unbridgeable division into two nations, also are key to Trump’s political Teflon.
First of these is the hyper-partisanship that now disfigures our national politics. The Republicans have spent two decades descending into ideological fantasy, a process reinforced by the gerrymandering that, across the country, has created unassailably right-wing legislative redoubts. As a consequence, the GOP is now less a party in the modern political sense and more a “faction” of the sort the Founders and Framers feared so deeply. As a group, it’s impervious to reason and contemptuous of the compromise and customary give-and-take that makes the politics of governance possible. In fact, as their health care debacle shows, the Republicans now appear to be splintering into antagonistic factions of their own, indifferent to party discipline or leadership. Even so, Trump is a Republican president—at least in name—and because of that affiliation, however tenuous, the congressional GOP essentially will give him a blank check on conflicts of interest and gross misbehavior. He may be a bad president, a failed chief executive, an incompetent commander-in-chief, but he remains their party’s president.
The second foundation of Trump’s blind support is the continued—indeed, strengthening—action of single-issue constituencies. The Second Amendment absolutists of the NRA, the opponents of reproductive rights who style themselves “pro-life” and the carbon pimps who insist that climate change isn’t occurring and that sane environmental regulation is a form of oppression are examples of such groups. Trump’s positions or actions on every other question are matters of indifference to them, so long as he continues to pander to the one issue their reductionist approach to politics has elevated above every other consideration.
A perfect example of this willful blindness in action occurred recently at a Washington gathering of conservative Catholics sponsored by the California-based Napa Institute, a group of right-wing corporate big-wigs and traditionalist clergy organized by Orange County property magnate and winemaker Timothy Busch. In his address to the group, Busch brushed off Trump’s antagonism to virtually every facet of the church’s social gospel except for its—and his—opposition to abortion. “In the early weeks of this administration more has been done to address the biggest tragedy, the biggest catastrophe, and that is abortion,” he said. “More has been done to benefit the causes of life, which is more important than anything we have in our society … Everything else is trumped by this issue of life.”
Yes, of course—unless the life you have is made miserable or even unlivable by the Trump Administration’s callous and mean-spirited policies.
Finally, there are the working-class white men, many living in small towns or semi-rural areas, who form the bedrock of Trump’s voting bloc. He is the focal point of their hopelessness and discontent and—they seem to believe—the instrument of their revenge against what they think are the causes of their misery. The situation of these Americans was overlooked in all the pre-election discussions of growing income inequality, but it’s now coming into sharper focus. It has an economic dimension, which was forcefully delineated in a now widely discussed Commentary essay by the economist and demographer Nicholas Eberstadt. At the turn of the 21st Century, he writes, “The Great American Escalator, which has lifted successive generations of Americans to higher standards of living and levels of social-well-being broke down—and broke down very badly.”
Eberstadt points out that, between 1985 and 2000 the U.S. economy increased the total hours of paid work by 35%, but in the past 17 years, total hours have grown by just 4%. At the same time, for every man aged 25 to 55—the prime working years—who is looking for a job, three have dropped out the labor force entirely. According to studies, those drop-outs now spend 2,000 hours per year, watching television or playing video games. Trump presumably feeds their misshapen dreams of masculine mastery in the same way that a day of “Call of Duty” does. “The plain fact is that 21st Century America has witnessed a dreadful collapse of work. 21st Century America has somehow managed to produce markedly more wealth for wealth-holders even as it provided markedly less work for its workers,” Eberstadt writes.
This new misery has a physical dimension, too, which is most graphically visible in the devastating prescription opioid epidemic sweeping so much of the country. According to Eberstadt, half of all the male labor-force dropouts—approximately 7 million men—take a prescription pain medication daily. In 2015, the most recent year for which complete statistics are available, 52,000 Americans died of drug overdoses, which is 50% more than were killed in auto accidents. In a paper presented at the Brookings Institution last week, Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton—building on their earlier work—reported that the death rate among middle-aged white Americans has continued to rise since 1999. As the Washington Post summarized their findings, “Sickness and early death in the white working class could be rooted in poor job prospects for less-educated young people as they first enter the labor market, a situation that compounds over time through family dysfunction, social isolation, addiction, obesity and other pathologies,” including alcohol-related liver disease and suicide.
Case and Deaton described what they called “a sea of despair” engulfing the Americans in their study. White men, they said, are twice as likely to die prematurely of the diseases of despair than they were in 1999, while white women are four times as likely. The Centers for Disease Control has found that early white mortality and suicide rates are higher in the small town and rural districts that went for Trump in the general election than they are in urban and suburban districts.
There’s also a spiritual dimension to the pro-Trump white working-class malaise. Though it’s well documented that the majority of Evangelical Protestant voters supported Trump, they appear to have done so as an expression of their single issue politics. By contrast, his white working-class backers appear to be as disconnected from organized religion as they are from other aspects of national life. The Atlantic’s Peter Beinhart has convincingly pulled together the evidence in that regard.
“We know that culturally conservative white Americans who are disengaged from church experience less economic success and more family breakdown than those who remain connected, and they grow more pessimistic and resentful,” he wrote recently. “Since the early 1970s, according to W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, rates of religious attendance have fallen more than twice as much among whites without a college degree as among those who graduated college. And even within the white working class, those who don’t regularly attend church are more likely to suffer from divorce, addiction, and financial distress. As Wilcox explains, ‘Many conservative, Protestant white men who are only nominally attached to a church struggle in today’s world. They have traditional aspirations but often have difficulty holding down a job, getting and staying married, and otherwise forging real and abiding ties in their community. The culture and economy have shifted in ways that have marooned them with traditional aspirations unrealized in their real-world lives.’”
Beinhardt points out that “the worse Americans fare in their own lives, the darker their view of the country. . . But non-churchgoing conservatives didn’t flock to Trump only because he articulated their despair. He also articulated their resentments. For decades, liberals have called the Christian right intolerant. When conservatives disengage from organized religion, however, they don’t become more tolerant. They become intolerant in different ways. Research shows that evangelicals who don’t regularly attend church are less hostile to gay people than those who do. But they’re more hostile. .to African Americans, Latinos, and Muslims. In 2008, the University of Iowa’s Benjamin Knoll noted that among Catholics, mainline Protestants, and born-again Protestants, the less you attended church, the more anti-immigration you were. . .When cultural conservatives disengage from organized religion, they tend to redraw the boundaries of identity, de-emphasizing morality and religion and emphasizing race and nation. Trump is both a beneficiary and a driver of that shift.”
The three components of Trump’s seemingly unshakeable base are ideology intoxicated Republicans, those lost in single-issue myopia, the despairing and alienated sectors of the disconnected white working class. Together, they appear to comprise slightly more than a third of the country.
The chasm that separates them from the rest of America is already wide enough to make conversation across it hellishly difficult, as time moves on it well may become impossible. Bridging that divide is the challenge of this age—if it can be done.
Illustration by Dmitriy Linchevskiy / Shutterstock.com