Caught in the Trump trap: Republicans made a deal with the devil, and now they're stuck with him

A tale of two flawed democracies — America and France — exposes the nature of the GOP's terrible Trump compromise

Published May 14, 2017 4:00PM (EDT)

Mitch McConnell; Donald Trump; John McCain   (AP/Evan Vucci/Molly Riley/Brett Carlsen/Ron Edmonds)
Mitch McConnell; Donald Trump; John McCain (AP/Evan Vucci/Molly Riley/Brett Carlsen/Ron Edmonds)

The French election last Sunday threw American politics into stark relief: In France, the center-right establishment not only refused to endorse right-wing populist Marine Le Pen but its defeated candidate, François Fillon, prominently opposed herLe Pen lost to Emmanuel Macron in a landslide. Here, the mainstream right overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump, and now they're stuck with him and don't know how to extricate themselves.

This situation is vividly illuminated by the Trump administration’s most spectacular dumpster fire to date, the abrupt firing of FBI Director James Comey, an obstruction of justice that fits the dominant pattern of authoritarian consolidation, according to experts interviewed by Zack Beauchamp at Vox. The sharp contrast between the two countries could not be more telling.

There's ongoing speculation that a small group of GOP senators could prove crucial in averting the worst. For example, the day after Comey’s firing AP's Erica Werner tweeted, "Among those not closing ranks behind Trump: Rubio, McCain, Burr, Scott, Corker, Flake, Lankford, Murkowski, Isakson, Collins ..." In fact, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine had already signed on, and anyway that's a purely negative description. What, exactly would they stand for? What American principles? What conservative principles? What? This is the problem they — and the GOP as a whole -- created for themselves by not vigorously rejecting Trump in the first place, and by decades of feeding the subtext that Trump has transformed into text.

As Beauchamp's Vox article points out, the clear and present danger of the Comey firing is evident:

Comey’s firing ... political scientists say, fits a pattern that’s very common in democracies that collapse into authoritarianism in the modern era. It’s not that the elected leaders in these countries set out to become an authoritarian, per se. It’s that they care about their own power and security above all else, and do things to protect their own position that have the effect of removing democratic constraints on their power.

For now, at least, France has turned back from this abyss. For all the novelty of the current moment in world politics, the French elections held true to a long-standing pattern — without support from the establishment right, the authoritarian nationalists failed badly. Macron won in a landslide, beating Le Pen by 32 points — compared to 20 points in pre-election polls — carrying all but two of France's 107 departments. Even in “Le Pen country,” near the Belgian border and the Mediterranean Sea, where the National Front candidate had racked up strong first-round wins, most voters didn’t support her in the end. With Fillon openly opposing her, she added only about half his conservative voters to her total, losing by almost two to one. France faces serious political and social problems, make no mistake. But the nation's conservative elites have drawn the line at opening the floodgates to neofascism.

The United States has been a much different story, thanks to the fecklessness of the GOP establishment, who barely even wavered in the face of the "Hollywood Access" tape. Trump was their ticket to stealing a lock on the Supreme Court, and they were satisfied with the deal, as were Republican voters. As late as mid-April last year, Trump was the weakest GOP frontrunner in more than 40 years, but by June 1, he had consolidated Republican voters’ support at 85 percent, right in line with every contested primary season since 2000. Now, however, the full cost of that deal is starting to unfold, and the Comey firing firestorm is only a foretaste of what’s to come.  

One key reason for the difference between France and America is that the GOP has spent the last 50-plus years laying the foundations for Trump’s ethno-nationalist surge, from the National Review’s 1950s defense of Southern segregation and voter suppression to Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign, to Nixon’s "Southern strategy," as articulated by GOP dark wizard Lee Atwater:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger” — that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

After decades of the message getting more and more abstract, Trump was, to many Republican base voters, a “refreshing” return to the raw roots of the Southern strategy. It was hardly an accident that Trump embraced all sorts of Nixonian tropes — speaking frequently about “law and order” or the “silent majority,” and promising to defeat ISIS with a “secret plan.” Nor is it surprising to find him reliving echoes of Watergate — only the speed with which it’s happened is startling.

But today’s GOP cannot easily distance itself from Trump for fundamental reasons of political power, expressions of which were underscored by two other events that unfolded, virtually unnoticed, at almost the same time. First was the resignation of Census Bureau director John Thompson, which Amanda Marcotte explored here on Thursday.

Second, as Daily Kos writer Stephen Wolf tweeted, “Trump just fired the FBI director who was supposedly investigating him & now wants a voting ‘integrity’ commission to legitimize suppression,” referencing an entry on Rich Hasen’s Election Law Blog. Each reflects long-standing conservative efforts to suppress the political power of those they deem unworthy to wield it.

As Marcotte explained, “Thompson was at the center of an ugly debate over funding,” with Republicans aiming to cripple the 2020 count. “Having a full and accurate picture of the American population cuts against many conservative goals, so it’s no surprise that the party of ‘alternative facts’ is not particularly interested in letting the Census Bureau do its job,” she wrote. Common Cause national redistricting manager Dan Vicuña told her “that underfunding the census could lead to a situation where ‘political power will be distributed disproportionately to white voters, to people who are wealthier.’”

Quoting from a piece he wrote in January, Hasen contrasted Trump’s commission — headed by two Trump loyalists -- with the bipartisan commissions that examined problems after the 2000, 2004 and 2012 electoral cycles. “The only good news since I wrote this piece?” he asked in conclusion. “The Administration’s credibility is so low that few except the true believers are likely to believe anything produced by the likely worthless report.” The panel will be chaired by Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence, with Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach as vice-chair. The very definition of a Trump loyalist, Kobach was both Trump’s primary source in feeding his voter suppression fantasy, and the first enthusiastic endorser of his baseless claim that 3 million illegal votes gave Hillary Clinton the popular-vote victory.

Kobach is also arguably the most central elected Republican involved in national voter suppression efforts, as described by investigative reporter Greg Palast, whose documentary I reviewed here last September. Kobach spearheaded the interstate “Crosscheck” program that compiled a list of 7.2 million suspected “double voters” in 29 states. As Palast’s documentary showed, the list was filled with people whose first and last names matched but whose middle names didn’t. “There’s ‘George Joseph Peck’ matched with ‘George R. Peck,’ ‘William Trad Price’ matched with ‘William E. Price,’ ‘Angela L. Reeves’ matched with ‘Angela Kay Reeves.’ The list goes on and on like that,” I wrote. It was, in short, a list designed to generate false positives, and thus to deny the vote to millions of legitimate voters.

Meanwhile, a new study reported in the Nation found that Wisconsin’s voter-ID law suppressed 200,000 votes in 2016 — about nine times the size of Trump’s margin in the Badger State. Nationwide, it found that 2016 turnout was up 1.3 percent in states that had made no changes in their voting laws, while those with strict voter ID laws saw a 1.7 percent drop in turnout — a difference of 3 percent, far larger than Trump’s margin in any of the crucial Rust Belt states he narrowly won.

In short, reality is exactly the opposite of what Kobach pretends: He claims that Clinton’s 3-percent margin in the popular vote was due to votes cast illegally, when the reality is that 3 percent of legal voters apparently didn't cast ballots in states that followed Kobach’s lead. Kobach is precisely the model of “public servant” that Trump wants everyone to be, which is why Jim Comey had to go.

It’s not just that loyalty matters above all else to Trump — that’s a common trait among authoritarian leaders. Loyalty matters because it acknowledges his dominance, which is all that matters to him. Facts are irrelevant. They’re “negotiable.” And if Trump is top dog, then he will always win the negotiation, right? That is the basic logic of authoritarian epistemology — but with a twist: Standard authoritarian leaders understand the power of truth, and work hard to simulate its appearance, in one way or another.

In my recent Salon interview with press critic Jay Rosen, he argued that most normal descriptive terms are misapplied to Donald Trump. “To say he has policies is misleading. He has reactions to things, and when new things happen he’ll have different reactions,” Rosen said. “‘Flip-flopping’ is actually crediting Trump with having positions in the first place, which I don’t think he ever did.” David Roberts made a related argument at Vox last September:

There is no answer to the question of whether Trump opposed the [Iraq] war in 2003. The question presumes that Trump has beliefs, "views" that reflect his assessment of the facts, "positions" that remain stable over time, woven into some sort of coherent worldview. There is no evidence that Trump has such things. That is not how he uses language.

When he utters words, his primary intent is not to say something, to describe a set of facts in the world; his primary intent is to do something, i.e., to position himself in a social hierarchy. This essential distinction explains why Trump has so flummoxed the media and its fact-checkers; it’s as though they are critiquing the color choices of someone who is colorblind. ...

He treats all social interactions as zero-sum games establishing dominance and submission. In every interaction, someone is going to win and someone is going to lose, be with Trump or against him.

Think about it: for years, Trump built his political identity as the most prominent birther, as a means of both denigrating and denying America’s first black president, and of promoting himself as a potential successor, representing all those who felt similarly aggrieved. Then, late in the game, when it became painfully clear that this play would not work out, he abruptly switched stories, claimed that he ended birtherism, and that his opponent, Hillary Clinton, had actually started it!

Factually, it was absurd. But facts never matter for Trump, in any systematic way; they only matter momentarily, in extremis, when they decisively block his ability to dominate. So remove the world of facts from the equation, and it was brilliant, a classic WWE-style move, in which the wrestler who is down suddenly rises in triumph. That is how to best understand Trump.

But it’s also how to understand why the Republican Party can’t quit him. Its leaders and voters have been working up to him for a long time. They held more power under George W. Bush than at any time since before the Great Depression — and blew it, utterly. They’ve proved decisively that they cannot govern, but they can block Democrats from governing; their political resurgence since 2008 has been nothing short of astonishing in that regard. But they still have no idea what to do. Except to hold onto power.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell knows this — that’s why he stole President Obama’s legitimate Supreme Court nomination. He supported Trump precisely to ensure that his theft paid off. Preserving political power is the only thing that matters now, consequences be damned. Which is why the GOP can’t quit Trump — at least not yet.

Republicans will only change once it becomes clear that doing so is a matter of survival for them. Which is why the resistance is so crucial, every day, building toward the 2018 midterm elections and beyond. The senators Werner pointed to as potential sources of salvation are a futile illusion, when push comes to shove. They have no coherent moral center to rally around. Susan Collins' statement about the Comey firing, referenced above, might as well have been drafted by the White House.

As Trump abruptly changed his story about the Comey firing in his interview with Lester Holt of NBC, the contradictions spiked past the threshold of impeachment, as Harvard’s Laurence Tribe observed. “Either Trump's own account of the discussion is true, in which case he's guilty of obstruction of justice in one respect,” Tribe said, “Or, much more likely, Comey's account is true, in which Comey gave him no assurance,” and in that case “Trump is guilty of attempting to suborn obstruction of justice.” Either way, it’s an impeachable offense.

But contradictions only matter if facts matter. And facts only matter if we make them matter. The fact is, Trump was already in violation of the Emoluments Clause. He’s also in violation of his oath of office. As Benjamin Wittes and Quinta Jurecic wrote for Lawfare:

There’s only one problem with Trump’s eligibility for the office he now holds: The idea of Trump’s swearing this or any other oath “solemnly” is, not to put too fine a point on it, laughable — as more fundamentally is any promise on his part to “faithfully” execute this or any other commitment that involves the centrality of anyone or anything other than himself.

Up till now, no one’s taken Trump’s oath literally, or seriously. It’s time we did both — because it goes to the very heart of what holds this country together as an aspiring democracy. That will only happen as a result of sustained grassroots resistance. Institutions will not save us. We must save them. Or Trump will grab them all by the pussy.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

MORE FROM Paul Rosenberg