Government & Politics
 

We’ve normalized Trump, but Tuesday night’s ‘victory’ may be his undoing

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Rejuvenated House Democrats are calling for a full accounting of a troubled and troubling presidency. Trump has vowed war.

Blue wave? Let’s get real. It didn’t happen, except in the Northeast where voters turned away from Trump in a wave of revulsion.

But neither was it quite the stirring victory that Trump declared on Wednesday as — with his trademark mix of self-delusion and outright lying — he tried to paper over a major, potentially fatal, setback: losing control of the House of Representatives.

Yes, Democrats reclaimed the House, but bear in mind that Republicans on Tuesday were stripped of fewer seats than Democrats lost in the 1994 or 2010 midterms. And, as right-wing pundit Daniel McCarthy has pointed out, both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama went on to win second terms two years after “shellackings” far worse than Trump’s.

Meanwhile, a cabal of spineless Senate Republicans — many of them men who savagely denounced Trump before beginning to lick his spittle (Talkin’ bout you, Lindsey Graham; you, too, Ted Cruz) — remains at the top of the heap on Capitol Hill. And a partisan and activist Supreme Court is presumptively in Trump’s corner as well.

That said, Tuesday night really did make history. It was testament to something that liberals can no longer deny: Trump’s intuitive political guile. It was testament as well to a nation’s shame.

The Midterms normalized Trump. America failed to fully repudiate a hideous and embarrassing administration.

Two years in, we have got used to a reality-TV presidency, scripted by what an emotionally needy man hears from his whisperers on Fox News.

Getting used to it doesn’t end widespread abhorrence — most interestingly among non-populist conservatives and centrist Republicans. And then there’s the more cynical crowd who have decided that stripping the presidency of its dignity and America of the respect of our former allies doesn’t matter as long as Trump keeps delivering tax cuts for the wealthy, right-wing judges and environmental “deregulation.”

After doses of morning-after aspirin, media on Wednesday mostly looked beyond what Trump stands for: the racism, the self-enrichment, the recklessness on issues ranging from global trade to climate change to nuclear weapons, the astonishing disregard for science and the almost pathological inability to cope with fact.

We rolled over and began parsing the numbers as if Trump being our president was not a betrayal of the presidency itself. And if Trump’s is a presidency a lot of Americans have settled for, that might seem to make it the presidency America deserves.

Other ideas about American politics must be revised accordingly. Fifty years ago, it was possible to mistake Nixon’s Southern Strategy for a merely cynical last hurrah by a president who knew better than to give full voice to the heartfelt bigotry that was later revealed on his Watergate tapes. Play to Dixie racism, the thinking went, and Southern whites will forget their traditional distrust of a party more closely allied with Wall Street, a faction by then prepared, however reluctantly, to shovel Southern bigotry onto the ash heap of backward ideas. As the late ‘60s riots had confirmed, Jim Crow just wasn’t working very well any more. At least not in the North.

LBJ knew better, at least as regards the South. The omnibus Civil Rights Act of 1964 would deliver Dixie to the Republicans for a generation, he warned — then signed the bill anyway, as a matter of conscience. By 1980, Ronald Reagan would make the sickening decision to deliver his first post-convention speech at a fairgrounds symbolically close to blood-stained, race-riven Philadelphia, Mississippi.

Even so, it was still possible in the late 1980s to come down from New York, as my wife and I did, inspired by the possibility that the South would eventually bear witness to a revolution. De jure segregation had had its day, and even the de facto version was under assault. It was our privilege to see history happen, in New Orleans, if not widely across the region.

Now we know that we were reading history more or less ass-backwards. The Southern Strategy wasn’t Republican racism’s guttering candle. It was a clear-eyed bet on America’s political future. Trump doubled down on that bet by pandering to nationalist bigotry with breathtaking candor, and in 2016, he collected. He may have lost to an unpopular Democrat by a whopping three million votes, but the Electoral College gave him the win anyway, thanks to its disproportionate control by underpopulated rural states — the same constituency that hung with Trump on Tuesday, even as his hold on the Rust Belt weakened and soybeans rotted in the heartland.

So far Trump’s shrewdness as a stump speaker and demagogue has fired up his base without delivering on key parts of his campaign agenda. For all Trump’s fire and fury, his tweets, his disgraceful public bullying, he didn’t get much done in his first two years, even with both houses of Congress under his tiny thumb.

He has failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act. He has failed to “Lock her up!” He has failed to end the wars in Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen. He, or rather his son in law, has failed to broker a solution to Israel’s and Palestine’s problem. The Wall? (Let’s ask the new House of Representatives about that one.) The massive assault on America’s crumbling infrastructure that Trump promised? That hasn’t happened either.

Trump has even failed to deliver a significant tax break to middle- and working-class Americans. Instead, at the end of an economic recovery engineered by his predecessor — a time when the nation should be paying down debt and bracing for the next recession — Trump’s most consequential legislative accomplishment has been a tax break for the rich that is already adding trillions to a national debt burden that serious conservatives once declared an unacceptably dangerous legacy to lay on their children and ours.

Yes, he has pleased the Federalist Society by installing a great many right-wing judges, Brett Kavanaugh topping the list. The rest of his achievement has been regulatory and rather capricious: tariffs, a trade war and a dismantling of rules, hard-won over the past 50 years, that are meant to protect American workers, the environment and all of us who breathe air and drink water. Bravo!

Divisiveness? Trump has manipulated hatred skillfully to cover for the promised accomplishments and positive leadership he has failed to provide.

But here’s the problem, for Trump and for an America grown used to him: normalization is a two-way street. So far Trump has been able to get his base to go all tingly with relatively milquetoast racist remarks and garden-variety anti-Semitism. Hearing a presidential candidate — now their president — give voice to kinds of bigotry that, for a while, dared not speak its name, has been exciting for many of us: that Mexicans are rapists; that Maxine Waters is “low-IQ,” that African nations are “shit holes.” Wow! Finally I can say stuff like that (again.)

Obama wasn’t born here, we’ve been told; George Soros is part of a secret Jewish cabal that controls Wall Street, bombed the World Trade Center towers, and now is financing the hapless band of Latino immigrants staggering toward the Rio Grande, but still 700 miles away. Send in the Marines!

Disparaging common decency as “politically correct,” has been like a dose of pure ozone in an oxygen bar. Declaring mainstream media “the enemy of the people” has distracted Trump’s base from pondering why they’re so unhappy with what’s really going on. Even Fox, a network in whose eyes Trump can do no wrong, had to pull an anti-immigrant ad that was too flagrantly racist.

The problem with giving presidential voice to bigotry and lies and assaults on science? Eventually repetition kills the thrill, and when it does, Trump’s going to have to up the ante. Worsening already repulsive speech — worse yet, reinforcing it with more theater — like rushing soldiers to the Mexican border to drum up fears of an impending invasion  —  could lead a jittery president to take a step too far.

Catcalls, like those remembered from the lips of David Duke and George Wallace or Joe McCarthy, could eventually turn off as many Republicans as they excite. Evangelical Christians have been weirdly tolerant to date of Trump’s blasphemies, his disparaging remarks about God’s children in all their diversity, his sexual predation and his incitements to violence and hatred. That may not last forever.

And here’s another problem with normalization. On Wednesday morning Trump rushed to do something he hadn’t dared to do while the midterms lay ahead. He fired his ridiculous and long-suffering attorney general, Jeff Sessions.

He is maneuvering to replace him with a campaign confidant and diehard loyalist already committed to illegally aborting or curtailing the wide-ranging probe by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, a probe that he will officially oversee. Deputy AG Matthew Whitaker might qualify as a hireling worthy of Trump’s legal team, a replacement perhaps for one of the insiders Mueller has flipped. Instead, Whitaker is Trump’s candidate to become the federal official who is supposed to swear allegiance not to a president — even a good one — but to law and the constitution.

Were Trump the first president to try this kind of unlawful obstruction, he might be able to override a startled and disoriented nation, as he did in suddenly firing FBI director James Comey. But someone beat him to the punch by a half century.

Nixon tried to upend the Watergate probe by firing Archibald Cox. Instead the Saturday Night Massacre triggered national outrage and forced Nixon’s resignation just ahead of his impeachment. Fired by Whitaker and seeking to protect the integrity of the probe to date, Mueller may come up with strategies cleverer than quitting. But Trump would be wise to wonder if they might be equally devastating to his presidency.

Even if Nancy Pelosi regains the speaker’s gavel and is able, as she vows, to hold the line against a premature rush to impeachment, Trump’s glorious evening on Tuesday promises a whirlwind of legal maneuvering by newly empowered House Democrats.

Trump is said to fear that Donald Jr. faces imminent indictment and vows a “warlike posture” to prevent due process. Then there are the unreleased tax returns, the back-channel communications with Putin and Julian Assange, campaign manager Paul Manafort’s thievery, the payoffs to a porno star that weren’t reported as campaign expenses, not to mention the Russian meddling in the 2016 election, skillfully engineered by Putin to assure Trump’s victory.

You think the last two years have been chaotic and polarizing? Brace yourself for what’s ahead. Trump had better do the same.

The opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.

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About Jed Horne

Opinion Editor Jed Horne is a veteran journalist who was awarded a Pulitzer Prize as part of the Times-Picayune team that covered Katrina and the recovery. He is the author of “Desire Street” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005) and “Breach of Faith” (Random House, 2006, 2008), which was declared “the best of the Katrina books” on NPR. He can be reached at jedhorne@gmail.com