The question: Do you approve or disapprove of the way Trump handled his press conference with Putin? The results: Astonishing.
Political polarization in the United States has reached an extreme level, perhaps unprecedented in our history. Democrats and Republicans see everything differently, with little or no overlap. Even matters that in normal times would be considered facts rather than opinions evoke radically different responses.
Donald Trump, in his post-summit press conference in Helsinki with Vladimir Putin, astonished many observers by apparently siding with the Russian dictator over his own intelligence agencies. Yet, somehow Republicans took that surrealistic moment in stride, with 79% of them approving of his performance that day. The corresponding Democratic level of support was 7%.
How can there be that wide a gulf among Americans who share many qualities, though not party identification? The answer might be that neither group paid much attention to what Trump did or said, but merely held to their pre-existing views about him. If that interpretation is correct, it suggests that there is no prospect of dialogue, of political compromise, of healing the rift that is tearing the country apart.
Both parties can accuse each other of bad faith and retreat to their respective corners. After all, we’re just talking about “opinions”, not about reality, right?
Isn’t it too bad that we can’t find some other way to evaluate the President’s actions in Helsinki?
Wait. Maybe we can. In that same survey, Independents by almost two to one disapproved of Trump’s press conference performance.
How about the substance of what he said in Helsinki? Is it possible to look at his actions through something other than a purely political lens? It turns out, in fact, that there are multiple organizations looking at the impact of Trump’s cozying up to Putin in terms of national security and defense.
The overwhelming response by America’s European allies was a combination of dismay and horror at Trump’s off-the-rails diatribe. He has been badmouthing NATO, the G-7 and European countries, particularly Germany, for some time with no apparent strategic purpose. But the contrast of his love fest with Putin though not entirely surprising, was most assuredly alarming.
Trump in Helsinki further damaged vital relationships with long-standing allies. That’s not opinion.
But the reaction of NATO partners may not even have been the most significant indictment of Trump’s remarks. Rather, the almost unanimous denial of his assertions and numerous efforts to correct the record came immediately from the heads of America’s intelligence agencies. Despite the fact that Trump has been briefed on numerous occasions about Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election, he apparently continues to put more stock in Putin’s denials.
The biggest problem going forward is that all our national intelligence indicates that Putin is intent on even more meddling in the 2018 elections. Even if Trump’s fragile ego prevents him from acknowledging the proven realities of what happened in 2016, his unwillingness to take the steps necessary to prevent a repetition in this year’s election is extremely ominous.
And yet Republicans members of Congress say very little and do absolutely nothing. Some claim, under cover of anonymity, that they are concerned. Unfortunately, the total absence of a spine prevents them from coming into the light of day to say anything.
And as the stunning fact that 79% of Republicans profess to be fine with his pro-Russia posture demonstrates, he is unlikely to pay a political price for behavior that, at very least, is an abdication of his responsibility to safeguard the national interest.
I have come to understand some of the explanations for why Trump’s base has continued to support him even though I find the reasons distressing. The convoluted and contradictory efforts of Trump and his White House staff to rationalize the summit don’t seem to have affected either his base or Congressional Republicans.
All of these realities underscore what perilous times we live in. As Trump keeps pushing back against the laws, norms and guideposts that are essential to a democratic system, it seems that for his supporters there is no action that goes too far.
Absent any hope that Republicans will ever put country before party, it’s more essential than ever that all citizens who are appalled by the threat that Trump presents to our political system come out to vote in November. No excuses. No rain delays. No waiting for the perfect candidate.
There are, however, a couple of encouraging notes with respect to the fall 2018 election. The first is that Democrats seem energized at the local level and have a lot of really good candidates, many of them women. The second is that, just as some Democrats couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016, I’m convinced some Republicans, maybe not a lot, but perhaps enough to help on the margins, won’t be able to stomach pushing a lever for the Party of Trump in 2018.
Finally, I think Trump is planning to help this fall. Inviting Vladimir Putin to the White House before the election may make Trump feel like a world leader, but the optics for domestic politics are likely to be counterproductive. Similarly, his plan to have a massively expensive military parade to massage his ego–and I suspect he’ll think it’s a good idea to do the parade when Putin is in town–should help boost Democratic turnout.
For those of you who think I see only the gloomy side, these latter observations are my effort to find hope in the midst of darkness.