Imagine if, a year ago, 80,000 votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin had gone the other way and Hillary Clinton had been elected president of the United States. Imagine if her national security adviser had been forced to resign from office after just 24 days over potentially illegal contact with Russia. Imagine if her attorney general had potentially perjured himself by denying his communications with the Russian government in front of a Senate committee. Imagine if she had sacked the head of the FBI and bragged on television that she did it because of its investigation into Russian collusion with her presidential campaign. Imagine if her former campaign chairman had been indicted on charges of money laundering and conspiring “against America”.
How would her Republican opponents have responded? Wouldn’t a party that tried to impeach her husband over a sex scandal, and some of whose members even suggested Barack Obama should be impeached over the death of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, be crying out for her impeachment, too? Wouldn’t Fox News, Breitbart News, Rush Limbaugh and the rest of the conservative media echo chamber be questioning the legitimacy of a President Hillary Clinton 24 hours a day, seven days a week?
Yet what was the reaction from top congressional Republicans after President Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and his deputy, Rick Gates, handed themselves in to the FBI to face criminal charges, and the former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to making false statements about his contacts with Russia?
Not. A. Word. Complete and utter silence. Both the House speaker, Paul Ryan, and the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, declined to comment; Ryan claimed, with the straightest of straight faces, that he had “nothing to add”.
The party of Lincoln is now very much the party of Trump. Congressional Republicans have fallen into line behind the president, unwilling to hold him to account. Take the majority whip, John Cornyn, the second-highest-ranking Republican senator, who was asked by Politico to comment on the Trump administration’s ever-changing position on health-care subsidies. “I’m with the president,” he replied – but when asked what the president’s position was, Cornyn “threw up his hands in the air”. The Texas senator may have no idea what the president thinks but he is with him nevertheless.
The Republican resistance to Trump in the Senate now consists of just three men – Bob Corker, who compared the White House to “an adult day-care centre”; Jeff Flake, who said he “couldn’t sleep at night having to embrace the president or condoning his behaviour”; and John McCain, who lambasted the “half-baked, spurious nationalism” of the Trump variety. (The first two are retiring from the Senate at the end of this term while the third, in his own words, has “very, very serious” brain cancer.)
For this reason, impeachment is a liberal fantasy – regardless of what Robert Mueller, the special counsel appointed by the US department of justice to investigate possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, finds or concludes. Republicans control both the House and the Senate; Trump cannot be removed from office unless GOP legislators are willing to discover a conscience and/or a backbone.
How times change. As Carl Bernstein, who helped break the Watergate story in 1972, pointed out: “The Republicans during Watergate were heroic. They are the ones who said, ‘What did the president know, and when did [Nixon] know it?’”
Fast-forward to 2017. If Trump decides to fire the special counsel and shut down his investigation, à la Nixon in 1973, will the GOP push back? Almost certainly not, because Republicans such as Ryan are less interested in “the truth” than in passing tax cuts for the rich. In the words of Vox’s David Roberts, they also “cringe at the feet of the baying, insatiable [Republican] base, which is never not outraged and exercised” by a right-wing media noise machine that can “distort reality sufficiently to prevent any kind of transpartisan consensus from forming”, as it did after Watergate.
According to Bernstein, the Trump-Russia investigation represents a “potentially more dangerous” situation than Watergate, but it is harder to report on it. Fewer Americans these days are seeking the “best obtainable version of the truth”. Republicans, in particular, tend to reject any criticism of the president as “fake news” and rely on talk radio and Fox News, which is now an undisguised propaganda arm of the Trump administration, for their information. While other networks were covering the breaking Manafort story early on 30 October, Fox was rolling on “the emoji cheeseburger crisis at Google”. By the evening, Fox had Mueller’s face on screen next to the headline “Credibility in question”, and the host Sean Hannity was denouncing “President Clinton”.
It is difficult to overstate how cut off from reality many Republicans have become, partly as a result of their toxic media diet. In July, a poll found that only 45 per cent of Trump voters believed that Trump’s eldest son had a meeting with a Russian lawyer during the campaign – something Trump, Jr, has admitted. The same poll found that 77 per cent of them thought Trump should stay in office even if the campaign did collude with Russia. Another poll found that 61 per cent of his supporters said they couldn’t think of anything the president could do that would make them disapprove of him.
In other words, this is not just the party of Trump: this is the cult of Trump.
This article appears in the 01 Nov 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Boris: the joke’s over