Thursday, November 05, 2020

Trump's corrupt schemes didn't help him -- but they didn't hurt him either

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Some time in the night, I found myself thinking about this claim of Greg Sargent's, which I found clarifying when it was published on October 7:

When you step back and survey the last two years of U.S. politics, one of the biggest story lines that comes into view is this: One after another, a whole string of deeply corrupt schemes that President Trump has hatched to smooth his reelection hopes have crashed and burned.

The "corrupt schemes" run from attempting to extort a bogus investigation of Biden from the Ukrainian president to trying to retail the same Biden smears in U.S. media to a retaliatory investigation of those who conducted the investigation of Russian influence to siccing federal troops on protestors to sabotaging the Post Office, smearing vote-by-mail and promising legal challenges against full vote counts.

While it's true that all of these schemes have failed (so far), it's also true that none of them hurt Trump's standing much. His support is pretty much where it was in November 2016. 

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The good news is that our institutions have shown some (residual?) resilience. A whistleblower blew up the Ukraine scheme, and a public trial laying out the facts followed. Mainstream U.S. media refused to run the "Hunterghazi" smears. Generals pushed back against Trump's attempt to employ federal troops against protestors. Vote counts are now proceeding, notwithstanding deluded crowds screaming at the doors.

The bad news is that Americans did not find these potentially lethal assaults on the rule of law and functioning democracy disqualifying (and neither, of course, did Republicans in Congress).  In the runup to attempted reelection Trump's approval ratings far exceeded those George Bush Sr., a competent public servant, in 1992.

So last night I found myself also thinking about a counterpoint to Sargent's thesis, reported by Charlotte Alter the next day (October 8), after a three-week tour of battleground states:

The more people I met, the more I detected something deep and unpredictable lurking beneath the surface, something that I wasn’t sure was reflected in the polling data, something that maybe couldn’t even be measured at all. My phone was filling with news: news about wildfires engulfing the West Coast; news about Trump reportedly calling fallen soldiers “losers” and “suckers”; news about the death toll from COVID-19 passing 200,000; news of Trump’s admitting to journalist Bob Woodward on tape that he had intentionally downplayed the virus, purportedly to avoid causing a panic. But almost nobody seemed to be talking about these headlines, and when I asked about them, people often didn’t believe them or didn’t care. I felt caught in the chasm between the election as it was being reported by my colleagues in the press and the election as it was being experienced by the voters.

The good news is that the U.S. still has a free press, which throughout the Trump years has exposed mountains of malfeasance in excruciating detail. Mainstream media, for all its faults of emphasis or presentation, remains committed to reporting fact accurately and correcting its own errors when they occur.  The bad news is that we've also got an unchecked and metastasizing disinformation mediasphere, and the effort to discredit the mainstream, dialed up to 11 by Trump, is succeeding with a large chunk of the populace.

It has always been true that most voters lack a coherent framework for assessing candidates' policy proposals, and that most people pay only passing attention to politics.  But for some decades at least, the electorate has responded to massive policy failures, real or perceived -- proven corruption (Nixon), double digit inflation and recession (Carter, and, through 1982, Reagan), recession again (Bush Sr.), failed disaster response, failed military crusades, and financial implosion (Bush Jr.).

Trump has not only proved himself a reflexive enemy of democracy and the rule of law -- he has presided over a catastrophic pandemic, manifestly sabotaging the most basic public health measures and almost surely triggering over 100,000 excess deaths and intensifying economic collapse. In a functioning democracy, his approval rating would be under 20%.  Today he is at 44.5%.

 The prognosis for democracy in America is uncertain at best.

Update: David Frum, an early prophet crying out against the corruption of the Republican Party, looks at our damaged electorate through a global lens

Until yesterday, those who looked to the U.S. for leadership could dismiss Trump as an aberration. But even if he loses, he cannot now be dismissed, or excused, as such. Trump received at least 3 million more votes amid the self-inflicted disasters of 2020 than he got in 2016. Every responsible world leader now has to take Trumpism into account when planning. Trump is not the whole of America. But he is part of America. The disease of Trumpism is on the loose. It has been contained, but not cured, and therefore it may recur at any time.

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