The Commonwealth of Virginia has figured heavily in our politics of late, from the neo-Nazi marches in Charlottesville (and attendant praise by Trump, because, hey, what’s more American than neo-Nazis?), to its central role as a setting in the Russigate probe (such as the FBI picking the lock on Paul Manafort’s Virginia home in a pre-dawn raid), to John Kelly’s bizarre declaration that Virginia icon Robert E. Lee—a man who presided over the killing of hundreds of thousands of his fellow Americans—is somehow a hero and not a traitor (I guess this administration’s definition of ”treason” is kinda skewed), to the events of last Tuesday at Virginia’s ballot boxes.
Needless to say, the sweeping Democratic rout in Old Dominion—along with other wins in New Jersey, Washington state, and elsewhere—mark the first undeniable manifestation of an anti-Trump backlash, and proof that this administration can hurt the GOP at the polls in 2018 and 2020. In addition to cheering up NPR-listening, brie-eating, chablis-swilling coastal elites from Brooklyn to Silverlake, it’s also a revelation that ought to have Republican politicians, strategists, and johnny-come-lately D-list celebrity buffoons-cum-pretenders to the Presidency shit scared.
But beyond the welcome catharsis and cause for optimism among progressives and other opponents of Trump, there are some more nuanced—yet basic—lessons to be had. I’m not talking about “Should Ed Gillespie have tried to be more Trumpy or less?” I’m talking about a very simple matter of math. Despite the Orwellian nature of the regime currently ruling the United States, 2 + 2 does not yet equal 5. The Resistance finally seemed to figure that out this week and put its numerical advantage to use.
ADD IT UP
Both polling and election results from last week reveal that Trump’s base remains undiminished in its (blind) support for him and its willingness to turn out and vote. Predictions—which were profuse last November—that Trump voters would turn on him once he got in office and was unable to deliver on promises like the border wall, bringing back the dying coal industry, crushing ISIS with a snap of his tiny fingers proved woefully wrong. Proved correct were those psychology professors who wrote op-eds about how hard it is to get people to change their minds even when confronted with incontrovertible evidence. Human nature, apparently, is a motherfucker.
Should we really be surprised, though? After all, many Trump voters irrationally cast their ballots for him despite manifest evidence not only that he was liar, a sexual predator, and a colossal ignoramus (on the contrary: many of them liked him for precisely those reasons), but even in the face of empirical proof that his presidency was likely to hurt rather than help them economically. In that sense it was just a more extreme version of a longstanding, paradoxical Republican/working class alignment. So it should come as no shock that those same people are equally irrational in their continued support for Benito Cheeto, fallacy of sunken costs wise, particularly given how angry and heated tribal loyalties are at the moment. Few of these people are likely to admit that they were suckers and cede victory to the “elitist” liberal community that they have been conditioned to despise.
Why does this matter? It matters because it means we should not spend our time and energy trying to convince these people that they made a mistake, or bank on the idea that we can point to the painfully self-evident failures, malfeasance, corruption, lies, and hypocrisy of the Trump administration to sway any of them into changing sides, or even just staying home. Reason will not work with Trump supporters. Facts will not convince them. Demonstrable reality has no effect on them. They are in the grip of a Jonestown-like mass hysteria that will surely occupy future historians, PhD candidates, and psychiatric experts for generations to come (if the human race survives that long).
The reason the GOP lost so badly in Virginia and elsewhere, despite the fanaticism of the Trump base, is because they were simply outnumbered. An energized progressive (or at least anti-Trump) electorate got out in force and flat-out swamped the right wing. As Bill Clinton memorably said in dismantling Mitt Romney’s tax policy at the 2008 Democratic Convention (the exact same plan Trump and the GOP are trying to shove down our throats again), it all boils down to one little word: “Arithmetic.”
For ten months now we on the left have been wringing our hands and gnashing our teeth over how a mere 30% of the voting public can maintain such a stranglehold on our country. Well, it’s because they went to the polls last November in much greater numbers than their opponents, and because they continue to support their cretinous hero come hell or high water (literally, in places like Houston). Thus far, for all its rage, the left has been unable to mount a similar grass roots activism. Until now.
Tuesday showed us the solution, and it couldn’t be simpler. Reasonable Americans do in fact outnumber Trump’s rabid base, so let’s get out to the polls and use that mathematical superiority to enforce the will of the majority, which by the by, is how democracy is supposed to work. If we can’t get our act together sufficiently to do so then we deserve to be ruled by this pustulent boil of a president and his troglodyte minority. Tuesday marked the first sign that we have the fortitude to do so, and it ought to terrify the right and inspire the rest of us.
As some progressive pundits have opined, the silver lining in Trump’s ascendance to the White House may be that it at long last galvanizes the left and forces real and substantive change in our political system. At what cost, I’m not sure. (I hope that silver lining will protect us from radioactive fallout and nuclear winter.) But that was certainly what the Sarandonistas claimed in their to-the-bitter-end support of Bernie and their nonchalance about Hillary’s loss and Trump’s control of the nuclear codes. We shall see. Personally, I don’t favor remodeling my kitchen with a hand grenade, but now that we have no choice, all I can say is, “Fire in the hole!”
To continue with this martial metaphor, let’s delve into military theory for a moment. A nation-state generally wages war using the strategy that best plays to its strengths while minimizing those of the enemy. (When it does otherwise, it’s usually because of a miscalculation about what those relative strengths are.) Trump’s supporters have demonstrated the dedication of the Viet Cong, of ISIS, of Imperial Japanese aviators. To call it fanaticism is not far off the mark. That dedication—however mad—is probably Trump’s greatest strategic advantage, though following close behind I would list an indifference to the truth and attendant willingness to lie through their collective teeth without so much as the batting of a collective eyelash.
What we have on our side is what the People’s Liberation Army of China has: the human wave assault. We are never going to win a hearts-and-minds campaign to make Trumpkins see the error of their ways. You can’t win the hearts and minds of an opponent who demonstrates no evidence that he has much of either. But we can damn sure overwhelm them with our superior numbers.
Thus, as gratifying as Robert Mueller’s first indictments were, ultimately it is at the ballot box that the long war against Trump—and Trumpism—is most likely to be won. No matter what Mueller does and how damning the evidence he and his team uncover and the cases they build, it will fall to Congress to act. Naturally, the more evidence Mueller amasses, and the greater the number of Trump associates he indicts, and the more crushing the pressure on the White House becomes, the more readily Congress will be forced to respond…..and its willingness to do so will be in direct proportion to the numbers of Democrats in its ranks.
If the House flips to Democratic control, impeachment—which is by simple majority—is a near-certainty. Conviction and removal from office, however, would still require a two-thirds vote in the Senate, which remains unlikely considering the astronomically long odds of a Democratic supermajority arising in 2018. But with enough pressure from the Mueller probe and enough outcry from the general public, the Democrats might get enough Republicans to join them in a vote to convict. Do you want to try to flip 19 Republicans or just 9? How about five?
Beyond simply removing Trump, it will only be at the polls that we can punish the GOP for its transformation into the party of neo-fascist white nationalism and prevent it from coming to power again. As James Carroll said in these pages two weeks ago, “Trump is not the crime, just the evidence.” He is the logical conclusion of at least three decades of Republican poison seed-sowing and devolution, and even after he is gone we will still have to reckon with that.
The irony is that, seeing its power threatened at the polls as it was last Tuesday, the GOP will be further incentivized to re-double its longstanding and despicable efforts to undermine democracy, suppress the vote, and disenfranchise people likely to vote against it (like young people, people of color, people in urban areas, educated people, and people whose EEGs show sentient brainwave activity). But the corollary is equally ironic: more Democratic control of statehouses—where gerrymandering and other voter suppression largely takes place—will make it harder for the GOP to do so. A win-win for our side, and a nice parallel to the cornered rat situation in which the Republican standard-bearer, Don the Con, finds himself.
FRANZ KAFKA, WHITE COURTESY PHONE
I spent some time last week arguing with a number of Trump supporter online. You may say that that is a waste of time and I deserve whatever angst I suffered as a result, but I do think it’s worthwhile, in moderation. I learn a lot from those conversations, and while I don’t flatter myself to think I ever change any minds (I never have, as far as I can tell), I do think it’s valuable to confront some of these people and make them face opinions different than their own, and facts they don’t get on Fox or Breitbart, to let them know when their “alternative facts” are total bullshit, and force them to defend their positions (which they rarely try to, and never succeed at). Conversely, it helps me get out of my own bubble and understand what the other side is thinking, and defend my own positions. I think of it like being a Jehovah’s Witness, going door to door, despite the high percentage of them that get slammed in my face. (Except that because of this blog, I don’t go knocking on their doors; they coming knocking on mine.)
Most of those encounters last week consisted of little more than namecalling by the Trump side, as I’ve described before. But one woman did engage me at length, even though all she did was spout right wing gibberish, jumping from topic to topic and refusing to answer any questions I posed or defend her stances on any topic in any substantive way. Her comments were laced through with the usual hysterical hatred of Obama and Hillary and angry, snide references to being a “working American”—although she declined to explain why her hero was a comic book caricature of a billionaire Manhattan elitist born into obscene wealth, or why she believed he gave a shit about her. She also told me that there is nothing—nothing—that would ever make her vote for the Democrats (whom she described as “socialists”). She was not moved by my argument that this was exactly the kind of unwavering obedience that defined the totalitarian states she professes to hate.
But the reason I bring her up is this. Toward the end of our debate, if you can call it that, she abruptly shifted into an attack on (yawn) the Hillary email issue, making the claim that a person who is that careless with classified material ought to be in prison and furthermore zzzzzzzz….
That was when my head really began to swim.
I felt obliged to go down the laundry list of ways in which Team Trump’s cavalier—if not outright criminal—treatment of classified material makes Hillary’s alleged sins look like jaywalking….from Trump himself handing over top secret codeword intel to the Russian ambassador and foreign minister face to face in the Oval Office, to whipping out his cellphone to use as a flashlight in a restaurant at Mar-a-Lago to look at classified documents in front of the Japanese prime minister and in view of the general public, to maintaining that Android phone in the first place, to multiple members of his inner circle getting caught using private email accounts AFTER chanting that Hillary should be locked up, to Flynn and Manafort failing to disclose that they were paid agents of foreign powers, to Kushner proposing a backchannel to the Kremlin using their top secret comms network so our own spooks couldn’t listen in…..and on and on. And that’s not even addressing the possibility of active collusion with a foreign power to throw an election.
But the mere fact that Trump supporters STILL—even after observing the jawdropping hypocrisy of their champion and his minions on this same count—think bringing up Hillary’s email is a winning strategy is a measure of just how cavernous the partisan divide is. That they don’t see Trump’s hypocrisy here (any more than they see it when it comes to golf), and even think it’s an argument that is going to sway Democrats and progressives, is mind-boggling.
Folks, we are never going to change the minds of people who think like that.
BEFORE THE FLOOD (AND APRÈS)
The woman with whom I was arguing—who lives in rural Southern California—perfectly fits the profile of the residents of Johnstown, PA in a heartbreaking Politico piece this week by Michael Kruse. I’m going to quote generously from it because rarely in the past two years have I read reportage that so precisely captured what seems to be going on in Trump Nation. This article was profoundly grim in its depiction of a mass psychosis. But it was profoundly valuable in confirming that we ought to spend not one further ounce of energy trying to win over these poor deluded people.
Over the course of three rainy, dreary days last week, I revisited and shook hands with the president’s base—that thirtysomething percent of the electorate who resolutely approve of the job he is doing, the segment of voters who share his view that the Russia investigation is a “witch hunt” that “has nothing to do with him,” and who applaud his judicial nominees and his determination to gut the federal regulatory apparatus. But what I wasn’t prepared for was how readily these same people had abandoned the contract he had made with them. Their satisfaction with Trump now seems untethered to the things they once said mattered to them the most.
Per above, none of these people have turned on Trump, as so many expected they would. They don’t care that he failed to keep even one campaign promise; they either blame others or simply shrug and forgive it. In some cases they are convinced he did keep a given promise even when he didn’t, and cite the “fact” that “he does what he says” as one of the chief things they like about him. Which is like admiring Tiger Woods because he’s so faithful to his wife.
A 61-year-old Johnstown man named Joey Del Signore said:
“Trump’s probably the most diligent, hardest-working president we’ve ever had in our lifetimes. It’s not like he sleeps in till noon and goes golfing every weekend, like the last president did.”
Del Signore was surprised to hear this. “Does he?” he said.
“Yes,” I said.
He did not linger on this topic, smiling and changing the subject with a quip. “If I was married to his wife,” Del Signore said, “I don’t think I’d go anywhere.”
I don’t repeat these points just to marvel at the lemming-like loyalty of those whom Trump attracts. I repeat them to again caution us from thinking we can talk sense to these folks when it comes to chucking Donny out of office on his fat ass.
Polling continues to show that—in spite of unprecedented unpopularity—nearly all people who voted for Trump would do it again. But as I compared this year’s answers to last year’s responses it seemed clear that the basis of people’s support had morphed. Johnstown voters do not intend to hold the president accountable for the nonnegotiable pledges he made to them. It’s not that the people who made Trump president have generously moved the goalposts for him. It’s that they have eliminated the goalposts altogether.
This reality ought to get the attention of anyone who thinks they will win in 2018 or 2020 by running against Trump’s record.
That bears repeating. All those Trump supporters who voted for him in 2016, that unprecedented wave of whiteness that came out of the woodwork and flexed its waning but still formidable demographic muscle: they are going to do it again in 2020. So the only way we’re going to beat them—unless we find a way before then to put Trump in shackles and ship him off to the Supermax Prison in Florence, Colorado on a handtruck, Hannibal Lecter style—is to come out in even bigger numbers, and not just in 2020 but in 2018 too.
These people get all their information from Fox, believe CNN is “fake news,” and dismiss things like the Access Hollywood tape as “boys being boys.” (No word on how forgiving they are toward Harvey Weinstein.) They even whisper in church that Obama is the antichrist. And it all but goes without saying that Mr. Del Signore’s characterization of Obama as lazy and sleeping till noon reflects a belief in a certain—shall we say—stereotype.
Their impulse toward authoritarianism is also a bit chilling.
“I think he’s doing a great job, and I just wish the hell they’d leave him alone and let him do it,” (a woman named Pam) Schilling said. “He shouldn’t have to take any shit from anybody.”
He shouldn’t have to take shit from anybody???? Lady: he’s the president. He works for us. And I didn’t notice that “leave the poor guy alone” attitude much in evidence when Barack was in the Oval Office. (The notion that others are hindering Trump from doing the superhuman things he would otherwise do represents still more excuse-making and rationalizing of his failures.)
But this self-delusion has concrete, self-destructive consequences as well, when, for example, you have coal miners turning down re-training for new jobs in growth industries because they believe Trump’s bullshit that he’s going to bring the coal industry back.
One of the most amazing things to me is that this affection for Trump isn’t just a lesser-of-two-evils thing (although they most definitely hate Hillary, for the usual nonsensical reptile brain reasons). They actually like Trump personally. As we learned on the campaign trail—belatedly in my case, I’m embarrassed to admit—Trump’s supporters actively like the exact things that appall many of the rest of us. Filled with rage and resentment—some of it legitimate, some not—they’re engaged in a kind of nihilism that they have inflicted on us all.
His supporters here, it turns out, are energized by his bombast and his animus more than any actual accomplishments. For them, it’s evidently not what he’s doing so much as it is the people he’s fighting. Trump is simply and unceasingly angry on their behalf, battling the people who vex them the worst—“obstructionist” Democrats, uncooperative establishment Republicans, the media, Black Lives Matter protesters and NFL players (boy oh boy do they hate kneeling NFL players) whom they see as ungrateful, disrespectful millionaires.
So many people in so many other areas of the country watch with dismay and existential alarm Trump’s Twitter hijinks, his petty feuds, his penchant for butting into areas where the president has no explicit, policy-relevant role. All of that only animates his supporters here. For them, Trump is their megaphone. He is the scriptwriter. He is a singularly effective, intuitive creator of a limitless loop of grievance and discontent that keeps them in absolute lockstep.
As I say, this is a depressing portrait.
When you take in the kind of eyepopping loyalty depicted in Johnstown, or that I experienced firsthand in my encounters with Trump supporters, the GOP’s unwillingness to abandon Trump—not just on principle (just kidding!) but for what would appear to be purely pragmatic reasons of self-interest—begins to make sense. Think about it. The Republicans have a solid 30% of the electorate that will come out and support Trump (and them, as long as they remain aligned with him) regardless of whatever terrible things he or they do or promises they fail to keep. They did it in Virginia. That’s a rare and valuable political commodity.
The fervor of Trump’s base has not dimmed. Their loss in Virginia and elsewhere this week was not because of diminished enthusiasm on the right, but of increased enthusiasm on the left. What Tuesday showed was that we can overwhelm that solid pro-Trump 30% by means of a massive turnout from the remaining sane 70%.
THE DEVIL YOU KNOW
There is a danger, as James Carroll also warned in these pages, of demonizing Trump supporters, the specifics of which need no explanation. But it’s equally dangerous to forgive their support, or cut them slack out of condescending classism. So on that topic, a word about a word, which is my use of the term ”troglodyte” earlier.
The woman with whom I was debating on Facebook was no troglodyte. She was wildly misinformed, to be sure, intermittently insulting, and logically incoherent, yes. I won’t speculate about the degree to which racism and bigotry influenced her, as I don’t really know her, except to say that she displayed the mysteriously virulent dislike for Barack Obama characteristic of the right wing, and as usual, without any logical policy-based rationale. (Has there ever been any?) As with Mr. Del Signore of Johnstown, draw your own conclusions.
But I would not call her a troglodyte. Steve Bannon is a troglodyte. Some of the trolls I crossed paths with on Facebook spreading Der Sturmer-worthy JPEGs and other memes are. Richard Spencer and his loathsome ilk are. But this woman struck me as a beaten-down white working class American, culpable for some vile opinions and clinging to some flat-out myths, yes, but very much the sort of “forgotten” Americans that Trump pandered to with his lies and empty promises. She bought the snake oil, drank the Kool-Aid, and went home with the t-shirt. (Whew.) Then again, like the man says, you can’t con a person who doesn’t want to be conned. People in Weimar Germany were angry and resentful and beaten down too. Few people today forgive them what they did as a result.
So let’s not traffic in the soft classism of lowered expectations. To overlook or excuse the racism and neo-fascism prevalent within Trump’s base because its members are poor or live in Bumfuck, Nowheresville—in a way that we would never forgive in our friends or neighbors—is itself kind of snobbery. Beaten down, forgotten, and bypassed by globalism or not, Trump supporters are responsible for whatever race-based authoritarianism is at the dark heart of their admiration for this man, willingness to ignore the Mount Everest of his faults, and eagerness to demonize his foes who had the temerity to be born black and female. (And yes, women can be misogynists too.)
To that point, especially instructive in Kruse’s Politico piece is the aforementioned attitude in Johnstown toward the NFL protests, which Trump has gleefully seized on with his bully / slash / con man’s infallible instinct for the raw nerve. In case you entertained the remotest thought that this battle in the culture war is not all about race (Kaepernick’s gesture, after all, began in protest of the epidemic of murders of young black men by police), the Jonestown article ought to disabuse you of that fantasy with the “joking” translation one local man gives to the acronym “N-F-L.”
Hint: The “N” doesn’t stand for neo-conservative.
OTHER THAN THAT, MRS. LINCOLN….
In case it wasn’t abundantly clear, the Civil War is still very much with us, though its battle lines are no longer drawn strictly geographically but more demographically. The twisted spirit of John Wilkes Booth’s cry, malappropriated from the Virginia state seal and applied to Lincoln—“Thus always to tyrants!”—remains in force with Trump’s slavish followers, in whose world he is an intelligent, hard-working man of principle and religious faith who cares deeply about them and America (while Barack and Hil spend their time drinking blood out of human skulls with the Prince of Darkness). But you don’t have to believe in a divine being or in karma to see that, historically, tyrants do usually—eventually—meet the end they deserve.
I think it’s also worth noting that the figure on the Virginia state seal shown conquering tyranny is female, representing the Roman deity Virtus, goddess of bravery. It is already clear that the eventual defeat of Trump will be one in which women lead the way, which is only fitting given the prominent role misogyny played in his rise and animates his whole being and political movement.
With last Tuesday at the polls and with Mueller’s previous Monday, we just took two Neil Armstrong-style steps in that direction.