His strongman threats are scary. But don’t forget that he’s weak.
Living under a president who daily defiles his office and glories in transgressing the norms holding democracy together is numbing and enervating. It’s not emotionally or physiologically possible to maintain appropriate levels of shock and fury indefinitely; eventually exhaustion and cynical despair kick in.
But every once in a while Donald Trump outpaces the baseline of corruption, disloyalty and sadism we’ve been forced to get used to. Outrage builds and the weary political world stirs. Sometimes even a few Republican officeholders feel the need to distance themselves from things the president says or does.
Child separation caused this kind of clarifying horror. There was a moment of it when Trump tweeted that four congresswomen of color should go back to the “totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came.” And now, thanks to Trump’s latest attack on democracy, we’re seeing it again.
At a Wednesday evening news conference, Trump was asked whether he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power after the November election. “We’re going to have to see what happens,” said the president. He then complained about “the ballots,” apparently meaning mail-in ballots, which he’s been trying to discredit: “Get rid of the ballots and you’ll have a very peaceful — there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There will be a continuation.”
His words — the demand to discard ballots, the dismissal of a possible transfer — were a naked declaration of autocratic intent. Looking at the BBC’s website, where a blaring headline said, “Trump Won’t Commit to Peaceful Transfer of Power,” you could see America being covered like a failing state.
Trump’s words were all the scarier for coming on the same day as Barton Gellman’s blockbuster Atlantic article about how Trump could subvert the election. The chairman of Pennsylvania’s Republican Party told Gellman, on the record, that he’d spoken to the campaign about bypassing a messy vote count and having the Republican-controlled legislature appoint its own slate of electors. A legal adviser to the Trump campaign said, “There will be a count on election night, that count will shift over time, and the results when the final count is given will be challenged as being inaccurate, fraudulent — pick your word.”
As terrifying as all this is, it’s important to remember that Trump and his campaign are trying to undermine the election because right now they appear to be losing it.
Trump is down in most swing state polls, tied in Georgia and barely ahead in Texas. His most sycophantic enabler, Lindsey Graham, is neck-and-neck in South Carolina. The president is counting on his new Supreme Court nominee to save his presidency, and she may, if the vote count gets to the Supreme Court. But a rushed confirmation is unlikely to help Trump electorally, because in polls a majority of Americans say the winner of the election should make the appointment.
Trump may be behaving like a strongman, but he is weaker than he’d like us all to believe. Autocrats who actually have the power to fix elections don’t announce their plans to do it; they just pretend to have gotten 99 percent of the vote. It’s crucial that Trump’s opponents emphasize this, because unlike rage, excessive fear can be demobilizing. There’s a reason TV villains like to say, “Resistance is futile.”
“We cannot allow Trump’s constant threats to undermine voters’ confidence that their ballots will be counted or discredit the outcome in advance,” Michael Podhorzer of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. recently wrote in a memo to allies. Podhorzer said that the organization’s polling suggests that “this close to the election, we do Trump’s work for him when we respond to his threats rather than remind voters that they will decide who the next president will be if they vote.”
This doesn’t mean people shouldn’t be alarmed. I’m alarmed every minute of every day. Trump is an aspiring fascist who would burn democracy to the ground to salve his diseased ego. His willingness to break the rules that bind others gives him power out of proportion to his dismal approval ratings. He blithely incites violence by his supporters, some of whom have already tried to intimidate voters in Virginia.
Yet part of the reason he won in 2016 is that so few of his opponents thought it possible. That is no longer a problem. Since then, when voters have had the chance to render a verdict on Trump and his allies, they’ve often rejected them overwhelmingly. Under Trump, Democrats have made inroads into Texas, Arizona, even Oklahoma. They won a Senate seat in Alabama. (Granted, the Republican was accused of being a child molester.) Much attention is paid to Trump’s fanatical supporters, but far more people hate him than love him.
In the run-up to the 2018 election, many people had the same fears they have now. Analyzing its survey results, Pew found that “voters approached the 2018 midterm elections with some trepidation about the voting process and many had concerns that U.S. election systems may be hacked.” After 2016 it was hard to believe polls showing Democrats with a lead of more than eight points. But the polls were right.
Certainly, things are different now than they were even two years ago. A pandemic is disrupting normal campaigning and changing the way a lot of people vote. Trump has much more at stake. Investigations in New York mean that if he’s not re-elected, he could be arrested.
It’s also true that by floating the idea of refusing to concede, Trump begins to normalize the notion. The nationwide uproar over family separation has worn off, even though family separations continue. A House resolution condemned Trump’s initial racist attack on Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley. Now he says similar things at his rallies and it barely makes news.
One of the most oft-used metaphors for the Trump years has been that of the slowly boiling frog. (The frog, in this case, being democracy.) By threatening what is essentially a coup, Trump may have turned the heat up too quickly, forcing some elected Republicans to implicitly rebuke him by restating their fealty to a constitutional transfer of power.
But if history is any guide, those Republicans will adjust to the temperature. The next time Trump says something equally outrageous, expect them to make excuses for him, or play some insulting game of whataboutism by likening Biden’s determination to count ballots past Nov. 3 to Trump’s refusal to recognize the possibility of defeat.
Still, Trump can be defeated, along with the rotten and squalid party that is enabling him. Doing so will require being cleareyed about the danger Trump poses, but also hopeful about the fact that we could soon be rid of him.
Trump would like to turn America into a dictatorship, but he hasn’t yet. For over four years he has waged a sort of psychological warfare on the populace, colonizing our consciousness so thoroughly that it can be hard to imagine him gone. That’s part of the reason he says he won’t leave if he’s beaten in November, or even after 2024. It’s to make us forget that it’s not up to him.
Shortly after Trump was elected, the Russian-born journalist Masha Gessen published an important essay called “Autocracy: Rules for Survival.” Gessen laid out six such rules, each incredibly prescient. The one I most often hear repeated is the first, “Believe the autocrat,” which said, “Whenever you find yourself thinking, or hear others claiming, that he is exaggerating, that is our innate tendency to reach for a rationalization.”
Right now, though, I find myself thinking about the last of Gessen’s rules: “Remember the future.” There is a world after Trump. A plurality of Americans, if not an outright majority, want that world to start in January. And whatever he says, if enough of us stand up to him, it can.
14. “In my opinion, you vote for a Democrat, you’re being very disloyal to Jewish people and you’re being very disloyal to Israel. And only weak people would say anything other than that.”Yes, Trump is doubling down on his very controversial “dual loyalty” claims here. But he’s also revealing what he believes to be the worst trait in a person: Being “weak.”15. “I think that if you vote for a Democrat, you’re very, very disloyal to Israel and to the Jewish people.”He never, ever backs down. No matter what. He believes it to be a sign of, wait for it, weakness... 24. “We’re building tremendous numbers of miles of wall right now in different locations. It all comes together likes a beautiful puzzle.”As of July, 46.7 miles of the border wall had been built. So, lot of puzzle pieces still out there... 28. “There are many, many things in play. People are talking about videos. People are talking about lots of different things. But we do have a way of bringing what we already have, because we have many, many — as you know, we have many, many people that are unable to buy guns right now. Many people are unable to buy guns.”Trump regularly talks in circles. But when he talks about guns and the way forward on gun control(or not) he takes it to a whole other level.29. “And you know, we can’t let that slope go so easy that we’re talking about background checks, then all of a sudden we’re talking about, ‘Let’s take everybody’s gun away.'”This is a favorite argument of the NRA but bears very little connection to reality. Making sure everyone who buys a gun has to submit to a background check isn’t even on the same planet as the government coming to peoples’ houses and demanding they turn their guns over. Ridiculous... 32. “I went to the hospitals. It was totally falsely reported. There were beautiful, beautiful, very sad, you know, horrible moments. But there were beautiful moments, in the sense that these people — the families and also the people that were so badly injured that I was with — they love our country.”This is Trump on his hospital visit to victims of mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas. Very beautiful. Also sad. And horrible. But also beautiful.33. “So when I went to Dayton, and when I went to El Paso, and I went into those hospitals, the love for me — and me, maybe, as a representative of the country — but for me — and my love for them was unparalleled.”So, the big takeaway from Trump’s visits to mass shooting victims was that they really loved him. Like, a lot.34. “The doctors were coming out of the operating rooms. There were hundreds and hundreds of people all over the floor. You couldn’t even walk on it.”So, according to the President, doctors stopped operating on patients in order to come out and meet him? OK! Very legal and very cool!
Conservative pundit Ann Coulter had high hopes for President Trump, anointing him an “emperor god” and writing the book “In Trump We Trust” to celebrate his White House bid.
Central to the appeal for Coulter were the candidate’s hard-line views on immigration, including a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico.
A lot can change in just over two years.
“He promised something for 18 months, and he lied about it,” Coulter told HBO host Bill Maher on Friday, not long after Trump signed a stopgap measure to temporarily reopen the government without including any money for the wall, once again subverting his central campaign promise.
Earlier in the segment, Maher questioned Coulter on her initial support for the president: “You voted for him, Donald Trump, and now you’re finding out he’s a lying con man. What was your first clue?”
Coulter shot back: “Okay, I’m a very stupid girl, fine.”.
“Good news for George Herbert Walker Bush: As of today, he is no longer the biggest wimp ever to serve as President of the United States,” Coulter tweeted Friday.
.. Tomi Lahren, a Fox Nation host, tweeted that Trump allowed “Nancy to walk all over him,” referring to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “It’s President Trump, not President Pelosi. Act like it. #BuildThatWall,” she wrote... Fox Business host Lou Dobbs, who described himself as an “an animated, energetic supporter of this president,” conceded that Pelosi “has just whipped the president of the United States.”
“It will be perceived as such on every television monitor and screen in the country and to deny it is to escape from reality,” he said.
On his Fox News show, Tucker Carlson left most of the opining about Trump’s shutdown deal to his guests, adding that “you know what erodes your popularity with the public? Weakness.”
WASHINGTON — President Trump has stepped back from declaring a national emergency to pay for a border wall, under pressure from congressional Republicans, his own lawyers and advisers, who say using it as a way out of the government shutdown does not justify the precedent it would set and the legal questions it could raise.
“If today the national emergency is border security, tomorrow the national emergency might be climate change,” Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, one of the idea’s critics, said this week. Another Republican, Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, told an interviewer that declaring a national emergency should be reserved for “the most extreme circumstances.”
.. “What we’re not looking to do right now is national emergency,” he told reporters gathered in the Cabinet Room as the shutdown approached its fourth week. Minutes later he contradicted himself, saying that he would declare a state of emergency if he had to.
.. Instead, Mr. Trump would use his authority to transfer funds to the wall that were appropriated by Congress for other purposes. Toward that end, the Army Corps of Engineers has been directed to study whether it can divert about $13.9 million in emergency aide set aside for Puerto Rico, Florida, Texas and California. And with the money secured, the president could drop his opposition to the appropriations bills whose passage would end the shutdown.
.. Former White House aides, who noted that Mr. Trump did not focus on the wall during the first two years of his presidency, said the optics of fighting for the wall were more important to the president than erecting it.
.. But opposition has come from many Republican quarters. Some conservatives see it as an unacceptable extension of executive power. Kellyanne Conway, a White House aide, has said it would essentially give Congress a pass. Representative Mike Simpson, Republican of Idaho and a member of the House Appropriations Committee, said it was not clear to him that an emergency declaration would even lead to the prompt reopening of the government.
A close look at the 2018 midterm results shows why he is so weak.
Now that a new Congress has taken office, the vote count from the 2018 midterms is all but final. It shows that Democrats won the national popular vote in the House races by almost nine percentage points. That margin is smashing — larger, by comparison, than in any presidential race since Ronald Reagan’s 1984 re-election landslide.
.. Without a significant improvement in Trump’s standing, he would be a big underdog in 2020. Remember, presidential elections have higher turnout than midterms, and the larger electorate helps Democrats. At least 10 million more people — and maybe many more — are likely to vote in the next presidential election than voted in the 2018 midterms. Those extra votes, many from younger or nonwhite Americans, would make Trump’s re-election all the more difficult.
It’s not just Trump, either. If his approval rating doesn’t rise over the next two years,multiple Senate Republicans will be in trouble. I’ve long assumed that Susan Collins of Maine could win re-election for as long as she wanted. But she may not be able to do so if Trump loses Maine by 15 percentage points — which was the combined Republican deficit in Maine’s two midterm congressional races.
Then there is Cory Gardner of Colorado (where Republicans lost the 2018 popular vote deficit by more than 10 percentage points), Joni Ernst of Iowa (where the Republican deficit was four points) and Martha McSally of Arizona (where it was two points).
If Trump’s popularity were to drop at all, another batch of senators — from North Carolina, Texas and Georgia, three states where Republicans only narrowly won the 2018 popular vote — would become more endangered. Even Kansas elected a Democratic governor last year, and it will have an open Senate seat in 2020. On Friday, Pat Roberts, the Republican incumbent, announced he would not run again.
.. I know that many people, from across the ideological spectrum, believe that Trump’s standing with Republicans remains secure.
I think he is more vulnerable than many people realize.
First, there are the political risks that his current standing creates for other Republicans. It’s true that his approval rating has been notably stable, around 40 percent. It’s also notably weak. Thus the Republican whupping in the midterms.
Third, Republican support for Trump may remain broad, but it’s shallow. Trump has already faced far more intra-party criticism than most presidents. Since the midterms, it seems to be growing. Jim Mattis, the defense secretary, resigned and criticized Trump while doing so. Mitt Romney entered the Senate by once again turning against Trump. Collins and Gardner have started grumbling about the shutdown.
As Republicans begin looking nervously to 2020, their willingness to break with Trump may increase. For some of them, their political survival may depend on breaking with him. If that happens, it’s quite possible that his approval rating will begin to drift below 40 percent — and the bad news will then feed on itself.
No, none of this is guaranteed. Democrats could overreach, by quickly impeaching Trump and thereby uniting Republicans. Or Trump could end up navigating the next few months surprisingly well. But that’s not the mostly likely scenario.
The normal rules of politics really do apply to Trump. He won a shocking victory in 2016, and his opponents have lacked confidence ever since. They should no longer lack it.
Donald Trump still has great power as the president of the United States. But as presidents go, he is very weak. His opponents — Democrats, independents and Republicans who understand the damage he is doing to the country — should be feeling energized.