Politics is a zero sum game. But the rewards or punishments for behavior and rhetoric only go as far as voters do at the ballot box. Trump blew out the common wisdom that lying and ignorance were deal breakers. Kudos to him. But the real shame for any of his misdeeds goes to citizens who put him in power, and the congress that doesn’t check him.
And now the chickens come home to roost. Trump can’t hide behind his weird campaign promises anymore because he’s actually in a position of power. Republicans have been promising a replacement for the ACA and are now the dogs that caught the car. As an ideological premise, Republicans do not believe healthcare should be a fundamental right. But now huge swaths of the country like and depend on ACA for coverage and helpful regulations, despite the well-known flaws. And the only way to improve on the ACA in anyway is to spend money, which they don’t want to do, as Vox’s Matthew Yglesias writes. Many parts of an implemented Republican agenda will be unpopular with a majority of Americans, and Trump cannot spin the fact that he will be pressured to rubber stamp it.
And then there’s the damage the executive branch has been doing on its own: The incompetent and arbitrary rollout of heartless immigration restrictions. The appointment of the richest cabinet known to man with unqualified candidates. Unprecedented conflicts of interest for Trump himself. The close involvement of family in the administration who still run the Trump business. The across the board hiring freeze of government workers. The stupid confrontational attitude with Mexico over a border wall, and Australia over refugees. Cozying attitudes with Russia. The suppression of scientific information at government agencies. The elevation of Steve Bannon to National Security Council. Putting Michael Flynn in charge of anything. The list goes on, and on, and on in only the first few weeks, more than I care to list here. Incompetence knows no bounds in this administration so far.
The next four years are shaping up to be an unparalleled case study of corruption and poor policy making, possibly rivaling the worst moments of the W. Bush, Reagan, and Nixon administrations. But in the end, people do not care about the specifics of policy or corruption, so much as they do broad ideologies, party affiliation, and cult of personality. He won because the Republican base cared more about their agenda than the flaws of Trump.
I can wrap my head around the weird world in which Trump wins the electoral college by 80,000 votes split between three states and loses the popular vote by three million. The assistance from horrible press dripped from the FBI and Russia cannot be overstated. Nor can the pushback against the electoral inevitability of a Clinton victory or the difficulty of a party in power to hold a third term. She was favored to win and many took that for granted. Absolutely everything went wrong for Clinton in the final weeks, and everything went right for Trump . Everything mattered. I can imagine the contorted reasons someone may have voted for Trump only because he could be whatever any conservative voter wanted him to be, because he promised the world with a cherry on top for everyone. What’s harder to reconcile is that such corruption and poor policy making will not be punished at the ballot box going forward.
But whether Trump and Republicans experience electoral backlash is entirely dependent on whether a small portion of the electoral population understands what is happening in government and mobilize. Trump has successfully channeled a growing right-wing vigor of conspiratorial attitudes towards facts and free press, and spread that amongst a growing core of support who rejects anything that might cast negative light on him or anything he says. Unemployment rate low under Obama? Wrong says Trump, unemployment is 42%. He lost the popular vote by 3 million votes? Wrong says Trump; that margin of votes was cast by illegal immigrants. Russia acted to help Trump win? Naw, says Trump. The obsessive and narcissistic tendencies of an executive who picks fights with the press over obvious, pointless, and indisputable things like inaugural crowd sizes means the phrase “post-fact world” has taken on an entirely new and horrifying definition. Someone willing to lie about little things will likely lie about things that actually matter. This is not comparable to politics as usual. Few make such bold-faced lies with conscience. And a marginally sufficient number of voters rewarded that behavior.
The coming years are likely to have endless possibilities of bad press for Trump: bad job numbers, corruption scandals, escalating international crisis, a failure to pass legislation, etc. And given Trump’s inability to admit even slight wrongdoing, his comfort in lying, and his uncanny ability to make things up, negative events will be scapegoated and declared made up by media organizations or politicians. Positive events will of course be declared the full credit and testament to the Trump administration. A vast majority of his supporters do not care about any of this simplistic, disturbing behavior. I wish it were easy to say that such serious authoritarian tendencies point to a clear rejection of Trump, or a rejection of Republicans in the next few cycles for lacking the spine to challenge even the most heinous actions of the white house because of their understandable desires to advance their legislative ambitions. A resurgent opposition in support of Democrats could potentially make up the difference going forward. But if the unfit character and insane policy implications of a Trump white house weren’t already obvious to the 46% of voters who voted for Trump, then it’s hard to hold much confidence in the ability of any margin of those voters to reject their hyper-partisan attitudes for the good of the country if that means putting the other party in power.