During Donald Trump’s improbable and inflammatory rise to presidency, a truism emerged to explain the polar reactions to him: The media takes Trump literally but not seriously, and his supporters take him seriously but not literally.
What this bon mot meant was that journalists made far too much of Trump’s promises to build a wall, ban Muslims, erect trade barriers, destroy Obamacare, and so forth, while Trump’s electoral fan base never believed in all details but did see the candidate as a serious figure rather than the demagogic, incoherent clown of liberals’ scorn.
Barely one week into the Trump regime, we now know both sides were right, and American democracy is imperiled as a result. Yes, behind all the scattershot tweets and egotistical sputtering, Trump has a consistent, long-held white-nationalist ideology. And, yes, he was telling the detailed truth about all of his bigoted and benighted policies.
At best, some of Trump’s voters will change their minds only after experiencing his unkept promises first-hand
It has taken only nine days of the Trump presidency to see that we are in the dawn of a dictatorship. One of his first executive orders pushed forward a $25 billion plan to build a wall along the Mexican border. Another slammed shut America’s golden door on refugees from the Syrian civil war and both immigrants and already-approved resident aliens from seven majority-Muslim countries. That measure also gave explicit preference to Christians, a religious test for admission that has never existed in American history.
Our nation knows by now that it was a fantasy to have expected the Republican Party to act as any kind of brake on the extremism of Trump and his personal Goebbels, Steve Bannon. Well before Trump even took office, all but a handful of Republican senators and representatives had proven themselves gutless wonders. The primary-election opponents he mocked and subjected to conspiracy theories -- “Little Marco” Rubio, Ted Cruz, son of that supposed participant in the JFK assassination -- endorsed their bullying tormentor.
Now, the Republican majority in Congress is palpably salivating at Trump’s signature on the party’s long-standing agenda of massive tax cuts for the wealthy and shredding of the social safety net for the poor and working-class. Trump will also give Republicans a Supreme Court nominee or two, which could reverse the Roe v Wade ruling on abortion rights and the Obergell case’s decision allowing same-sex marriage.
So it comes as no surprise whatsoever that House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and VP Mike Pence could all so readily contradict their own previously stated positions against a ban on Muslim immigration once Trump issued a Steve Bannon-authored executive order doing essentially that.
The Republican Jewish Coalition, no doubt delirious over Trump’s instant alliance with Benjamin Netanyahu in support of the settlement enterprise and confrontation with Iran, has gone similarly mute. When Sheldon Adelson has an aisle seat on the presidential platform for the inauguration, you know all you need to know.
And you would never guess that the same Reince Priebus, now trying to finesse the offensive and instantly controversial Muslim ban is the same person who, in the wake of Mitt Romney’s 2012 defeat to Barack Obama, authorised an internal Republican Party study on the need to reach out to non-white voters lest the GOP continue to lose presidential elections as America becomes an increasingly young, diverse, and urban nation.
With the expedient exceptions of a few Republican representatives in swing districts, and the more principled example of senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham, mavericks who are even more liberated by likely being in their final terms, Republican office-holders have fallen into an obedient line.
They live in greater fear of Trump’s alt-right base, which is disproportionately powerful in low-turnout primary elections, than of destroying the American values of religious freedom and openness to immigrants. Those are not Democratic Party values, mind you, but American values; Ronald Reagan, nobody’s idea of a left-winger, signed amnesty for undocumented immigrants and welcomed refugees.
So, if one mistake for those of us in the resistance is to expect an iota of integrity from Republicans in Congress, then a second is to believe that even the best investigative reporting will change the minds of Trump’s hardcore -- those 36% to 40%of Americans who approved of him in recent polls.
Thanks to decades of efforts by right-wing Republicans to delegitimise reported, factual news as partisan bias -- efforts that began with Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew in the late 1960s -- a substantial share of the citizenry cannot be persuaded by truth if it contravenes predisposition.
At best, some of Trump’s voters will change their minds only after experiencing his unkept promises first-hand -- when the revival of coal mines and auto plants doesn’t happen, when trade wars kill jobs dependent on the import-export economy, when working-class whites lose their Obamacare coverage in favour of a wholly insufficient tax credit, if even that.
Trump’s base must suffer before it learns.
And the third mistake for moderates and liberals is to put faith in a vision of Trump as impetuous, inconsistent, and disorganised, a contraption ticking down to self-destruction. May it be so. But in the meantime, the only safe position for the opposition is to assume that every Trump gambit, no matter how seemingly spontaneous, fits a larger, nefarious purpose.
Those complete falsehoods about millions of illegal immigrants having voted for Hillary Clinton? Trump’s announced investigation into non-existent ballot fraud is the ideal way to keep Republican momentum for voter-suppression laws. Sending out his flacks Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway to repeat presidential lies to incredulous reporters? Those moments provide the perfect video clip for the Breitbart, Drudge Report, and Fox audiences, which see not Spicer and Conway but the mainstream media being humiliated in the encounters.
As has already become apparent with the Muslim ban, the future of the republic rests with the courts, or at least it does until the 2018 and 2020 elections. Judges in New York, Seattle, Boston, and northern Virginia all issued restraining orders against portions of the executive order.
Surely, the Trump regime will counter-sue, and it’s hardly unreasonable to expect a resulting case to reach the Supreme Court. However conservative half the high court’s current judges are, they are also lifetime appointees, free to actually decide on the basis of conscience and the American constitution.
And should Trump lose at the Supreme Court, then every sensate American will be waiting in trepidation to see whether his reaction is capitulation or a coup.
Samuel G Freedman is an American author and journalist. This article previously appeared in Haaretz.