US voters’ capacity for being appalled by Trump is waning

A relaxation of civic mores is a deadlier threat to democracy than the president

US president Donald Trump boarding Air Force One in Maryland. Photograph: Sarah Silbiger/The New York Times

US president Donald Trump boarding Air Force One in Maryland. Photograph: Sarah Silbiger/The New York Times

 

He meant well but Bertolt Brecht has a lot to answer for. In his subversive poem about the East German government, composed in 1953, he wondered if it might “dissolve the people and elect another”. Ever since, it has been impossible to suggest that we, the public, are ultimately culpable for the state of our politics without having the jet-black irony of the line recited in response.

The voter is always right, it seems. Political dysfunction must be the fault of politicians. To think otherwise takes the hauteur of a 1950s East Berlin apparatchik.

It is with some delicacy, then, that I say this: if US president Donald Trump is not brought down for his alleged wrongdoing, it will not be because his inquisitor, Robert Mueller, lacked thoroughness or because his political enemy, the Democratic Party, lacked nerve. It is because not quite enough voters minded quite enough. If they did, the pressure would tell on Democrats to seek his impeachment and on Republicans to at least consider voting for it, on pain of electoral rout. In the absence of such an incentive, it is only rational for them to demur.

Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, is said to be minded that way. Most candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination also prefer to talk about other things. Last November, the party won the midterm elections precisely by skirting the matter of presidential conduct. Democrats fear the subject only unifies conservative voters in a siege mindset while boring the non-aligned. It might be an accurate reading of the national mood. Some of us never thought public opinion would sustain an impeachment, almost regardless of Mueller’s findings. But this in itself is troubling.

The report does not say that Trump colluded with Russia in his own election. But it does find that he instructed staff to lie. It finds that he dangled threats and favours before potential witnesses. That he seems likely to not just survive this news, but to remain eminently competitive at the 2020 election, suggests that he is not the story here. The story is modern unshockability.

Trump is a transient figure who will be gone in two or six years. A relaxation of civic mores is a deadlier long-run threat to democracy. It gives bad politicians an incentive to test what they can get away with, and offers no reward for good ones who hold them to account. It all but ensures that we will be here again in the future.

Clinton scandal

Conservatives are entitled to point out that we have been here in the past, too. Trump is not the first president in recent times to survive a scandal by counting on the diversionary power of an economic expansion and the partisan blinkers of his own side.

For 21 years, it has been the height of urbanity to rue Bill Clinton’s persecution “over an affair”. The idea is that some curtain-twitching vulgarians in Congress had a bee in their bonnet about private happenings that the worldly French would have yawned at.

This should not need saying, but the articles of impeachment that passed the House of Representatives in 1998 were for perjury and for obstruction of justice. From the president of a constitutional republic, these are not trivial infractions. You might have expected something in the way of comeuppance. Instead, Clinton served out his tenure with the most lavish approval ratings.

As amusing as it was to see a bellicose Congress misread the country so woefully, there was, in retrospect, a warning in the whole saga. The electorate decided that probity only mattered so much. It was always likely do so again. Perhaps it is doing so now. We are left to guess what will be excused next time.

Faulty mechanics

Our waning capacity to be appalled is not just cross-partisan, it is cross-national. Throughout the West, it has become soothing to believe that only the mechanics of politics are faulty. If social media can be better-regulated, fake news better-rebutted, foreign money better-tracked, rogues and chancers would not be able to win elections (or referendums). The possibility that we ourselves have become less discriminating as voters and citizens is too awkward to entertain.

Brecht was writing about a one-party state with a secret police. In a democracy, leaders can only debase public life as far as the public allows. In all candour, if a politician gave me the government of my dreams, I suspect I could be persuaded to overlook rather a lot of chicanery. We are all relativists now, or at least enough of us are to matter. That is a larger problem than any one president. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019

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