Its not yet clear if Trumps presidency has suffered a mortal injury, but its credibility has taken a big hit
Republicans are not much given to quoting Lenin, but they might be in a mood to sympathise with his supposed observation that there are decades when nothing happens and weeks when decades happen.
It feels like a decades worth of misery rained down on Republicans in Congress and the Trump administration last week and theres no telling whether this week will bring a respite or more of the same. The damaging stories have come so thick and fast that there has hardly been time to take in one before the arrival of the next.
Donald Trumps firing of the FBI director, James Comey (perhaps to quash Comeys investigation of his campaign), was followed by the news that Trump had divulged highly classified intelligence to the Russian government.
Then it was off to the races with the Comey memo (apparently alleging that Trump tried to get the FBI director to call off his investigation into former national security adviser, Michael Flynn); revelations about Flynn having been in effect a foreign agent of Turkey, news of previously undisclosed contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia; the appointment of a special counsel to investigate Russian meddling; and on and on and on. Rumour has it that firings of top aides are imminent, while others in the administration are said to be polishing their CVs or putting pen to tell-all memoirs.
As I write this, the New York Times is reporting that Trump told Russian officials that he fired Comey because he was crazy, a real nut job and that his removal had taken away the great pressure Trump faced because of Russia. Who knows what revelation tomorrow may bring?
Its too soon to tell what the long-term impact of all of this upheaval will be. Many historical-minded commentators have suggested parallels with the Watergate scandal that brought down Richard Nixon, while others have pointed toward the Iran-Contra affair, which ultimately didnt detract from Ronald Reagans popularity. The possibility of Trumps impeachment, once discussed only on wild-eyed, leftist websites, is now a matter of serious consideration in the media and some Democratic circles.
At this point, the major similarity to Watergate is that a lot of Americans who in years past never talked about politics now talk about it all the time and in settings where politics rarely used to come up. Politics, its said, is displacing talk of sports and sex in such unlikely venues as bars, nail salons and strip clubs. The American Psychological Association recently warned that people increasingly feel stressed and cynical on account of political arguments in the workplace, sapping employee morale and performance.
On an anecdotal level, politics seems to be sundering friendships on social media platforms such as Facebook as well as in real life. Dating websites also report that fewer people are willing to consider relationships with people who dont share their political beliefs. On Match.com, 60% of singles said they were less open to dating across party lines than they were two years ago. One woman interviewed by a Washington, DC, radio station insisted that she couldnt date a supporter of the opposing party because when somebody has beliefs that you think are just morally wrong, it feels like a personal attack on you.
The phenomenon of political polarisation predates Trump, of course. In many ways, it goes back to the Nixon administration, when conservative aide Patrick Buchanan recommended that Republicans exploit tensions of race and class and use controversial social and cultural issues such as abortion to split the Democratic coalition. Such tactics could cut the Democratic party and country in half, he wrote to Nixon in 1971, and we would have far the larger half.
Another Nixon adviser, Roger Ailes, who died last week at age 77, also contributed to polarization by creating Fox News as a conservative counter to the mainstream news networks that took pride in their objectivity. More and more Americans now get their news from nakedly ideological outlets, which makes it less likely that theyll encounter opposing views or be able to distinguish truth from falsehood.
Trump ran a more divisive campaign than Nixon ever contemplated and, indeed, turned it into the sort of reality-TV spectacle that has driven all of those shouting matches at the office water cooler, Facebook unfriendings and failed first dates. Buchanans prediction has proved true: Republicans have cut the country in half and ended up with the bigger piece, as they now control a majority of both houses of Congress and governorships as well as the White House.
The continuing benefits of polarisation for Republicans have been evident even during the past difficult week. A recent poll shows that even as Trumps overall approval rating continues to slide, 84% of his supporters still approve of the job hes doing (although the share who strongly approve is waning). Many of his adherents simply dismiss the damaging stories about Trump as fake news purveyed by a biased liberal media. Theyre likely to continue to support the Republicans so long as they believe that Democrats represent a diabolical threat to the nation.
Many Republicans also point to accomplishments that wouldnt have happened under a Hillary Clinton presidency. Foremost among these is Neil Gorsuchs confirmation as supreme court justice, restoring the conservative majority. Trump voters, whose primary issue was immigration, are heartened by the news that arrests of immigrants have soared even as crossings at the Mexican border have dropped. And Trump signed more executive orders in his first 100 days in office than any president since Franklin Roosevelt, although most of those orders signalled Trumps intention to reverse President Obamas legacy on the environment and other issues.