December 18, 2018 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Trump Is Entering a Vicious Cycle
"Believe me," the president says. Problem is, most Americans don't.
I argued yesterday that Donald Trump’s criminal liabilities may be eclipsing his political liabilities. But that’s not the only turning point coming into clearer view.
USA Today released this morning the results of a new public opinion survey finding that a majority of Americans don’t believe the president when he denies that his campaign colluded with the Russians in 2016. While a third of respondents said they have “some” trust in Donald Trump, six in 10 said they have little or none.
That poll comes after the Post released the results of its own survey measuring how much American believe the president on a range of issues. The outcome was remarkably similar to the USA Today poll. Just three in 10, including four in 10 Republicans, believe what the president has to say about tariffs and other matters.
It seems to me that we can expect more polling like this in which a majority of Americans comes around to seeing what a lot of us already saw: that Donald Trump is a sham president. Indeed, these poll numbers are very likely to worsen, as federal prosecutors continue circling him, as the special counsel’s office prepares its report, and as the House Democrats ramp up their own multi-front investigations into Trump’s lies, corruption and foreign (i.e., Russian) entanglements.
(New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood announced that Trump will close his charitable foundation after she accused Trump of using it for personal and political reasons. In closing it, the president all but confessed to having done just that.)
Put another way: we are seeing the beginning of a vicious cycle. Remember Trump won’t concede to political reality. His party lost badly last month, but he acts as if a majority of Americans backs him. For this reason, the more things worsen for him, the more he’ll stay the same, which will make things much worse. Trump has never been a popular president. We’re going to find out how unpopular a president can be.
All of which is to say that the American people have got this president’s number, increasingly so. That’s a huge leap from where we started. In the aftermath of the election, it seemed that Walter Lippmann’s nightmare had come true: the very thing making democracy great (consent by the governed) is the very thing imperiling it. It was difficult, in those early months, to think otherwise. After all, Hillary Clinton was the clearest and best choice. Yet the electorate instead chose a con man.
This dread was compounded by many well-intended voices on the left and right who sounded the alarm against Trump’s fascism. I’m talking about thinkers and writers, channeling Lippmann’s cynicism whether they knew it or not, who warned against the erosion of democratic norms and attrition of republican values paving the way to something sinister. Demagoguery is resurging around the world. No one is quite sure why, but what’s certain is that demagogues are turning the people against the people. They are using the means of liberal democracy for tyrannical ends.
That could still happen in the US in myriad different ways, but it would be hard to argue, at this point, that it will happen under this president. Indeed, the last two years have witnessed something remarkable. In a real sense, we have lived John Dewey’s response to Lippmann’s indictment of democracy. In May, I wrote that Dewey believed the people can make mistakes—truly awful mistakes—“but given enough time, and given the strength of our founding documents, institutions and abiding democratic faith, the American people can change course.” I think we are seeing that now.
Does this mean we have learned from our mistakes? I wouldn’t say that. It’s one thing to turn away from fascism. It’s another to turn toward fully equal liberal democracy. And as much as I love Dewey, I believe, as he did, that Lippmann was right about human nature. As long as people are around, magical thinking will live on.
But just as the Russians used our values against us—free speech being chief among them—those same values are protecting us, for now, from Trump’s fascism. Will that be enough the next time a demagogue comes around? I don’t know. No one does.
You just gotta have faith.
One lesson I hope we learn is this: don’t believe a man who says, “believe me.”
It ain’t pretty but sometimes you need it told to you straight. That’s why there’s the Editorial Board. For $5 a month, or $55 for the year, you get the honest truth, warts and all, in order to see what’s really going on, and why. I know you’ll love it!
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.
Note that Lippmann concern about the foolishness of the governed in giving their consent to rule by demagogues is only half the equation. The other half is Karl Popper’s dictum that the true test of the strength of any democracy is, per his “The Open Society and Its Enemies,” not the ability to elect leaders but the ability to remove them. This is the test we face, not as much with Trump as with the Republican party itself. This itself is an outgrowth of the unusual contours our own system has taken. Our inherent strengths lay in our system of belief in equal application of the law, the insistence as much as possible on fair (or at least nonviolent or threat thereof) elections, and the system of checks and balances not only in our federal government but also in the mirroring arrangement at state and local levels and the check and balance between those respective systems (federal v. state; state v. municipal). Our growing weakness is in the unrestricted influence of money in electoral politics, the relative lack of thoughtful regulation in our media platforms (to curtail disinformation that rise to the level of “fire” shouted in a theater), our current districting protocols (translation: gerrymandering), all of which have had baleful effects on the primary process for electing officials. Returning to that Popperian dictum: the measure of democracy is not the ability to elect but to remove your ruling class when they lose. So far Republicans are failing that test this election term.