Michiko Kakutani, the Pulitzer Prize-winning, sometimes acerbic former New York Times book critic — in other words, the kind of voice that 41 percent of Americans love to hate — has a new book out called The Death of Truth in which she amplifies the common laments of our time, that President Trump is, among other things "a larger-than-life, over-the-top avatar of narcissism, mendacity, ignorance, prejudice, boorishness, demagoguery and tyrannical impulses (not to mention someone who consumes as many as a dozen Diet Cokes a day)."
Kakutani chronicles the 45th president's blatant disregard for facts but, like the rest of us, doesn't seem to have a solution. She did collect this anecdote, however, which I think gets to the essence of how the Trump presidency manages to be both an utter failure and — on his terms, anyway — a rip-roaring success at the very same time.
This story jumped out at me, because I was still brooding over the president's bizarre performance last month at the Singapore summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un. In the so-called reality-based world, the Trump-Kim summit was an embarrassment to the United States. Not only was nothing of substance agreed upon, but right after Kim was handed an unearned victory — a one-on-one meeting with The Artist Formerly Known as Leader of the Free World — the North Koreans went right back to ignoring America and solidifying their status as a rogue nuclear state. The mess only worsens a situation in which a U.S. president — Trump or someone else — may decide war is the only solution.
But if you watched Trump in Singapore with the whole thing on mute (and also ignored his necktie that's six inches too long), the president's performance looked, dare I say it, masterful. The dance of diplomacy, the long dead-of-night motorcades and the Pacific Rim pageantry, the great "dealmaker" (who's barely made a successful deal since the 1980s) going face-to-face with a ruler that he'd once belittled, all in the name of world peace.A week later, 52 percent of Americans — and a whopping 85 percent of Republicans — approved of Trump's performance in Singapore, despite the growing reality that the pow-wow was actually a step backward for U.S. interests in the region.
To put it simply, Trump wasn't a real president in Singapore, but he played one on TV. And for The 41 Percent who remain unmoved by any negative facts when they're reported in a mainstream media that the president has branded as "fake news" and, increasingly, "enemies of the American people," those high-def images were all they needed.
All of this, of course, happened before last week's episode ("The One With Putin In Helsinki") which made most of the talking heads that you see on CNN or MSNBC and a lot of politicians including a few (gasp) Republicans — OK, Republicans who aren't actually on the ballot this year, but still… — declare that America looks kind of, well, hell-sinky with a president who seems to be so deep in debt to a murderous Russian strongman.
One of the dozens of pundits who felt that Trump's kowtowing to Vladimir Putin in Helsinki was some kind of tipping point was the Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin, a stalwart conservative who — like George Will and others of her ilk — became a Never Trumper. Wrote Rubin: "It is not too soon for men and women of good character to demand Trump resign — not because he will do so, but because public servants must now focus on Trump's danger to the country and how we can limit and eliminate it."
But even Helsinki — and the stunning sight of a weak and vacillating American president in thrall to a Russian leader like some kind of Manchurian candidate — didn't change a damned thing. A series of polls released in the last 48 hours showed that at least two-thirds of Republicans approved of Trump's performance at last week's summit; in one survey, by Axios, a whopping 80 percent of Republicans approved of Trump in Helsinki and 85 percent think the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election is "a distraction."
The numbers are stunning, but it's even more shocking to see post-Helsinki denialism in living color. That's what a film crew from Britain's Channel 4 accomplished when they ventured to an idyllic lakeside in Michigan — one of the Rust Belt states that unexpectedly flipped to Trump in 2016 — and talked to a group of the president's enthusiastic supporters who proclaimed — in the spirit of the now-infamous K.C. Green cartoon — that "this is fine."
"The public expects nothing less from the swamp in D.C. and their cronies in the media," says one man, referring to the Helsinki coverage. "It was a one-hour press conference after a two-hour private meeting — we have no idea what happened in that meeting. It's a one-hour press conference and I'm supposed to change my mind about a president who's doing all kinds of amazingly positive things…" It's not clear what exactly all of those amazingly positive things are, although the historically low black and Hispanic unemployment rates — which have dropped at a steady rate for roughly eight years, the first six under Barack Obama — are mentioned.
They. Are. The 41 Percent. Their unwavering support for Trump didn't dip when he said that some of the neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville last summer and who killed a young woman named Heather Heyer were "very fine people," It didn't budge when it came out there were large payouts to an adult-film star and a Playboy model, seemingly to prevent voters from knowing about extramarital affairs while Trump's third wife was giving birth to their son, Barron, or when Americans learned about kids at the border ripped away from their mothers or fathers and detained in cages, or by the steady flow of indictments of Russian trolls or spies who toiled to put Trump in the White House.
Two large questions loom: No. 1 is…why? Here are four reasons:
- As noted above, Trump's steady stream of gibberish and out-and-out lies — with his dishonesty actually doubling so far in 2018 — doesn't matter to folks for whom he looks and plays the role of America's commander in chief in a way that Barack Obama didn't and Hillary Clinton wouldn't have. Sure, that's a form of racism and misogyny, but it's also a rejection of a political style that some might call reality-based but others saw as look-down-their-noses elitism. Trump, in contrast, talks like the kind of talk-radio host they are comfortable with — and his simplistic mantras like "Build the Wall" (which isn't being built and isn't being paid for by Mexico, but whatevs…) calm their fears that America is becoming a majority non-white country. Debacles like Singapore and Helsinki were a success because the man who looks like their president stood at a podium with the presidential seal and told them it was a success.
- Unlike Richard Nixon — who resigned the presidency in 1974 after a revelation of something (trying to get the FBI to drop a criminal probe that touched the White House) that Trump essentially copped to just a few months into his term — Trump has an entire media infrastructure of the Fox News Channel, Sinclair TV stations, talk radio and news outlets like Breitbart that present "alternative facts" — and give aid and comfort to the president's patrons so eager to believe his lies.
- Whatever Trump doesn't deliver at his summits or in his ill-conceived trade wars, he never wavers in giving his supporters in struggling rural and Rust Belt communities the one thing they really, really crave. Jobs? Better health care? Don't be silly. It's heaping doses of contempt for the people that the 41 Percent truly despise — journalists ('the enemy of the people"), college professors, Hollywood stars, and Democrats, especially those who are female (like "crooked" Hillary…"Lock her up!") and doubly so if you're female and black (like "low IQ" Maxine Waters). "We love it when Trump is Trump," said one of the Michiganders interviewed by Channel 4 "because it exposes them."
- The economy, stupid. As long as the economic recovery that began in 2010 keeps rolling into the Trump presidency and his supporters can cite the low employment rate (but not surprisingly stagnant wages or the tax cut that was supposed to fix that but instead was pocketed by CEOs and Wall Street investors), Trump advocates can sit around their picnic tables and explain away everything else.
So…the other big question. How does this play out?
The likely answers are not comforting. Trump's loudest critics can either remain silent in the face of a president who lies, who is corrupt, who pursues reckless policies and greenlighted a human rights crisis on our southern border, and who acts with racism and misogyny in his heart…a silence that would be morally abhorrent. Or we the people can speak out — which to The 41 Percent is the very oxygen that fuels their ferocity in the first place.
Of course, if you're one of The 54 Percent — the Americans who actively oppose Trump — there is a good chance of electing a radically new House of Representatives for 2019 that will act decisively if special counsel Robert Mueller's probe provides enough evidence for impeachment. But Republican senators and The 41 Percent won't stand for Trump's ultimate removal, and I'm not sure anyone is ready for the new brand of civil war that would be created by all of this.
The other possibility that could actually bring Trump's support below 41 percent is also unspeakably grim and undesirable: A recession might demolish the argument that Trump is doing an "amazing" job (and which might come sooner than normal because of the recklessness of his trade wars), but it would also demolish a lot of undeserving hard-working American families. The other great uncertainty is war, which often boosts tyrants at first only to bring them low in the long run.