Investigation will not shake Trump's base

On Monday, nothing changed. If you live, as I do, in the heart of Trump country, you know there is no chance that the indictment of United States President Donald Trump's ex-campaign manager Paul Manafort, or the guilty plea of a former foreign policy adviser, George Papadopoulos, will alter our political dynamics. Mr Trump's supporters will stand by their man. After all, they've stood by him through worse, through events and allegations that implicate Mr Trump himself.

It's an unfortunate truth that the Republican base not only accepts, but also often angrily defends, conduct from Mr Trump that they would never, ever accept in a Democratic president. Forget this week's news for a moment and take a look at the recent past. Would Republicans have stood idly by if then President Barack Obama fired a Federal Bureau of Investigation director during an investigation of the president's top aides and then misled Americans about the reason? Would conservatives tolerate a President Hillary Clinton demanding that praying football players keep their religion to themselves, then calling for firings and boycotts if they didn't comply?

The interesting question isn't whether so many Republicans are demonstrating a striking degree of hypocrisy, but why. No modern Republican president or nominee has been perfect, by any means, but no one can fairly compare their conduct and character to Mr Trump. Since Mr Gerald Ford they have been, to varying degrees, good men. They all upheld and defended American constitutional traditions. They fought hard and tried to win, but there were clear lines of civility and propriety they would not cross.

In other words, for 40 years after the fall of Mr Richard Nixon, it was easy to proclaim that character mattered and still pull the lever for a Republican. In 2016, however, a commitment to virtue became costly. In the battle between virtue and politics, virtue lost, and it's losing still. I'd like to dwell on two reasons. The first is easy to name - negative polarisation. The Pew Research Centre has outlined the undeniable growth in enmity between left and right. The parties are not only more ideologically extreme, but partisans are now motivated mainly by antipathy towards the other side.

This phenomenon explains why reluctant Republicans would pull the lever for Mr Trump even if he was their "last choice". They were voting in perceived self-defence, and he fights hard against the people they dislike the most.

But this doesn't entirely explain the curious unwillingness to face bad facts or to critique the most baldfaced lies. Talk to folks in Trump country, and you quickly understand that most of them don't just want to win, they also want to be good. They want to be proud of their movement. They see themselves as good people, and they want to root for a good man.

The desire to think the best of Mr Trump, combined with the deep distaste for Democrats, grants extraordinary power to two phrases: "fake news" and "the other side is worse". "Fake news" erects a shield of disbelief against the worst allegations and allows a person to believe that Mr Trump is better than he is. For too many Republicans, every single troubling element of the Russia investigation - including multiple administration falsehoods about contacts with Russian officials - represents "fake news". This week's news can be waved away. Manafort's conduct had nothing to do with the campaign, they argue, even though the investigation continues and even though Mr Trump showed terrible judgment in bringing him on the team. Papadopoulos was a nobody, they say, even as his guilty plea outlines multiple contacts with a "campaign supervisor" who seemed to encourage him.

And the disbelief isn't limited to Russia. In a recent poll, a mere 8 per cent of Trump voters believe sexual assault and sexual harassment claims against him are credible. This even though he was caught on tape bragging about groping women and in spite of more than a dozen allegations of serious misconduct.

But what about when the misconduct is plain for all to see? Then we move to "the other side is worse". Rage and fear overwhelm, and the desire for goodness recedes. The extreme edge of the #Resistance is the gift that keeps on giving. In some cases, the actions of the President are deemed less significant than the outrages of celebrities and comedians. Sure, Mr Trump tweeted, but did you see that Kathy Griffin beheading picture?

For Christian conservatives in particular, these double standards are understandable (who isn't tempted to compromise for the sake of victory, especially now?) but not defensible. Is the rage that accompanies negative polarisation consistent with commands to love even our enemies and bless those who persecute us? There is so little humility. There is so much anger. And the Republican character corrodes.

I'm reminded of an encounter at my church. People know that I opposed both Mr Trump and Mrs Clinton. They often ask what I think of the President's performance. My standard response: I like some things, I dislike others, but I really wish he showed better character. I don't want him to lie. I said this to a sweet older lady not long ago, and she responded - in all sincerity - "You mean Trump lies?" "Yes," I replied. "All the time." She didn't answer with a defence. She didn't say "fake news". We'd known each other for years, and she trusted my words.

For a moment, she seemed troubled. I wanted to talk more - to say that we can appreciate and applaud the good things he does, but we can't ignore his flaws, we can't defend his sins and we can't let him define the future of the Republican Party.

But just then, her jaw set. I saw a flare of defiance in her eyes. She took a sip of coffee, looked straight at me, and I knew exactly what was coming next: "Well, the Democrats are worse."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 01, 2017, with the headline 'Investigation will not shake Trump's base'. Print Edition | Subscribe