For the last couple of years, conventional wisdom has held that Trump’s loyal base of supporters is unshakeable, that Trump could – in his words – “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” and “not lose any votes.”
That conventional wisdom may be about to change.
When a voter supports a candidate for president, it should come as no surprise that the individual will think the best of the candidate they supported. It can be difficult to accept that the supported individual has fallen short, to realize they have been untruthful. I know this from personal experience.
I strongly supported the candidacy of Bill Clinton. I thought his keen intelligence, progressive vision, and strong work ethic – coupled with rare communication skills – would make him a great president. In many respects he was.
But Clinton did have sexual relations in the Oval Office. He not only lied about it under oath in a deposition in a civil suit, he lied about it directly to the American people. Like many of his supporters, I believed Clinton when he looked straight into the camera, shook his finger, and adamantly proclaimed his innocence.
I wanted to believe him, and so I did. I’m no ingénue, but I was genuinely aghast when I heard him finally admit the truth.
Clinton lying under oath about sexual activities pales in comparison to today’s many scandals swirling around Trump. I reference it, though, because my strong impulse to credit Clinton's denial is, I think, mirrored in the insistence of many who voted for Trump to believe his increasingly incredible assertions that “there was no collusion with Russia” and no attempt to obstruct justice.
Recently, Rachel Maddow noted that George Herbert Walker Bush had been chairman of the Republican National Committee at the height of Watergate and was, in fact, RNC chairman when Nixon resigned in the fall of ’74. The previous summer, Pappy Bush went on a listening tour to assess the views of the “party faithful” outside the Beltway. At the time, Bush himself was convinced that Nixon was not involved with Watergate.
Following his listening tour, Bush summarized his findings in a memo to White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig. He noted that “party people” held an “almost unanimous desire to believe that the president is telling the truth.” Bush concluded: “They want to believe in the president.”
Of course they did. That is human nature. Having supported Nixon, they wanted him to merit their support.
But, in time, even many of the GOP faithful were disabused of Nixon’s innocence. However strongly they may have wanted to believe in the president, they couldn’t explain away the evidence on the White House tapes that exposed the cover-up.
Unlike Trump, Nixon did not have Fox News with its 24-7 drumbeat of propaganda. With the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity running interference, Trump may never dip to Nixonian levels of disapproval (only 24% approved on the day he resigned). But Trump’s support, even among those who desperately want to believe him, may be in the early stages of unraveling.
The most recent Washington Post-ABC survey shows Trumps disapproval rating at an all-time high. 60% of Americans disapprove of his performance in office. Only 36% approve. Clearly, some of those who now disapprove of Trump’s performance once supported him. Something has, at long last, shaken lose their support.
Perhaps it was the Manafort conviction, or the Cohen guilty plea, or maybe it was the churlish manner in which Trump treated American hero John McCain, not only in life but in death. It might have been the news that the National Inquirer’s David Pecker and the Trump Organization CFO had been granted immunity and were cooperating with the Special Counsel. Perhaps it was all of these things and more.
Nixon’s resignation didn’t happen overnight. It took time for the nation – and especially a critical mass of Nixon loyalists – to absorb what he had done. It is not an easy thing to accept that the president has broken the law. I am among those who believe many transgressions, especially those pertaining to obstruction of justice, have taken place in plain sight; however, most of the nation is waiting to see more evidence of wrongdoing. But the rising support for the Special Counsel suggests that a lot of people are rejecting Trump’s characterization of the probe as a “witch hunt.” It would seem that even some Trump supporters are experiencing doubt in the president’s veracity; the eroding of unconditional support has begun.
For many who have long resisted Trump’s venal policies and even the legitimacy of his election, the temptation to belittle those who are only now beginning to question their support of the president must be almost irresistible. But that would be unwise. We will need to work with them in the days to come.
Should the Democrats win a majority in the House, impeachment -- requiring only a majority vote -- will be likely. But “impeachment” is only the process of charging. In order to be removed from office, the president must be tried by the Senate, where a two-thirds vote is required to convict. Trump will only be convicted if some Republican senators are willing to vote for conviction.
In a perfect world, the senators would look only to the evidence and the Constitution. The world is imperfect. They will also look to their base.
With Watergate, arch-conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater delivered the bad news to Nixon. His presidency wouldn’t survive a Senate vote, were it to come to that. It seems that many of the Nixon-era GOP senators had stronger spines than are to be found among members of the McConnell led cabal that now holds sway.
Yet, if we are to remove Trump from office, today’s GOP senators will need to find their spines. And that will require further erosion of Trump’s base, which will happen more readily if the rest of us stop buying – and repeating – Trump’s story that his base in unshakeable. Much of it likely is. But some of it is not.
We’re beginning to feel tremors. Some pebbles are starting to roll, and the needle on the political Richter Scale is moving, however slightly. The time has come to re-visit the conventional wisdom.