Incumbent US presidents generally do not face serious primary challenges in their party, and it seems the otherwise exceptional Donald Trump will in this regard be no exception. But he should be. Rarely has the need been greater.
With the economy strong and as things currently stand, a challenger would face long odds. But things could change if Trump is impeached, especially if a few Republican senators create a majority to convict (though the two-thirds needed for actual removal does seem highly unlikely).
More critically, though, it would test what is really going on with the almost one-half of the US public that still supports him. The widely accepted and rather cynical narrative is that most conservatives don’t care that their champion is the worst example to children that post-War democratic politics have yet coughed up, eclipsing Nixon (as well as Netanyahu and Berlusconi and any others) by miles.
I don’t think things are quite that simple.
Trump’s opponents may be scandalized that the president’s base has stuck with him despite his outrages, but they protest too much. Trump is delivering much of the agenda they want, and for most people that overpowers character considerations.
As I’ve written before, would some liberals not back an awful person who was giving them gun control, decent policies on healthcare and education, responsible action to address global warming, liberal judges and reasonable tax reform? Some claim no liberal could be so awful a person, but that’s untrue and irrelevant to the theoretical experiment. I assess liberals would be sorely tempted to look the other way and most would buckle. But none, or close to none, would actually prefer the president be a horrible person. They’d just put up with it.
The same is probably true of many conservatives. They want the opposite things and that it is not illegitimate. While society no longer considers some things like calls for racial segregation legitimate, not wanting healthcare guaranteed for all remains acceptable. They want these things but I don’t think they prefer that the deliverer be a person like Trump.
Perhaps some readers need a refresher on why Trump is so gauche that it hardly seems a violation of journalistic impartiality to note it. This is especially the case in Israel, which runneth over with pitiable gratitude to him (in some cases due to pro-Israel policies, and in other cases, which are not too cool, because he is seen as anti-Muslim).
Conveniently, Trump provided the perfect foundation for just such a refresher in recent days with his announcement of the killing of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Trump was boastful, which is inelegant even when one has dispatched an international mass murderer. That was in stark contrast to Barack Obama’s sober announcement of the 2011 killing of Osama bin-Laden (as Jimmy Kimmel’s hilarious mash-up displays).
Trump was crude (“he died like a dog“) and childishly absurd, speaking at a third-grade level as he described the operation: “They did a lotta shooting, and they did a lotta blasting, even not going through the front door. You know, you’d think you go through the door. If you’re a normal person you say ‘knock knock, may I come in?'”
He made it about himself (“I don’t get any credit for this…”) and was dishonestly coy even about that (“…but that’s OK, I never do, and here we are.”).
Most disturbingly, he made up nonsense about Baghdadi “whimpering and crying and screaming all the way.” There was no audio of the operation and defense officials have pretended to be baffled by where the “information” came from. It was clearly invented in the manner of a charlatan who lies instinctively to beef up a narrative.
Trump’s lying is the key to many people’s visceral rejection of his presidency. Truth, or at least an honest stab at it, is foundational to civilization (no less so than white lies), and he seems to be at war with it. The Washington Post’s count now counts 13,435 false or misleading claims he made in 993 days of his presidency, which is unprecedented.
The standard defense against this amounts to “whataboutism” — everybody lies. They do, but not to this degree. Many people break the law, but some cases earn you a parking ticket and others the electric chair. Non-partisan Politifact finds 71% of Trump’s statements to be at least “mostly false.” With Mike Pence the figure is 24% and with Barack Obama 25%; of radically different stripe, both are far the lesser liars.
There is rot at the core of a person who lies so much. It is a direct line from this level of lying to the Stormy Daniels payoff, the Hollywood Access tape, the serial bankruptcies, the attempt to profit from global leadership summits, the refusal to submit tax returns and the race baiting.
Some of his supporters undoubtedly like all this, probably because they enjoy the culture war evident in the fact that it so incenses educated people (see how among college-educated voters of all ethnicities Trump did not win a single U.S. state; that is not a healthy correlation for a society).
But not all of his supporters like it.
The polls that show Trump has retained his base sidestep this question. The people who find him terrible but put up with it in order to prevent gun control are counted as having been retained even though they might prefer a more normative person as their candidate.
Same goes for Republican voters – those who are wealthy and educated – who “vote their pocketbook” (though one can argue that even if Trump were good for business today by weakening America he is a net loss for their successors’ portfolios). Indeed, respected models generally show that when indicators like the stock market, economic growth, inflation and unemployment are all doing well an incumbent president is reelected. But that can fail when the politics are toxic enough (as it did in 1976, with the first post-Watergate election. Such people may well prefer a replacement.
The 2020 election will be unpredictable. Add to the mix Trump’s ability to fire up the base both for and against him, the impeachment saga wherever it may lead, and foreign policy fiascos like the sellout of the Kurds.
Considering all this, it’s reasonable to ask how many American conservatives would prefer a switch. So it could get extremely interesting if someone like Mitt Romney ran against him in the primary (in the particular case of Romney, given what may be a historically weak Democratic candidate, he might even redeem himself for 2012 in the general election).
Such an exercise could help to answer the question posed by Sacha Baron Cohen in his 2018 show “Who is America.” By duping unsuspecting interview subjects, conservatives mostly, Cohen suggested that America might be a person willing to sign on to the “Kinderguardians” program putting guns and grenades in the hands of kids “as young as four.”
He was suggesting that America might be someone like Trump. It certainly looks like conservative American might be. But I am not entirely sure, and I would like to see it tested.