The signs that Donald Trump’s presidency is coming to an end are all around us. Not in the outrage of parents, six months into a pandemic and still stuck with their children at home. Not in the announcement by prosecutors in Manhattan this week that they are investigating “extensive and protracted criminal conduct at the Trump Organization.” Not even in the collapse among Republicans, according to Gallup this week, in satisfaction with the direction of the country, from 80% in February to 20% in July.
No, the signs of what lies ahead in November are evident in the growing dread of the fall election among Republicans in Congress. To borrow a locution from Andrew Gillum, I’m not saying that I think Donald Trump is going to lose, I’m just saying that Trump’s most loyal supporters apparently think he’s going to lose. And this is not just about a president losing, but a political party that will soon have to confront the deep divide between its now-dominant authoritarian-populist right wing and traditional, free market Republicans who have been hiding in the shadows over the past four years.
Were it not for Covid-19, Donald Trump would likely be cruising to reelection, and the Trumpian future of the Republican Party would have been sealed. But abject failure has consequences, and the persistence of the pandemic has opened the door to the possibility that should he lose in November, Trumpism itself may come crashing back to earth. As Trump’s poll numbers have collapsed, Senators who sold their souls to live in Donald Trump’s protective embrace are realizing that they may now have to reinvent themselves one more time. After marching in lockstep behind the President for three years and nine months — cutting taxes and spending trillions of dollars with abandon — nearly half of Mitch McConnell’s caucus announced this week that they would not support any new pandemic relief legislation. With a Biden administration looming on the horizon, Senators are dusting off their Tea Party talking points, reconstituting themselves as deficit hawks, or otherwise repositioning themselves for life in the opposition.
Then there are those like Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, who struggled to maintain a degree of integrity during the Trump years and now see the light at the end of the tunnel. Sasse — a principled conservative who remained silent for far too long as the leader of his party ran roughshod through constitutional guardrails — reemerged from his long hibernation when he lashed out at the President’s executive orders this week as “constitutional slop.” In response to Trump’s predictable, retaliatory tweet-lashing retort, Sasse snapped back as he knows he should have long ago: “America doesn’t have Kings.”
The drama of the week, however, came when a cabal of Trump loyalists in the House — led by Freedom Caucus co-founder Jim Jordan and the clown prince of the Republican Caucus Matt Gaetz — jumped Wyoming’s Liz Cheney for showing inadequate fealty to the President and demanded her immediate resignation from the House leadership. TrumpWorld loves to rail away against “cancel culture” on the left, but no political group attacks dissent within the ranks with greater venom than Donald Trump’s Republican Party. At Mt. Rushmore last month, the President defined cancel culture as a “political weapon” focused on “driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters, and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees… the very definition of totalitarianism.” Yet every Republican in Congress knows — as they watched Jeff Sessions, Jeff Flake and other colleagues have their careers destroyed by Trump and his minions on social media and Fox News — that it is, in fact, the very definition of Trumpism.
Liz Cheney’s crime, apparently, was suggesting that the coronavirus pandemic is something that needs to be taken seriously, showing support for Anthony Fauci, and tweeting out a photo of her father in a mask under the hashtag #realmenwearmasks. President Trump and Donald Jr. quickly joined in, attacking Cheney on Twitter as a supporter of “Endless Wars” — that being a favored epithet Trumpists like to throw at Republicans that might have the temerity to disagree with the President on any matter of substance.
The backdrop of Republican turmoil is the pandemic. North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis, up for re-election in November and struggling to hang onto his seat, declared wistfully last month that Republicans would be swept back into office in the fall because Americans remember how good they had it in February. As the pandemic grinds on, however, February — when we did such things as go out to dinner and a movie — is rapidly fading into memory. It is some combination of Trump’s stupidity and lust for being the center of attention that has brought us to this moment. He continues to encourage his supporters to ignore the basic public health protocols that have been embraced across much of the world, despite clear evidence that containing the spread of the virus is the key to achieving his holy grail of rekindling the economy before Election Day. As the two graphs here illustrate, those protocols work. The entire European Union (the orange lines) with a population of 445 million people, now has approximately 7,000 new Covid-19 cases and 64 deaths per day, compared to the United States (the blue line) with 330 million people, which now has over 50,000 cases and over 1,000 deaths per day — a death rate that is over twenty times the rate in Europe on a per capita basis.
It did not have to be this way. In mid-March — at which point fewer than 100 Americans had died but public health experts were well aware of the threat posed by the virus — the Federal Emergency Management Agency had a plan in place for a 21-day national shutdown, restricting people to their homes among other measures. But with the White House caught between utter panic and the party line that the whole thing was a hoax, Donald Trump would not pull the trigger. He preferred then, as he has ever since, to use the pandemic as one more opportunity to rile up his base with conspiracy theories, and frame the scientific establishment as another manifestation of the hated and distrusted elites.
The irony of the continuing anti-Fauci outrage across TrumpWorld is that had Trump given the go-ahead to the FEMA plan back in March — or at any point over the past several months, for that matter — his path to reelection might well have been a cakewalk. Today, economies across the globe are opening back up while ours remains in free-fall, and the President remains content to fiddle while the pandemic continues to burn. He shows no interest in actually fixing the problem, preferring instead to believe that he can somehow force the resumption of economic activity by fiat — by going on TV or Twitter and insisting that it must be so. But the economy does not work that way, and his efforts continue to run into a brick wall for the simple reason that economic activity is a function of human psychology and the free choices and movement of millions of individuals. Economic activity will rebound when the public understands that the virus has been contained, and people are confident that they can return to their daily lives without facing excessive risk from the disease.
On August 7, 1974, Barry Goldwater, Hugh Scott and John Rhodes went to the White House and told Richard Nixon that the Watergate scandal had doomed his presidency and it was time for him to resign. The three — the iconic leader of the conservative movement, and the leaders of the GOP in the Senate and House, respectively — knew that the fate of the presidency, the Republican Party and the nation hung in the balance. Nixon listened, and the next day he announced his resignation. It will be an enduring indictment of today’s Republican Party that it has had no leaders with the stature and courage to go to the White House and persuade the President, even as the fate of the presidency, the GOP and the nation once again lay in the balance.
Liz Cheney did fine this week in her battle with all the President’s men. She has an independent power base in Wyoming and nationally, and has not been one to run and hide in the shadows during the Trump years; that is not the Cheney brand. She held her ground on Fauci, fended off the attacks from her colleagues in the House, and — being an adult in a world of children — simply ignored the Trump tweets. What is clear, as the GOP landscape is being roiled before our eyes, is that it was not a photo of some random person wearing a mask that sent the President’s henchmen to her door, but a photo of Dick Cheney wearing a mask. The image of Cheney — a GOP tough guy before Donald Trump decided to play one on TV — was a reminder that the Republican Party existed before Trump, and that it will move on after his time is over. Liz Cheney was sending her own message to Jim Jordan and Matt Gaetz and Donald Trump, Jr. that a battle for the hearts and minds of the GOP lies ahead, and that without the President there to protect them, they are weak and naked men, and she is fully prepared to take them on.
Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. He is working on a book, with a working title of “FedExit! To Save Our Democracy, It’s Time to Let Alabama Be Alabama and Set California Free.”
Artwork by Joe Dworetzky. Check out Joe’s political cartooning at www.jayduret.com. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.