Don’t count on it.
At the rate he’s moving, Donald Trump might just win himself the place in America’s history books as its worst-ever president. Barely five months into his first term, a clear majority of his compatriots disapprove of the job he is doing. Despite his brave talk, his legislative agenda is sinking into the mud. His administration is understaffed and dysfunctional. He is shredding alliances built up over generations and turning America’s image in the wider world from leader of the West into something more akin to a banana republic. And the noose of suspicion around his White House tightens by the day, as details of the investigation into possible collusion with the Russians during his campaign are leaked to the public.
As a result, betting shops are narrowing the odds that he will become the first President in US history to be removed by impeachment. But if you’re one of the many who are hoping that Congress will end this horror show, well, you might want to pop a Xanax.
Donald J. Trump, fan of autocrats whose own commitment to democratic norms looks iffy, may well be a threat to the republic. But that’s just why his followers put him in the White House. This is America’s revolt of the sans-culottes, furious at the neglect of their country’s aristocrats – its oligarchs, its experts, its Beltway elites. Seeing Washington DC smashed to bits is precisely what they want. They couldn’t care less if the Bastille is a heritage site, they want it burned to the ground.
As a result, while most Americans dislike and even loathe Trump, a strong majority of Republicans still approve of the job he is doing. The base he turned out at his campaign rallies still adore him. He remains the messiah who will restore the country that was taken from them. Democrats can talk all they want of riding an angry wave into the mid-term elections and taking back the House of Representatives. Their problem is that their supporters are crowded into the coastal cities, where their margins of victory can be huge. Republicans, on the other hand, are spread across middle America – the so-called flyover states – where their hold on most seats remains secure for now. For as long as Republican voters stand by their man, that won’t change.
Hillary Clinton’s defeat in last autumn’s election should have made it clear to Democrats that running as the anti-Trump is not sufficient to secure victory. In the recent special elections, local issues dominate, and voters have been more concerned with mundane issues, like health care. If they are to excite people to action, to the point they can retake the House and begin impeachment proceedings, Democrats need to give the people a narrative with a clear and satisfying plot.
Donald Trump’s narrative may be mendacious and bigoted, but it’s one his followers get. ‘Make America Great Again’ is simple, catchy, and embodies an entire worldview – a classic fall-and redemption tale of the sort that is a perennial favourite in American cinemas. Simple, decent, neighbourly folk live in a land of prosperity and contentment; self-serving elites come along to con them out of their calm and happy life, leaving them poor and despised; then along comes a hero who says ‘I can lead you back to the Promised Land.’
Of course it’s a pack of lies. But trying to fight this narrative with constant fact-checking is impotent – and probably based on false reasoning. People seldom judge a politician’s statements by their veracity, but by what they reveal of his or her character and worldview. Doctrines triumph not when they are shown to be true, but when people believe them to be true. What Democrats need to do is give people a story they can believe in, and live by. But rather than start with their plot and characters, the Democratic approach to crafting a narrative is to assemble together hundreds of discrete sentences, each written to appeal to one particular sliver of the audience, and then sticking some anodyne, vapid title on it. And if you point out that the resulting story has no beginning, no end, no climax, no clear message, they will reply, bemused, that it doesn’t matter because all of the sentences were focus-grouped.
On the path we’re on, Congress will stay Republican, Trump will not be impeached, and Democrats may still be screaming themselves to exhaustion in 2020, as he toasts his re-election. The opposition needs to craft a new ‘Once upon a time in America’ that will lure people away from the poisonous, but coherent, tale they have been given.