|Do you have a puss?|
Donald Trump’s impeachment shortly before the holiday break. I wasn’t asking merely for a defense of Trump, but for an honest illumination of what defenders would think if the essential facts in the Ukraine matter were the same except for one — Hillary Clinton was president.
Several hundred people sent emails, the majority of them thoughtfully composed and accepting the invitation in good faith. This was a vivid window into the Age of Trump.
With sincerity, candor and even a measure of wistful idealism, people shared their views of a political and media culture they believe is cynical at its core. If almost nothing is on the level, almost anything goes.
For Keith Swartz, who is 66 years old and runs a recruiting firm based in Tacoma, Washington, almost anything includes a president he regards as “manic, uneducated, illogical,” and also “essentially a horrible person … vulgar, amoral, narcissistic.”
Wait, this a defense of Trump? Yes, hang on. He’s done a fine job on the economy, in particular, in the face of a Democratic opposition that has bent rules and abused process for three years in an implacable bid to thwart him. “To those of us who support what he has accomplished,” Swartz concluded, “it feels like he is our O.J.”
That’s right: O.J. Simpson, not previously a conservative hero. In his 2016 promises to “Make America Great Again,” Trump did not invoke the racially riven Los Angeles of the 1990s as his model. But Swartz’s admirably forthright comparison—with biased media and unscrupulous Democrats serving as proxies for racist cops—captured the spirit of many replies.
The metaphor also echoed for me, as I began covering national politics (after a stretch as local reporter) just as the sordid O.J. melodrama was underway—with no premonition on my part that the deeply embedded malice and competing perceptions of reality on display, in that case, would come to define our public culture broadly.
That gets to the challenge I posed readers. There is no reason anyone must justify his or her opinions to me. I was curious about how people justify their opinions to themselves. (You can still play. By all means, send an email to email@example.com.) This was a sincere appeal, as impeachment offers a useful peg to ponder how two large themes in my journalistic career have collided in a seemingly irreconcilable way.
Theme One is the remorseless nature of modern political combat. One labor to recall the days in which many events in the news were taken, at least in the opening phase of a big story, at face value—rather than instantly interpreted through the prism of how the story could be deployed as either weapon or shield in the nonstop cultural, ideological and partisan war.
(BY JOHN F. HARRIS)
Simply put, it seems obvious beyond serious dispute that very few Republicans defending Trump’s conduct in the Ukraine matter would be similarly tolerant (or, in many cases, even celebratory) if Clinton had attempted to use military aid as leverage on a foreign government to begin an investigation of a leading 2020 rival.
Or, to take this out of the hypothetical realm, I can certainly understand someone who argues that Bill Clinton’s false statements about his sexual transgressions in the 1990s were a big deal because he was under oath in a legal proceeding. I can also understand someone who argues that Trump’s haranguing of Ukraine to “do us a favor, though” by investigating Joe Biden, in the end, is not that big a deal since the investigation didn’t happen and the aid was eventually delivered. What I do not understand is how someone could argue—the precise ground that most Republicans are defending—that Clinton’s conduct was a big deal while Trump’s conduct is a small deal or no deal at all.
Theme Two, paradoxically, is the basic sincerity of people in politics. People may see hypocrisy and cynicism all around them, but in my experience, almost without exception, they believe their own views and actions—even when contradictory, even when private motivations differ from public explanations—are righteous and principled. What are those principles? They may or may not be credible to me or you; the more intriguing question is why they are credible to the people invoking those principles.
There were a handful of recurring takeaways as I immersed myself in the inbox.
The Scoundrel Discount
The Washington Post’s Fact Checker column noted that Trump finished 2019 with over 15,000 false or misleading claims since taking office. But in the eyes of many enthusiasts or tolerators (I heard from both varieties of Trump backers), it is clear that individual examples of dissembling do not outweigh one essential truth: Trump presents himself in a genuine way, without pretense or false piety.
Of the nearly 63 million people who cast votes for Trump last time, it is hard to believe there are any who did so because they thought he was deferential to precedent, a protector of established norms, a stickler for playing by the rules.
People who correspond with POLITICO reporters may not be representative of Trump backers as a whole. But I was struck by how many couched their purported praise with a recitation of his personal failings. Still, they say Trump does not pretend to be anything other than what he is, compared with the preening of more conventional politicians.
Alan Weisz, a dentist from Deerfield, Illinois, considers himself a “thoughtful conservative” who sometimes must cover his ears when Trump uses words to stoke “hardcore supporters” or “enrage his hysterical detractors.” But this is countered by the fact that he regards the president as “incredibly tough” and a strong leader. He said he prefers “good policy” even if it means tolerating “bad optics” and a “big mouth” and will easily take Trump over what he sees as the “apology tours, regulation, pomposity, weak leadership" under former President Barack Obama.
“I and a lot of Americans support the president because he is Everyman, not the pretentious power-hungry politicians and righteous ‘journalists’ roaming the streets of DC and big cities,” reader Stephen Stankiewicz wrote in an email.
A 39-year-old computer engineer from Portland, Oregon, who asked to be identified only as Colin wrote that he doesn’t qualify as a conservative but can easily reconcile the evident inconsistency of those who condemned Bill Clinton’s moral and legal lapses but defend Trump’s conduct that, we now know, alarmed many of his own senior officials in the Ukraine matter. “Politicians are all corrupt and greedy, regardless of a political party,” he said. “Trump is unique because he doesn't pretend otherwise. He's not a hypocritical politician like the rest of the swamp. Trump fights for his voters. He fights dirty, but so does everyone else, and he's on their side.”
Tribalism is in the eye of the beholder
As I wrote in the original column inviting emails, I am weary of the term "tribalism" to describe political behavior. Have you ever met someone who said he or she had surrendered independent judgment and just go with the tribe? Are you influenced by tribalism, or does that affect only other people?
Even so, there is no denying the term does describe real dimensions of group behavior: People identify with others who share their backgrounds and grievances and tend to forgive their shortcomings.
One of the most emphatic themes in my inbox is anger that the Washington professional class—journalists included—does not acknowledge its own tribal tendencies.
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I expected a lot of what autism to my inquiry, and I anticipated a lot of the specific lines of argument. I was struck anew, however, by how strongly this theme unites the disparate elements of the Trump coalition.
Many people rejected my invitation to imagine what the reaction would be if President Hillary Clinton had behaved in the Ukraine matter in precisely the same way Trump did. “Your premise is flawed because there would be no impeachment if Hillary Clinton had done the same thing,” one correspondent wrote.
Why not more coverage of the role of Hillary Clinton’s paid agents in sponsoring the Steele dossier, which asserted collusion between Trump and Russia, an allegation that special counsel Robert Mueller did not find enough evidence to support? Why not more outrage about Obama being caught on a hot mic in 2012 telling then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he would have “more flexibility” to negotiate with Russia on security issues after his reelection?
Above all, why is Trump being roasted for pushing for an investigation of Hunter Biden’s lucrative seat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company—despite a checkered personal background and no evident expertise—while the media is not up in arms over the board seat itself?
This is not the place for an extended discussion of the merits of these criticisms. I’ll acknowledge one can easily imagine the circumstances in which the Hunter Biden matter would be a much bigger story, though the difference isn’t partisan. In the old days, reporters spent months on an essentially trivial matter: whether Bill Clinton was within his rights to replace the White House travel office, a story that would probably last for hours in Trump’s Washington. I’d also note that there do not seem to be many enthusiastic Trump supporters who are alarmed by the president or family members profiting from private ventures that are helped by the fact that Trump holds the White House.
The larger point for Trump defenders, however, is that many controversies overtime under presidents from both parties arguably represent impeachable offenses, but never rose to that level. “The media made the call for us that they don't rise to the level of disqualification,” wrote federal worker Jeremy Emmert, a former military officer from Indiana who now lives in Washington, D.C. “Since they have made that call for us, then what Trump did does not either. The media and elites like you lowered the ball. Welcome to karma, leftists.”
“It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is”
That line was once regarded as a Bill Clinton classic, delivered while testifying to a grand jury in the Monica Lewinsky matter. He was toying with prosecutors, apparently asserting that someone could truthfully deny a sexual relationship in the present tense even if the impression was to deny that there had ever been a sexual relationship in the past tense. For Clinton critics, the quote was the essence of why they didn’t like him—smarminess, pettifoggery, moral relativism, all crystallized in a few words.
I always believed the line actually captured a larger truth about how he survived the impeachment 21 years ago. He believed—and many of his supporters believed with him—that many questions of right and wrong in politics are relative, not absolute. A charge of presidential misconduct can’t be divorced from context—between who is making the charge and what their motives are, between who stands to gain and who stands to lose.
The Trump impeachment highlights how strongly the Clinton perspective has prevailed. Trump-backing conservatives are no longer absolutists on matters of ethics or law. Very few of my email correspondents are defending the merits of Trump’s attempt last summer to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate the Bidens.
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Instead, they correctly note how many Democrats were pressing for impeachment before the Ukraine matter came up, some even before Trump was sworn in. (Likewise, some prominent Republicans in 2016 were vowing impeachment if Hillary Clinton was elected, because of her private email accounts as Secretary of State.)
One person wrote to tell me he hadn’t voted for Trump last time but probably will this time: “He's good enough, and he has delivered great benefit for our country. The real thing is that it's crystal clear that the motivations behind this impeachment are more corrupt than anything he's been accused of, let alone anything that's been proven that he's done.”
Another: “It just seems really obvious to me that people who hate Trump and consider him an existential threat to their idea of what America should bethink that anything is justifiable in getting him out of office. Impeachment is not about ‘saving the Republic’ it is about wounding a strong candidate going up against a field of tepid Democratic losers, rookies, and has-beens.”
I understand the perspective. It also seems obvious that if the political motivations of opponents matter more than the underlying conduct it is hard to imagine any behavior by a president from any party that could not be successfully defended.
But let’s give the last word to a correspondent who didn’t vote for Trump in 2016, doesn’t expect to do so in 2020, and nonetheless is sickened by Democrats over impeachment.
“You may find my position neither consistent nor logical but there it is,” they wrote. “Consistency is certainly an essential standard of a logical argument but it is, in my opinion, very overvalued as a measure of justice. We live in ‘scoundrel times’ and when both sides prove themselves to be scoundrels, you may be forced to ‘pick your poison.’”
How’s that for an inspiring way to launch an election year?