Trump is in trouble and he knows it
This time seems different because the two subjects are qualitatively different. Trump’s own words suggest he knows.
He complained publicly that pro-Trump House Republicans erred in boycotting the committee, leaving no one on the panel to defend him or dilute the impact of a well-researched and devastating narrative on his efforts to overturn the 2020 elections. He also made it known, in a way he obviously expected to be made public, that he feared the overthrow of deer will be a negative political rebound for Republicans.
Skepticism is warranted for any prediction that this or that controversy will be fatal to Trump. There have been countless such controversies and predictions in the seven years since he first announced he was running for president and began his dominance of the national discourse.
But there is a specific way the January 6 revelations, and more so the Roe vs. Wade repeal are different from the dozens of previous uproars and obsessions. Both represent clear forks in the road on issues of fundamental national policy. People are being asked to take one path or the other, with a keen awareness that taking one path or the other will have significant and lasting consequences for the nation, and even for themselves as individuals.
This was not true for most of the controversies of the Trump years. It has often been said – usually in the form of metaphor, but increasingly in the form of literal comparison – that Trump and Trumpism are throwing the nation into a “new civil war”.
Most of the time, the comparison failed. As in modern times, the current Civil War was a time when large swaths of Americans looked on with mutual incomprehension and contempt. At the time, however, no one doubted the issue at hand: one side believed that slavery was a positive good that should be expanded as the nation grew with new states; the other believed that slavery was an evil institution that should not be expanded into a new one but rather placed on a path of gradual extinction. And so, as Lincoln said in his second inaugural address, the war has come.
The same goes for other great moments of national conflict. In the 1930s, people who hissed at FDR knew exactly why they were angry: he was permanently shifting the focus from the federal government to the private economy. Likewise, protesters in the 1960s knew why they were on the streets: to end legal segregation and the Vietnam War.
The signature of the Trump era is that it produced outrage and contempt without, in most cases, a concrete question of national politics that clearly had to be resolved by the outcome of the conflict. The issue of border crossings and the spectacle of children held in cages were exceptions. But for many of Trump’s presidency arguments, the argument itself — and how it divided one tribe from the other — was the main point. Were you thrilled by Nancy Pelosi tearing up a copy of Trump’s State of the Union address, or appalled by it? Were you more outraged by Trump’s infuriating efforts to tie Ukraine aid to his personal political ends, or the fact that Hunter Biden was making big bucks in Ukraine by swapping his last name? Again and again.
The two issues now before the country undoubtedly fall into a different category.
The Supreme Court’s declaration that there is no longer a constitutional right to abortion now places the issue squarely in the political realm, where it is likely to remain for years to come. About one in five pregnancies in the United States end in abortion. The country is now in the midst of a debate involving fundamental questions of rights and values in an intimate sphere of daily life. Moreover, the fact of this national debate is understood, by all parties, as central to Trump’s legacy – it would not have happened without the three justices he appointed contributing to a decision. 5-4.
Trump’s outrage over the 2020 election, which led to the Jan. 6 violence on Capitol Hill, does not intersect with daily life in the same intimate way as the issue of abortion. But they similarly present a living national choice, of a kind that cannot easily be dismissed by blurring the issue or asserting that it is all just politics as usual. Any schoolboy knows that it is not customary to deviate from the peaceful transfer of power. There are very few Trump supporters willing to support the argument that it is normal for a president to continue to claim fraud when his own Justice Department appointees have told him they have sought and couldn’t find any. The root of Trump’s appeal was that his various outrages were all part of « owning the libs » and distracting opponents. White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson testified this week to an enraged Trump throwing a plate into the wall. She cleaned the ketchup stain off the wall. Trump won’t so easily erase the image of helpless rage – the opposite of the searing self-confidence that was the essence of his appeal to supporters.
One way to gauge Trump’s predicament is to see it through the eyes of someone who supports his ostensible agenda. If you’re a sincere opponent of abortion rights, you might be grateful for what Trump did to change the Supreme Court. But consider Trump – who for years boasted of his promiscuity, who once claimed “I am very pro-choice » and who cares now about the ramifications of the court’s decision – as the ideal person to move the fight forward into its next long-term phase? Let’s say you’re genuinely concerned that efforts to make it easier to vote by mail could dilute the integrity of the election. Is Trump, with his reckless allegations and obvious self-centeredness, really your ideal spokesperson?
Two jaw-dropping developments – one in the Supreme Court, the other across the street in the House Select Committee – propelled American politics into a whole new realm. By experience and temperament, this is not an area in which Trump is well equipped to thrive.