It’s different for Trump’s base now
President finds old enmities die hard
So far Donald Trump has followed the same script, in the wake of the Helsinki disaster, he has followed on every previous occasion, after he has said or done something unusually appalling: after insulting the grieving parents of a fallen war hero, or bragging of his ability to “grab them by the pussy,” or blaming “both sides” for the death of a protester at a Nazi march, or any of dozens, perhaps hundreds of other examples.
First, in the immediate shocked aftermath, deny you said it, or if you cannot deny you said it deny you meant it. Then, when the shock has died down a little, double down on the original sentiment. Sometimes the order is reversed: double down, then deny. And sometimes, as in the present case, the two are combined, the rare and difficult simultaneous reaffirmation-disavowal.
Thus Trump’s ludicrous day-after explanation — that he had not meant to say, at Helsinki, that he didn’t see “any reason why it would be” Russia that interfered in the 2016 election, but rather that he didn’t see any reason why it would not be, and that he accepted the views of every U.S. intelligence agency on this point, rather than, as he had suggested throughout that infamous press conference, Vladimir Putin’s — was immediately, almost involuntarily followed by his usual obfuscatory credo: that “it could be other people, also.”
Even this semi-nondenial, it later emerged, was only extracted from him with great force. Indeed, Trump went to some lengths on the day to show how little he meant it, reading woodenly from a script placed in front of him, before his improvised quasiretraction. There followed his performance on Wednesday, when he appeared to deny that Russia was preparing to interfere in the coming midterm elections, as U.S. intelligence has again warned — a denial his spokeswoman then, true to form, denied he had made. Round and round the mulberry bush, pop goes the weasel.
Trump has survived other such episodes, and will probably survive this one. The Republican Senators lining up to denounce Trump’s whitewashing of Putin’s crimes and Blame America First approach to U.S.-Russia relations have been mostly careful to avoid criticizing him personally, and where they have been critical have been studiously shy of proposing any consequences. Again: turning points only happen in the movies.
Still, that does not mean no damage has been done. This week’s rolling, threeday disaster differs in important ways from its predecessors, especially in its likely impact on his famously loyal base. For the most part, the things he has done in the past, the things that make perfumed bien-pensants like me cringe, aren’t things his followers care about. “So he’s rude. At least he fights!” Or: “So he lies. All politicians lie.” Or: “So he antagonizes allies, tears up trade agreements, tosses aside decades-old foreign policy doctrines and military commitments. America First!” Or: “So he attacks minorities, obstructs justice, violates every civilized or democratic norm. LOL! Love to see liberals freak out!”
But the pictures they saw this week were not of Trump the imperious strongman, breaking all the rules in his zeal to defend America, but of Trump the credulous dupe, meekly surrendering first to Putin, then to his domestic critics. That, of course, is the “innocent” explanation: that Trump is just endlessly manipulable, effortlessly rolled, a matter of flattering his insecurities and feeding his resentments — as Putin did at Helsinki, as Kim Jong Un did at Singapore. This is the Trump we often see, the conspiracy theorist and whataboutery enthusiast, whose vast ignorance makes him easy prey to Kremlin talking points.
The darker possibility — what once was only whispered, but now is openly speculated — is that Putin “has something” on him, whether the “kompromat” is sexual, financial, or merely Trump’s knowledge of/participation in Putin’s efforts to tilt the election on his behalf. That Trump might be a Russian “asset” would ordinarily be too fantastic to imagine, the stuff of spy novels: surely Agent Trump, if such he were, would seek to advance Russian interests in secret, behind closed doors, not brazenly and in plain sight. But then a lot about Trump would be hard to imagine.
Somewhere in between is a third explanation: that he simply likes and admires dictators — their alphamale swagger, their Bondvillain self-assurance — and naturally identifies with their aspirations. Possibly it is some mix of the three.
Whatever the explanation, it cannot be pleasing, to all but the most fanatical of his followers, to see Trump trotting along, puppy-like, after Putin. Attitudes to Russia, it is true, have shifted somewhat among the Republican base, in deference to Trump. But not so completely as all that: old enmities die hard. People are prepared to believe his “no collusion” line, at least absent proof to the contrary, but only the most delusional think there was no Russian interference at all — it is the only conspiracy theory, as it has been said, that Infowars’ Alex Jones does not believe in — especially after last week’s indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers.
That’s the other thing that’s changed in recent days, I think: Robert Mueller’s position has been greatly strengthened. Whether or not people swallowed Trump’s campy “witch hunt” refrain, the special counsel’s investigation was vulnerable to the more seductive complaint of “how long is this inquiry going to go on,” so long as it was just the odd indictment here or there. But it has grown clearer, with each additional round of indictments, that Mueller is connecting some fairly significant dots. I suspect the picture they eventually form will not be pretty.
MUELLER’S POSITION HAS BEEN GREATLY STRENGTHENED.