I want to focus on what Donald Trump said in response to Michael Cohen’s admitting in court that his former client was working on a deal in Moscow as he was campaigning for president. The implication, according to Bloomberg News, is that “the Russians were seeking to make multiple inroads into the Trump’s campaign and had … begun social media and hacking efforts to benefit Trump’s candidacy.”
“He's a weak person," Trump said of his former attorney. "And what he's trying to do is get a reduced sentence, so he's lying about a project that everybody knew about."
I’m not going to assess Trump’s credibility here. (OK, OK, he has none!) I’d rather note his use of the word “weak.” This is an important term for Trump, as is “strong” and its various connotations. The world is not divided between good and evil, because morality has little to do with the strong dominating the weak. It’s a worldview stripped of sentiment, which might be tolerable if it were not also stripped of kindness.
Because weakness and strength are so central to his way of thinking, I have been looking for moments, since his 2016 election, in which it would evident to his staunchest supporters that Trump is speaking of himself when accusing others of weakness. As the Rev. Daniel Schultz said in a guest sermon for the Editorial Board: “His ego is so fragile he can't abide any threat to it, and he seeks ways to escape the anxiety we all live with through the most perverse and corrupt ways imaginable.”
In retrospect, I erred. There was not any one single moment in which the president’s staunchest supporters would realize, suddenly, that their celebrated strongman isn’t strong, or that his weakness is dangerous when coupled with greed, power and spite.
But I didn’t err by much. Instead of one or two “game changing” moments, as you’d expect, we have seen over two years an accumulation of (daily?) moments that have built a wider understanding of this president’s not being what he claims to be.
In fairness, this was difficult to see before the midterms. Afterward, we have the benefit of hindsight: this president was never impervious to repeated self-made scandal. He has been wounding himself to the point that his own party is now signaling limits to his power. As Jonathan Bernstein wrote this morning:
First, on Wednesday, 14 Republicans joined a united Democratic Party to advance a bill overturning the president’s policy in Yemen. That’s extraordinary: Same-party members of Congress, especially those with orthodox positions, are almost always deferential to the president on matters of war and peace. Trump didn’t just lose outliers such as Rand Paul or relative moderates such as Susan Collins. He lost 14 – and there aren’t 14 Republican senators who have iconoclastic views on foreign policy.
Then, on Thursday, a district court nomination had to be yanked from the Senate floor just before the vote because South Carolina Republican Tim Scott decided to oppose it, and because Arizona Republican Jeff Flake is voting against all of Trump’s judicial nominations until a measure to protect special counsel Robert Mueller can get a vote. Flake is also on the judiciary committee, which just had to cancel a hearing on other nominees; without Flake, they didn’t have the votes.
Before you start thinking the Republican Party has rediscovered its conscience, consider this: the GOP can see plainly that Trump is losing support in states that handed him the White House. I don’t want to overstate matters, but it’s true that Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania now have Democratic governors.
These states also happen to be hit hard by Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs. (This is something Businessweek’s Joshua Green has been following closely.) With news that General Motors is closing a plant in Ohio, and with news that GM is closing the plant due to losing $1 billion in net profits to steel and aluminum tariffs, it’s not unreasonable to wonder if Trump’s spell will break in the Buckeye State, too.
There’s a way of testing this theory. Pay close attention to what Republicans say about those tariffs. Until the midterms, the most they were willing to say was didn’t like them. Otherwise, they stood behind the president. This had always been a balancing act for them. The Republicans were stuck between representing big businesses unhappy about raising prices on consumers and pure partisan realities.
Now that the midterms wounded Trump, and that his weakness is increasingly evidence, I’d expect Republicans to start complaining more, or at least stay quiet while the Democrats, especially Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, question the legality of tariffs that are costing constituents their jobs. It is already known, though not widely, that Defense Secretary James Mattis does not agree with the president, or with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, about the need for tariffs in the interest of national security. It is already known, though not widely, that those tariffs might not be legal.
Given that Brown and other Democrats hope to hammer Trump in the Midwest, I’d expect them to make this question more widely known, and to demand the president get permission from the Congress. I’d also be curious to see if Republicans keep quiet or join the chorus. Anything can happen, but I think this would be a concrete indicator of the president’s weakness within the party, and of how far the GOP is willing to go in distancing itself from a fundamentally weak president.
Sexism blinds us
I don’t think it’s reductive or simplistic to say that if this country were less sexist, if it were more receptive to the prospect of a woman holding power, we probably would not be experiencing a constitutional crisis. We’d have other problems, to be sure. Nothing’s perfect. But let’s face it: Hillary Clinton was right about Donald Trump.
She was right then. She’s right now. But few believe her, even now, because they either think it’s sour grapes or they think she can’t know because she’s a woman. Funny, then, how pretty much everything she said during the election is now being validated. Perhaps, now that her message is getting laundered by legit news, more will believe it.
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