Fault Lines

Donald Trump held a press conference on Thursday in which his familiar brand of narcissism clashed dramatically with the familiar setting of the East Room. In a rambling diatribe against reporters that lasted well over an hour, Trump displayed the same talent for channeling grievance that propelled him to the Republican nomination. He claimed credit for unspecified accomplishments, denied his White House is in chaos, and continued to obsess over the terms of his election victory.

The reaction from opinion leaders was brutal. Legacy media outlets were quick to call his performance dishonest, self-indulgent and unhinged. CNN characterized it as a stunning display of anger.  The New Yorker referred to it as “alternative reality” where a manifestly unsuitable president bragged about the mythical progress he has made. Criticism crossed ideological lines. Fox News’ Shepard Smith called it absolutely crazy. Joe Scarborough said it was chaotic and rambling, and noted how Republican members of congress he had spoken to were scared to death by a president seemingly out of touch with reality. Retired Admiral Robert Harward reportedly walked away from the chance to head the National Security Council after watching it.

But among the still significant legions of core Trump supporters, reactions were quite different. For those less concerned with substance and fact than with visible displays of strength, Trump’s press conference was a tour de force, an over-the-top reminder to his voters that he’s in charge and doing things differently. NBC News solicited reaction from blue collar voters in Kenosha, Wisconsin (because, why not) and had little difficulty finding people who thought it was great, or who at least felt Trump should be given a chance to prove himself. Noted Scarborough, a former Republican congressman from the Florida panhandle, Trump’s supporters “were laughing, but they weren’t laughing at Donald Trump—they were laughing at the media.”

We’re one month into the Trump presidency, and the fault lines in America are as clear as ever.

Public opinion has two modalities. While Trump’s core supporters remain animated and energized, the more prevalent sentiment right now is anxiety and exhaustion brought on by a regime that makes each week feel like a year to its detractors, and a lot of Americans are looking for a way to make it stop. Over half the country disapproves of the Trump presidency—a level of opposition other presidents have taken years to reach. After just three weeks of Trump’s malevolent fecklessness, almost half the country was calling for impeachment. It took Nixon five years to reach that point, and that wasn’t for lack of trying. Sentiment like this is simply unprecedented.

If public opinion reflected the consensus pattern we’re used to seeing in this country, the Trump administration would be over. But impeachment isn’t in the conversation, at least not now, because of the two views of the press conference and what they represent. Despite the private fears of Republican officials, as I argued in my last post, things would have to get really bad politically for Republicans to move against their own president. Now, we may well be on a course where that will happen. Watching Trump on Thursday had to make you wonder how rage could sustain an administration for four years. The political equation will shift for some in the Republican caucus as damage caused by the Trump presidency piles up and a portion of the Republican base peels away.

But then what? As hard as it is for Trump opponents to watch Congress prop up the administration, it is also important to realize that Trump’s removal from office, should it become politically viable, would likely replace one crisis with another. Because rather than resolving our deeper national problems, Trump’s removal—even by legitimate means—would spark an explosion between two Americas that neither understand nor trust each other, because one America would take from the other America the ability to advance their vision of the country through legitimate means.

It’s hard to imagine things remaining peaceful under these circumstances unless something significant changes in how we regard one another. One of the interesting (and rarely mentioned) characteristics of the first weeks of the anti-Trump resistance is how peaceful it has been and how little counter-protesting has occurred. This is likely because the strongest adherents to Trump’s approach, agenda and worldview are satisfied by their current ascendency. It’s easy to dismiss the opposition when you hold power, and Trump has aggressively downplayed the size, scope and meaning of the protests in a way that finds resonance in conservative media and among supporters who see demonstrators as little more than sore losers. So let them protest and deny it matters—or that it’s happening.

Now imagine what would happen if Trump were tossed from office at the hands of the same Republican establishment that he derided in his rise to power, backed by Democrats from blue America and a majority of public opinion. The potential for an ugly and enduring conflict would be real. Try a thought experiment: picture where we would be right now if Hillary Clinton had squeezed out a few more votes in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, enough to give her a thin Electoral College victory built on a national plurality of around two points. Even if Donald Trump conceded defeat (and he gave no indication that he would), his enthusiasts would have a hard time accepting the election of a despised opponent and the loss of the last opportunity to resurrect a vision of America where “stronger together” is more threat than promise. With nonstop congressional Benghazi and email investigations to enrage them and with Donald Trump undoubtedly provoking them, what would stop those who felt they had nothing to lose from taking matters into their own hands? Why then would they feel any less entitled to take their country back by any means necessary if Trump were stripped from office?

The Trump resistance, as it becomes more organized, vocal and effective, should be mindful of this scenario. As vital as it is to hold the administration accountable and protest its actions, it is just as critical for the resistance movement to speak to our national divide and prepare for a peaceful post-Trump America. This is a tall order but it can be done—if they know how to do it. More on that shortly.