Paralysis grips Republicans over Donald Trump

America is at a dangerous impasse but nobody has found the courage to act
Image of Edward Luce

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00
Find more articles to listen to

If America’s political system were working as it should, this would be the beginning of the end for Donald Trump. Either Congress would be taking steps that could ultimately lead to impeachment, or people around the president would have concluded him unfit for office. But Mr Trump retains an ace up his sleeve. No elected Republican dares cross him. Any who think of standing up to him know they would risk an electronic lynching that could finish their career. Just ask Jeb Bush.

America’s government is at a dangerous impasse. Most people know Mr Trump is unfit to be commander-in-chief. But nobody with the power to redress it has found the courage to act.

The tragedy for America — and the world — is that this is likely to persist at least until next year’s US midterm elections. Even overt signs that Mr Trump is trying to obstruct justice, which was the first article of impeachment against Richard Nixon, are glossed over. Between a quarter and a third of Americans are diehard Trump supporters. They have the power to eject rebel Republicans in primary elections.

Trumpians are stoked by a closed ecosystem of news sites that presents the world in a radically different light to the rest of the media. Thus Mr Trump did not fire James Comey last week. The director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation resigned, according to Fox News. Likewise, Mr Trump did not disclose vital intelligence to Russia’s foreign minister. Nor did he put pressure on Mr Comey to shut down the investigation into Michael Flynn, Mr Trump’s first national security adviser. These are fake stories.

Most of the sites ignored this week’s revelations and focused on the shooting of Seth Rich, a Democratic staffer who had apparently forwarded thousands of emails to WikiLeaks last summer. Readers were left in no doubt that Hillary Clinton, or people close to her, were involved in Mr Rich’s murder.

We should not underestimate the power Mr Trump draws from these alternative narratives. Whenever the elites express outrage at his actions, his supporters take pleasure in their anguish. Mr Trump knows how to cater to his base. If that means passing secrets to the Russians the day after firing the man investigating his campaign’s alleged Russia collusion, all the better. Scholars call this “negative partisanship”. People no longer join a party because they believe in its agenda but because they despise the other one. By mocking his opponents, Mr Trump is literally delivering on what he promised. It is a mandate for nihilism.

This poses a terrible dilemma for Republicans. Some are hoping to bide their time until midterm elections. Mr Trump’s approval ratings are so low that if the polls were held today Republicans would lose control of the House of Representatives, and possibly the Senate. At that point, Republicans would start to abandon Mr Trump’s ship. Democrats may well campaign on a promise to impeach Mr Trump. But that is almost 18 months away. Other Republicans are hoping to extract what they can before the Titanic starts to sink.

Most, such as Paul Ryan, the House Speaker, are prepared to suffer the indignity of working with Mr Trump if it gives them the chance to pass a big tax cut. In Mr Ryan’s view, such a cut would unleash America’s animal spirits and restore freedom to individuals.

It is a coherent position. But Mr Trump keeps making it harder for Mr Ryan to build the case for it. The chances are now at least as good that the firestorm around Mr Trump will engulf his economic agenda. Even if Mr Ryan can pull off tax reform, would the bargain have been worth it? The answer is no. Taxes rise and fall. But a great party cannot erase how it acted at a critical moment in the history of the republic.

For decades Republicans have stood for national security and the moral fibre of American leadership. Mr Trump is tearing up those principles before their eyes. It does not matter what liberals think. Ditto for independents, the media and the US diplomatic service. The only people with the power to hold Mr Trump to account are Republicans. They are turning a blind eye. Just a handful of the 290 Republicans in Congress have called for a special prosecutor to investigate Mr Trump. My bet is that, if they were secretly balloted, a majority would support the idea.

It is possible more Republicans will come into the open when Mr Trump selects a new FBI head to replace Mr Comey. If he nominates a stooge, the fallout will be hard to contain. More devastating leaks from the intelligence agencies could also tip the waverers. Until then, however, Republicans are sticking to their Trumpian bargain. They had better hope those tax cuts are worth it.

edward.luce@ft.com

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.