During the 2016 Republican primary, Donald Trump once bragged that he could “shoot somebody” in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lose any voters.
Four years later, and this boast has taken on an oddly prophetic quality.
The Trump presidency has been dogged by scandals from the start, from accusations of Russian collusion to his personal lawyer paying hush-money to a porn star. And throughout it all, his supporters have remained fiercely loyal, denying that any wrongdoing ever occurred.
Nor has their loyalty wavered with the president facing impeachment. Over a month has passed since the U.S. House of Representatives charged Trump with an abuse of his office — the trial only just now beginning. Trump’s misdeed? Insinuating he’d withhold $400 million of pledged military aid to the Ukraine unless they investigated Joe Biden, his leading political rival, and his son Hunter.
Trump’s rebuttal was that he merely asked them to investigate “corruption”. And there was no threat of withholding military aid if they refused.
The implication here is that Joe used his position as vice president to land his kid a cushy job on the board of a Ukranian energy company. But though Hunter clearly profited from his last name, there is little evidence his father had any involvement in the matter.
In contrast, the charges against Trump are much stronger. A senior official has already testified that the military aid was conditional on Ukraine’s co-operation. Not to mention the White House budget office froze security assistance to the country on the same day Trump urged them to investigate the Bidens.
And yet, none of this seems to matter where the president’s approval ratings are concerned.
Trump’s approval rating is hardly impressive at first glance. When compared to past presidents, it is notably below-average. However, it is also remarkably stable.
He is blessed with the overwhelming support of his base. About 88% of Republican voters approve of the job he’s doing, and this rating’s remained consistent. Consistent too is the dislike he garners from Democrats — with their approval hanging around 5–9%.
What this suggests is that most Americans have already made their mind up about the president. Either they think Trump is a good leader who has been unfairly maligned or a corrupt kleptocrat who poses a genuine danger to the republic. Nothing he can do will sway them one way or the other.
Indeed, the country’s political divide has only widened since Trump first announced his bid for office. According to a Gallup survey, the number of people who identify as “pure” independents — adults without a party preference—has shrunk by a third since 2015. With these voters now fleeing towards the Republicans or tilting Democrat.
Of course, this political polarization did not just begin with Trump. The Pew Research Center has been tracking this trend from 1994 to 2014. They found that there is now less ideological overlap between the bases of both parties and more animosity between them. And Trump thrives in this political landscape.
Trump and his mouthpieces have enlisted diehard supporters into a culture war. Daily, they do battle with the deep state, the liberal media and political correctness. But should their ranks break, then these nefarious forces will triumph and take hold. It’s grievance politics as a siege mentality. A loss for the Donald is a loss for them all.
Meanwhile, the president gives his voters everything they want. A leader who eschews diplomacy and pursues a vision of “America First”. Who sends all those Hollywood elites and uppity college students into fits of rage. Who will force through the Republican agenda while the politicians they hate splutter and cry. Is it any wonder then why they revere him?
And his supporters are not unique in this respect. People will often ignore the misdeeds, or even the crimes, of a candidate who embodies their political views. Many stood by Nixon even as the Watergate scandal unfolded. George W. Bush — a man who led America into a disastrous war under false pretenses — still has his admirers too. The “stickiness” of Trump’s support is just a particularly extreme example.
No doubt Trump’s demagogic appeal explains part of it. His extravagant promises, constant rallies and penchant for mocking political enemies are all done to galvanize his base. And it works.
Almost half the country is willing to support him no matter what.
Whatever happens during the impeachment trial — and it’s a near-certainty that the Republican-controlled Senate will acquit Trump regardless of the evidence — it won’t make much difference to most people.
That’s what gives these proceedings a sense of tragic inevitability. The voters who want to believe in Trump’s innocence will do so. Those committed to seeing Trump pay for his crimes will gripe about it. And those who see the whole thing as less essential to their everyday lives will shrug their shoulders and go on with business as usual.
This isn’t to make some false equivalency. From gutting environmental regulations to undermining unions and obstruction of Congress, the Trump administration has proven itself a blight on America. But unfortunately, the truth is not going to set us free. It just isn’t that important to politics anymore — to the extent that it ever was.
The facts point to criminality on the president’s part. But facts are feeble things when confronted with the reality of power politics. The Republicans are unlikely to render an impartial verdict on impeachment so long as Trump enables them to carry out their will.
America’s political landscape remains divided between Republicans and Democrats, between a pro-Trump and anti-Trump electorate. And it’s the clash between these two forces that will decide whether the president gets a second term. Not impeachment. Not the truth, wherever it may lie.