American Carnage - Tim Alberta


THE RESOLUTE DESK IS CLEAN AND UNCLUTTERED, ITS WALNUT VENEER glimmering as rays of late afternoon sun dart between the regal golden curtains and irradiate the Oval Office. There are two black telephones situated at the president’s left elbow, one line for everyday communications within the White House and the other for secured calls with the likes of military leaders, intelligence officials, and fellow heads of state. There is a small, rectangular wooden box adorned with a presidential seal and a red button so minuscule that it escapes my eye until he pushes it, prompting only momentary distress over the impending possibility of nuclear apocalypse before a tidily dressed butler appears moments later and places a tall, hissing glass of Diet Coke in front of the commander in chief. Finally, there is a single sheet of paper, white dotted with red and blue and yellow ink, that the president continues to nudge in my direction. It proclaims the results of a CBS poll taken two nights earlier, immediately following his 2019 State of the Union address: 97 percent of Republican viewers approved of the speech.

“Look,” Donald Trump says, shoving the document fully in front of me, reciting the 97 percent statistic several times. “It’s pretty wild.”

It certainly is.

Pretty wild that Trump, a thrice-married philanderer who paraded mistresses through the tabloids and paid hush money to pinups and porn stars, could conquer a party that once prided itself on moral fiber and family values.

Pretty wild that Trump, a real estate mogul and reality TV star with no prior experience in either the government or the military, could win the presidency in his first bid for elected office.

And yes, pretty wild that Trump, who spent his first two years as president conducting himself in a manner so self-evidently unbecoming of the office—trafficking in schoolyard taunts, peddling brazen untruths, cozying up to murderous tyrants, tearing down our national institutions, weaponizing the gears of government for the purpose of self-preservation, preying on racial division and cultural resentment—finds himself in a stronger standing with the Republican base heading into the 2020 election than he did upon winning the presidency in 2016.

To be clear, the 97 percent statistic is meaningless: Presidents have long utilized the State of the Union tradition as a pep rally, vision-casting in ways designed to draw standing ovations and project the awesome power of the bully pulpit, leaving little for the party faithful not to love.

But Trump is not wrong when he boasts of the unwavering support he enjoys within the GOP. In fact, according to Gallup, he is more popular with his party two years into office than any president in the last half century save for George W. Bush in the aftermath of 9/11. Unlike with Bush, there is no connective national crisis to which Trump can attribute the allegiance of the Republican rank and file; to the contrary, Trump celebrated the two-year anniversary of his inauguration by presiding over the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, a climax of the absolutism that came to infect the body politic around the turn of the century and now appears less curable with each passing day. Even in this valley, with his overall approval rating sliding to an anemic 37 percent, Gallup showed Trump maintaining the support of 88 percent of Republicans. Sitting in his office in early February, less than two weeks since the reopening of the federal government, his overall approval rating has shot back up to 44 percent. Among Republicans, it’s steady at 89 percent.

That he has executed a hostile takeover of one of America’s two major parties—the one he never formally belonged to before seeking its presidential nomination—will astonish generations of intellectuals, think-tankers, and political professionals. But it does not surprise Trump.

A decade earlier, as a transition of political power coincided with a jarring suspension of America’s economic stability, Trump saw what many Republicans refused to acknowledge: Their party was “weak.” Not just weak in the sense of campaign infrastructure or policy positions, but weak in spirit, weak in manner, weak in appearance. The country was hurting. People were scared. What they wanted, Trump realized, was someone to channel their indignation, to hear their grievances, to fight for their way of life. What they got instead was George W. Bush bailing out banks, John McCain vouching for Barack Obama’s character, and Mitt Romney teaching graduate seminars on macroeconomics.

“Nobody gave them hope,” Trump says of these anxious Americans, enumerating the deficiencies of those three Republican standard-bearers who came before him.