I was in Copenhagen for a mini-vacation this week when my phone pinged with a New York Times alert that read: “Michael Cohen said in court that he paid Stormy Daniels ‘at the direction’ of Donald Trump for the purpose of ‘influencing the election’.” As I picked my jaw up off the floor, my reaction went from shock, to brief jubilation, to deep unease. Paraphrasing John Oliver, I thought to myself, “This might mean something…. if we live in a world where something means anything anymore.”
Unfortunately, I don’t know that we do live in a world where something means anything anymore. Put in other words, actions no longer seem to have the consequences they once did. Twenty years ago, the revelation that the President of the United States directed his attorney to commit a major campaign finance violation for the purposes of influencing a national election would have been the biggest story of the decade. Now it just feels like another sensational headline that will be drowned out in a few days by something equally outrageous. Moreover, I don’t believe that even a charge this serious will lead to any major consequences for President Trump, despite the highly criminal nature of his alleged activity.
So, how did we get to this place where nothing matters anymore? I believe a large part of the blame lies with national Republicans. While the duty of Congress is to check the power of the President and hold him to account for his actions, Republican members of Congress have treated this President with a gentleness that makes even milquetoast look firm. The usual Trump antagonistes in the party (Flake, Collins, Sasse) will squawk out statements with the words “shock,” “disappointed,” and “serious concern,” but will take no meaningful action to hold the President accountable to the American people for his misdeeds. The rest of the Republican Congress will turn a blind eye and claim that this revelation has nothing to do with them. Given President Trump’s 87% approval among Republican voters, national elected Republicans cannot afford to alienate their golden goose, without jeopardizing their own cushy political perches. So without the political will in Congress to make the President answer for his crimes, this scandal will quickly bounce off of him the way so many of his other egregious actions already have.
And what about the voters who put Trump into office? Why haven’t these endless corruption scandals soured voters on him, as they would for any other politician under the sun? One theory is that sleaziness was always baked into the cake of Trump’s personality. After all, this is a man who publicly carried on extramarital affairs, frequently uses vulgar language, and routinely sexualized his own daughter. It’s hard to be too shocked when someone who acts like a scumbag is exposed to be an actual scumbag.
Another theory comes courtesy of Damon Linker at The Week. In an insightful piece, Linker postulates even this latest scandal will not catalyze Trump’s political demise because:
“[T]he bulk of Republican voters simply do not reside in the same moral and epistemological world as the rest of the country, including its centrist establishment. These Republicans don't believe or trust anything they read in the mainstream media, or anything a Democrat or Republican critic of the president says.…What these Republicans care about is prevailing against their opponents, period.”
Linker further postulates that Republican voters are fully aware of the hypocrisy of Republican politicians who decry Democrats like Hillary Clinton for corruption but remain silent when a member of their party is accused of the same. Linker writes, “They hate it when their enemies break norms and laws, and they love it when their teammates do the same thing. That's the mindset of someone willing to fight dirty. That's what they think it takes to win.” This sad statement explains why the President has not lost supporters even after Charlottesville, family separations, and Helsinki. It also observes that the moral rot at the center of the Republican Party is not just confined to its politicians, but has also spread to its voters as well.
Given the feeble moral foundation of the Republican Party and its electorate, I am increasingly pessimistic that any admissions produced by Michael Cohen, or anything learned from other Trump associates who were given immunity to testify, will result in any meaningful consequences for the President. Unless and until Democrats can take control of the House and the Senate, we may have to live in a world where a whole lot of somethings somehow add up to nothing.