When Trump refers to “my” generals or “my” intelligence agencies, he is teaching his supporters to rethink how the presidency should function. We are a long way from Ronald Reagan’s remark that he and his wife were but “the latest tenants in the People’s House.”
Trump is hardly the first president to lie, even about grave matters. Yet none of his predecessors did anything quite like what he did in July: Travel to a U.S. Steel facility and brag that, thanks to his leadership, the company would open seven wholly new facilities. In reality, the company was reopening two blast furnaces at a single facility. You’d think his audience would know better, but the assembled employees cheered anyway.
Trump may not be much of a manager or developer, but he is a great storyteller. He has substantially shaped his supporters’ worldview, while successfully isolating them from damaging news. The share of Republicans with a positive opinion of the FBI tumbled from 65 percent in early 2017 to 49 percent this past July. In the past three years, Vladimir Putin’s approval rating among Republicans has almost tripled, to 32 percent.
To protect the president—and themselves—from the truth about Russia’s intervention in his election, Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee have concocted (and the conservative media have disseminated) an elaborate fantasy about an FBI plot against Trump. The party’s senior leaders know that the fantasy is untrue. That’s why they squelch attempts to act on the fantasy by opening a special-counsel investigation into the bureau. But they cheerfully allow their supporters to believe the fantasy—or to believe it just enough, anyway, to get revved up for the midterm elections.
Many Americans want to believe that Democratic victories in November will reverse the country’s course. They should be wary of investing too much hope in that prospect. Should Democrats recover some measure of power in Congress, their gains could perversely accelerate current trends. As Republicans lose power in Washington, Trump will gain power within his party.
Today, Republicans queasy about Trump can look to House Speaker Paul Ryan or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as alternative sources of power or patronage in Washington. But if the party loses hold of Congress, congressional Republicans’ clout will dwindle. Power will be divided in Washington between Trump and the Democrats. If legislative success becomes a vanishing possibility, the White House may begin testing the limits of its authority more aggressively.
Trump will face more hearings, more investigations, and generally more trouble than he faces today. Partisan loyalties will be engaged as Republicans rally around their embattled leader. The conservative pundit M. Stanton Evans quipped, “I didn’t like Nixon until Watergate.” A joke then describes reality today. Among Trump supporters, “No collusion!” has already evolved into “Collusion is not a crime,” with “Collusion is patriotic” perhaps soon to follow. Trump supporters have no exit ramp. Party affiliation has hardened since the 1970s into a central aspect—in many ways the central aspect—of personal identity. If Trump is exposed and repudiated, his supporters will be discredited alongside him. If he is to survive, they must protect him.