The Robert Mueller investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election embodied the hopes of many Donald Trump critics that defeating the president was possible by disqualifying him personally. Whatever further revelations are contained in Mueller’s full report, Attorney General William Barr’s summary last weekend has already signaled it’s unlikely to be that easy. But, on balance, that’s a good thing for the voices in both parties resisting Trump’s direction for the country. There’s a far better chance of uprooting his influence over the long run if his presidency is ended by the voters, not the courts or Congress.
Trump is such a uniquely galvanizing and polarizing figure, both in his style and his background, that it’s tempting for supporters and opponents alike to imagine that the political movement he has ignited could not exist without him. To that perspective, Trump is the political equivalent of the “one ring” in the Lord of the Rings books. Eliminate him, and everything he’s built will fall into oblivion, the way Sauron, his armies, and even the land of Mordor all vanished in a thunderclap after the ring was destroyed.
But if that was ever true (for Trump, not Sauron), it is clearly no longer so. Trump has demonstrated that there is a substantial audience in the evolving Republican electoral coalition for a message that combines open appeals to white racial resentments and unrelenting attacks on “elites” with an undiluted commitment to the traditional goals of economic and social conservatives—from cutting taxes and eliminating environmental regulations, to opposing abortion and installing conservative justices on the Supreme Court. The appeal of that formula for significant elements of the GOP base would not disappear even if Trump were forced from office by one of the many investigations still swirling around him. Perhaps the only way other Republicans might be discouraged from following Trump’s volatile path is if voters show them that it’s an electoral dead end by repudiating it in 2020.