The Atlantic

The House’s public impeachment hearings will test whether Donald Trump was right when he declared that his political support is so rock-solid that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue without consequence—and what it means for a bitterly divided nation if he was.

Even some Republican political professionals privately acknowledge that the coming weeks of testimony, which began with a devastatingly detailed account yesterday from William Taylor, Trump’s own acting ambassador to Ukraine, are likely to present an unflattering picture of the president. They’ll bring to a potentially large television audience the testimony from a sober procession of national-security officials in Trump’s own government, who’ll describe how the administration tried to manipulate Ukraine.

And yet most observers (and participants) are dubious that the proceedings will significantly alter the balance of public opinion over Trump and impeachment. “I don’t think we are going to have this monumental shift,” Representative David Cicilline of Rhode Island, the chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, told me. In several recent national polls, including those from ABC/The Washington Post and Quinnipiac University, just under half of Americans said they already support Trump’s impeachment and removal.

The larger question the hearings may raise, then, is whether the partisan divide has widened to the point where Republican voters and elected officials alike will not consider valid any process controlled by Democrats, no matter how powerful the evidence it produces. If that’s the case, it points toward a future in which partisan loyalties eclipse, to a growing extent, any shared national commitment to applying the rule of law across party lines. Even given the decades-long rise in political polarization, such a rejection of common standards would constitute an ominous threshold for the nation to cross.

“We are seeing this testimony from these very credible witnesses who are not partisan figures, and who are expressing deep concern and alarm about how this was undermining the goals of U.S. foreign policy and playing into the hands of [Vladimir] Putin. And yet it doesn’t seem to have much effect,” Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University political scientist, told me. “If this doesn’t persuade people, what will?”

Perhaps the best that Democrats can do is persuade voters who already disapprove of Trump to fully back his removal. In the most recent Quinnipiac national survey, Trump’s supporters remained a brick wall on impeachment: Among voters who say they approve of his overall job performance, 99 percent oppose impeachment. Just 8 percent of those voters said he was acting to advance his personal, rather than the national, interest in his dealings with Ukraine.

But voters otherwise skeptical of Trump aren’t as unified in their views about removing him. In the same poll, 94 percent of voters who disapprove of Trump’s performance say he was pursuing his own interests in Ukraine. A considerably smaller share of those voters, 81 percent, said they believe he should be impeached and removed. Similarly, just 79 percent of those who said he was pursuing his personal interests now support his removal. With the hearings, Democrats may have a chance to close the gap between those who express a negative opinion about Trump and support his removal, and those who think similarly but don’t want him removed.  

The gap between those groups is especially pronounced within two key blocs in the modern Democratic coalition: college-educated whites and young people. While 60 percent of college-educated whites said Trump was acting in his own interest in Ukraine, and 58 percent disapprove of his job performance, just 47 percent backed his removal. The gap was even more pronounced among young adults ages 18 to 34. Sixty-seven percent thought Trump was pursuing his own interests in Ukraine, and 61 percent disapprove of his job performance. But, again, only 47 percent supported his removal. With other groups important to Democrats, including seniors and African Americans, there was a smaller gap between negative attitudes toward Trump and positive feelings toward his removal.

Andrew Baumann, a Democratic pollster who has extensively studied younger voters, told me one reason for that contrast is this: Young adults haven’t witnessed the earlier impeachment struggles of the 1970s and 1990s.

“For older Americans,” he said, “there’s a context to it” that helps voters judge whether Trump’s actions warrant removal. “There is no context for this youngest cohort, particularly in a world where every time Trump does something wrong—breaks another norm—Republicans just basically say, ‘That’s fine. Who cares?’”

Given that, Baumann thinks young people could be especially receptive to expressions of alarm about Trump’s behavior from the career government officials due to testify over the next few weeks. “Is there room to grow for impeachment support among young people? I think so,” he said. “It’s probably a lower bar to convince some of these younger Americans who already really dislike Trump to support his removal.”

One key goal for Democrats at the hearings, Cicilline told me, is to help viewers understand the full stakes of Trump’s actions. While the discussion so far over Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukraine has focused mostly on the danger to U.S. election integrity, Cicilline said Democrats will argue that Trump created a threat to American national security, too, by delaying the release of military aid Congress appropriated.

“I think that’s the most important part of this story: This is an ally of the United States that is critical to containing Russian aggression in that region of the world, and we substantially weakened their hand,” Cicilline said. “The only ones who benefited from withholding military aid is the Russians and Vladimir Putin. It is critical not just for Ukraine, but for the national-security interests of the United States.”

While Democrats are hopeful the hearings could persuade more voters critical of Trump to support his removal, there’s less expectation among partisans and analysts alike that they will convert a significant number of voters who back him now. It’s that immovable foundation of primarily Republican support that limits the degree to which the hearings can move public opinion overall—and also reduces the prospect that many, and perhaps any, GOP lawmakers will vote for impeachment.

Polls already show a wider gap between the parties than existed during earlier impeachment fights. In its final surveys at the time, Gallup found a roughly 40-percentage-point gap between Republicans and Democrats over whether President Richard Nixon should be removed, and a 60-point difference between the parties over President Bill Clinton. The Quinnipiac survey released in late October recorded a chasm that has already reached 80 percentage points: Eighty-six percent of Democrats, but just 6 percent of Republicans, said Trump should be removed.

Republican support has remained impervious, despite the cascade of damaging evidence that emerged from the House Intelligence Committee’s recent closed-door hearings with career diplomats and national-security professionals. The willingness of rank-and-file Republican voters to dismiss the concerns of such nonpartisan voices underscores the extent to which the party has grown resistant to outside information that challenges its ideological preferences, Abramowitz argued.

Several factors may help explain Trump’s impermeable GOP support amid this controversy. One is that many Republicans now say they trust information only from deeply conservative media sources, especially the Fox News Channel. Fox has relentlessly portrayed the impeachment proceedings as something akin to a coup by Democrats and the so-called deep state.

A recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found that the roughly 45 percent of Republicans who identified Fox as their primary news source expressed nearly unbroken opposition to impeachment. Just 2 percent of Fox-dependent Republicans said they back Trump’s removal, compared with 10 percent of those who don’t rely on the network, the poll found. The indifferent response to the evidence against Trump on Ukraine “is maybe the best example so far of how the Fox News bubble just totally consumes a different reality—which, of course, is not actually reality,” Baumann said.

GOP voters have also remained unified behind Trump because so few elected Republicans have publicly condemned him. The party is operating on a kind of feedback loop: Officials say they can’t break from Trump because he has such ardent support from the base. Yet one reason his support remains so indivisible is that few officials have criticized his actions.

Still, a dynamic more fundamental to Trump’s rise may be most responsible for his solid backing among Republicans: From the outset of his campaign for the GOP nomination, Trump has generated ardent support from the voters who feel most threatened by the demographic, cultural, and economic changes remaking America—what I’ve called the “coalition of restoration.”

Like other analysts, Pete Wehner, a former top official in the George W. Bush White House and a leading conservative critic of Trump, thinks those anxieties largely explain why so many Republican voters believe Trump “has to be defended at all costs.” For Americans uneasy with these changes, “their feeling is that Donald Trump is willing to fight for them and to destroy an enemy that they hate and that they believe hates them,” said Wehner, now a senior fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center (and a contributing writer at The Atlantic). “They believe this is an existential moral and political moment, and that if the left wins, so much of what they love and care for will be destroyed.

“They believe that Donald Trump is all that stands between them and darkness,” Wehner added, “and therefore they have to stand with him.”

Wehner said that, based on his conversations with other Republicans, he believes the bond between Trump and many in his party has only deepened over time. While many Republican voters and elected officials alike initially “qualified” their support for Trump by backing his policies but not his behavior, now “there is a kind of psychic and emotional satisfaction they get when they see Donald Trump dehumanizing the people that they hate and that they feel hate them,” he said.

In that environment, it’s easy for Trump to convince much of his base that any charge against him—even allegations from nonpartisan diplomats and national-security professionals—is inherently a liberal plot to silence him and his supporters. Very few Republican elected officials have challenged that conspiratorial argument. Whatever their private concerns, only a tiny handful have even hinted that Trump’s pressure on Ukraine was inappropriate, much less worthy of removal from office. Many have gone out of their way to signal that they consider the impeachment process illegitimate, and they’ve barely batted an eye as Trump has systematically defied Democratic subpoenas for witnesses and documents, brandished charges of “treason” against Democratic leaders, and accused, without evidence, the House Intelligence Committee of doctoring closed-door depositions.

Such open disdain for the process raises the question of how far Republicans will follow Trump in rejecting the legitimacy of other challenges to his authority. The willingness of so many Republican voters and officeholders to shrug off his actions with respect to Ukraine is even raising concerns that they might support the unthinkable: Trump’s refusal to accept a close loss in the 2020 election. “The scenarios that you would have thought until pretty recently were wildly implausible—some far-left fantasy—I don’t think [are impossible] anymore,” Abramowitz said. The partisan confrontation now unfolding in the House may be only the prologue to even greater struggles yet to come over the limits of Trump’s authority.

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