Paul Krugman makes an obvious but important point about Trump supporters’ unwavering loyalty despite the less-than-stellar reports after Trump’s first 100 days in office (“On the Power of Being Awful,” The New York Times, 5/1/2017):
One basic principle I’ve learned in my years at The Times is that almost nobody ever admits being wrong about anything — and the wronger they were, the less willing they are to concede error…
Now think about what it means to have voted for Trump. The news media spent much of the campaign indulging in an orgy of false equivalence; nonetheless, most voters probably got the message that the political/media establishment considered Trump ignorant and temperamentally unqualified to be president. So the Trump vote had a strong element of: “Ha! You elites think you’re so smart? We’ll show you!”
Now, sure enough, it turns out that Trump is ignorant and temperamentally unqualified to be president. But if you think his supporters will accept this reality any time soon, you must not know much about human nature. In a perverse way, Trump’s sheer awfulness offers him some political protection: His supporters aren’t ready, at least so far, to admit that they made that big a mistake.
I’ve voiced my doubts about the way Krugman believes Trump’s “death spiral” will work. I don’t think there are any Trump supporters—supporters in the sense of how we think about them, ie, dyed-in-the-wool, MAGA-cap-wearing supporters—who are ever going to admit to making a mistake, and even his more tepid supporters whom the Democrats hope to swoon in 2018 are unlikely to do so. Switch a vote? Maybe. Own up to the idea of Trump being a brazenly unqualified nincompoop whose biggest success was dividing the country even further? Nah.
One reason is that a lot of the Republican base shares two important qualities with Trump: they never apologize, and they never take responsibility for anything. So it doesn’t matter what they say or do; if they get called out on a particular issue, they’ll either double down for the rest of their lives or claim persecution at the hands of the spectral left.
Nevertheless, Krugman believes Trump will have, as George W. Bush did, a “Katrina moment,” a catalyzing event so disastrous that even fervent supporters abandon him:
I’m old enough to remember when George W. Bush was wildly popular — and while his numbers gradually deflated from their post 9/11 high, it was a slow process. What really pushed his former supporters to reconsider, as I perceived it — and this perception is borne out by polling — was the Katrina debacle, in which everyone could see the Bush administration’s callousness and incompetence playing out live on TV.
My issue here is that the poll Krugman cites doesn’t really substantiate the point he’s trying to make. It shows a long, steady decline in Bush’s popularity. Hurricane Katrina is only mentioned once in a question asking what the most important problem the country was facing at the moment, with 10% answering Hurricane Katrina in December of ’05 and 1% answering the same in January of ’06 before it ceases to register. Concomitantly, Bush’s decline in popularity doesn’t appear to be especially hyperaccentuated in the wake of Katrina—and even if it were, it’s not as though there weren’t other major events happening in American political life that couldn’t also be the attributing factor.
But I’ll take Krugman’s point “seriously but not literally” and imagine what a “Katrina moment” might be for Trump. He has a few ideas himself:
What will Trump’s Katrina moment look like? Will it be the collapse of health insurance due to administration sabotage? A recession this White House has no idea how to handle? A natural disaster or public health crisis?
All of which are too easily attributable to someone else, namely Obama. And if supporters are too honest to blame Obama, they can blame congress, which many of them do for the failure of the health care bill to even reach the floor for a vote. The best I can do is this, and even this doesn’t seem likely to me (“Historian Timothy Snyder: “It’s pretty much inevitable” that Trump will try to stage a coup and overthrow democracy,” Salon, 5/1/2017):
In your book you discuss the idea that Donald Trump will have his own version of Hitler’s Reichstag fire to expand his power and take full control of the government by declaring a state of emergency. How do you think that would play out?
Let me make just two points. The first is that I think it’s pretty much inevitable that they will try. The reason I think that is that the conventional ways of being popular are not working out for them. The conventional way to be popular or to be legitimate in this country is to have some policies, to grow your popularity ratings and to win some elections. I don’t think 2018 is looking very good for the Republicans along those conventional lines — not just because the president is historically unpopular. It’s also because neither the White House nor Congress have any policies which the majority of the public like.
This means they could be seduced by the notion of getting into a new rhythm of politics, one that does not depend upon popular policies and electoral cycles.
I find this highly dubious. No, outrageous. Not because I think it offensive that he’d suggest that our sitting president would willingly carry out an attack on his own people, but because it’s clear that Trump does not have the mental capacity required to pull something like that off. Snyder’s not wrong when he says the Trump administration would likely exploit something like a terrorist attack (a real one, not a staged one like Snyder suggests) nearing a 9/11 scale to consolidate as much power as possible in ways even Bush didn’t attempt (and all power centers exploit those kinds of events, it’s just that a right-wing, power-hungry dork like Trump would go well beyond what another president would), but to suggest that Trump and his associates could concoct and execute such an event is ludicrous.
Trump’s White House leaks like a sieve, so unless he somehow manages to keep the warring factions right under his nose from continuing to fight one another, any plan that even smelled like a false flag (Ugh, do I hate that term. Thanks, Alex Jones.) would leak almost immediately. Perhaps that’s built into the point Snyder is trying to make that they likely wouldn’t get away with it. Regardless, Trump and associates like Bannon and Priebus or family like Kushner have proved so incompetent that there’s no way they’d be able to realistically plan and orchestrate anything like it. Trump doesn’t have the slightest clue what’s in the health insurance plan he keeps hawking, and his grand tax overhaul is a single-page Word document that might as well have been written in comic sans. He couldn’t do it even if he wanted to.
But a “Katrina moment” for Trump, if there should ever be one, might come in the form of overreach by the Trump administration in attempting to exploit the aftermath of a terrorist attack. Beyond that, it’s hard to imagine any single event being a catalyst that could lead to a steep decline in Trump’s already-low popularity, and he’s too incompetent to be a proactive fascist. In the meantime, though, he’s slowly degrading the legitimacy of our democratic institutions every time he tweets an insult or attacks the media at a rally.
Regardless of how it pans out, Snyder thinks Trump will fail:
My gut feeling is that Trump and his administration will try and that it won’t work. Not so much because we are so great but because we have a little bit of time to prepare. I also think that there are enough people and enough agencies of the government who have also thought about this and would not necessarily go along.
The key difference between the Trump era and the 9/11 attacks under Bush is that Trump can’t count on a nation united behind him should anything happen. Bush could because the attacks were unexpected, and it came after a relatively peaceful decade in the post-Cold War world. Now we know what to look for when something bad happens, and while I would expect Trump’s poll numbers to rise in that event, I don’t foresee the spike to 80%+, and that makes it a lot harder for an inactive fascist to enact an agenda.
Of course, this all depends on how much support Republican politicians are willing to lend and how much right-wing media will go to justify everything Trump does. Both are powerful forces, and both have allowed Trump more leeway than anyone should ever be given.