The Shortest-Serving “Normal” President?

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We are 118 days into the Trump presidency. In a little over a week, Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, and he revealed highly classified security intelligence to the Russians in the Oval Office. In that same time, we’ve learned that the intelligence Trump willingly gave up connects to Israeli assets, and the level of detail Trump gave is enough for savvy adversarial foreign intelligence officers to reverse engineer in order to stop whoever it is. We’ve also learned that there is strong reason to believe that James Comey kept a paper trail of every conversation he had with the president, and that he is in possession of a memo that has Trump asking Comey to stop his investigation into Michael Flynn, who was fired in the wake of revelations about his connections with Russia. Now, Democrats are crying out for impeachment, and so far congressional Republicans have largely stepped aside and not offered the usual spin and defense of Trump to which we’ve grown accustomed. As one Trump aide put it, it’s hard to see how the president isn’t “completely fucked.”

Anything else I’m missing?

I won’t try to predict whether Trump will be successfully impeached, though it is hard to imagine that congressional Republicans would touch Trump and sacrifice their careers in the midst of an ever-polarizing populace and a right-wing propaganda machine drilling it into the heads of its audience that Trump is doing a fantastic job. There’s the possibility of the 25th amendment coming into play, but it’s never been used, and since I’m not a constitutional scholar, I won’t pretend to have an honest grasp of when it should.

But one week is a short time to have so many scandals blow up at once, and it’s likely that this isn’t the end. Maybe they won’t come in such rapid succession has they have over the last nine days, but they’ll keep coming. And like I said, we’re only 118 days in. This is insane.

This is also increasingly looking like Trump won’t last his full term, something I thought was ridiculous to say before a week ago (and honestly still think was a decent assessment given what little info about the Trump-Russia connection we had). So what does that mean?

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It means that Trump has so far only surpassed William Henry Harrison in number of days served in office. He has to stay in office another 1144 days in order to surpass all the presidents who died during their first term in office, and 1312 days to surpass all the president’s who were finishing another president’s term and were not elected president thereafter.

What happens next, of course, depends on what we learn from the FBI’s investigation into his campaign and the contents of the Comey memo (and others, surely). If it really does turn out to be as bad as it looks right now, I don’t know how Trump weathers the storm. That’s not to say I think he can’t—his base are loyal to him like dogs to a master, and that base is large enough to give him political power other Republicans are afraid to question. But it essentially comes down to whether or not the scandals are as bad or worse than they appear to be, and whether Republicans in congress choose to do anything about it.

Although even before the scandals broke I never took talk of impeachment or removal seriously, expecting Trump to be in office for at least four years, and although a part of me fears that even in the face of obvious wrongdoing Trump will be permitted to complete his term(s), I can also imagine Trump not making it beyond the threshold of days served of presidents who died in office or filled another’s term. That alone would speak volumes about the kind of president he was.

The Stages of Republican Denial

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If it turns out to be true, these will be the stages of Republican denial in the media and among the wingnut base regarding the Comey memo:

  1. Ignore it.
  2. Deny it’s real.
  3. Admit it’s real but that Comey should have said something in February.
  4. Actually, scratch that, it’s hearsay.
  5. Hope that more memos are made available so they can look for references to pizza.

And you can liberally add “Comey is a cuck” to pretty much any of those stages.

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“There can’t be an FBI investigation if there’s no FBI Director.”

Yes, Trump is Dumb. But He Still Has the Potential to Be Authoritarian.

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David Brooks keeps writing about Trump as though he’s just discovering him for the first time. Every column in which Brooks condemns Trump in his very special way that, no matter what, always feels like an over-rehearsed retort the nerd delivers to the bully on the playground that falls completely flat. They always come off like a punch in a dream—no weight behind them. So while I welcome one of America’s leading Conservative Intellectuals© going for The Donald’s throat, he’s always at least a little bit off about something (“When the World is Led by a Child,” The New York Times, 5/16/2017):

At certain times Donald Trump has seemed like a budding authoritarian, a corrupt Nixon, a rabble-rousing populist or a big business corporatist.

But as Trump has settled into his White House role, he has given a series of long interviews, and when you study the transcripts it becomes clear that fundamentally he is none of these things.

This is the introduction, and the rest of the column is a take-down. But I have to quibble with the notion that Trump is not a budding authoritarian.

Brooks is right to say Trump isn’t a populist: his, or really Paul Ryan’s, proposed health care bill is a huge tax cut for the rich, and his, or really Paul Ryan’s, idea of tax reform is yet again huge tax cuts for the rich. But Trump does have authoritarian tendencies; he’s just too inept to find a way to implement them, because figuring out a way to do that would take work, and Trump hates work.

Like Brooks suggests, Trump is a mental infant, and it’s in that way that his authoritarianism expresses itself. For example, Trump gets two scoops of ice cream for dessert, but everyone else only gets one. He appears to have fired James Comey out of anger more than as a sinister power move. In his unwillingness to do the legwork to get major legislation moving, he issues poorly-worded executive orders that get hung up in the courts. These are all childish impulses and don’t include his fidgeting, his manic and unfocused responses to questions, and his low level of diction and disdain for reading.

But we saw last week how quickly those who were becoming mildly amused by Trump’s incompetence careened wildly toward panic mode when it appeared that Trump had fired Comey with the explicit purpose of obstructing the FBI’s investigation into his campaign (which still may be the case, but his careless reveal of highly classified information in the absence of any sort of pressure suggests he’s still just an impulsive idiot), which means that even if he’s not aware of it, Trump has at his disposal the tools to enact more authoritarian schemes, especially since Republicans in congress are continually uninterested in reacting to everything he does.

So yes, Trump is stupid. But don’t discount his ability to do something awful—on purpose.

McMaster Crucifies Himself for Trump

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H.R. McMaster, Trump’s National Security Adviser, responded to The Washington Post‘s blockbuster story yesterday:

The story that came out tonight, as reported, is false. The president and foreign minister reviewed a range of common threats to our two countries including threats to civil aviation. At no time … were intelligence sources or methods discussed. And the president did not disclose any military operations that were not publicly known … I was in the room, it didn’t happen.

This is one of those carefully worded non-denial denials, where phrases like “as reported” are left as little cracks through which the administration can criticize the report on details without denying wholesale the heart of the story. Same with “is false” and “it didn’t happen.” Not only are they meant to discredit the report, they’re denials of claims that the Post story never made.

But what’s really striking is that McMaster essentially laid his credibility on the line for Trump to crucify, as though Trump is some sort of elder god of lore to whom all Republicans must sacrifice some portion of their soul. Remember, this is a guy who is actually well-respected and thought to be intelligent:

But as Josh Marshall predicted, Trump woke up this morning and shot these gems out, essentially confirming the Washington Post story:

And now, just moments ago, McMaster had a press briefing in place of Sean Spicer’s (who I believe has now fully transformed into a shrub and has become a permanent fixture of the rose garden), and McMaster degraded himself:

The key take away is that McMaster is essentially conceding the accuracy of last night’s reporting (first from the Post and later confirmed by other outlets) but saying that in the context it was okay. It was appropriate. Notably, when it comes to specifics, he is hiding behind classification to refuse to give further answers.

To come out and perform the rhetorical trick of making it look as though you’re denying the story in a very vocal way (“I was in the room, it didn’t happen”) but using weasel wording in order to evade culpability destroys whatever credibility McMaster had. Honestly, anyone who decides to take a job from Trump ought to know what he or she is getting into, and anyone who somehow doesn’t know what they’re getting into shouldn’t take the job. What’s perplexing is that McMaster staked his reputation on this, for a chump like Trump, only to have it blow up in his face in less than 24 hours.

Life Comes At You Fast

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wapo

And the powerful rebuke of Trump’s incompetence from the America First Republicans:

Oh.

A Conservative Explains How They Lie, and Another Conservative Follows Suit

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As I said the other day, there is nothing good about the Trump administration, but it is allowing us to witness assumptions we’ve made about conservatives in this country for years actually be tested in real-time. And so The New York Times delivers in rapid-fire succession one right-wing blowhard explaining the formula another right-wing blowhard would follow to a tee the very next day (“If Liberals Hate Him, Then Trump Must Be Doing Something Right,” The New York Times, 5/12/2017):

[C]onservatism, with its belief in ordered liberty, is being eclipsed by something different: Loathing those who loathe the president. Rabid anti-anti-Trumpism.

Here is how it works: Rather than defend President Trump’s specific actions, his conservative champions change the subject to (1) the biased “fake news” media, (2) over-the-top liberals, (3) hypocrites on the left, (4) anyone else victimizing Mr. Trump or his supporters and (5) whataboutism, as in “What about Obama?” “What about Clinton?”

For the anti-anti-Trump pundit, whatever the allegation against Mr. Trump, whatever his blunders or foibles, the other side is always worse.

But the real heart of anti-anti-Trumpism is the delight in the frustration and anger of his opponents. Mr. Trump’s base is unlikely to hold him either to promises or tangible achievements, because conservative politics is now less about ideas or accomplishments than it is about making the right enemies cry out in anguish.

That’s from Charlie Sykes, a right-wing blowhard who made his living as the Rush Limbaugh of Wisconsin. But since he took on Trump, his rabid fan base deserted him, and now he’s left occasionally writing for The New York Times and contributing to MSNBC. Which means Sykes for years fed a paranoid audience on the lie that liberals are the biggest existential threat to America. Regardless, Sykes’s credentials means he’s qualified to make the diagnosis, even though it’s one liberals have made of conservatives for years: conservatives would hack off their own limbs if they thought it would make liberals cry.

Isn’t it fitting, then, that Erick Erickson, a self-proclaimed libertarian and a one-time #NeverTrumper (or, you know, just your typical right-wing pundit) followed the formula Sykes laid out on the very same day. First Erickson starts with some low-level concern trolling (“The Fantasy of Impeachment,” The New York Times, 5/12/2017):

I have long had concerns about President Trump. He can contradict himself within separate clauses of a single sentence, then lie about the contradiction. He lacks the depth of knowledge a president should have and seems far more concerned with what people on TV say about him than what is happening around him.

But…

But let’s be realistic. Though the firing looks bad, it was also reasonable.

And from here, Erickson doesn’t so much defend Trump’s decision to fire Comey so much as he chastises liberals for their audacity at having a negative reaction to it:

Though they are criticizing his firing now, Democrats were calling for Mr. Comey’s head after he reopened the Clinton email investigation late in the campaign last year. If he was so bad then, is he really so good now?

And:

Underlying liberals’ calls for impeachment is the belief that Mr. Comey’s firing will squelch the F.B.I.’s investigation into Russian campaign meddling. But there are good reasons to think that the inquiry won’t be affected. The F.B.I.’s interim leader, Andrew McCabe, vowed on Thursday that the investigation would continue apace. Likewise, the Senate will have to confirm Mr. Trump’s nominee to replace Mr. Comey, and Republicans seem determined to keep the bureau independent.

Wow! The interim leader said the investigation would continue, which means it 100% has to, no takesies-backsies. And Republicans will keep the FBI independent, so tweets like this:

shouldn’t be of concern, even though that means Trump is considering replacing Comey with a Republican senator. Very independent, indeed.

And we’re back to trolling, anti-anti Trump style:

Instead of engaging in conspiracy theories about President Trump’s Russian connections, liberals would be better served demanding that Congress exercise its powers of the purse and investigation to ensure honesty and integrity in the confirmation of a new F.B.I. director and in the operation of the agency.

Even though Democrats are the minority party, so it really just depends on Republicans getting someone whom they all agree on, Rick.

It’s not often that we get one right-winger explaining the duplicitous rhetorical strategies that another right-winger will employ on the very same day, so when we get ’em, we should cherish ’em.

Threatening a Man With Nothing to Lose

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Beyond threatening the former Director of the FBI to be silent or insinuate that he can be blackmailed, there’s also the obvious point that whatever is on those tapes would be equally bad if not worse for Trump. And since Comey really has nothing to lose—he was unceremoniously fired, humiliated by Trump and his TV lackeys, and made to look incompetent—it’s bizarre that Trump would think this kind of intimidation would actually work.

Also, countdown to Sean Spicer telling us that Trump didn’t actually mean tapes when he said tapes because he put it in quotes, and that he was referring to audio/visual apparatuses more broadly.

Even With Comey’s Dismissal, Republicans Will Continue to Back Trump

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There is nothing good about the Trump presidency. With last night’s firing of FBI Director James Comey, the balance of power that stabilizes our democracy is in danger of shifting disproportionately to the executive branch. But if we had the luxury of being able to detach ourselves from the present situation and look upon what’s currently unfolding like sports spectators, we’d have to appreciate history setting up what had previously only been a thought experiment: we finally have proof that the Republican party would willingly enable the rise of a dictator if it meant they got to stay in power.

And accordingly, Republican media hacks have already done their duty of spinning Comey’s firing as 100% normal, business-as-usual politics. But the facts of the matter are that Comey was investigating collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians, subpoenas had just been issued to gather information, and the request to terminate Comey (supposedly) came from Jeff Sessions—the Attorney General who had to recuse himself from the FBI’s investigation because he lied under oath about his interactions with the Russians.

Whether the insistence to fire Comey came from Sessions or not is immaterial; what matters is that this is a blatant attempt to stymie and possibly erase the investigation. It would be one thing if conservatives duly noted the alarm bells this dismissal is sounding off but urged calm until more was known, but no—conservative media goons are insisting that any concern about it is just crazy conspiracy theory. So leave it to the vacuous Hugh Hewitt to rise to the occasion and spin, spin, spin (“Comey’s firing isn’t like the ‘Saturday Night Massacre.’ It’s pretty straightforward,” The Washington Post, 5/10/2017):

Anyone who thinks [Comey’s firing] is connected to a coverup of “Russian collusion” has to believe that both Rosenstein and Sessions would participate in such a corrupt scheme. I don’t.

I do. As I said, Sessions lied under oath about his contact with the Russians, so there’s something wrong with Hugh if he can’t figure out why someone who would lie about the subject that’s being investigated might want to hinder that investigation. Even more, Rosenstein has only been deputy Attorney General for two weeks, which leaves me in the very uncomfortable position of actually agreeing with Bill Kristol:

And there’s the bizarre letter Trump wrote to order Comey’s termination, which was dropped off at FBI headquarters by Trump’s personal bodyguard even though Comey wasn’t in Washington; he was in Los Angeles speaking when the news came on a television behind him and caught him so flat-footed he thought it was a joke. Pay attention to the underlined sentence:

comey letter

Here Trump does something clever, unwittingly or not. By lying about not being under investigation (it’s his campaign that’s being investigated, of course he’s part of what’s being investigated), Trump performs a rhetorical trick that allows him to deny interfering with an ongoing investigation without actually having to explicitly say that he’s not interfering with an ongoing investigation. Ie, in Trump’s mind, if he’s not under investigation, then it’s literally impossible for him to interfere with that investigation because it doesn’t exist. None of that is true, of course, but it allows shills like Kellyanne Conway to go on Anderson Cooper and repeatedly claim that Trump is somehow exempt from the investigation looking into his campaign.

It’s not surprising to me that Hewitt would automatically take the dismissive stance—for someone who writes opinion pieces, he doesn’t seem to write his ‘opinions’ so much as regurgitated spin to make Republicans look blameless in any situation. And I’m not surprised that low-level radio hosts who are the equivalent of sleazy used car salesmen like Bill Mitchell back Trump up. But I’m disappointed (but again, not all that surprised) when the supposed intellectual wing of conservatism also can’t seem to focus on what’s really at stake here:

The thing to remember going forward is that Republicans by and large will continue to defend Trump or insist that any idea put forth by Democrats is an insane Chicken Little episode. And they will continue to back him until it’s too late—until that moment, should it ever arrive, that Trump becomes too toxic to defend. Before his campaign started, virtually everything he’s said and done would have been too toxic for any other candidate, regardless of party, to defend. But not now. Republicans have power, and they will cravenly defend it no matter what. Like I said, it’s not much of a silver lining, but Trump being president and having nearly everything that could go wrong with the presidency of a narcissistic moron actually go wrong exposes Republicans for having no values.

Jonah Goldberg: Actually, It’s Stephen Colbert’s Fault That Trump Is Such an Asshole

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Jonah Goldberg, Principled Conservative© and proud member of the Party of Personal Responsibility©, wants you to know who’s really to blame for Trump’s pure awfulness (“The courts, and Stephen Colbert, are enabling Trump’s violations of the norms,” LA Times, 5/9/2017):

[T]he big problem with violating democratic norms — the unwritten customs and practices even political opponents traditionally abide by — is that once you’ve done it, everybody wants to do it too. When the people most offended by Trump’s violations indulge in similar behavior, they not only contribute to the problem, they create incentives for Trump and his biggest supporters to keep doing it.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say the loudest of Trump’s supporters—the morons at Fox News, Breitbart “writers,” Twitter trolls and white supremacists and every other brand of deplorable that wears the epithet as a badge of honor—would still be huge assholes regardless of how polite liberals were to them. Know how I know that? Because that’s how they were before Trump even came on the scene.

You see, it’s Republicans and right-wing media that created and enabled an environment in which a Trump could grow, ripen, and rot—figures like him don’t just appear out of thin air. If Republican voters hated so much of what he said and who he was, he wouldn’t be our fucking president right now, Jonah. But go ahead; tell me why Colbert’s blowjob joke gives Trump license as leader of the free world to tweet like a ten-year-old boy who just discovered 4chan:

Colbert’s animus toward Trump’s crudeness got the better of him. Suffice it to say that if you want to condemn a president for his incivility, you squander some credibility when you describe the president of the United State in a lewd act with a foreign dictator.

Goldberg would have a point if, say, Barack Obama made the comment in a public space. Obama has in part banked his reputation on being calm, cool, and collected, even under pressure, lest the media get a chance to run another “Obama’s an angry black man!” piece of sensationalism. But Colbert isn’t a politician. He’s a comedian. And he took a shot at a quality Trump values in himself: his manliness. His cultivation of the image as the ultimate alpha male. Colbert attempted to deflate that by saying he’s so enthralled with Putin that he submissively sucks his dick.

Regardless of how lewd or offensive you find Colbert’s joke, Goldberg isn’t really the person best qualified to critique Colbert as an “enabler” of Trump. That’s because Goldberg had some very odd things to say about Jimmy Kimmel’s speech on health care (“The Dangers of Empathy,” National Review, 5/5/2017):

[B]ecause I am a father, I could empathize with late-night host Jimmy Kimmel’s story about his son’s birth. His story is almost surely more harrowing than my story, but that doesn’t matter. Empathy is the ability to feel what someone else is feeling.

Empathy is different than sympathy or compassion. Sympathy is when you feel sorry for someone. Compassion is when you do something about it.

But empathy is something else…

Adolf Hitler was a master of empathy — for ethnic Germans in the Sudetenland, Austria, and elsewhere. The cause of nationalist empathy for the German tribe triggered profound moral blindness for the plight, and even the humanity, of Jews, Gypsies, and Slavs.

From 0 to Godwin in less than 60 seconds. Impressive, Jonah, impressive. It must take nerves of steel to watch Jimmy Kimmel recall the frightening story of his son’s birth, and how Kimmel is gravely concerned about what the potential repeal of Obamacare could do to hundreds of thousands if not millions of children whose parents are not as financially fortunate as Kimmel is, and come to the conclusion that he’s being emotionally manipulative in a similar fashion to Hitler.

If you want to criticize people who condemn the president for his incivility for being uncivil, Jonah, you lose some street cred when you compare a late night show host’s emotional story to Hitler’s Final Solution.

Trump Isn’t Affecting Rightwingers’ Popularity Abroad—They’re Just Better at Dealing With It

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Talking Points Memo editor John Judis had a few thoughts on the what the results of the French election mean in a wider context (“Macron’s rout of Le Pen shows how Trump is hurting Rightwing Populists,” Talking Points Memo, 5/7/2017):

After Trump’s upset victory in November, the European parties and politicians that were politically close to him expected to get a boost, but exactly the opposite has happened.

Judis gives a few examples to make his case. In Austria:

[L]ast May, Green Party candidate Alexander Van den Bellen edged populist right candidate Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party by .4 percent. A court heeded a Freedom Party protest and threw out the results and called for a new election. In December, in the wake of both Brexit and Trump’s victory, Van den Bellen easily defeated Hofer by 53.3 to 46.7 percent.

In Germany:

[T]he Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) party, which targeted immigrants and asylum-seekers, had seen its popularity grow in the wake of the Cologne New Year’s Eve riot… But in subsequent elections, it has fallen flat, while the Christian Democrats, identified with German Chancellor’s Angela Merkel’s refusal to heed Trump’s bullying, has seen its vote rise. In March regional elections in Saarland in southwest Germany, Merkel’s party won 40.2 percent (up from 35.2 percent in 2012), while the AfD, which had previously been running as high as 16 percent in national polls, won only 6.2 percent.

In Holland:

But perhaps the most telling result was in the Dutch elections March 15. For 18 months, Geert Wilders of the Party of Freedom had led all the parties in the polls. Wilders had expected to benefit from Trump’s victory, which he had celebrated as a “Patriotic Spring…” But Wilders got only 13.1 percent of the vote, well behind center-right Mark Rutte’s People’s Party, which got 21.3 percent.

And here’s Judis’s theory:

Why didn’t Trump and Brexit provide a bounce for these politicians? One factor is that Trump, with his strident dismissal of NATO and the European Union, his jibes against Merkel and Germany, his near-endorsement of Le Pen, united West Europeans the same way that George W. Bush did in 2003. Another factor, important in France, was that Trump’s blustering know-nothingness seems to have frightened and offended voters. In her debate with Macron on election eve, Le Pen’s own harsh rhetoric, combined with her refusal to get into details about her program, probably reinforced the impression that she was a French version of Trump, leading to a sharp drop in her polling numbers prior to the election.

Undoubtedly there is some truth to this. By associating Le Pen with Trump’s slovenliness, a certain faction of French voters was sure to be turned off. But I think there are a few problems with Judis’s theory that Trump himself has been a kind of inoculating force against the rightwing populism around the world that he’s supposed to represent.

One is that Trump doesn’t represent rightwing populism in the sense that it’s usually talked about—or at least he’s only interested in full-throatedly adopting the more extreme of traditional Republican positions while disregarding the rest. He has no plan to undertake a grand infrastructure project that would benefit everyday Americans, and his and Paul Ryan’s AHCA bill demonstrates his complete disregard of the working middle class and poor. That’s not the kind of working-class-hero mawishness that Steve Bannon supposedly endorses as an evil Bruce Springsteen. Not only that, but Europe’s relationship to fascism and rightwing nationalism is a lot stronger than it is in America. All of the countries Judis mentions either had fascist regimes rise from within them at one point or were occupied by them. As a result, Europeans are keener to recognize it than regular Americans, many of whom wouldn’t be able to recognize a fascist so long as he was wrapped in the American flag. Besides, the referendum in Turkey (however fair or not) is ample evidence that slow-moving rightwing coups still exist in powerful ways.

Another is that all those countries have something fundamentally different from America: a true multiparty parliamentary system. In the French election, especially, the candidates and their parties that were eliminated after the first round of voting largely backed and endorsed Emmanuel Macron, leaving Le Pen and her party isolated. Even the traditional conservative party in France urged its supporters to vote for Macron. This is also true in Austria, where Norbert Hofer soundly won the first round of voting over Alexander Van den Bellen. But again, the disparate parties united behind Van den Bellen (however enthusiastically or begrudgingly, I don’t know) to defeat the far-right.

This is not true in America, where we have a two-party system with other, smaller parties designed to siphon votes from either major party as protest votes. Unlike in France and Austria and elsewhere, where the political establishments recognized and acted against a severe rightwing threat, in America we saw one of the major two parties give the nomination to Donald Trump after he won the primaries and nearly all of its major members endorse him. Also, the smaller parties (the Libertarian and Green parties) did not encourage their voters to rally behind Clinton in order to defeat Trump—instead, they gleefully tried to recruit as many voters as they could, seeing the general unpopularity of each major candidate as a boon to their own “cause.” Jill Stein, for example, was always more than happy to either equate Trump and Clinton or straight-up say that Clinton was far more dangerous than Trump. (The one exception was Bill Weld, the vice presidential candidate for the Libertarian party, who more or less endorsed Clinton before the election.

The point being that in Europe, there were coalitions ready to rebuke a popular rightwing rising. In America, one half of American political power got behind that rightwing tide and haven’t looked back. Republicans looked fascism in the eye and decided they’d rather try to get as much power as possible than attempt to forestall a nationalist movement that will swallow them whole before they can sufficiently harness control of it.