I have not been writing that much about the administration of Donald Trump with its daily diet of outrageous and contradictory things that he and members of his administration say on the record (usually via Twitter), and the news reports based on leaks from anonymous sources within the administration about all the dubious activities that he and his family members and others have been engaged in. It seems to be better to wait for actual facts to emerge rather than try to follow the twists and turns of rumors and speculations.
But I have been curious as to how far this can go. There have been repeated speculations that this or that move by Trump will finally result in his base of supporters abandoning him. But the health care bill proposed by his party that will deprive tens of millions of people of affordable health insurance does not seem to have done so. The failure to prevent jobs from being shut down in the US and shifted to other countries, as was the case with the much touted Carrier deal, does not seem to have done so. Neither has the lack of any sign of US manufacturers shutting down overseas plants and bringing those jobs here. That the coal industry is not rebounding has not done so. Even the lack of any progress on the wall with Mexico, the signature issue for many of them, has not dampened their support. And the almost daily reports of Trump and his family and associates having deals with shadowy Russian and other East European figures have not fazed his supporters. It used to be Republicans who were strongly anti-Russian and used Cold War rhetoric but now it is the Democrats who have taken on that role while the Republicans are ‘meh’ about it. It looks like Trump’s boast during the campaign that his supporters would stay loyal even if he killed someone in public is largely holding up.
Apart from spouting off aggressive rhetoric about various things, when it comes to concrete achievements, Trump has managed to secure some minor wins on limiting refugees and visitors from Muslim countries and reversing some Obama-era executive orders but that seems to be about it.
This raises an interesting issue. Many politicians are amoral and would sell their grandmothers if they thought it would give them an edge. They expect criticisms from their political opponents and know how to deal with it and ignore it. What holds them back is the fear that their own supporters will be angered and punish them if they go too far. This is what keeps people like Britain’s Theresa May from doing what the Conservatives would really like to do and further privatize the National Health Service and other public services in the service of private profit-seeking companies.
But in the US and with Trump supporters in particular that brake does not seem to be working at present. Does that mean that he will be emboldened to think that there are absolutely no limits to what he can get away with? Is there actually a breaking point that he can and will cross that turns them off? I cannot see what that limit might be. Can he even achieve the lifelong dream of the oligarchy to get rid of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, the supposed ‘third –rails’ of American politics that politicians used to be scared to touch because it meant political death, because even those actions will not alienate Trump’s base? We are truly in uncharted waters for a democratic society when the loyalty of the ruling party’s supporters is so great that it can be totally taken for granted whatever its leaders do.
The members of the Trump family and administration have long since breezed past the point of impropriety, ethicality, and normal rules of behavior and it is clear that they don’t care. The only things that seem to drive them are amassing wealth for themselves and select members of their economic cohort. All the other issues merely provide occasions to grandstand or thumb their noses at their opponents. There only remains the question of whether they have broken the law. And this is not because they think their supporters will care but because fighting career investigators and prosecutors is not easy. Even here, they will take the most extreme interpretations of the law that they can think of that will allow them to claim that they have not broken it.
Sailing too close to the legal wind is dangerous because one can so easily cross it. This is a real test of the rule of law in the US, whether the legal structure that has its own dynamic can overcome the political control. The Trump administration clearly thinks that their supporters won’t care if they cross it provided they can give provide some kind of alternative scenario that justifies it, however far-fetched it might seem to the rest of us. As most of us know, the law is largely premised on protecting the rich from the poor and on most issues the rich are unified in protecting their own from the rabble. Chinks in that unified class front only occur when there are fears among the rich that the actions of some of their cohort is bringing all of them into disrepute and threatening their own privileges and even existence. It is when such intra-class schisms occur (most famously with Watergate) that the system turns against those who are threatening to bring the entire edifice down.
While it is an interesting academic exercise to see how low are the depths that Trump and his family and cronies can plumb and still survive politically, they are going to cause real hardship and disruption in the lives of many people before we reach that point.