The Gulf in the GOP between the Leadership and the Base

(Published early August, 2018)

All this time we’ve been waiting to see what might be uncovered about whether there was “collusion” between Donald Trump and Putin’s Russia during the 2016 campaign. And then came Trump’s trip to Europe where we all got to see such collusion enacted right before our eyes in real time.

  • As an overture, we got to watch Donald Trump, with his insults and his boorishness, sabotaging the Atlantic Alliance—fulfilling Putin’s longstanding dream of subverting the unity of the free and prosperous nations that disapprove of Putin’s various crimes, domestic and international.
  • Then it was off to Helsinki to meet with Putin, where we witnessed Trump’s bolstering Putin in one way after another, at the expense of American interests and credibility, including lending credence to Putin’s preposterous denials of election meddling.
  • And then there was Trump waxing enthusiastic about Putin’s “incredible offer” to let Americans come to Russia to question those of Putin’s minions (whom Mueller has indicted) in exchange for Trump handing over to Putin a number of Americans – people whom Putin hates for their role in making the Russian kleptocracy pay – through sanctions — for murdering a lawyer who had exposed their corruption.

The whole world watched in amazement as the President of the United States seemed consistently to be giving “aid and comfort” to Putin’s Russia — i.e. to the nation that qualifies as an “enemy” of the United States by virtue of the cyberwarfare attack Russia has been launching against the American nation Trump took an oath to defend.

This episode exposes a gulf within the Republican Party: the base saw things one way while their elected leaders saw them entirely differently.

There has long been evidence that Republican leaders understand how dangerous Trump is, but — out of their calculations of their own political advantage– they stay mute about that understanding.

But they didn’t stay mute this time, not when the President was visibly and wantonly giving away American power. Not when Trump was diminishing American dignity in the world by his visible subservience to America’s main adversary — including contemplating handing over to the Russians a former American ambassador.

We know that the Republicans in the U.S. Senate recognized what a wrecking ball their President was as he careened through Europe. They showed this by their actions:

  • First, the Senate passed 97-2 a set of statements affirming the essential importance of NATO, and America’s commitment to NATO– even as Trump was insulting our important NATO allies, and making them out to be “foes.”
  • Next, the Senate passed by a 98-0 margin a measure stating in no uncertain terms that the idea of turning Americans over to Putin should be rejected out of hand, not entertained even for a moment as Trump was apparently willing to do.

Such near-unanimity showed clearly that the Republicans in the Senate – who did not, of course, criticize or even mention Trump by name in these measures — recognized that Trump’s relationship with Russia was unacceptable and that his subservience to Putin needed to be countered.

Meanwhile, polls have shown, the Russian base perceives an entirely different world. To the great majority of them, Trump did just fine.

  • The majority of the Republican voters have come to regard Russia as a “friend” to America, even while the (supposedly “fake”) news has been fleshing out the full breadth and scope of the Russian attacks on American democracy and threatening hacking into American infrastructure. Only 15% of Republicans see Russia as an adversary.
  • Most Republicans think that Trump is handling the relationship with Russia — America’s “friend” — rather well. 68% of Republicans even approve of the shocking Trump performance in Helsinki.

In order to maintain a fundamental lie they’ve bought about Trump, these people apparently feel compelled to move on to a good many other lies—such as the “good relationship” Trump claims to seek with Russia (altogether on Putin’s terms, apparently, allowing the Russians to launch cyberattacks on American elections, ratifying the Russian seizure of Crimea, etc.), and making the Mueller investigation out to be a “witch hunt.”

No close observer of the Republican Party of our times should be surprised that there’s this kind of disconnect between the GOP leadership and the Republican base. Over the past quarter century — from Gingrich to Rove, to the Republicans of the time of obstruction, and now to Trump — such a gap has increasingly characterized the Republican world, with the leadership relating to their followers through a tissue of lies.

Over these years, the Republicans have deliberately detached their base from reality, without (most of them) losing touch with reality themselves. By putting deception and manipulation at the heart of how they deal with their followers, the Republican leaders have built up an enduring gulf in Republican politics between those who wield power, and those whose support gives them that power.

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