Trump’s magic anti-impeachment force field

Nov 23 2019

The phase of House impeachment hearings that concluded this week established, beyond reasonable doubt, that President Trump withheld congressionally authorized aid from Ukraine as a way of coercing its government into launching an investigation that, he hoped, would taint a political rival, Joe Biden. 

Here is the political toll this has taken on Trump: Since the day the hearings started, his approval rating, as measured in the Real Clear Politics polling average, has risen by slightly less than a point, and his disapproval rating has fallen by slightly more than a point. 

There was a time when you could shock people with paragraphs like that. But over the past three years Trump’s core support has proved so durable in the face of so much bad publicity that many Trump opponents have come to expect the worst. Poll numbers that once induced much wailing and gnashing of #Resistance teeth now elicit knowing, sardonic nods.


The two most common explanations for the resilience of Trump’s support are:

1) His supporters are intellectually or morally deficient—too stupid to rationally assess evidence of his transgressions or too enthralled by his bigotry to care about them.

2) His supporters, like his opponents, get their news via customized social media feed and/or their favorite cable news channel, and so receive a selective rendering of reality. So, for example, this week the entertainingly goofy donor/diplomat Gordon Sondland said—depending on which media and social media ecosystem you occupy—either (a) it had long been obvious to him that Trump was conditioning military aid on Ukraine’s vowing to investigate the firm that employed Biden’s son; or (b) he’d never actually heard Trump say aid was conditioned on the investigation, and in fact, when he asked what Trump wanted from Ukraine, Trump said he wanted nothing. 

Of the two explanations for Trump’s enduring Republican popularity—Trump supporters with defective brains and balkanized media landscape—I favor the second. But with this asterisk: Trump supporters do have defective brains in the sense that we all have defective brains. We all have cognitive biases of various kinds that shape our behavior in not necessarily rational ways.  

Consider this: While Trump’s poll numbers were improving, so were Joe Biden’s. In the RCP average, Biden’s lead over his nearest rival for the Democratic presidential nomination has gone from 5 points to 10 points since the hearings started.  

This at first seems odd, since the hearings brought no obviously favorable publicity for Biden. His son did, after all, take an absurdly high-paying job from a sketchy Ukrainian firm that presumably hoped he could use his family connection to influence American policy in its favor—and this awkward fact was only underscored by the hearings. 

Still, the hearings also underscored something else: Biden had been the ultimate target of Trump’s manipulation of the Ukrainian government. And, in polarized times, the perception that you’re under attack from the enemy tribe can do wonders for your status within your own tribe. The same dynamic works for Trump: the hearings highlighted, for Republicans, that he was being attacked by congressional Democrats. 

Win-win!

I’m not kidding. We don’t generally think of bitter contests between opposing camps as non-zero-sum games, but there are various ways a non-zero-sum dynamic can enter them. One is that bitter contestation between tribes can elevate the intratribal status of leading figures on both sides. And this effect is presumably stronger in an age when the two tribes’ media and social media ecosystems can convey the message—with little chance of contradiction—that the other tribe’s attacks on their leaders are unjust. (The witnesses who most thrilled Trump opponents—the ones, like Fiona Hill, who most explicitly criticized Trump’s conduct and policies—may have been the witnesses who most energized Trump supporters, since a seeming dislike of Trump on the part of witnesses from the bureaucracy could be seen as evidence that the proceedings were rigged, and the Deep State was in on the job.)

This is one thing Democratic impeachment skeptics have warned about—that impeachment proceedings would intensify the sense of siege that Trump has cultivated among supporters. And a strengthened siege mentality not only bodes well for Republican turnout in 2020 but, in the meanwhile, may render Trump supporters even less receptive to evidence of Trump’s incompetence and corruption than they were before. (I know what you’re thinking: Is that even possible? Yes. Worse is always possible.)

The game isn’t over. More evidence may come to light, and with a person as fundamentally amoral and corrupt as Trump, there’s always the chance of evidence so damning as to give second thoughts even to true believers. But right now we seem to be a long way from there.

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