For all the news media’s rightful focus on the kleptocracy, lying, manipulation and malpractice that undergird the presidency of Donald J. Trump, there is something even more troubling about this administration: its supporters. No matter what outrageous falsehood he tweets, no matter what ethical standard he eviscerates, no matter what democratic principle he violates, Trump’s supporters stand by loyally.
They dismiss the evidence presented by experts from right and left. They accept this hour’s lie, which contradicts the lie of the hour before. They even deny their own values in order to cling to Trump’s heresies.
The president’s latest big lie is the claim that President Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower to spy on his campaign. Trump and his surrogates have repeated various versions of that dangerous falsehood for several days now, with no evidence whatsoever to back it up. But according to a poll by Rasmussen Reports, Republican voters tend to believe Trump.
Historians tell us that this is the way that dictatorships begin. A totalitarian makes war on truth, perverts the assumptions that underlie critical thinking and masters the dark art of propaganda. Of course, he (or she) must have a willing audience, a substantial following that wants to believe.
And Trump does. A mid-February Gallup poll found that 81 percent of Republicans believe the president to be “honest and trustworthy.” By then, Trump had already repeated — several times — an easily refuted contention that his inauguration crowds were the biggest in American history. All you’d have to do is look at the photos posted by several news organizations, which placed pictures from the National Mall during President Barack Obama’s inaugural festivities side by side with Trump’s.
By the time of the poll, the president had also repeated — several times — the outrageous claim that Hillary Clinton’s popular-vote victory was the result of massive voter fraud, an outbreak of illegal balloting that involved as many as 5 million people. Many of his surrogates have repeated that monstrous fabrication. Where is the major investigative commission that press secretary Sean Spicer said would be led by Vice President Mike Pence? It has not materialized, and that doesn’t seem to matter.
Talk about defining deviancy down. Trump has already violated many of the norms of the American presidency and challenged democratic values. For example, he denounces judges, who represent an equal branch of government. Where are all the tea-partiers who claim to revere the U.S. Constitution? Why are they still staunchly supporting Trump?
Then there’s the matter of the president’s deeply troubling relationship with Vladimir Putin, the autocratic leader of Russia, one of this nation’s most troublesome rivals. It’s clear that Russia intervened in the presidential election, likely the worst scandal in the history of U.S. politics.
And evidence continues to mount that Trump has a murky and mysterious web of connections to Russians in Putin’s circle. Back during the summer, Trump reportedly instructed his surrogates to remove language from the Republican Party platform that supported Ukraine in its fight against Russian-backed separatists. Backing Russia as it tries to take over Ukraine contradicts years of U.S. foreign policy dictates from Republicans and Democrats alike.
Not that Trump voters care. For all the handwringing over the economic fears of working-class white voters, their populism has a deep undercurrent of white Christian nationalism.
After days of reticence, Republican leaders finally found the guts to refute Trump’s lie about wiretaps. But they may lose that newfound courage if their constituents continue to back Trump.
It’s no wonder that George Orwell’s “1984,” the chilling vision of a dystopian, totalitarian future where inconvenient facts are simply deleted and rewritten, is suddenly popular again, rocketing to the top of best-seller lists. It’s uncomfortably familiar.