Neil Buchanan: Is the Press Brave Enough to Battle Trump?

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Donald Trump walks on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C., on March 2. Neil Buchanan writes that the response of the press to Trump's State of the Union–equivalent speech to Congress was almost gooey. Even reporters who were deeply skeptical about his speech nevertheless marveled: "Striking that presidential tone, as Mr. Trump did on Tuesday, was an important political move." Alex Wong/Getty

This article first appeared on the Dorf on Law site.

Over the past few months, there have been times when sane people could take heart about the future of the country. It looked like a long struggle, with no guarantee of success, but it was becoming clear that the sheer incompetence of the Trump team was saving the country from bigger problems.

Even better, the reaction to the Muslim ban (and people's—including judges'—willingness to see past Trump's claim that it really wasn't a Muslim ban), as well as public condemnation of Republicans' attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, suggested there could be a real opposition among the three-fourths of the American population who did not vote for Trump.

We always knew this would be a roller-coaster ride, with good weeks and bad weeks. But the last week's developments strongly suggest Trump will not face any serious roadblocks to rigging his reelection in 2020, much less surviving any calls for impeachment in the meantime.

The latest evidence, moreover, does not merely relate to how Republicans are treating Trump, but also to what Trump calls the "enemy of the American people"—the free press—and how the press are going to treat him going forward.

Although I am worried about what we have seen very recently, it is important to begin by acknowledging something that has been true ever since Trump became the nominee, if not even earlier: The simple fact is that Trump's voters will never abandon him.

There are many reasons why Trump is being compared to Richard Nixon, from his Saturday Night Massacre–like sacking of an acting attorney general to his subordinates lying to Congress. One of the things that people forget, however, is that Nixon maintained the support of one-fourth of the American people even on his worst day.

Related: Neil Buchanan: Ways to stop Trump in his tracks

I was very young when Watergate unfolded, but I was old enough to follow the story in the newspapers. I distinctly remember Nixon's approval rating stayed stubbornly at 23 percent even as he was forced to resign in disgrace.

His supporters included my maternal grandparents, who assured me that Nixon had done nothing wrong but had been framed by a bunch of liberal lawyers. (In what those lawyers would call "pleading in the alternative," my grandparents also told me that everything Nixon had done wrong was not unique to him—even though he had done nothing wrong.)

Fast-forward to 2017, and Nixon's core 23 percent rock-bottom approval rating appears to be north of 40 percent for Trump. Granted, Trump has not (yet?) gone through a wringer as Nixon did, but the people who support him really support him.

Blame it on anything you like, from stubbornness to the Fox News bubble in which Trump's supporters live amid a core of angry, hateful people. No matter the reason, it is now difficult to imagine anything turning off Trump's supporters. When clear ties to Russia— Russia!—do not bother Trump's people, what other conclusion could we draw?

Beyond that high floor of support on which Trump relies, recent events suggest that he will not receive any serious resistance on political matters. I continue to think that the courts and the civil service will continue to serve important roles in preventing Trump from getting too far out of hand, but neither of those sources of resistance write the laws or shape the political conversation. The Republicans do the former, and the pliant press does the latter.

How far gone are the Republicans? Within hours of revelations that the Russia-Trump connection is deeply troubling and should at the very least result in the firing of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, we saw headlines like this: "Sticking With Trump, Republicans Resist Call for Broader Russian Inquiry."

Even better/worse, that news article quoted Utah's senior Republican senator, Orrin Hatch, issuing the following complaint: "My concern is, why are our Democratic senators so doggone rude?"

Yes, the senator from the Republican state that was most uncomfortable with Trump, the senator who at age 82 is now in his forty-first year in the Senate, is so committed to supporting Trump that he is reduced to scolding the Democrats for bad manners. (I wonder what Miss Manners would have said about the Republican treatment of Judge Merrick Garland.)

The point is that it is now impossible to imagine what could cause Republicans to break with Trump. Hatch is actually considering running for reelection again next year, but even though his state's voters wish he would quietly go away, he would surely win even if he stood up against Trump—certainly if he stood up against Trump to protect Americans from Russian meddling.

Another octogenarian senator, John McCain, has gotten some good press recently for making noises that sound like loyal opposition, yet it is hard to see anything that he has actually done to back up his (not all that strong) words.

He could have been the deciding vote to block the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as education secretary. Where was McCain, who voted not only for DeVos but for every other Cabinet-level appointee except the budget director, who wants to cut military spending?

And McCain won reelection in 2016, which means that he is in office until 2022, when one would hope that he will retire at age 86.

Why are these lions of the Senate so spineless? I suppose it is possible that they fear losing something that they care about. In the extreme, one could imagine Majority Leader Mitch McConnell leading an effort to punish dissenters by taking away their committee chairmanships. How depressing is it to think that the made men of the Senate can be so easily intimidated? But it is difficult to see a different explanation for their failures to stand up.

As I wrote above, I am now more worried than ever that Trump will survive (and maybe even succeed) politically. The most important reason for my renewed pessimism is the response of the press to Trump's State of the Union–equivalent speech to Congress on February 28. The reaction was almost gooey, as Team Trump reportedly "basked in its best news cycle since he took office 41 days ago."

But why? It was all about "tone," apparently. Even reporters who were deeply skeptical about Trump's speech, and who noted that the White House has already denied a change in substance, nevertheless marveled: "Striking that presidential tone, as Mr. Trump did on Tuesday, was an important political move."

What, exactly, was that presidential tone? He did not yell, and it was deemed "a conciliatory speech in which the word 'we' outnumbered the word 'I' by three to one." Ooh. Pinch me.

Why was anyone surprised Trump could read from a teleprompter? Back in August, he tried to sound like an adult by reading a speech in Detroit on economic issues. And guess what? The press fell for the act that time too. Trump has also appeared on talk shows and successfully put on a scolded schoolboy look, which is his version of appearing modest and reasonable.

Writing in The New York Times, Andrew Rosenthal referred to Trump as having mastered the art of low expectations. There is a lot to be said for that characterization, but I think it misses something important. People can see through low expectations No matter how much benefit of the doubt people gave Rick Perry, for example, he was never deemed a success merely for not saying "oops" in his second campaign for president (or for wearing eyeglasses).

The more sobering (that is, depressing) explanation comes from Alex Pareene, writing on The Concourse, who began yet another one of his trenchant columns with this observation:

Here’s what you have to understand about the sort of people who become anchors, nonpartisan pundits, centrist columnists, and cable news political correspondents: They didn’t sign up to be the resistance. They don’t want Donald Trump to fail. They want him to “pivot” and “act presidential.”

Not only did most of the mainstream press not sign up for the resistance, they are affirmatively scared about living in a world in which there is a need for resistance. For weeks, people have been talking about the free press, calling it a guardian of democracy and saying it is time for the ink-stained wretches to show their worth. Nothing short of our way of life is at stake.

I have no doubt that this soaring language stirs the hearts of the boys on the bus, but it is also deeply uncomfortable to find oneself suddenly expected to be…gulp…brave. It is much better to tell oneself that Trump is not the existential threat that he is, and to grasp at any opportunity to say that we can get along just fine if everyone calms down.

One of the big worries over the past few months is that Trump will become "normalized," by which we mean a steady stream of abnormal behavior will start to seem unremarkable—and it will become simply too exhausting to continue to chronicle his many outrages and to fight back on so many fronts. That seems not to be happening so far, but it is always a danger.

But this is bigger than all of that. With a large core of supporters who will follow Trump off any cliff and a Republican Party that is led by people who are, at best, too scared to stand up to him, it is especially dangerous to have a press that is willing to grab onto any evidence that Trump is being presidential and setting the right tone.

Over the past few months, I have noted that Trump and the Republicans will do everything possible to rig future elections, which means Democrats will have to run up an increasingly steep hill to even compete. Now that it is clear how easily the press can be played by "presidential Trump," I fear the intensity necessary to sustain the opposition will be all too easily dissipated by people who just want their worlds to be comfortable again.

Neil H. Buchanan is an economist and legal scholar, a professor of law at George Washington University and a senior fellow at the Taxation Law and Policy Research Institute at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. He teaches tax law, tax policy, contracts, and law and economics. His research addresses the long-term tax and spending patterns of the federal government, focusing on budget deficits, the national debt, health care costs and Social Security.