“You must think Americans are so stupid,” an American friend said to me in a state of despair that the American president is hopelessly corrupt, hopelessly stupid, or hopelessly blackmailed, or all three.
President Donald Trump’s terrible, no good, very bad European trip has concluded, and it was, possibly, the most disastrous overseas visit by a US President ever. Trump, among other things, accused Angela Merkel of being controlled by Russia, declared NATO countries had agreed to a new spending goal when they did not, stated that the European Union outstrips Russia and China as America’s number one foe, criticised Theresa May for not suing the EU, left her scrambling as he hailed rival Boris Johnson as a future prime minister, claimed his own interview was fake news, awkwardly blocked and lost Queen Elizabeth, and used his trip to promote Trump properties in Scotland.
This was all damaging, yet for Trump it was par for the course. But this all changed when he met Putin.
The Helsinki conference put a remarkable spotlight on the constant cloud that hangs over Trump’s presidency: that curious question of Trump’s inexplicable love for Putin. Trump refused to accept the intelligence community’s findings that Russia had meddled in the 2016 election, instead saying that he believed Putin. He declared that there was no collusion, because he didn’t know Putin. He then stood idly by as Putin denied Russia had interfered in the election, lied about not knowing Trump had visited Moscow and refused to explicitly deny that he had compromising material on Trump.
To be sure, Trump did not say anything new that he has not said before. But the image of the leader of the free world verbally kowtowing to Russia was too much. The disgraceful press conference was condemned even by Republicans; even Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell couldn’t handle the spectacle of the American president publicly revealing himself to be a Russian stooge. Nate Silver devised a scale of how much trouble Trump is in according to which Republican is criticising him, and it capped at a solid 9.2/10 as even Fox News turned on him.
Trump seemed to realize that his trip had went wrong if upon his return, newspapers and magazines are blaring “treason” on their front pages. By the next day, he was doing damage control, implausibly claiming by reading a series of planned remarks (with THERE WAS NO COLUSION written on the borders) that he had misspoke. “I don’t see any reason why it would be [Russia]”, the president had said, but this was wrong; he had planned to say “wouldn’t”. So much misunderstanding, all because of a mistake over a double negative!
This blatant lie was not challenged by the Republicans sitting around him. In other words, Republican leaders, who had miraculously grown a spine on the day of Helsinki, seem to have collectively returned to what Trump’s favoured candidate for British prime minister would refer to as “protoplasmic invertebrate jellies“. There would be no impeachment, nor any aggressive investigation of Trump by his own party.
This is why it was tempting to agree with my friend; after all, tolerating this disastrous presidency that is betraying American national interests in plain sight seems beyond the pale. But after living in Berkeley for a year, I know that Americans are not stupid. There will always be those who approve of right-wing populists, but they do not always form the majority. They did not, for example, in France, which is why Emmanuel Macron is president and not Marine Le Pen. Likewise, the majority of Americans did not vote for Trump and do not approve of Trump’s performance in office.
Instead, the Republican party maintains its hold on power through the unique peculiarities of the American political system: an electoral college which nullifies the popular vote, a powerful Senate that disproportionately favours rural states over populous urbane ones, a Supreme Court stolen through blatant partisanship. And so Trump and the Republican Party rule, marginalising the Democrats to yelling from the sidelines.
Of course, it was never beyond expectations that the Republicans would always toe the Trumpian line. Republicans would have impeached Obama for using the wrong mustard or wearing a tan suit if they could, but their own voters are committed Trumpists. They can’t possibly do anything to Trump without suffering the electoral repercussions.
Yet there comes a point where country should come above party and self.
I have always viewed the failure of anyone to do anything to Trump with incredulity. In Thailand, if a prime minister were to ramble manically in incomplete sentences, publicly sell the country out to foreign interests and bash the country’s own intelligence services, he would not survive. The Thai people, like Americans, take patriotism and nationalism extremely seriously, and there is no way they would let the prime minister engage in openly traitorous behaviour. Leaders would call them out, and the public outcry would be tremendous. He would be greeted with massive protests and most likely ousted by a military coup.
This cannot happen in America, because of its strong constitutional foundations and democratic traditions. That is the hallmark of a well-established democracy. But those strong constitutional foundations and democratic traditions should also ensure that there is the rule of law and a check on executive power, something which Republicans have conspicuously failed to provide.
It isn’t possible that Republicans don’t realise what is happening. You do not need much more than half a brain to realise that something is terribly wrong if a president who consistently bashes everything refuses to bash Russia, if the president’s agenda seems to always align with Russia’s, if the president refuses to release his tax returns which can reveal his Russian financial ties, and if the president is upending the world order in Russia’s favour.
And indeed, the entire world is a poorer place when the president of the United States serves Russian interests and willingly severs his country’s alliances, denies the value of liberalism and democracy, and gaslights the world with his lies. And the entire Republican Party, by their lack of action, is complicit in this Trumpian disaster.
As an outsider looking in, the failure of the Republicans to publicly admit this and to take action is astounding. Why are Republicans willing to surrender all the values they claimed to hold dear- patriotism and national security, for example- for some corporate tax cuts? How, possibly, can you stand idly by and watch your country burn?
It’s long past time for Republican leaders to grow a spine and push back against the president. They are the only ones who can, and they must be the ones who do so. If Helsinki does not become a turning point for the GOP, if they believe it is still conscionable to stand with Trump, then this party is beyond saving.
The American people are not to blame for Donald Trump. His enablers, on the other hand, have nowhere to place the blame but themselves.