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OPINION

Trump sabotaging our political culture

By CHARLES LANE | The Washington Post | Published: July 16, 2019

After 30 months of President Donald Trump’s 48-month presidential term, an awful lot that could have gone wrong, or was predicted to go wrong, has not.

The stock market did not tank. Indexes have instead reached new records, as the wider economy has continued to boom. The worst trade wars have not materialized; impulsive though he may be, the commander in chief has not started any actual shooting wars.

No wasteful wall mars the U.S.-Mexico border. Courts have here and there demonstrated their independence, most recently in the Supreme Court’s thwarting of his plan to add a politically motivated citizenship question to the 2020 Census.

Yet in a crucial respect — perhaps the most crucial — Trump has exceeded expectations: using the presidential bully pulpit as a platform from which to spread hate and misinformation. His repugnant outburst, questioning in racist terms the patriotism of several Democratic congresswomen of color, is only the latest in a long, sorry list of examples.

Many voters, both pro- and anti-Trump, assumed that the actual exercise of presidential authority might modulate the generally venomous language that he employed on the campaign trail, and on social media, during the 2016 campaign.

After all, on April 22, 2016, Trump promised to abandon Twitter if elected. “I’ll give it up after I’m president. We won’t tweet anymore.”

Whether Trump was consciously lying when he said that is impossible to know. What we can safely say is that his broken promise has roots deep within his character. His credo is and always has been, as he summarized it in a 2012 tweet: “When someone attacks me, I always attack back … except 100x more. This has nothing to do with a tirade but rather, a way of life!”

Given some of the things that the apparent targets of his Twitter outburst have said about him (“We’re going to impeach this motherf---er” — Rashida Tlaib, Jan. 4), Trump would no doubt maintain that he has merely been following this personal rule.

What he can never explain, however, is why everyone else isn’t entitled to the same ethos of massive retaliation — and how any democratic culture could withstand the constant escalation of insult and demonization that it implies.

Thanks in part to the generally benign economic and international situation, Trump has paid a limited political price for his indecency.

Think back on everything the president has said since Dec. 13, 2017, the date on which his net job approval rating in the RealClearPolitics average reached what was then its lowest point, -21.1 percentage points.

Now reflect on the fact that, as of the most recent polls before his notorious new tweet, Trump’s net job approval had improved by nearly 14 points since then.

Some 45 percent of Americans said they approve of the job he is doing as president, and, among Republicans, his approval rating is an astounding 90 percent.

Incentives influence behavior. These statistics tell you everything you need to know about why Trump keeps up his verbal transgressions and why they elicit so little in the way of condemnation from Republican politicians.

We have come a long way since 1868, when the House of Representatives considered it an impeachable offense that President Andrew Johnson did “make and declare, with a loud voice, certain intemperate, inflammatory and scandalous harangues, and therein utter loud threats and bitter menaces, as well against Congress as the laws of the United States duly enacted thereby, amid the cries, jeers and laughter of the multitudes then assembled in hearing. … Which said utterances, declarations, threats and harangues, highly censurable in any, are peculiarly indecent and unbecoming in the Chief Magistrate of the United States.”

The poll numbers also tell you something deeply troubling about a Republican electorate that continues to embrace a president who conducts himself as Trump does — whether out of agreement with his ugliest sentiments or appreciation for the good economy hardly matters.

Errors of policy can be corrected. Markets and unemployment rates ebb and flow. Even separated parents and children can be reunited.

What cannot so readily be restored, however, is the sense of security and mutual trust that flows through a society when a large majority can acknowledge the essential good faith of the person at the top.

Trump has managed to normalize, through repetition, a toxic standard of political behavior that may spread as his supporters imitate him — and his opponents consider themselves licensed to respond in kind.

Little by little, he is sabotaging our national political culture, and with it the capacity for unity and deliberation we’ll need to face the next economic downturn, or war, when it comes, as it inevitably will.

Washington Post editorial writer/columnist Charles Lane specializes in economic and fiscal policy.

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