As the second self-generated Trump crisis in as many weeks roils the political system, a pattern already evident in the 45th president’s modus operandi is unmistakably dictating his actions: When you screw up, attack those who expose or criticize your misbehavior as part of an organized conspiracy your supporters loathe.
In the earlier incidents involving investigation of possible Russia-Trump campaign collusion, culminating with the Comey firing, and now with Trump’s own apparent disclosure of hypersensitive intelligence to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador, the president’s initial denials of wrongdoing have instantly given way to attacks on the “leakers” and the Trump-hating media who together are creating “fake news,” which seems to be defined as anything the administration doesn’t want to see and hear.
This morning, after spinning his interaction with the Russian diplomats as deliberate, legal, and motivated by humanitarian concerns, Trump quickly shifted to the offensive, linking the two recent crises:
In other words, the “leaking” of Trump’s questionable conduct with the Russians retroactively justifies Comey’s firing.
And the emphasis on leaks, of course, reinforces Team Trump’s bigger and deeper narrative, which it has been promoting off and on since before the inauguration, that a “deep state” of Obama holdovers and sinister intelligence operatives is trying to overturn the 2016 election results and thwart the will of the American people. This, indeed, was the immediate reaction to yesterday’s Washington Post report of a huge security breach by Trump and among pro-Trump conservative media. Breitbart’s headline was illustrative: “Deep State Leaks Highly Classified Info to Washington Post to Smear President Trump.” On Fox, Sean Hannity and company took the same approach:
The time [Hannity] did dedicate to the report was spent urging White House staffers to stop leaking, arguing that “no White House can sustain these constant leaks.”
Trump’s most enthusiastic supporter, though, was “The Five” panelist Jesse Watters, who said the investigation into the leakers “would seem to be the top priority of the Trump White House.” He said the leaks were “the story.”
There is nothing especially unusual, of course, about an embattled president running to his partisan base for support, or about the base thinking the worst of the president’s critics. Bill Clinton, to cite one example, overcame a lot of the problems he had with the left wing of his party during the Lewisinky saga and the impeachment crisis.
But there’s something about Trump’s promotion of the “deep state” and “fake news” memes that brings back very distinct memories of an embattled Republican president who convinced conservatives to defend him because of their common hatred of the critics. At Vox Nicole Hemmer offers some striking parallels:
[T]he Watergate affair turned conservative skeptics of Richard Nixon into hardcore supporters, drawing out the immediate crisis and deepening divisions in the long term. Conservatives at the time refashioned the scandal into a tale of Democratic hypocrisy and media hostility — a narrative that many Republicans have adopted once again to explain away the emerging Trump scandals.
As Hemmer points out, Nixon’s image among “movement conservatives” —badly tarnished after his adoption of wage and price controls, his China initiative, and his Keynesian fiscal stimulus efforts — actually improved during the early stages of Watergate.
For a generation of mainstream journalists, the scandal would confirm the power of the press to serve as a check on corruption, no matter how powerful the perpetrator. For conservatives, however, the scandal and the press’s role in prosecuting it looked much different. They saw the press as trying to undo the decisive results of the 1972 election. And if the media was so terrified of Nixon, then maybe there was something to the man after all.
“Indeed,” the editors at National Review wrote, in July 1973 “the target is really not Nixon himself or this or that aide, but, rather, the ‘new majority’ threatening to break the liberal hold on political power. Sen. Helms echoed the charge. “Watergate,” he told [Clarence] Manion in the fall of 1974, “by a process of selective indignation, became the lever by which embittered liberal pundits have sought to reverse the 1972 conservative judgment of the people.”
Ronald Reagan was among the many conservative leaders who were very late to any negative judgment of Nixon about Watergate.
Eventually, of course, Nixon lost nearly everyone with his exasperating lies and cover-up attempts. Even at the end, there were a few conservative bitter-enders, most famously U.S. representative Earl Langrebe, who the day before the Tricky One resigned, said: “I’m going to stick with my president even if he and I have to be taken out of this building and shot.”
So the closely related questions are these: (1) Is conservative support for Trump actually on the upswing, despite the conventional wisdom that his behavior during the last two weeks is politically catastrophic? And (2) where might the worm turn, losing him those who are now most inclined to blame his critics for his troubles?
The answers to both questions may partially depend on Trump’s fidelity to the conservative agenda; if he continues to make some progress toward the repeal of Obamacare, a big tax cut, and base-pleasing national-security and immigration gestures, his reservoirs of support on the right could be surprisingly deep, if only because of the anti-anti-Trump impulse to join the White House in attacks on common political enemies.
But if Trump continues to do highly questionable things and defend them with highly questionable (not to mention erratic and at times incoherent) arguments, conservatives (at least at the elite level) will become increasingly aware they could get the same policy boost without all the collateral damage if Mike Pence were in charge. If they start mentioning that out loud, Trump is in big trouble.