Tuesday 23 April 2019

Democrats can no longer rely on conspiracy theories to explain the president's popularity


Report: Special counsel Robert Mueller has handed Trump a huge victory. Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images
Report: Special counsel Robert Mueller has handed Trump a huge victory. Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Tim Stanley

At first glance, the Mueller affair looks like a pretty odd "exoneration". Yes, a summary of the report into Russian involvement in the 2016 election says Donald Trump didn't collude with Vladimir Putin - but the investigation did lead to 34 indictments and seven convictions, and special counsel Robert Mueller draws no conclusion on attempted obstruction of justice. On top of which, the president faces other probes related to business, charitable and personal conduct. "The best day of Trump's presidency," said the BBC. Kennedy had the Cuban missile crisis; Reagan had Reykjavik. Trump's best day is being told that he's not a Russian puppet.

But politics isn't about detail, it's about grand narratives - and Mueller has almost mortally humiliated the president's critics.

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"It will be a reckoning for President Trump, to be sure," wrote the 'New York Times', but also for, "Congress, for Democrats, for Republicans, for the news media and, yes, for the system as a whole".

Blink and you'd miss it: the 'Times' was saying sorry.

Trump's enemies made three huge mistakes. First, they overshot. They focused on the biggest, most outlandish claim against the president when a mixture of the smaller ones would've been enough to damn him in the eyes of the average voter.

Think of that moment in the OJ trial when the prosecution asked Simpson to try on the glove he allegedly wore to kill his ex-wife.

"If it doesn't fit," said the defence, "you must acquit" - and it didn't.

Never mind that the rest of the evidence appeared compelling, by placing so much emphasis on the glove - or this ridiculous Russia connection - the prosecution walked into its own trap.

Second, too many liberals thought they could make Trump go away by impeachment rather than by beating him at the ballot box. This is turning into a psychological trait of our age.

I note that Cambridge University has backed down from hosting the conservative thinker Jordan Peterson following student opposition.

The vice-chancellor has since said that the Divinity Faculty rescinded the offer of a visiting fellowship after it came across a photo of Mr Peterson with his arm around a man in an offensive T-shirt. In a sense, what liberals hoped Mueller would do was no-platform the president. Don't engage with him, don't tolerate him, just find a photo of him in flagrante with a KGB agent and - boom - we can impeach the old man out of office. "America is our safe space; haters not wanted."

Third, and this is the biggest mistake of all, the American left has obsessed too much about the past, neglecting to build a winning strategy for the future.

This is understandable. To Democrats, the victory of Trump over Hillary Clinton was so unlikely and so devastating that they assumed he must have somehow stolen the election.

Otherwise they'd have to confront the uncomfortable possibility that Ms Clinton was less appealing to working-class Americans than the most radical Republican since Barry Goldwater.

Conspiracy theories abounded: Russia was an easy explanation.

In fact, the Mueller report concludes that Moscow did try to influence the 2016 election, which itself should put Republicans on the back foot. What is it about Trump that, by inference, made him more attractive to the Kremlin as a presidential candidate than Clinton?

But while any foreign interference is obviously important, Trump has been in the White House now for two years and has a record - some good, some bad - that demands adult scrutiny.

At what point are Democrats going to start dealing with Trump as a concrete reality rather than Trump as the existential psychodrama of 2016?

The same error has been made in the UK. Millions of words have been written about why Britain voted for Brexit. Class war, culture war, or how about those crazy Russians? It's an interesting subject: it would make a great PhD. But while Britons have been arguing over why they voted Leave three years after the fact, there has been precious little talk about the more relevant question of "how" - and that's the reason for this present mess.

Politicians are to blame; so is the media. I went on television shortly after the Withdrawal Agreement was published and got all of about 90 seconds to debate its contents. Most of the rest of the conversation was taken up with personality politics, democracy and treachery, which, as the choice of "no deal" or "no Brexit" comes screeching towards us, suddenly seem relatively unimportant.

It's as if Britain and America have gone into shock. Something big has happened and we can't get over it.

We just stagger about asking if we can replay the past and do it differently. Can we impeach Trump? Can we have a second referendum?

No. Both were democratic choices that we have to learn to live with. Criticise them on the merits, but don't retreat into conspiracy theories. Russian spy fiction is fun, no doubt, but not an acceptable distraction from the facts of our present crisis.


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