By Nancy Latham
Ever since Trump careened onto the national political stage, the American people have been bombarded with news about him. Mostly the stories hover at a dull roar of sleaze and villainy, but every so often there is a trumpian screech that brings our grief and outrage to new heights. Mexicans are rapists. African countries are shitholes. Some Nazis, on the other hand, are very fine people. Child abuse is our immigration policy … Each time, we wonder for a moment: “has he finally gone too far?” Then we come to our senses – of course Trump will survive this. He has obliterated our collective sense of what too far even means.
But can Trump’s nauseating prostration before Putin in Helsinki have finally done it?
July 16, 2018, the day of all the Helsinki Summit news coverage, something seemed different. The chronically spineless Paul “We should not be criticizing our president while he’s overseas” Ryan came out with this statement: “The president must appreciate that Russia is not our ally. There is no moral equivalence between the United States and Russia, which remains hostile to our most basic values and ideals. The United States must be focused on holding Russia accountable and putting an end to its vile attacks on democracy.” And Mitch “party over country” McConnell said “The Russians are not our friends. And I entirely believe the assessment of our intelligence community.”
Even more startling than rebukes from lawmakers were those from Fox Media. Abby Huntsman, a host of Fox & Friends, tweeted, “No negotiation is worth throwing your own people and country under the bus.” From Neil Cavuto, a host of Fox Business: “It’s not a right or left thing to me – it’s just wrong.” The Fox propaganda sustains the belief system of Trump voters; the day that Fox stops shilling for the administration could just be the day that the the fervor of Trump supporters starts to cool.
In this extraordinary moment, Trump’s staunchest and highest-profile supporters began to turn against him. Why? Because Trump made the mistake of activating their identities as Americans, rather than their identities as Republicans.
The increasing polarization of Republicans and Democrats – growing for decades – has turned every policy issue into a question not of what works and what doesn’t, but of who wins and who loses. Every time our party identities are activated, we see the world through the lens of rivalry with the opposing party, and are swept away by a powerful tribalism. And social science tells us that the only thing that can overcome divisive identities is a “superordinate identity”: a social category to which competing groups can all belong. For Republicans and Democrats, that “superordinate identity” is “American.”
By siding with an international adversary against his own country, Trump shone klieg lights on our American identity, obscuring our competing political identities. Listen to the language Republicans have been using:
- John McCain: “Our president failed to defend all that makes us who we are—a republic of free people dedicated to the cause of liberty at home and abroad.”
- Lisa Murkowski: “Sadly President Trump did not defend America to the Russian president, and for the world to see. Instead, what I saw today was not ‘America First,’ it was simply a sad diminishment of our great nation.”
- John Kasich: “We need to be clear. Russia is our foe. Putin is actively trying to hurt our country. America needs to speak with one voice AGAINST Russia.”
- Joe Walsh, former Congressman and fervent Trump supporter (until July 16th): “Trump was a traitor today. I cannot & will not support a traitor. No decent American should.”
One day later, Trump’s advisors had managed to corral him, and he walked back his Helsinki remarks. His claim that he had simply misspoken was ludicrous enough that even dictionary.com made fun of it, providing the usage quote “Trump blames his support of Russia on a double negative and no one’s buying it.” But that didn’t matter. It will be enough for craven Republican lawmakers to find political cover so they can stick with Trump while he continues to deliver on hard right policies.
But I’m not so sure we’re back where we were before Helsinki. Perhaps this is just the fever dream of a Resistance fighter – but I wonder if we have glimpsed the beginning of the end for Trump. By so dramatically highlighting our common identity as Americans, he unwittingly handed us a powerful tool we can use to shape the conversation. On protest signs, in rally speeches, in letters to the editor, in blog posts, in tweets – everywhere – we should relentlessly declare that the deeper fight is not between Republicans and Democrats, but between America and a foreign rival. It is between free elections and the enemies of our institutions. Trump has chosen his side, and – no matter how he tries to wiggle out of what we all heard him say – he has sided with Putin. We must call on all patriots to choose our side: here with American democracy.
The Resistance has been aghast for almost two years about this administration’s assault on democracy. We can barely contain our rage at the Republicans who batter our institutions daily for the sake of entrenching their power. So let’s push the public discourse to remind us all of our shared identity. Let’s keep saying what we’ve been saying all along, and what has now been proven for the whole world to see: Trump is a traitor. Let’s say over and over where the real threat lies, and what’s at stake. Republicans are Americans too, and they might surprise us by rising – finally – to the defense of their country.
Nancy Latham is on IEB’s Governing Committee, and is a passionate member of the Resistance. In her day job, she works with non-profits, foundations, and government agencies that support greater equity and justice through initiatives in youth development, education, housing, and community development.