Someday, likely three years from now, perhaps sooner, perhaps – gulp – later, President Donald Trump will depart the stage.
But what will be left of us?
New evidence suggests the damage he is doing to the culture is bigger than the man. A Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday found that two-thirds of Americans say Trump is not a good role model for children. Every component of society feels that way – men and women, old and young, black and white, highly educated or not – except for one: Republicans. By 72 to 22 percent, they say Trump is a good role model.
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In marked contrast to the rest of the country, Republicans also say that Trump shares their values (82 percent) and that – get this – he “provides the United States with moral leadership” (80 percent).
And what moral leadership this role model has been providing!
Soon after the release of this poll, we learned that Trump, in an effort to halt the Russia probe, planned to fire special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, backing off only because his own White House counsel threatened to resign. So Trump obviously didn’t speak the truth when he said that he had never contemplated such a firing. And, at this writing, he is in Switzerland, responding by renewing his denunciations of the “fake news” media – an attack on the free press now emulated by despots the world over.
In fairness, we learned of the proposed Mueller firing after the poll was conducted, so let’s see what else might have led 72 percent of Republicans to conclude Trump is a good role model:
His lawyer had arranged to make payment to a porn star, Stormy Daniels, a month before the election for her silence about an alleged sexual encounter with Trump, according to the Wall Street Journal.
He had used a vulgar word to describe African countries during a racist rant to lawmakers at the White House.
He was mounting a campaign to discredit the “corrupt” FBI, the Justice Department and the special prosecutor, just as he had previously sought to disqualify courts and judges.
He backed a credibly accused child molester for the Senate from Alabama.
And so on.
Yet so strong is the pull of tribalism that we’ve reached a point where partisanship outweighs morality. Republicans aren’t approving of Trump despite his behavior; in calling him a role model, they’re approving his behavior.
No doubt some of those Republicans now condoning Trump’s behavior will give the standard rebuttal: What about the Clintons?
Well, Quinnipiac didn’t poll nationally during the Clinton presidency, but Gallup, during President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial in January 1999, asked a similar question. The number of Republicans back then saying Clinton did not provide good moral leadership, 91 percent, was similar to the 96 percent of Democrats who say Trump does not provide moral leadership today.
The difference: Democrats disapproved of Clinton’s morality by 2 to 1 (65 to 33 percent), even as they overwhelmingly approved of his job performance. Only 16 percent of Republicans today say Trump does not provide moral leadership.
The triumph of partisanship over morality starts at the top. Franklin Graham excused Trump’s alleged sexual encounter, and Tony Perkins, the president of the conservative Family Research Council, declared that Trump gets a “mulligan” – a do-over – for his behavior.
Such normalizing of Trump’s behavior makes the seediest elements feel safe to crawl out from under their rocks. The FBI reported in November that hate crimes were up again in 2016 after rising in 2015. And the Anti-Defamation League reported that anti-Semitic incidents were “significantly higher” through the first nine months of 2017 – a time in which Trump said there were “very fine people” among a march of neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville. (This month, as Trump was whipping up loathing of the “fake news” media, a young man was arrested for threatening to gun down CNN journalists.)
Even public officials feel emboldened to give voice to the basest impulses. In recent days:
A town manager in Maine was ousted for promoting racial segregation and “pro-white” views.
A pro-Trump Republican U.S. Senate candidate in Missouri posted a statement saying he expects his wife to have dinner waiting for him each night and denouncing “nail-biting manophobic hell-bent feminist she devils who shriek” and have “nasty, snake-filled heads.”
A Republican state representative in Kansas alleged that marijuana was illegal because “the African Americans, they were basically users and they responded the worst off to those drugs.”
A Trump appointee to AmeriCorps resigned after CNN uncovered his past remarks saying “I just don’t like Muslim people” and similar statements.
Politicians have always behaved badly. What’s new is the willingness of so many not just to look the other way but to call bad behavior good.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.