Trump enters the White House with the lowest approval ratings on record. Opposition is on the march, and news organizations are recommitting to robust reporting. Yet, right now the prospects for holding Trump in check seem more reliant on the wounded egos of a few senators than the normal institutions of accountability, which seem weaker than ever.
On the one hand, the US Senate is a veritable support group for men who were publicly humiliated by Trump in 2016. There’s: Sweaty “Little Marco” Rubio; the son of Lee Harvey Oswald’s pal; John “try not getting shot down next time” McCain; Lindsay “one percent” Graham; Rand Paul (“I never attacked him or his looks, and believe me, there’s plenty of subject matter right there”), and Ben Sasse (“the great state of Nebraska can do much better…how the hell did he ever get elected?”)
They won’t get out front, but if Trump’s support really tanks—or indictments and Putin-hugs pile up—they may be the ones who ultimately cause him the most trouble.
But against that thin red line, we have a more fundamental diminution in the normal levers of accountability.
Gerrymandered Congressional Districts – The radical gerrymandering that took place in Republican controlled legislatures not only increased their ranks in Congress, it changed how Republican lawmakers view the electorate. Increasingly they are more afraid of “being primaried” than they are of losing the general election.
So Trump’s waning popularity with the general electorate doesn’t matter to them as long as conservative Republicans still like him.
Gerrymandered News Media – Trump’s base will not be moved by dirt dug up by The New York Times or the Washington Post. So far, the conservative media establishment mostly seems inclined to protect Trump. There has been relatively little freak out in the conservative press over Trump’s very un-conservative comments about NATO being “obsolete,” his desire to have health insurance for “everyone,” or his general tactic of bullying or rewarding individual corporations based on what they do or say about him.
This is partly because conservative publications now operate under the same pressures as Republicans members of the House of Representatives. Their website audiences have been gerrymandered too – in the sense that traffic is driven by the most passionate, which is to say the most angry and the most conservative.
In the extremely unlikely event that the conservative press ever turns against Trump en masse, Trump will just turn to his own alternative media operation — i.e. Twitter, Breitbart, and the National Enquirer.
Gerrymandered Truth – Whether by design or coincidental, Trump did succeed in achieving the goal that Russians had for the election, blurring what sources are reliable and which aren’t. Trump did this during the campaign by retweeting made up news, and inaccurate news along side true news. He is now attacking any media outlet that he dislikes as “fake news,” redefining the term that originally referred to information that was intentionally and knowingly created to be fraudulent.
Trump’s response to the news that he has record-low approval ratings was telling. He said these were the same pollsters that said he was losing the election. The national polls actually were pretty close (the Real Clear Politics average had Hillary winning the popular vote by 3.2 points; she won by 2.1 points). But now, in Trump’s telling. all polls are rigged.
The Nationalization of Local Politics – It used to be pretty common that states would elect Senators of party A while voting for the Presidential nominee of Party B. But get this: 50 of the 52 Republican Senators come from states that Trump carried. Few of them will feel that voters are pulling them in a non-Trump direction.
Unless, of course, their fathers helped kill President Kennedy, in which case they may see things differently.