It turned out I wasn’t the only one critical on Friday of the reflexive anti-anti-Trump response to Pres. Trump’s dismissal of FBI Director James Comey. Charlie Sykes, Chris Stirewalt and Amanda Carpenter struck a similar theme, and more (including Jonah Goldberg) did throughout the weekend.
I’m glad that sort of conservative criticism is getting wider circulation, if only because the Left is going to convince itself that opinion doesn’t exist. But I remind myself that it likely won’t matter.
Almost three months ago, I wrote about the Trump-era GOP playing out The Bill Clinton scenario.
“Bill ran for President as a heterodox, more centrist figure in his party. He won despite the way he treated women. Nicknamed “Slick Willie” as far back as 1980, his relationship with the truth was as casual as his relationship with the opposite sex. He lied about things large and small; parsing his lawyerly evasions became a cottage industry for his critics.
“Bill Clinton, his Administration, and his associates became mired in a swamp of scandals of varying import. He was impeached (though not convicted) and disbarred from practicing law in Arkansas and in front of the Supreme Court over the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
“Despite the scandals, triangulations and losing control of Congress to the GOP for the first time in 40 years (indeed, perhaps in part because of the latter), Democrats ultimately stood by their man like Tammy Wynette. *** Bill rallied the party faithful by expertly playing the victim of what Hillary Clinton would infamously dub as a vast right-wing conspiracy.”
And here we are. You can argue that a continuing oppo campaign against Trump from former Obama officials and perhaps the “deep state” represent an escalation, but every Presidency faces an opposition that is somewhat organized (in the form of a political party) or naturally gravitating toward certain lines of attack (as from an ideological opponent).
Moreover, like Bill Clinton, Trump has a flair for throwing suspicion on himself even when an underlying scandal is ultimately revealed to be slim or tangential.
So far, as during the Clinton era, the impact on Trump’s presidency has been minimal. Public opinion is largely echoing the preexisting partisan opinions about Trump.
Conservatives who were long critical of Comey will convince themselves Trump always agreed with them, even though Trump’s public comments, actions and tweets suggest he initially approved of Comey but tired of hearing about the Russia investigations.
Or they will pretend that if Comey was in their opinion incompetent, it doesn’t matter that Trump’s apparent actual motive was sketchy at best. Many of the same people will recognize it’s wrong for the Supreme Court to elevate politics above the law in opinions that make the pretext evident, but miss that the President should avoid a political motive when it comes to the FBI, whose director has a 10-year term for a reason.
After all, if the evidence leads us to conclude Trump fired Comey to express his displeasure with the Russia investigations and media coverage thereof, it would be hard for even longer-term Comey critics to downplay the reaction to the firing as partisan and hypocritical.
Thus, it is not shocking that the story of Comey’s firing has received little traction so far. Of course, political junkies like anyone reading this should consider that perhaps the story will sink in with casual viewers more over time, or take on greater weight if other shoes drop regarding the Russia investigations (I still don’t expect any Shaq-size shoes to drop here).
OTOH, the Comey story may not move the needle much, if at all. It could be that the hysteria with which the Democrats and their media react to every Trump story has created an environment in which the casual viewer does not see the Comey story as standing out from a dozen others.
Furthermore, note that Clinton’s reflexive defenders, including those who blamed the VRWC (largely conservative media) for Bill’s woes generally didn’t ruin their careers over it, even after the Lewinsky scandal. Similarly, those who entertained all the darkest speculation about every Clinton scandal didn’t ruin their careers over the number of those scandals that turned out to be weak beer in the final analysis.
Why? Again, it has something to do with both tribalism and institutions. If a party or movement circles the wagons (or goes on an attack) and objectively winds up looking foolish in hindsight, there is a sort of collective guilt that goes unspoken publicly. This may be part of why trust in institutions is so low now, but the coastal elites aren’t going to surrender or destroy careers to keep institutions cleaner. This may also be why the tribes do not reward heresy, especially if the heresy turns out to be correct.
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