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Desensitized and Dispirited

Door Roberta N. Haar - 01 november 2017

Less and less people seem to care about the fuss about Trump. According to Roberta Haar this can be contributed to the cowardice of his party members.

In the last few days it seems that people around me are exhibiting a sort of exhaustion about the news coming from the United States.  It has been so shocking, so disturbing this autumn, with emotions running high in response to President Donald Trump’s escalating foreign policy rhetoric and disgraceful performance, that at some point people just start to tune out and double-down on their mindfulness exercises.

Throughout September, students in my American Foreign Policy course had been eager to ask questions, to voice their concerns and to stay long after class time had ended to discuss the foreign policy issues of the day.  The height of my students’ apprehension came at the beginning of October after it became known that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called Trump a ‘fucking moron’ and shortly after that Senator Bob Corker, the Republican Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that Trump’s reckless threat to other countries could lead the U.S. ‘on the path to World War III.’  In interviews to the New York Times, the senator from Tennessee also said he knew that staff at the White House scrambled every day to contain the president’s volatility and impulsiveness.  Anxiety linked to these revelations was more acute because these were not Democrats or known long-standing critics of the White House, like Arizona Senator John McCain, voicing these fears.  No, these new and frightening alarms came from a member of Trump’s own cabinet and a key foreign policy senator who is not only a member of the president’s party, but was an early and strong supporter of candidate Trump.  It felt like we were experiencing an American foreign policy emergency.

But what happened next, after such sensational and extremely worrying criticisms aired?  Surely, the Republican Party establishment would awaken from their somnolence to restrain the man that Corker said was not fully aware of the power given to the Commander in Chief?  Surely, the Republican establishment, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, would move to ensure that Trump could not launch a nuclear strike on his own volition?  By mid-October McConnell had personal reasons to restrain Trump’s brand of politics after Trump’s former close aid Steve Bannon attacked the senate leader by name and declared ‘a season of war’ on what Bannon labeled the ‘imperial’ political class.  Under the weight of such astonishing and disturbing denunciations, surely the GOP would do something about their own party’s president.

But, they did not.  In fact, soon after Trump said that he would not renounce Bannon’s attack on establishment Republicans, including Bannon’s promise to push the senate majority leader out of his job, McConnell held a White House Rose Garden press event with Trump in which he pledged party unity and said that he and the president had the same agenda.  At this point it becomes hard to watch such naked political groveling by Republicans, who are clearly frightened of their own registered voters—who fear that if they don’t sound Trumpian enough they will not survive a Republican primary battle.  Knowing that Trump is more popular in their electoral districts than they are, establishment Republicans do not want to cross him and they certainly do not want to investigate him.

It is this watching the leaders of the Republican Party kowtow to a leader that they so obviously loathe, that leads to desensitivity—that brings about a feeling of ‘I just don’t care anymore’ on the part of my students.  Maybe it is the levels of cowardice that turns us all off.  Possibly it is the notion that if his own party knows just how bad Trump is as a president yet they still prefer to ride his political coattails, that makes us throw our hands up and say we’ve had enough.  After all, Corker said that the vast majority of the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill understood what sort of dangerous president that they were dealing with as well as understanding the tremendous effort that his handlers in the White House were exerting to keep him restrained every day.  In a world where the Republican Party sells its soul to the winning ticket, one begins to understand the rising levels of desensitivity towards the circus that is Washington, D.C. politics.  We are all experiencing a diminished emotional responsiveness to a negative, aversive stimulus after repeated exposure to it.

Perhaps, the best antidote to this desensitivity is to say that America has been here before.  In the past when America experienced enormous change, whether it is economic, social or cultural, voters embraced new political movements and the insurgents who lead them.  Insurgents emerged because there was a demand for political change by a significant part of the electorate.  In my article, ‘Insurgency and American Foreign Policy: The Case of George McGovern‘ (published in the October issue of World Affairs ), I point out that in the 1970s, during a time of political cynicism and anti-establishment fervor, it was the Democratic Party that experienced profound differences between the views of the party’s professionals, who pushed for the status quo, and its rank-and-file members, who wanted to transform policy.  The agitators amongst the regular members of the Democratic Party wanted to bring about change in foreign policy and supported the insurgent George McGovern, who promised it.  Although McGovern did not win the election, his insurgency had profound effects on U.S. foreign policy for decades.

Like all insurgents before him, Trump will greatly shape America’s foreign affairs in ways that will become more evident in the future.  And just like the Democratic Party splintered in the wake of McGovern’s insurgency, so too is the Republican Party likely to break into different groups with opposing views.  Whatever party coalitions emerge from the dust of the GOP’s implosion, let’s hope that the constitutional norms and values that have defined America since its founding survive in at least one offshoot.

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