In January of 2004, a yell escaped Howard Dean’s lips, and it brought down his political career.
The former governor of Vermont had overcome a longshot candidacy to poll ahead of Democratic heavyweights ahead of the Iowa caucus, including former House leader Dick Gephardt, and Senators John Edwards and John Kerry. But Kerry and Edwards managed a last-minute push, finishing well ahead of Dean on caucus night. Undeterred, Dean addressed disappointed supporters that night in a fiery speech that has since gone down in infamy.
News media mocked the “Dean Scream” endlessly, with news and talk radio commentators questioning not only Dean’s fitness for office, but his mental stability. Though Dean later revolutionized the Democratic National Committee with the “fifty-state strategy” that helped propel Barack Obama to the White House, he would never again run for office—all because one night in Iowa, he made the fatal mistake of showing too much enthusiasm for his own campaign.
How far America has come since then.
On Dec. 1, former national security advisor Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to FBI investigators. Flynn was the latest in a string of Trump’s campaign and administration advisors charged in the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. In presidencies past, it isn’t difficult to imagine a plea from the national security advisor triggering a cascade of congressional motions to remove the chief executive from office. But it’s been radio silence from Republican House leader Paul Ryan and Senate leader Mitch McConnell on the matter.
The very next day, a tweet went out from Donald Trump’s account, stating that he’d fired Flynn not only for lying to Vice President Mike Pence about his involvement, but for lying to the FBI. The possibility of obstruction of justice—the President knowing one of his most powerful aides lied to the FBI, but failing to pass on that information to the FBI director he later fired—would be unthinkable during, say, the Obama presidency. As would a brazen admission on social media.
Still, nothing from Ryan and McConnell.
And then came the President’s endorsement of Roy Moore, a former judge twice removed from office for misconduct, who stands credibly accused of several sexual crimes against young women. Instead, the President tweeted: “We need his vote on stopping crime, illegal immigration, Border Wall, Military, Pro Life, V.A., Judges 2nd Amendment and more.” While Ryan stood by his earlier assertion that Moore should step aside in his Senate campaign, McConnell walked back his earlier denouncement and stated he would “let the people of Alabama make the call.”
When Trump’s candidacy moved from a joke campaign to front-runner status during the Republican primaries, many insisted he would rein in his extremist rhetoric and unprofessional public behaviour. After all, appealing to voters in the general election would require some moderation. That didn’t happen.
When Trump won the presidency, conventional wisdom held that he would have to behave like a President and pull back on some of his wilder campaign promises in order to keep the confidence of the American people. It took less than a month before Trump not only attempted to enact a ban on immigrants from Muslim countries, but began lashing out on Twitter against the judges who blocked the order.
Again and again, President Trump has shown himself to be exactly the person that candidate Trump promised. And each time, the failsafes against his authoritarian (and, frankly, racist) abuses of power have, well, failed. The very last of these was the belief that, should Trump be proven to have conspired with Russians to influence the 2016 election, Congress would immediately move forward with impeachment.
Given the utter pusillanimity of Republicans in Congress, it’s unlikely there’s anything short of Donald Trump standing in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue and shooting someone that would cause impeachment to happen. Over the weekend, the Senate rammed a hastily considered tax bill through to a 51-49 approval. The bill represents an upward transfer of wealth that will likely come at the expense of millions of families, teachers, and graduate students. But it was considered in news media as a “win” for Republicans, and for Trump. Days after the bill was passed, Trump tweeted his support of Moore, McConnell declared that Alabama voters should have their say, and Quinnipiac released a poll showing solid support among Republicans for the Trump presidency.
While polls show general voter confidence in Trump augering to historic lows, his support among self-identified Republicans (especially those who voted for him in the 2016 election) remains strong. According to the Quinnipiac poll, 82 per cent of Republicans approve of the way Trump is handling his job as President. Fifty-three per cent don’t mind when Trump insults people on Twitter or in person, 64 per cent feel proud (rather than embarrassed) to have him as President, and 90 per cent believe the media to be treating him unfairly.
But only 20 per cent of Republican voters approve of the way Congress—again, controlled in both houses by a Republican majority—is doing its job.
The Republican representatives in Congress who have spoken out openly against Trump, such as Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, have done so at the twilight of their careers. For their part, Flake and Corker’s approval numbers promptly cratered, even though Flake supported the tax bill. As far as Trump is concerned, when outrageous news emerges about him and the actions of his administration, he can count on a shield of partisan delusion from Republican voters. The shield will likely hold, should the special investigation prove that Trump participated in a conspiracy with the Russians to swing the election.
On the other hand, as Congress gears up for the 2018 midterm campaigns, its members face a difficult choice. The generally expected choice would be to push forward with impeachment proceedings and remove the President, but risk punishment during the midterms, and possibly losing control of the party’s legislative agenda. Then there’s the choice to do nothing, as they’ve been doing already, and counting on Republican voters to write off the investigation as more fake news. So far, this seems to be the safer bet.
It may be time to make peace with the reality in which we’re living. Fourteen years after Howard Dean’s scream of excitement was deemed un-Presidential enough to doom his candidacy, America is now faced with the likelihood that a white supremacist, voted into office with possible support from Russian operatives, will serve a full term in office with no resistance from either of the other two branches of government. As long as he signs the bills that a Republican-held Congress puts on his desk, Trump is not likely to be impeached. In fact, he might just win this thing again in 2020.
There’s no help coming.