Donald J. Trump’s presidential ambition has simmered for decades. He was and is a regular TV watcher and saw the changing political landscape. One by one, previous presidents diminished the integrity of the presidency and violated the rule of law, paving the way for Trump’s candidacy.
Bill Clinton was exposed for serial adulteries and abuses of women and lied under oath. This perjury led to him being impeached in the House (though he was acquitted in the Senate). “Hmm,” thought Donald, a serial abuser of women, “Clinton got away with it and was elected twice.” One potentially career-ending violation no longer had the weight it once did.
Then came George W. Bush—selected by the Electoral College and a Republican Supreme Court. “Hmm,” thought Donald to himself, “Even though Gore won the popular vote, Bush won because of electors in swing states.” Despite Gore’s crushing loss, the Democratic Party refused to support ongoing Electoral College reform (see nationalpopularvote.com). Once in office, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney lied repeatedly to start an unconstitutional illegal war with Iraq, which caused huge Iraqi and U.S. casualties and wreaked havoc on the U.S. budget. Bush and Cheney not only got away with these atrocities, but were reelected. A majority of voters believed their lies. Violating the laws did not matter. “Hmm,” thought Donald to himself, “The president is above the law.” Positions of power and the trampling of laws appealed to Trump, a lawless, failed gambling czar.
Then along came Obama. He too got away with all kinds of slaughter abroad without authority of the Constitution, statutes, or international treaties. He too was reelected. Domestically, Obama did not prosecute any of the big Wall Street crooks that brought down our economy in 2008-2009, even though a vast majority of the population loathed these reckless financiers. With all of these misdeeds and violations of law on full display, Trump a big business crook himself, must have thought that he would not be held accountable. Even better, he knew how to use television to manipulate the media to his advantage. These examples are just some of the major ways that past presidents, Democrats especially, handed Trump his opportunity. I describe these and other presidential abuses of power in my recent book, To the Ramparts: How Bush and Obama Paved the Way for the Trump Presidency, and Why It Isn’t Too Late to Reverse Course.
Given these inoculations for breaking social norms and laws, Trump felt he could break additional norms and laws and still secure the presidency. It almost didn’t work—Hillary Clinton’s campaign bungling lost three key states, which provided Trump a path to the White House. The crazy, antiquated Electoral College sealed the deal.
Trump has always known how to use power to get more power. He went after his opponents with harsh nicknames, repeated verbatim by a supine press. The name calling stuck and influenced voters. Democrats did not reciprocate with nicknames like “cheating Donald,” “corrupt Donald,” “Dangerous Donald,” etc.
Emboldened, Trump, with his television knowhow, grasped that many people prefer fiction to non-fiction. Fantasy is big business and it can serve to distract from grim real-life injustices. Day after day, the mass media proved this point by giving huge time to entertainment compared to news and civic engagements locally and nationally.
Donald, through his daily tweets and assertions, shaped a story—true or not, that would help him win the White House. Reporters have collected over 10,000 of Trumps lies and seriously misleading statements since he became president (see the complete list here via the Washington Post).
But Trump, with his 50 million Twitter followers, has his own media machine, which grows because the mass media replays so many of his fictions as if they were real.
Still, the Democrats should have defeated him handily and, failing that, should have since driven his poll numbers below 40 or 42 percent, where they hover.
Democrats having lost the crucial election of 2010 in Congress, most state legislatures and governorships, Democrats lost the gerrymandering battle. This set the stage for Republicans to seriously suppress the vote in many ways documented by the League of Women Voters and the Brennan Center. Some of this suppression occurred in key swing states like Wisconsin.
Today, Trump seems impervious to the many accurate accusations of corruption and impeachable offenses. He ruthlessly scuttles lifesaving health/safety protections for the American people, undermines law enforcement, and breaks his repeated promises to provide “great” health insurance, “pure” clean air, and jobs for workers displaced by globalization. The norms that restrain politicians and their constitutional duty to “faithfully execute the laws” have been deeply eroded.
Trump is undeterred by the hundreds of syndicated columns and the regular television commentary by leading conservatives who despise him. George Will, Michael Gerson, Max Boot, David Brooks, Bret Stephens, and others have gone after Trump repeatedly. The attacks on the Prevaricator in Chief are like water off a duck’s back. Even Trump’s trail of broken campaign promises is routinely overlooked by the press and the Trump base.
Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer, and author. His latest books include: To the Ramparts: How Bush and Obama Paved the Way for the Trump Presidency, and Why It Isn’t Too Late to Reverse Course, How the Rats Re-Formed the Congress, Breaking Through Power: It’s easier than we think, and Animal Envy: A Fable.