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The Asterisk President (and why people can’t admit they were wrong)


Not even the Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee—rightwingers likeMarco Rubio, Roy Blunt, John Cornyn and Tom Cotton—could avoid the conclusion that “Russia favored Trump” in the 2016 election, in meddling that was “far more extensive than originally understood.” That’s from the Committee’s new report, just out, that shockingly spells out how Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google, Instagram and other social media platforms “exploit[ed] societal fractures, blur[red] the lines between reality and fiction, erode[d] our trust in media … in government, in each other , and in democracy itself.”

The report does not explicitly state that the Russian interference gave Trump the election. That is the conversation we’re now having, and will continue to have. But my reading of the public attitude is that more and more people are starting to realize that, Yes, Russia and Putin basically handed the win to Trump, or, to put it another way, Trump would not have won without the active connivance of the Russians.

“It is probable that the Russians helped elect the 45th president of the United States,” particularly by influencing “the 78,000 voters who gave him an Electoral College victory” in key midwestern states, according to the new book by the award-winning political writer, Kathleen Hall Jamieson: “Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President.”

There can be little doubt that Donald J. Trump will have an asterisk next to his name in the History books:

* “Elected with the interference of Russia.”

This is probably the main thing fueling Trump’s furious battle against Mueller: he cannot bear the thought that History will regard his election as illegitimate. But it was; and History will so record it.

If Trump’s election was an historical mistake, then the people who voted for him made a mistake. A big one. It may have been an honest mistake, or a deliberate one. Either way, they made the blunder of their lives. But have you heard a single Republican—not just elected officials, but plain, ordinary voters—come out and admit they did something really stupid? I haven’t. And I don’t expect to.

It’s hard to admit you’ve done something wrong. Really hard. As the magazine Psychology Today reports, two recent studies conclusively show that (1) “It’s common for people to want to see themselves in a positive light, rather than accept their weaknesses,” and (2) as a result of this, one of the hardest things for people to say is “I was wrong in what I did, and I accepted responsibility for my actions.” This inability, the reports say, is “the ultimate expression of egocentrism, or even narcissism,” because refusing to admit a mistake focuses “only on your own self-image” rather than on the people who were harmed by your wrongful decisions.

This is the core of the Trump problem: His voters, as we now know (and some of us said so two years ago), inflicted tremendous harm upon America—harm that will continue to mount until it reaches its crescendo, with unknowable consequences. There is no doubt that Trump voters did something truly, epically stupid, but the question we’ve been asking for two years—“How long will it take for them to admit it?”—still has no answer.

But there is an explanation, and for that, we have to turn to psychopathology. These Republicans cannot admit, even to themselves much less publicly, the enormity of their mistake. Their self-image is threatened, their sense of self-worth, the entire picture of themselves they’ve spent a lifetime building up. This is the same reason so many battered women (and some battered men) cannot leave their abusive spouses. They have so much invested emotionally in the relationship that they prefer to keep that investment, rather than admit their mistake and move on to safety.

This shut-down of normal rational functionality leads to the unhealthiest consequences. The current state of the Republican Party, where 89% of their voters still favor Trump (Gallup), is the most egregious example of this, but for a precursor we can look at the way Hillary Clinton was pilloried prior to the election. As she reports in her memoir, What Happened, “Throughout the 2016 campaign, I watched how lies insinuate themselves into people’s brains if hammered often enough…Friends of mine…would talk to people who said they couldn’t vote for me because I had killed someone, sold drugs, and committed any number of unreported crimes, including how I handled my emails.”

What a terrible, deplorable situation, caused by the blatant collusion between the Republican attack machine (Fox, Breitbart, Limbaugh, Wall Street Journal, etc.) and Russian intelligence services. Indeed, the difference between those groupings (Republicans and Russia), however wide it may once have been, has now disappeared. The Republican Party has become the weaponized wing of Russian intelligence—of Putin. Despite whatever you read about U.S. sanctions against Russia, there was an active coordination between the Trump campaign and the Trump family to conspire with Putin, in order to win the 2016 election. Trump’s weak “sanctions” are only window dressing; the collusion continues.

What will it take for Republicans to realize they were duped? Probably more than they’ve capable of. They would have to look in the mirror and say, “I was wrong in what I did, and I accepted responsibility for my actions.” But they can’t, and won’t. The good news is that we don’t have to wait for them to accept responsibility; if we did, we’d be waiting forever. Instead, we can beat the hell out of them, as we did in November, 2016 and as we will again in November, 2020.

I know it’s hard to wait. Democrats are impatient; we want so much to taste the sweetness of revenge, of payback. But politics rarely works quickly. So to Democrats I say: Continue the Resistance. Someday—it might not happen until after you’re dead, but your children and grandchildren will live to see it—the Republicans of this ugly era will be thoroughly repudiated, and the GOP, like the Catholic Church before it, will have to apologize for its grave sins.

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