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The Trump Outrage Cycle: indignation, rinse, repeat.


Donald Trump

Historian Jon Meacham said President Donald Trump’s comments places him with Andrew Johnson in the late 1860s as “the most racist president in American history.” | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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The president’s latest offensive comments are playing out in wearily predictable fashion.

Democrats have long believed Donald Trump’s brand of scab-picking politics is deplorable, and now they have made it official, with a House of Representatives resolution condemning the president for urging four congresswomen to “go back” to other countries if they insist on being so critical of his leadership of this one.

There it was: clear and simple language from the people’s chamber, calling out “racist statements” for what they were, citing history from the Founding Fathers to Ronald Reagan, defending universal truths about what it means to be an American.

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Or maybe it was this: a puffed-up ride by Democrats on a high horse, a symbolic gesture that unintentionally symbolized how in contemporary America there are no universal truths — only angry words and party-line votes, everything either a weapon or shield in the nonstop ideological and cultural wars.

Could there be some Americans left out there who generally have an open mind toward Trump, didn’t know what to make of his nativist attacks on four left-leaning women of color known as “The Squad,” and after carefully considering the House debate and the righteous denunciations of Democrats were brought around to the conviction that Trump’s comments were indeed unacceptably racist?

One way to answer is to return to the canonical statement, from a Democratic perspective, on Trump’s perverse appeal: Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 2016 description of his supporters as “a basket of deplorables.” Recall, however, that she saidonly halffit that definition, “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic—you name it.” The other half, as Clinton saw it, are decent people who are simply in despair about their fading life prospects and willing to put faith in Trump because they perceived no other place to put it.

Perhaps some in that second half will now conclude, in the wake of the House resolution (passed with four Republican votes, plus Justin Amash), that this time Trump went too far, even for him. In which case this time is somehow different than the other times when important figures in both parties and in the media said he had gone too far, even for him, and predicted his imminent ruin. That’s what they said after Trump mocked John McCain for being captured in Vietnam, after his “grab them by the pussy” tape was uncovered, after firing his FBI director because he refused to do his personal bidding, after referring to developing nations populated by blacks as “shithole countries.” And on and on.

Who knows what percentage of Trump supporters are motivated by rank prejudice of the sort invoked by Clinton, who cited no specific data on behalf of her claim.

My personal and professional encounters with the Trump voter include many people who don’t fit into the “basket of deplorables” yet whose life prospects are just fine. They cringe when Trump goes from merely provocative to outright prejudiced. At the same time, my guess is that it it is far higher than half of Trump voters who are motivated by something not quite the same as what Clinton described:Enjoymentthat Trump says so many things that she, along with most Democrats, and many in the media find genuinely deplorable. They don’t endorse racism but admire Trump for seeming not to care that Nancy Pelosi calls him racist.

In my experience, that bond links nearly all Trump supporters in some way: They see him puncturing liberal pieties, and offending elite sensibilities broadly, and like it. His partisans don’t need to agree with Trump’s words or actions — may even find some of them off-putting — and still find the indignation of Democrats and the mediamore off-putting.

The modern incarnation of conservative politics of resentment goes back to Richard Nixon, and historical precedents go back decades before that. Trump’s innovation, on display again this week, is to market this as a kind of national entertainment, which a significant percentage of Americans — in admiration or contempt — find compulsively absorbing.

The resolution that House Democrats see as righteous will be seen in other quarters as self-righteous. That isn’t necessarily a reason not to pass it, but it’s a guarantee that the story moves beyond the original provocation to the response to the provocation, which has been the real engine of Trumpism.

Surely Trump knew his original weekend tweet calling on the four to “go back” looked foolish. While all four women he attacked were minorities, only one, Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, was born outside the country, and she moved to the United States as a child and was naturalized twenty years ago at age 17. He had unified the Democratic Party at the very moment they had been fraying.

But Trump recognizes that he has a seemingly inexhaustible ability to call the question:Which side are you on?Revels in it, even.

It was the predictable answers to this question that gave the past several days such a paradoxical qualify.

In one light, events moved at an astonishing blur.He said what?! Can you believe it?

Historian Jon Meacham said Trump’s comments places him with Andrew Johnson in the late 1860s as “the most racist president in American history.” News organizations abandoned usual conventions to call the remarks “racist” without the usual attributions and qualifications like “critics allege” or “flirted with.” It was less than 60 hours from thumbs swiping Trump’s keyboard Sunday morning to passage of the House resolution Tuesday evening.

In another light, fundamental dynamics weren’t moving at all.Yes, Trump said that and no one at this point genuinely surprised.Every player fell into their usual role. Democrats and the media could hardly ignore what Trump said. Yet everyone knew, at least within a few hours, that this one wasn’t going to be the one that breaks the cycle and causes Republicans to say Trump isn’t worth it.

He’s got a ceiling of support he never cracks and a floor of support he never goes below. This week’s familiar pattern — outrageous words, indignant reaction, indignant reaction to the reaction, rinse and repeat — only made the ruts in this well-worn ritual a little deeper.

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