Fifth Avenue Republicans

I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters,” candidate Donald Trump said in January 2016.

Call them Fifth Avenue Republicans, supporters of President Donald Trump who will — as Trump understands — forgive or overlook any transgression, lapse, inconsistency, crudeness, ignorance, or moral failing he demonstrates or commits. Label these Fifth Avenue Republicans — who are an overwhelming majority of the GOP — a cult for whom Trump is their leader who can do no wrong.

Brag about grabbing women by the genitals and Fifth Avenue Republicans ignore it. Place “blame on both sides” for neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville and it does not matter. Pay off a porn star and they think it is just Donald being Donald. Rip infants and toddlers from their mother’s arms and put them in cages and Fifth Avenue Republicans look the other way or claim illegal immigration is such a serious matter as to justify such a betrayal of American (and “family,” for that matter) values. Wreck NATO — the cornerstone of the liberal post-war world order — and Fifth Avenue Republicans agree that European nations are a bunch of freeloaders. Act cravenly in the presence of the murderous thug in the Kremlin and these Republicans praise Trump for his brilliant statecraft. Consider the Moscow despot’s request to question a former American diplomat and Fifth Avenue Republicans have no objection. No Trumpian behavior — mocking a disabled reporter, attacking the fairness of a Mexican-American judge, criticizing a Gold Star family, or condemning Senator John McCain for being captured — loses him support. It goes on and on…. Budget hawks who organized the Tea Party just a few years ago now support Trump’s tax overhaul that will lead to massive deficits, and free-trade Republicans stay on board while Trump imposes and threatens to impose punitive tariffs on foreign trade.

Presidents Trump and Putin in Helsinki

It is a useful phrase — Fifth Avenue Republicans — and I am indebted to James Hohmann of The Washington Post for suggesting it and Timothy Egan of The New York Times for popularizing it. Fifth Avenue Republicans are Trump’s base, the 35 percent or so of the electorate who support him consistently. Trump retains overwhelming support among Republicans even after the debacle last week in Helsinki. While a new Washington Post-ABC poll shows a majority of Americans disapprove of the president’s handling of his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, two-thirds of Republicans (66 percent) approve.

Nor does it matter much whether Trump’s policies actually benefit his supporters. The president’s tariff policy likely will hurt midwestern soybean farmers, but there is little evidence yet that his support is flagging in the farm belt. Poor whites who supported Trump in the 2016 election appear just as enthusiastic now even though, as president, Trump tried to take away their healthcare. Steelworkers in Indiana might benefit from his tariffs on imported steel, but as consumers they are likely to be affected by higher prices on everything that is made of steel, such as automobiles. But, none of that seems to have much effect.

Father Charles Coughlin, the radio priest.

Trump’s genius is to stoke the prejudices of his supporters. His racist rants against immigrants appeal to voters who fear the browning of America. His trashing of NATO plays to a latent isolationism always present in the American psyche (the product of having two oceans between us and the rest of the world). His cozying up to dictators — Putin is only one instance of this — fascinates those Americans who yearn for strong leaders. Americans have flirted with neo-Fascist types before — from Father Charles Coughlin, the radio priest who railed against Jews during the Great Depression, to Senator Joe McCarthy during the Red Scare. Trump is just the next in a long line of unsavory types. 

There is a certain absurdity in calling Trump supporters Fifth Avenue Republicans.  After all, a (reputed) billionaire from New York City appears to have little in common with West Virginia coal miners, South Dakota farmers, Texas evangelicals, and Alabama home-schooling moms. But, Trump is not a traditional member of New York City’s elite. He was born in Queens and always has thought of himself as an outsider. Trump was only grudgingly accepted by New York’s elite, and he has never been considered a classic power broker, someone, as The New York Times put it, “who is feared and can make things happen with a phone call or a quiet aside with the right person at the right time.”

In 1983, the boy from Queens moved into Trump Tower — located on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue — and seems to have had little to do with New York City after. Or, at least, missed the transformation of New York from a crime-ridden metropolis teetering on the brink of bankruptcy into a gleaming modern city of new skyscrapers and unimagined wealth. Trump lived in his triplex penthouse in his eponymous tower, rarely venturing into the city below. “How could a guy who lived in New York have these provincial, redneck attitudes?” asks Ken Auletta, a writer for The New Yorker. “I’m not sure I have an answer,” he writes, “other than, obviously, he lived apart. He got into his elevator.”

Perhaps, Trump voters intuit this phenomena, the New York City billionaire who is not really of New York City. In any event, his supporters appear willing to accept anything he does or says and forgive all. A poll taken in July 2017 showed that many Trump diehards would even forgive him if he REALLY shot someone on Fifth Avenue. According to Public Policy Polling, 45 percent of Trump supporters “would still approve of him even if he shot someone,” while 29 percent would disapprove, and 26 percent were unsure.  

And, you thought Trump’s boast was figurative and not literal.

Posted July 24, 2018

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