The Second Half of the Sentence
Updated: Jun 29, 2020
The phrase that got all the attention was “I would like you to do us a favor though.”
Because we can hear it in the mouth of a movie mobster.
Because the word though, as everyone and their sister pointed out, introduced the idea of a condition, strings attached. We could hear the conditional statement, the if, then bubbling under the surface: If you want those Javelins, then . . . .
The first half seemed so rich, so full, so damning. So enough.
But the second half of the sentence is where the politician reveals himself; and, in revealing himself, as it goes, the second half is where the politician makes his most critical error.
I may be naive. But I believe the more his supporters hear that second part of the sentence, the more they’ll understand: he's lost them.
Recently, I was asked to volunteer to help plan parties for my son’s kindergarten class. There was a sign-up sheet. About 7 or 8 other parents had already penciled in their names. I could volunteer to be the leader of any of the party-planning committees, or I could be a follower. Send out the emails or just be a member of a group.
I, as all the other parents who’d held the pencil before me, opted to follow.
It’s not that I was so opposed to being the leader, but I also knew there was a good chance I would forget that these parties needed planning at all.
And that, I knew, would disappoint some very sweet kindergartners. I imagined their tearful faces . . . looking at me. So, ego protection, in a sense: I wouldn’t feel as bad about myself if I were part of a committee that had failed some adorable five-year-olds than if I were the one listed as responsible.
In Federalist Paper, No. 70, Alexander Hamilton argues for a strong unitary executive. He enumerates why a one-person presidency is better than an executive council, a group of “two or more magistrates” who would share the executive branch. A significant plank in his argument is that it’s much easier for the public to train its critical eye, and its blaming finger, on one person:
“. . .the plurality of the Executive tends to deprive the people of the two greatest securities they can have for the faithful exercise of any delegated power, first, the restraints of public opinion, which lose their efficacy, as well on account of the division of the censure attendant on bad measures among a number, as on account of the uncertainty on whom it ought to fall . . . .”
Put a group in charge, and the rest of us, even if we’re dissatisfied, have a difficult time directing our ire in a meaningful way. The public pressure on one person can be immense; the public pressure on a group is necessarily more diffuse.
We need a single president, a unitary executive, Hamilton argues, so we have a face we can put on a sign, a name we can chant before “must go.” We have one president so we know exactly who to oust.
As research by Matthew MacWilliams in 2015 and 2016 indicated, what Trump supporters shared wasn’t so much a particular demographic category as an attitude: They were strongly inclined toward authoritarianism.
The features of that authoritarianism are, as MacWilliams describes in his write-up in Politico, fairly straightforward:
“Authoritarians obey. They rally to and follow strong leaders. And they respond aggressively to outsiders, especially when they feel threatened.”
Interestingly, the political behavior of authoritarian voters is correlated with how they approach other parts of life. Being attracted to authoritarian leaders, it seems, has something to do with how you approach your job as a parent. MacWilliams explains that, in addition to the typical political questions, his poll
“asked a set of four simple survey questions that political scientists have employed since 1992 to measure inclination toward authoritarianism. These questions pertain to child-rearing: whether it is more important for the voter to have a child who is respectful or independent; obedient or self-reliant; well-behaved or considerate; and well-mannered or curious. Respondents who pick the first option in each of these questions are strongly authoritarian.”
Many of the strongly authoritarian voters who voted for Trump in 2016 are likely to remain steadfast. They’re not leaving their team any time soon. Trump’s behavior in office, even if it violates what others see as important norms and expectations, is simply evidence of strong leadership for these folks.
But what if not all of Trump’s voters are equally authoritarian?
And what if some of the most authoritarian voters start to lose faith in their leader's strength?
I know some folks who voted for Trump in 2016 because they liked the idea of a border wall and a tough stance on immigration, but they’d rather their children be curious and considerate. They're only somewhat authoritarian, let's say.
I’ve had a few conversations over the last few years with Trump supporters who have said things along the lines of I wish he’d tweet less and get a bit more done. Being a voter inclined toward authoritarianism doesn't mean you've turned off your gauge for efficacy and basic competence in governing.
(And how else do we explain the equivocating of Republicans such as Joni Ernst or Cory Gardner, both U.S. Senators facing re-election in 2020, except to say that they seem to not want to say anything that, should the political tides turn, they’ll have to completely recant.)
These folks might be swayable. These might be lukewarm Trump supporters.
What about the others, the famously immovable "base"?
A Quinnipiac University national poll conducted in June 2016, a few months before the election, showed the voters thought Hilary Clinton had higher moral standards than Donald Trump (46 to 37 percent) but that Donald Trump was more honest and trustworthy (45 to 37 percent) and a stronger leader (49 to 43 percent).
Let’s assume a large portion of his supporters remain authoritarian-inclined. So, they still want a strong leader.
Is Trump still, in these voters' estimation, that strong?
The second half of the sentence is where the politician makes a fatal error, if his supporters hear it.
Some evidence exists that they’ve heard it.
A recent Fox News poll found that 51 percent of voters favored impeachment and removal from office. That’s a 9-point jump since the Fox pollsters asked the question in July 2019.
The shift in public sentiment isn’t too surprising. The magnitude of the politician’s error can be measured by how difficult it’s been for even his staunchest supporters to mount a defense on the merits.
Some supporters of the president began with a “as long as Biden goes down with Trump” defense. A few weeks ago, during an appearance on Meet the Press Daily on MSNBC, Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana offered up this analogy:
“Guy robs a bank. On the way to jail, the cops beat the living Hades out of him. The cops should be investigated. Should you beat a criminal suspect? No! Should there be an investigation? Yes! But you also have to go investigate the alleged bank robbery. And I think what you’re going to see is an investigation of the whistle-blower complaint, and you’re going to see an investigation of the allegations about Vice President Biden’s son.”
Kennedy gave this interview before the White House released a memo detailing the July 25 phone call with Trump and Zelenskyy. Perhaps Kennedy assumed that the facts, the details of the phone call, would make one part of the analogy fall apart (the police brutality, I presume, stands in for Trump), and there’d only be “Corrupt Biden,” a bank robber, lingering in our collective memories.
That same Fox News poll, though, indicates the public hasn’t been persuaded the analogy is apt. The number of respondents who found Trump’s dealings with Ukraine “extremely” or “very” concerning was, like the impeachment/removal number, 51 percent. Only 36 percent of respondents found the allegations about the Bidens’ dealings in China and Ukraine “extremely” or “very” concerning.
For a while, the president’s supporters seemed bothered by the whistle-blower’s reliance on second-hand information, which might, if that’s all anyone had to go on, be a legitimate complaint. But tune in to any cable-news network today, a few weeks into this scandal, and you’re unlikely to see any Republicans even referencing the whistle-blower complaint.
With more and more reporting confirming the whistle-blower’s narrative and its chief concerns, and as more of the public realized that the whistle-blower is, to extend Kennedy’s analogy, a citizen whose spouse witnessed some police officers beating a person and, upon looking out the window and seeing essentially what the spouse described, called the sheriff, the “attack the whistle-blower’s credibility” defense seems about as sturdy as wet notebook paper.
Some blamed the Deep State. Some blamed the Squad.
So . . . the police officers accused of beating a suspect are now arguing there are some ex-girlfriends and a few neighbors with whom they’d had unrelated disagreements in the past. That’s why the beating happened. That’s what justifies it. Nothing to see here.
They might as well just call us dumb.
The President suggested a member of Congress, Adam Schiff, be arrested for treason for giving an interpretive summary—the “essence” of what Trump said “shorn of its rambling character and in not so many words”—of the phone call with the president of Ukraine rather than quoting it directly.
One problem—among so many!—is that Schiff’s summary of the phone call is fairly accurate. At times, as this CNN fact-check of Schiff’s statement illuminates, he doesn’t clearly signal when he’s moving from summary into interpretation. One passage of interpretation-that-sorta-sounds-like-summary is unhelpfully hyperbolic, to the point where a casual listener might be misled:
“And I'm going to say this only seven times, so you better listen good. I want you to make up dirt on my political opponent. Understand? Lots of it, on this and on that.”
But Schiff’s interpretation of the core of Trump’s phone call isn’t treasonous; it’s anti-treason, actually; and it’s nearly impossible to dispute: “[T]here's nothing the president says here that is in America's interest after all.”
Might Trump's supporters start to wonder whether their president not acting “in America's interest after all” is a sign of weakness, a sign that he's not nearly the authority-figure they wanted?
I'm convinced the instances of obstruction outlined in the Mueller report didn’t cause Trump’s lukewarm supporters en masse to say, “Yep, that’s impeachable,” because those alleged obstructive acts had a murkiness about them. That murkiness was of a kind that both constitutional scholars and laypersons, using different language perhaps, could understand and describe: Many of the actions were, if the president didn’t have corrupt intent, part of his job description.
But this is different. What the president did here is not in his job description. He's not asking for Ukraine to do something that serves the American national interest, even arguably.
It's not even close. There's only one leader on the phone call who seems to be working on behalf of his country's needs.
(Even if voters are convinced that the phone call is, as Trump has repeatedly said, “perfect,” there are still a few details that have never been explained convincingly: why the president's personal attorney was involved in conducting foreign affairs and/or some campaign-related research in foreign countries; why the attorney general of the U.S. was traveling around the world, on our dime of course, to confirm details of a conspiracy theory that, even if proven, wouldn't erase some of the more troubling parts of the Mueller report detailing contacts and information-sharing between the Trump campaign and individual Russians; why the U.S. defense aid to Ukraine was withheld, even after the Pentagon "certified" that the country had taken strong steps to root out corruption.)
President Zelenskyy of Ukraine spoke by telephone with President Trump of the United States on July 25. The “Memorandum of Telephone Conversation” was released a couple months later.
A few minutes into the call, President Zelenskyy mentions defense aid provided by the United States:
“I would also like to thank you for your great support in the area of defense. We are ready to continue to cooperate for the next steps. Specifically we are almost ready to buy more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes.”
And that’s when Trump lays the predicate for that help:
“I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it.”
If we stopped reading there we might guess the president of the United States is asking for help with something that concerns us all, some matter through which all of us in “our country” have “been through.” Hurricanes or wildfires. Maybe casualties at home or abroad. An economic downturn. Perhaps a complex epidemic: opioid addiction or gun violence or suicide by military veteran.
We might guess that these must be the subject of his request because he, after all, has a job. A job we’ve given him. A job we pay him for. A job that the founders of the country thought a fair amount about when designing the government.
And when he begins that job, we ask him, by way of our founding document, to swear an oath: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
It’s a pretty simple promise, in two parts: to do the job in good faith and to not do anything to undermine the founding document that created our government of and by and for the people.
The oath doesn’t mention using the White House phone, let alone the powers of the presidency, let alone most of the executive branch, from the Department of Energy to the Department of State to the Department of Justice, to see if a foreign leader could look into Crowdstrike. To see if it was in fact Ukraine who meddled in the 2016 election and not Russia. To tell the president of Ukraine to go ahead and “get to the bottom” of what Ukraine did to me in 2016 . . . for me.
The oath doesn’t mention the president asking for favors for himself.
In the second half of the sentence, the President of the United States confuses us for me.
In the second half of the sentence, the President of the United States confuses our country for himself.
I don’t disagree with this interpretation of the July 25, 2019, phone call: Trump asked for foreign interference in an election. I don’t disagree that Trump wanted to draw a kind of pledge out of Zelenskyy: Yes, sir, I will open up, as you desire, an investigation into Joe Biden and his son.
But I’m also unconvinced that the roughly 63 million people who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 are overly bothered by “foreign interference in an election.”
I don’t believe that’s what will turn his voters against him.
If the Ukraine scandal undoes him, that undoing will be not because he broke a campaign finance law or a convention for “how a president should behave” but rather because it makes him seem weak.
If the Ukraine scandal undoes him, it will be because a majority of the folks that voted for him in 2016 have said, He seems weak because we can’t rely on him to do the job, to serve our interests rather than his own.
His supporters may start to view him as weak because, at the time of his phone call with the president of Ukraine, the public had heard from Robert Mueller. We were all ready to move on. The President, rather than taking a victory lap and maybe just rubbing his “exoneration” in the faces of his political foes, seems then and now . . . stuck in the past.
The favor he asks first of the Ukrainian president is to re-examine the origins of the inquiry into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. The origins of the investigation—so, what, look into something from 3 or 4 or 5 years ago?
The President may start to seem weak to some of his supporters because he's looking back rather than looking forward.
The President may start to seem weak because, as president, his on-the-job performance has been his interview for keeping the job.
He may start to seem weak because he's realizing he’s failed his interview.
He may seem weak to even the most authoritarian-inclined voter because, on the phone call with the president of Ukraine and in the weeks since we all learned about it, the politician seems less like a strong leader and more like an unprepared, unmotivated student, who has decided to use his energy in the days before the exam to cheat rather than study.
I would think members of Congress, no matter their party, would chafe a bit at the authoritarian leader. They may want his voters' support, but they also want the little bit of power we've allotted them, you know, in the constitution.
Imagine: You go to the bank. You ask the teller to withdraw $100 in cash from your account. You fill out the appropriate paperwork. You show ID. Then the teller starts asking questions: What are you going to buy with the money? Not fast-food, I hope! I certainly hope you won’t be spending it on things you don’t need, like whiskey or unicycles. Let me think about it. Give me a few months. I’m not sure I want to give it to you yet. I’m just not sure you’re going to spend it wisely. And, by the way, could you do me a favor? My car’s got a flat, and I see you’ve got some nicely inflated tires on your car. Any chance we could swap cars—or tires?
Executing the office in good faith—does that including making up on the fly what to do with the money congress has appropriated?
The only bordering-on-cogent defense for why defense aid for Ukraine, approved by the U.S. Congress, was withheld by the President in a lawful manner is that he wanted to make sure they’d cleaned up corruption.
But the executive branch of our government had, when he made his phone call at the end of July, already made sure of that, in the form of a Pentagon review by John C. Rood, the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, which “certified that the Government of Ukraine has taken substantial actions to make defense institutional reforms for the purposes of decreasing corruption, increasing accountability, and sustaining improvements of combat capability enabled by U.S. assistance.” Rood sent that letter in May.
Maybe the equivocation of Joni Ernst and Cory Gardner isn't only about having to do an about-face. Isn't it possible that some legislators are realizing that the bank teller didn't do his job, which is merely to act as an intermediary, the one who, if all the forms are correct and there are sufficient funds, to hand over the money? That would be doing the job in good faith.
As it is, the bank teller was assuming more power than anyone thinks he should have. He was trying to solve his flat-tire problem with some authority he'd hijacked from the bank.
The bank teller should be fired for not doing his job.
For many individual Trump supporters, I would guess there's hypothetically, if not a breaking point, a point of extreme fatigue: a moment where it becomes easier to say, "Fine, let's move on," then to keep doing the gymnastics required to label the weakness as a strength.
It’s tough to know what that moment look like, whether it’s going to be an utterance or a breaking news story or something else that finally puts the strongly authoritarian voter at odds with their preferred leader.
But I believe it could be the second half of the sentence. The part where he says America went through something when really what he means is I went through something.
Maybe I’m naïve.
But I think it’s possible there are Trump voters out there, maybe some lifelong Republicans, who want their children to be well-mannered, obedient, and respectful and who despise self-dealing in their political leaders.
I think it's possible there are some Trump voters out there who are simply tired. Part of being authoritarian-inclined is having a strong desire for order, for rules to be followed. How emotionally taxing is a chaotic and self-serving and swampy presidency on these folks who like peace and quiet?
Maybe it’s faith.
Faith that the second half of the sentence, when our president confuses his personal interest for the national interest, when he slips, when he reveals he's not doing the job in good faith, might seem as scared and insecure and weak to you as it does to me.
Richard Sonnenmoser writes about fatherhood, music, pop culture, and politics. He's had fiction, poetry, and nonfiction published in Harvard Review, West Branch, Crab Orchard Review, Permafrost, Big Muddy, and others.