It is never enough for President Donald Trump's supporters to provide casual approval. The cost of loyalty goes higher and higher.
Trump intuits that his base has made a mental accommodation without inherent limits. It takes various forms but involves one formulation: When everything good is at stake, all objections are trivial in comparison. With the identity of America at issue, X is insignificant. With the lives on unborn children on the line, Y is trifling. With the future of Western civilization in the balance, Z is inconsequential.
Over the last few days, the gravity of X, Y and Z has been further clarified. From reporting by Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic, we know that the commander in chief regards Americans who lost their lives in battle as "losers" and can't comprehend the non-monetary motivations for military service.
This is more than a failure of patriotic ritual. Most concisely in the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln argued that a moral appreciation for self-government requires an understanding of the human cost of sustaining it.
"From these honored dead," he said, "we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion."
By Lincolnian reasoning, Trump is indifferent to the fragile majesty of democratic institutions because he is impervious to the sacrifices on which they rest.
Yet, by the relentless logic of Trumpism: Because the American way of life is at stake, the symbolic desecration of every military grave is a minor matter.
From reporting in a book by The Washington Post's Bob Woodward, we also know that Trump was fully aware of the deadly nature of COVID-19 in early February but continued to publicly dismiss the danger. We suspected this, of course, since White House officials had begun ringing alarm bells in January. But Woodward has provided smoking-gun audio evidence that Trump had been informed about COVID-19's dangers by Chinese President Xi Jinping, and was engaged in purposeful public deception in dismissing its seriousness.
"I wanted to always play it down," Trump told Woodward on March 19. "I still like playing it down."
Trump's explanation—that he didn't want to "create a panic"—is only credible if the panic he sought to avoid was on Wall Street. Denying Americans crucial information at the start of a pandemic—when the eventual extent of that pandemic could be dramatically curtailed by concerted action—is outrageous, heartless, reckless negligence. According to some estimates, more than 80% of American COVID-19 deaths could have been avoided if shutdowns and other public health measures had commenced two weeks earlier. By his own words, Trump stands convicted of a level of public health malpractice that amounts to a different kind of American carnage.
Once again, Trump is the ultimate caller of his supporters' bluff. If the president is to eventually save hundreds of thousands of lives from abortion (a patently absurd assumption), then what are tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths from COVID-19 in comparison? In this form of reasoning, it is a simple ethical matter. Just do the math.
And we all know—from a constantly expanding body of public evidence—that Trump is setting up a challenge to our democratic institutions if he fails to be re-elected in November. He implies that only the votes counted on election night—where he has an electoral advantage—will be reliable and valid. He has already concluded: "The only way we're going to lose this election is if the election is rigged."
And what true supporter could object? If Trump is really the "bodyguard of Western civilization," what is the delegitimization of one presidential election in comparison?
This reductio ad Trumpism indicates why Trump's base of support is so durable. Assuming that Trump is the defender of Americanism, the only hope of the pro-life cause and the best hope of civilized order, there are few crimes or misdemeanors Trump could possibly commit to forfeit his supporters' approval. The idiocy of such assumptions has done little, so far, to diminish their power.
And this reveals the source of their deepest damage. In such an absurdly constructed political philosophy, Trump can contest the limits of human decency and democratic legitimacy with no fear of rejection by his own party, and thus (given the current configuration of the U.S. Senate) no fear of removal from office.
Now Trump is determining whether this approach can secure a strategic plurality of voters that allows for another electoral college victory. Or at least the plausible impression of such a victory on election night. At that point, Trump will be armed with an argument that places no limits on his freedom of action and with supporters who have lost all moral proportion. That may be the testing point of democracy itself.