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Bill Straub: Something isn’t exactly clear; layers of wrongdoing were peeled back, but truth didn’t matter

When Stephen Stills penned the lyrics to “For What It’s Worth,’’ declaring, “There’s something happening here but what it is ain’t exactly clear,” he certainly had no reason to believe the expression would remain pertinent 53 years later.

Certainly, the present situation differs from what was occurring in 1967. Stills wrote his timeless song at a time of mounting protests aimed at the war in Vietnam, civil rights activism and a growing sense of polarization within the population. The latter point certainly remains today. But the focus on what is happening that isn’t clear has evolved.

Consider: The United States has a president, Donald J. Trump, who conspired with a foreign state, Ukraine, to publicly launch an investigation into a rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, for his own political benefit. In order to achieve this goal and encumber Biden’s effort to derail his re-election bid, Trump essentially blackmailed Ukraine by withholding $391 million in military aid to the nation threatened by Russia and dangling an Oval Office invitation under the nose of newly-elected President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Polls (Illustration/Rutgers University)

This is not speculation. All this occurred within the last year and came out during Trump’s now concluded impeachment trial that ended in acquittal. Even cowardly Republican senators who demurred when the opportunity presented itself to oust this man from high office, folks like Sen. Lamar Alexander, of Tennessee, Rob Portman, of Ohio, and Susan Collins, of Maine, admit that is precisely what transpired, though they lacked the intestinal fortitude to do the right thing and dump him like a bad habit.

The lone Republican who proved willing to stand for something and convict the president for abuse of power was Sen. Mitt Romney, of Utah, the GOP presidential candidate in 2012, who said fittingly that Trump was guilty of “an appalling abuse of public trust,” “a flagrant assault” on our elections” and “Perhaps the most abusive and destructive violation of one’s oath of office that I can imagine.”

But the point here isn’t to lambast spineless lawmakers, though they certainly deserve it, or even cast further condemnation at Trump, though he likewise merits disdain.

It’s to point out that, while Rep. Adam Schiff, D-CA, and other members of the House team presenting the case peeled back the layers of Trump’s wrongdoing, the president’s popularity grew. According to Gallup, one of the most trusted political pollsters, Trump’s approval rating has reached 49 percent – the highest level since he assumed office in January 2017.

That marks a 10-point jump since October when the impeachment ball started rolling. His enhanced stature comes despite clear instances of lying, cheating, bigotry, misogyny, vulgarity, separating poor, brown children from their mothers and storing them in cages, sexually assaulting women and additional outrages too numerous to mention.

Nearly half of the American public, according to Gallup, approves of the way Trump represents this nation, which is stunning. Gallup further found that 50 percent of those questioned believe Trump should be re-elected. When that same question was posed just before the midterm elections in 2018, just 41 percent of Americans thought he merited a second term.

Gallup attributed part of the climb to the economy, noting that confidence in that area is the highest it has been at any point in the past two decades. That comes even though economic growth has slowed to 2.1 percent in each of the last two quarters. When growth hovered around that level under Trump’s predecessor, President Barack Obama, Trump opined that “The economy is in deep trouble.”

The Trump surge isn’t the only happening for reasons unclear. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Bowling Green, who is to the Senate what Eddie Haskell was to the Cleaver family, felt compelled to take to the upper chamber floor this week to reveal the name of the whistleblower who dropped a dime on the whole Ukraine mess, doing so only because Paul has proven to be a worthless cad who apparently believes there’s nothing wrong with placing an individual and his/her family in physical danger if it meets his political needs.

The federal Whistleblower Protection Act was adopted to protect federal employees who “lawfully disclose information they reasonably believe evidences a violation of law, rule, or regulation.” So it was with the individual who initially reported Trump’s corruption. Lawmakers with a remaining shred of decency stepped away from revealing the individual’s identity given the verbal attacks Trump has launched. But Paul, in his role as the president’s ever-present stooge, lacking any and all compunction, found it necessary to blast it out as if broadcasting on a 50,000-watt clear channel radio station.

It should be remembered that Paul blocked consideration of a resolution in November seeking the sense of the Senate that Congress and the president “have a duty to protect the identity of the whistleblowers and ensure that they are not retaliated against.” In Rand world, it’s open season to seek vengeance on those who report governmental transgressions, taking him a long way from the days when he was the darling of the Tea Party movement, a group that supposedly supported the ideal of reporting governmental misconduct.

But Paul, in his position as the president’s unofficial bootlicker, is super eager to unveil the whistleblower’s identity for no particular reason since his/her bill of particulars has been substantiated to the point that a number of GOP lawmakers cried uncle, reassuming their status as gutless wonders when push came to shove, of course. This is just Paul being Paul, a nasty little piece of work who apparently will pay no price for his callousness.

The real issue involving Trump and Paul is an American public that seemingly hasn’t only grown inured to Republican malice but appears to be embracing it. Trump has always had a substantial following – 63 million people voted for him in 2016 – and it’s beginning to look like he’s getting the band back together. Those who voted for him a little more than three years ago knew about his dubious background but voted for him anyway. Now it seems possible they’ll all be there for a return engagement with a few more thrown in for good measure.

Why the public would choose to side with a person of such vicious and immoral character to serve as president, one who constantly lies and cheats with abandon, as Stills said, ain’t exactly clear. Some may find his America First stance appealing, an attractive notion to those opposed to any foreign entanglements, regardless of the consequences of permitting the likes of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping run amok around the globe. And there are always the Supreme Court nominations and other conservative positions that draw Pavlov’s dog-like reactions.

But more and more it seems like a matter of style. Some voters think it’s funny that an Al Bundy-type common slob is running the country into the ground. It’s entertaining and the reactions of horror every time the racism or sexism shines through is pure gold. These voters approve when Trump lays waste to brown people and places women and African-Americans in their place.

There are any number of political observers, many of them conservatives with Republican ties, who look aghast at what the party has become under Trump and predict a timely demise. If the clues are there, I can’t find them. Neither can Gallup, which claims 51 percent of Americans view the Republican Party favorably, up from 43 percent in September — the first time GOP favorability has exceeded 50 percent since 2005.

Meanwhile, 45 percent hold a positive opinion of the Democratic Party, a dip from 48 percent in September.

Maybe, just maybe, this is what America has become.

KyForward’s Washington columnist Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com.

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