I’m fascinated with political reaction to news that special counsel Robert Mueller‘s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election produced its first criminal indictments this week.
As a card-carrying “enemy of the people,” I could rehash reaction in the mainstream media and popular culture. I could play to the left and talk about Stephen Colbert‘s gleeful response on the “Late Show,” or Sen. Al Franken’s grilling at a hearing Tuesday about Facebook accepting Russian rubles as payment for American political ads.
“Nah,” I thought. “I fully understand the liberal, progressive and moderate points of view.”
Instead, I thought I’d try to fulfill a promise I made to readers after President Donald Trump‘s surprise victory a year ago. I promised to become a better listener, to try to better understand how Trump won all but 11 of the state’s 102 counties even though Hillary Clinton carried Illinois by 17 points.
So, Wednesday morning I chatted by phone with one of the Southland’s leading conservative voices: Republican Will County Board member Steve Balich, of Homer Glen. Say what you will about his views, I respect Balich for knowing how voters feel in “Trump country” just 30 miles southwest of the deep blue Chicago Loop.
I asked Balich for his reaction to Mueller’s charges against former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort, business associate Richard Gates and campaign foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos.
“It’s frustrating to me,” Balich said. “That news is probably just the tip of the iceberg.”
I expected his next words, which echoed recent posts on Balich’s Will County News website and social media pages. Many right-wing supporters have questioned Mueller’s impartiality. They’ve raised concerns about Clinton‘s role, while secretary of state, in a 2010 deal that allowed a Russian company to acquire a Canadian firm, Uranium One, that held mining rights to about 20 percent of America’s uranium capacity.
“It troubles me that Mueller was in charge (of the FBI) when Hillary was selling uranium to Russia,” Balich said.
I didn’t push back that then-President Barack Obama — not Clinton — was the only American who could have vetoed the deal. I wanted to listen to what else Balich had to say to better understand why Republicans keep winning elections. (They hold a 16-10 majority over Democrats on the Will County Board, even though Clinton won Will County.)
“When Trump calls it a witch hunt, that’s pretty much what it is,” Balich said. “People look at this as stupid.”
The initial charges, he said, involve Manafort’s alleged financial wrongdoings and not supposed collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. He said it was frustrating that Mueller’s investigation led to charges unrelated to the reason Congress appointed the special counsel — to investigate Russian meddling in our election.
I said that was reminiscent of how special counsel Ken Starr’s investigation into Whitewater exposed former President Bill Clinton’s sexual misconduct with Monica Lewinsky and resulted in his impeachment by the House of Representatives. (The Senate found Clinton not guilty on perjury and obstruction of justice charges.)
The special counsel is authorized to take the investigation wherever it may lead, I said. I then asked Balich how Mueller’s investigation might affect the Republican agenda on tax reform and other issues.
“People on the streets where I live, they don’t think it should affect it at all,” he said. “Democrats and independents — they all want tax reform. Why does the establishment on both sides fight tax reform?”
I liked where the conversation was going. I think Balich understands populist resentment toward “elites.” Balich played an active role in Homer Township’s Tea Party movement in 2010, and I think he has a keen sense of how “forgotten” voters feel about taxes and stagnant wages.
“It’s not about helping the American people anymore,” he said. “We’ve had it with Washington, (D.C.).”
He’s right. A Quinnipiac University poll in August said Americans’ opinion of Congress sank to a new low, and that just 10 percent of people surveyed gave the national legislature a favorable job-approval rating.
“I think Donald Trump won because he wasn’t part of that establishment,” Balich said. “His words are one thing but his actions are another.”
Balich indicated that populists are frustrated with establishment politicians regardless of party.
“(Republicans in) Congress stalled (Trump) on immigration,” he said. “They couldn’t (repeal and replace) Obamacare and they ran on getting rid of it.”
Despite robust employment rates and other positive economic indicators, a lot of people are struggling financially, Balich told me.
“That’s the whole reason people are angry,” he said. “Jobs don’t pay anymore.”
We agreed on that point. I resisted the urge to push back and argue that automation has more to do with wage stagnation than immigration. I listened instead of asserting the view that policies that encourage global trade would grow the domestic economy.
I remained silent when I wanted to say I think the Republican tax bill is a sham that will benefit corporations and the rich and hurt middle-class and low-income people.
“Even though I’m mad, Republicans are at least more in line with where I’m at,” he continued. Trump “gets” that people want fewer regulations and smaller government. “The problem is getting all the Republicans to agree with it and move legislation forward.”
We then talked about identity politics, diversity and stark divides on such cultural and social issues as abortion, birth control and gay marriage.
“It seems like there’s a movement to destroy American family values,” Balich said.
I realized that’s a powerful sentiment. Though I don’t share the view that family values are under attack, I felt closer to understanding those who do. I tend to think of an issue like gay marriage as one of civil rights, but I can see how someone else might think of it in terms of religious freedom.
Just as I have pledged to keep an open mind, Balich impressed me with his willingness to admit mistakes.
“I have strong opinions,” he said. “Just because it’s my opinion doesn’t mean it’s right. I have to listen carefully when people tell me stuff.”
Our conversation was civil. I disagree with a lot of Balich’s views, but I respect his right to express them.
I think it’s important to remember that Russia is accused of trying to drive wedges between people. It’s part of an alleged divide-and-conquer strategy to exploit existing divisions — not just in America, but in Europe and elsewhere.
As long as Americans can continue to have civil discussions about disagreements on gay rights, immigration and other topics, I think we’ll be OK. Your side may win sometimes, but you’re going to lose at other times.
Politics is like a pendulum that swings back and forth. Populism is the hot trend at the moment for winning elections. But governance is another matter altogether. I still believe bipartisan compromise is the way to go.