I woke up today and saw the news, and it was suddenly… sane.
I am no great fan of Democratic politics. As I’m a leftist, I hadn’t seen a distinct difference between the two parties. I often have characterized Democratic politics as a “cooling off” for Republican policies – a part of the country’s rightward shift. Republicans will do something (say, start to bomb other countries with drones willy-nilly), and Democrats will freak out… but Democratic administrations will use the powers instituted by the Republicans. At that point, the Democrats shut up about it. Pretty much everything in the war on terror – drone assassinations, torture, secret and illegal detention, etc. – are now part of US politics.
Trump made me modify my view. Previously, I had considered the Republicans more doctrinarian and disciplined about their doctrine. While I found their doctrine odious, there was consistency for it. What Trump did – and this might be his lasting contribution to the Republican Party and conservatives, in general – is fracture that consistency.
Previously, for instance, Republicans had maintained that a person’s character was as important as their policies. While hypocritical – if anything, modern Republicans are more corrupt than their Democratic counterparts – Republican leaders had presented themselves as monogamous, heterosexual evangelical Christians. Trump was and is a cheating jerkwad who is not religious. Sure, he said he was religious, but the only reason he was ever in a church was to either gain political support or to bask in the adoration of white fundamentalist Christians.
As such, I think the real agenda of the Republican Party and conservative movement was outted with exceptional clarity: it is the party of racists, misogynists, homophobes, and xenophobes. Everything else – religion, capitalism, character – was an act to make “moderates” feel better about voting Republican.
The good news is that Trump was never a leader in a normal sense. While he was desperately eager and grateful for the adoration heaped on him by, well, anyone, he was never their leader.
People like QAnon and the Proud Boys learned this after January 6th and the insurrection riot. Without a doubt, Trump and his allies directed them with violence towards the Capital Building. Equally, without doubt, Trump did not support them during or especially after the riot.
Of course, they should have known he would do this. Trump has never shown any loyalty to anyone. Why would he start now? He “loved” them when they supported him, but he was never, not for a second, part of their movement, much less a leader. He amplified their voices because they were willing to trade their support for his platform, not because he believed as they believed… or even knew or understood what they believed. He craved their attention, not their cause.
It did not help that he is a coward. He’s full of bluster online… but, c’mon, like that counts? I am a hardened veteran of online communications, and there have been times when I’ve honestly tried to get mean-spirited jerks who were trolling me to meet face-to-face. I’d tell them that there wouldn’t be any violence in the offing, that I’d come to where they lived if possible, that we’d meet in a public space of their choosing, that I’d pay for dinner and booze for the event… I made it as easy as possible for them to sit down and talk to me. I just wanted to see if they had the guts to say to a stranger’s face what they were willing to say to a stranger online. Never, not once, has any online troll accepted this offer. Unsurprisingly, Trump is a troll with precisely this character. He’s a tough guy online, but otherwise, he’s a wimp – gutless and wilting in the face of real defiance, even when it is otherwise totally safe. (Of course, most of the Proud Boys and QAnon also have this character, which is why their rallies are so small and why they are increasingly choosing to “go dark after the insurrection riot.” Saying radical shit online is safe and easy. Traveling to a place where there are counterprotesters – including Antifa dudes who are totally willing, indeed eager, to throw down with right-wing assholes – is much different. And after the riot, well, they’re looking at a taste of the same police violence that “social justice warriors” have faced for generations. Of course, online trolls are going to stay home!)
Still, anyone with half a brain would see that Trump is gutless and disloyal. He wants you to support him but offers no meaningful support after he’s sucked up everything you can give him.
Trump did, however, reveal quite publicly the real character of conservatives and the Republican Party. Most of them gutlessly bowed down to Trump’s bullying… in large part because they agreed with Trump. They were okay with his sexism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, racism, and classism. They were okay with him trying to tear down every bit of progress on climate change, too, with rampant deregulation and giant tax cuts for the wealthy. They were okay with his corruption, too, because they also profited from it.
What Trump showed – and which is my point about the differences between Democrats and Republicans – is that conservative appeals to higher powers and principles are nonsense. (Excepting the very rare Republicans who were always against Trump, like Mitt Romney and John Kasich or the conservatives in the Lincoln Project, who were unwilling to sell their principles for power. Trump has also revealed who among them have the courage of their convictions and how rare they are amongst conservatives.) Republicans are only about getting and keeping power, and they’re willing to go quite far to get it. It was only barely that they, as a party, decided not to destroy the Republic by violently intervening to stop Biden from taking office. Even so, a terrifyingly large number of them showed that they were for an administrative coup by attempting to decertify the election results – to overturn the will of the people as expressed by the laws and Constitution of the United States of America for political power.
That’s a big difference. That’s a real difference. For all of their cowardice and hypocrisy, the Democratic Party has shown no sign of destroying democracy for power. Trump revealed that large sections of the Republican Party – nearly half – are okay with destroying democracy for power. But, as I said, Trump is no leader – which is good if you love democracy.
What Trump was to the right-wing fringe movements and fundamentalist Christians is a hollow vessel. He was willing – indeed, eager – for people to fill him up with whatever they wanted as long as it included praising him. Indeed, if he was a leader, I doubt it would have worked. Could any leader truly band together fundamentalist Christians, corporatist businesspeople, and right-wing conspiracy theorists? It’d be like herding cats. By assuming leadership positions with any one of those groups, he would have alienated the others. It was because he is pathetically desperate for attention – any attention – that he allowed himself to be a receptacle for their ideologies. But that isn’t leadership, as the right-wing conspiracy theorists discovered on January 6th.
From here, though, I am unsure what happens next with Trump. I know that the Republican Party will want to forget that Trump existed – and that might work. Historically, the Republican Party subsumes conservative uprisings into the party within an election cycle. Does anyone even remember the people ushered into politics because of the Contract With America? Even the Tea Party has dwindled to irrelevance inside the Republican Party. There’s a good chance that will happen with Trumpists because I’d be astonished if he offered any leadership from here out. As I’ve said, leadership ain’t his thing.
Of course, some of his followers are already disgusted with him. I’m stunned at the speed with which it happened! Biden hadn’t been sworn in for an hour before the Proud Boys broke with him. Ann Coulter, of all people, is urging the Senate to convict him! I think that Trump’s remaining supporters will be stunned by the speed with which ex-presidents are irrelevant, too. Do they think that Trump will have a serious political career after being President? Why would they think that? What President has gone on to have a significant political career when they’re done? Better leaders than Trump – like Bill Clinton, who absolutely fought his drop into irrelevance – have tried and failed to be significant to politics post-presidency.
I think that Trump will be deserted by many of his followers as they realized that he never cared for them. I think that the Republican Party will absorb Trumpists into their mainstream, and by 2024 they will be indistinguishable from rank-and-file Republicans. I think that Trump will dwindle into the traditional irrelevance of a former President, so if he does try to run in 2024, it’ll be a sad disgrace.
I could be wrong. I expected Trump to lose in 2016, after all. We shall see.
As for Trumpism itself? First, let me say that there isn’t any such thing, not really, apart from Donald Trump’s whims. It is not a movement. It’s a cult of personality. Without Trump, I’m not sure Trumpism exists.
After that, I have trouble imagining anyone taking a position of leadership of Trump’s followers. Not only are they already scattering, but none of the obvious heirs apparent to Trumpism also have more than a fraction of his charisma. Who sees Don Jr. or Eric taking over… particularly when Trump is still alive? The best chance is Ivanka, but she’s got a real problem – she’s not as much an empty vessel as her father. Even assuming far-right groups would accept a woman in the way they accepted Donald Trump (ha!), she’s a Jewish New York liberal in her heart.
Of course, the next Trumpist leader need not be one of Trump’s kids. The alcohol-ridden zombie form of Steve Bannon? The nightmarish ghoul of Michael Flynn? The best bet – Pompeo – is better suited to eating goats crossing bridges than being elected to so much as a school board.
Well, that’s not fair. The best bet is Nikki Haley… but she’ll run as a straight, traditional Republican without much reference to Trump.
Of course, Pence is done. Many traditional Republicans despise him for siding with Trump too much and by Trumpists for not supporting Trump enough. He waged he could thread that needle and lost the bet.
Insofar that Trumpism has a chance to outlive Trump, I think it comes from a new leader arising that can fuse Trump’s energy and charisma with actual leadership. While it is a terrifying thought, I think the odds of his happening are low – especially while Trump is alive. After all, Trumpism is a cult of personality, and they generally do not survive their maker. To the extent they do survive, it’s as a symbol for movements that are often divergent from anything the cult’s founder imagined. Think Maoism in China. Mao Zedong would have destroyed the current regime in China! But in China, Mao is memorialized by people who would have been his political enemies were he still living! If Trumpism survives Trump’s passing, it is impossible to know its form.
I hope that Trump is the nadir of conservativism during my lifetime. But… I have no particular reason to think that will be the case. After Reagan, I thought that the pendulum of US politics must swing to the left, again. It did not. After the Contract With America, I thought that the left shift in US politics must come. It did not. By the time of George W. Bush, well, I’d stopped expecting a leftward swing in US politics, and this time I was right… the next Republican leader was, after all, Donald Trump.
I see no indication that the Republicans have learned any lesson from Donald Trump. Worse, I see no indication that Americans have learned any lesson from Trump. In the past election, nearly forty-eight percent of Americans voted for him! And after Richard Nixon and Watergate, well, by 1980, Americans were happy to vote for Ronald Reagan! In the end, the US has only two parties. If you aren’t going to vote Democratic, you’ve got to vote Republican if you want to have a real say in who is elected.
Plus, in the years to come, states with Republican legislatures will do everything they can to restrict voting rights on the state-level. Republicans certainly noticed that all the mail-in and early voting lost them the White House and Senate. Bills to that effect are already happening in states like Texas and Georgia (which is on the cusp of becoming a swing state, if not a Democratic state, without severe gerrymandering.) This suggests that they will not moderate their message but use anti-democratic tactics to preserve their power. The next national Republican leader probably won’t be a Trumpist… but there’s a good chance he’ll be to the right of even Donald Trump.
I sincerely hope I’m wrong about that. I believe at some point that conservatives will be forced to acknowledge racial, gender, queer, class, and environmental rights. For the last, at some point, the earth itself will demand we address the environment or be destroyed. But because conservative resistance to environmental rights is more radical than it’s ever been – I mean, seriously, they’re still pro-coal, which even the market has rejected?! – and the stakes are incredibly high and part of physical reality, I do not imagine conservatives softening on any other rights in the foreseeable future. The very last thing I think the Republican Party will do – even as the sea is already swallowing Miami and other low-lying areas – is to change their ideology.
This is a grim way to end this post, but that’s what I think. On the other hand, I probably won’t be writing about Trump for a good, long while. I very much expect him to dwindle into irrelevance. He’ll return to fodder for gossip columnists and, for a while (but less so as time passes), the shrieking heads of Fox News. Then Trump will fade away altogether.
And if you, upon reading this, conclude that I’m contradicting my post of two days ago, you’re partly right! That’s the danger of writing quickly instead of giving one’s thoughts a chance to settle. In my previous post, I spoke of the persistence of conspiracy theories. They’ll stay. But Trumpism will transform into whatever crazy-ass shit that conservatives do next – which I fully expect to be riddled with fundamentalist-inspired conspiracy nonsense.