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Trump is not an aberration but the natural consequence of central strands in Republican party politics and political maneuver over the last thirty years.
A number of things happening at the same time are being reported separately as though they have little or nothing to do with one another. On the one hand, we have right wing demonstrations like the one in Lansing, Michigan the other day against various governors who have locked down their states to mitigate the worst effects of Covid-19. On the other, we have Trump’s seeming determination to order some governors to ‘re-open the economy’ on 1 May. Some of the stupider, possibly more Trumpian, Republican governors of rural states may comply. Most—particularly Democratic governors of more urban states—will not.
Those governors will then be attacked from two directions. First, they will be denounced by Trump in his deranged but dangerous daily monologues for refusing to open the economy to save people’s jobs. Secondly, they will be assailed in their own states by the sort of populist demonstrations we have just seen.
Having refused, yesterday, to advise the protesters in Michigan to go home, Trump has just tweeted a call on his supporters to “LIBERATE Michigan!” “LIBERATE Virginia and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!’ Note the appeal to the gun issue—guns, of course, having nothing to do with the current crisis. Trump thus avoids appearing to subvert public health issues, while energizing the far right. We are in full on black helicopters paranoia mode, again legitimized, mainstreamed, and spread like a virus, by the President of the United States.
The lock down is, of course, perfectly suited to excite the ideological passions of the extreme right. Here is the government—Federal but mostly local—and that is the point of Trump’s latest maneuver: to put the blame of the governors—depriving Americans of their basic liberties, through the exercise of emergency powers. This time around, they are not coming for your guns, they are shutting your stores and bars, putting you out of work, stopping you meeting your friends and in many cases shutting your churches. And they are doing all of that on the say-so of experts—aka, the deep state—who are providing an excuse for a basic assault on “the American way of life.”
We have seen this play book before with the Tea Party, but while the claims and grievances at the center of that agitation were largely factitious – there were no death panels, Obama was not a socialist, the government was not Taking Away Your Medicare – now the grievances and suffering are very real indeed. This time there is an element of truth and an awful plausibility to the laments of the libertarian right. The state has greatly expanded its powers; controls are in place over large parts of everyday life. Hard lives have been made far harder, miserable lives rendered more wretched still by the impact of the virus and of the economic shut down occasioned by it. The right need make none of that up. And there is and will be no shortage of anxiety, anger and desperation out there waiting to be exploited and channeled.
An observer might conclude that the obvious target for those emotions should be the Federal government whose absurd incompetence, malign indifference, and serial malfeasance has gone a long way if not to creating this crisis then certainly to making it far worse than it need have been. But the Crash of 2008 shows there is nothing natural or inevitable about where the blame for such huge shocks to the political and economic system get put. And politics—particularly the politics of the right, but also politics in general—is about making sure the blame goes in the right places. That year, the Democrats did a dismal job of blaming, while the Republican party and Donald Trump have proven themselves awfully good at it, which is what is happening again now. As Trump disclaims responsibility, arrogates power, and blames the governors, and certain governors are targeted by partly spontaneous, partly coordinated and astroturfed irruptions of populist rage, Fox news will continue to urge them on. Trump’s tweets today suggests this campaign is now a pretty much coordinated. Meanwhile, the Republican Party will ensure that the next relief bill will be inadequate to the purpose, and what money is voted will go to corporate interests rather than to the people on the sharp end of economic pain.
Of course, none of what Trump is advocating will work, either to restore the economy or to control the virus. In fact, we will get the worst of both worlds: an uncontrolled resurgence of the virus and a crashed economy. But that is a large part of the point. Failure and chaos are not merely baked into this project, they are the intended result of it. For all this failure will merely increase the ragged emotions—the anger, anxiety and despair—circulating around the country; it will increase fear, create conflict, and encourage conspiracy theories. And Trump will be able to sit back and run a populist campaign against his own failed state.
That is what the next few months will look like and that will be how the election campaign will be conducted. The election itself will take place in a country still under partial lockdown, since if Trump has his way the virus will keep flaring up, and that threat combined with newly systematic, bare faced, and determined attempts to suppress the vote of minorities and the poor. What good is a postal vote if the Post Office is bankrupt? All of this intended to give the Republicans their best chance of victory, which, apart from protecting the grotesque wealth and privilege of the interests they represent, is all they care about.
You might think that Trump is too stupid to think this far ahead, with this element of tactical cunning, or even strategic vision, and you would be right. But his visceral instinct to find someone, anyone to blame for this mess, to pick any fight he thinks he might win and to enflame his base is enough to keep him on track. For the likes of Senator McConnell and others at the head of the Republican Party this approach is merely business as usual. After all, they deliberately deepened the post-crash recession to keep Obama to one term. Admittedly, current circumstances are a tad more extreme, but that merely raises the stakes, which means the Republicans have to go for broke even harder.
And don’t forget that the new White House Chief of Staff is one Mark Meadows, a creature of the Tea Party, got in to ginger up the re-election campaign and that, I submit, is what we are now watching in real time. It is necessary that people recognize what is happening sooner rather than later; that the press connect the dots and do the investigative reporting necessary to fill in the connections of patronage, money, and back scratching—the ligaments that are holding this effort for Republican victory together. It is also important that Democrats realize what they will be confronting. Biden’s fantasies of some return to a comforting status quo, in which he and his “old” Republican friends (fortunately Strom Thurmond is no more) somehow restore normality after the aberration of Trump and Trumpism, are a dangerous delusion. Avuncular familiarity may be part of Biden’s appeal, but the Democrats cannot live in a world of nostalgia for a lost golden age. They need to confront the realities created by the current crisis and the Republican Party as it actually exists. Trump is not an aberration but the natural consequence of central strands in Republican party politics and political maneuver over the last thirty years, and what is happening now is, or is in the process of becoming, a deliberate strategy to snatch the next election out of the fire of incompetence, corruption, and cruelty that is the Trump Administration.
Peter Lake is a professor of history at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.
Copyright 2020 Peter Lake.