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One of the frustrations of the Trump years has been the media’s seeming incapacity to develop terms it can use to understand Trumpery effectively. In what has become a persistent exercise in nostalgia, reporters and commentators continue to judge Trump against conventional expectations of what a president should be, which has led them to report in great detail his every lapse from ‘presidential’ behavior. In this way, they have ceded to him control of the news cycle, which, of course was precisely what he wanted: Trump has been the big—indeed virtually the only—story of the past five years.
The fault here lies not just with the media but also with the Democratic Party. In 2016, Hilary Clinton’s message—apart from instructing her audiences to go to her web site to see what she thought about this or that policy issue—was reduced to the irrefutable claim that she was not Donald Trump, and the given that she was a woman. The Biden campaign got perilously close to the same claim, but Biden had the admittedly considerable advantage in misanthropic America that (a) the country was being plunged into chaos by Trump’s blatant mishandling of COVID-19, and (b) Biden is not a woman. Now that the results are in, we can see that although those tactics may have won Biden the presidency, they did not stop the Republican Party from achieving otherwise extraordinarily good electoral results, all the way down ticket.
The media and the Democratic Party have persistently missed the big story of the last several decades. That story is not about Trump but rather about the Republican Party itself. By making Trump the aberrant, norm-busting problem, and casting Republicans as in some sense in thrall to Trump, both the media and the Democrats have failed to see that Trump is a product of policies and attitudes within the Republican party that date back at least to Nixon’s Southern strategy.
A few examples will suffice. On race, the main difference between Trump and the (in some quarters) now revered George Bush I, was that while Bush employed Lee Atwater to do his race baiting, Trump has cut out the middle man and done it himself. For the belief that no Democratic president can really be legitimate see various Republican antics from the Clinton impeachment, through birtherism, to the current assault on the election result. For caballing with a foreign power to effect the outcome of an American election, see Nixon’s contacts with North Vietnam in 1968 and Reagan’s with Iran in 1980. For ‘fake news’, see weapons of mass destruction. For systematic and overt lying in American politics, how about that useful idiot, Colin Powell’s performance at the United Nations? Or ‘death panels’? Or Whitewater and Vince Foster? Or Benghazi? For undermining national security agencies, see Dick Cheney’s private intelligence operation, designed precisely to undercut the normal channels, and get the ‘intelligence’ he needed to start a major war on entirely spurious grounds. For major jobs in the administrative state given to hacks and incompetents, how about ‘hell’uva job Brownie’? For irresponsible tax cuts and mounting deficits, George Bush II got there first. For undermining of the rule of law, there’s Guantanamo, and the torture regime, and the secret sites run by, amongst others, Gina Haspel, and defended by that pundit beloved of supposedly leftish media channels, John Brennan. For undermining the electoral system by voter suppression and intimidation, how about the Republican ‘redmap’ scheme of 2010 designed systematically to gerrymander their way to control of state legislatures, and if they could, the House. Not to mention myriad voter ID schemes, all of which long predate Trump. For using the Supreme Court to avoid counting all the votes, try Florida 2000 on for size. For packing the Supreme Court with ethically or intellectually challenged ideological hacks, anyone heard of Clarence Thomas and Harriet Myers? For undermining the norms and conventions of American politics, I give you Mitch McConnell in general, and, in particular, his hypocrisy over Merrick Garland and Amy Coney Barrett. For utterly irresponsible, lie-based, right wing populism, the Tea Party anyone?
If, as Obama has belatedly realized, America is having trouble with the truth these days – he calls it an epistemological crisis — then I submit that the Republicans’ capacity to invent and sustain an alternative reality is a, if not the, root cause of that crisis. And here the main exhibit is global warming. If Republicans can systematically refuse to acknowledge the existence and nature of a world-historical issue like climate change, and peddle lies and lunatic claims about it without shame—remember Inhofe’s absurd antics with a snow ball on the floor of the Senate?—then they can deny and/or believe anything. In light of that sustained scam, the Trumpian allergy to scientific expertise over the pandemic should surprise no one.
By this single refusal to recognize the human causes of climate change, the Party has ruled itself out of any form of rational discourse or serious political negotiation, and enabled its own retreat into a universe of ‘alternative facts’, shaped only by the demands of its own world-view and interests, the prejudices of its most stupid and purblind supporters, and the promptings of its corporate donors. And all that happened long before that grotesque, Kellyanne Conway, came up with the phrase itself, and even before a nameless apparatchik (possibly ‘Bush’s Brain’, Karl Rove) declared that while the ‘reality-based community’ would remain trapped in inaction, the Bush presidency was about to create its own reality in Iraq, which, of course, it did, with horribly real consequences for all concerned. Now, through a sort of epistemic trickle-down, the same ‘it-can’t-be-true-if-it-doesn’t-fit-my-presuppositions’ impulse that frames the climate denialism of the neo-liberal right and the Koch brothers has led some COVID patients in South Dakota to tell their nurses that they can’t have the virus because it does not exist; tirades quieted only when the patients have to be intubated. People are clearly paying an increasingly high price for their avoidance of Republican-induced cognitive dissonance, not only in blue state America, but also, on the climate issue, across the globe.
None of this has been done in secret, or happened by mere accident. After the ‘autopsy’ brought on by their defeat by Obama, the Republicans faced a clear choice. Instead of repositioning themselves in order to broaden their support, they made a decision to double down on their white voter base along with a coordinated strategy of gerrymandering and voter-suppression, and—as McConnell famously admitted, in order to limit Obama to one term—a resolve to frustrate the new Democratic president at every turn. Having exacerbated the economic consequences of the 2008 crash by keeping the federal rescue package far smaller than it should have been, and incessantly asking Obama, ‘Where are the jobs Mr. President?’ Republicans like McConnell and Boehner were explicit about their desire to undermine the other party at the expense of the national interest. Republicans have also been stalwart in their opposition to making voting easier. McConnell called attempts to do so a ‘partisan act’. According to the hapless Lindsey Graham, ‘If we don’t do something about voting by mail, we are going to lose the ability to elect a Republican in this country’. Trump’s only effect on Republicans like these seems to have been to make them a tad more shameless.
Trump might be the logical consequence of decades of Republican (mal)practice, but his presidency is most definitely not what many Republican politicians would have chosen. Not only does the dominating presence of Trump and his progeny continue to be a very considerable obstacle to the political ambitions of conventional Republican politicians like Cruz or Rubio, but the carnival barker Trump’s brash vulgarity reveals all too many of the dirty little secrets in the Republican play book. The mask of Senatorial gravitas becomes almost impossible to sustain in the presence of Trump. Hence the distaste and embarrassment on the faces of various Republican Senators as they rush past reporters, to do whatever Republican Senators do at lunch under COVID.
By unleashing and continuing to exploit, with their customarily mendacious cynicism, the populist forces that brought Trump to power, the Republicans have opened themselves up to outcomes they did not intend and consequences they cannot now control; a situation personified, for the moment, by Donald Trump, but almost certain to survive his political demise. By lying most intensively to their own most rabid supporters, Republicans have created a crisis of expectations, a downward spiral of more and more extreme lies, and more and more bitter recriminations, that cannot end well, either for them or the country; a situation compounded by the antics of Trump, and the emergent stab-in-the-back myth currently being constructed out of the ruins of his defeat. We are not therefore dealing so much with a long term conspiracy, conceived and realized by malign political geniuses –after all, the whole notion of ‘Bush’s brain’ was always an oxymoron — as with a massive cluster of contradictions and unintended consequences, being exploited for short term personal and political advantage by a group of mediocre political operatives and moral pygmies.
But none of this has prevented the Republicans from being entirely complicit in the Trump project. Indeed it is not clear who has been exploiting whom. Grabbed by the political pussy, engulfed in the clammily coercive Trumpian embrace, the Republicans have just laid back and thought, not of England, but of tax cuts and of scads of utterly unqualified right wing judges. Even now, Republicans collude with Trump’s clown-like attempted coup; for that is what it is, even though it is being brought to us from Four Seasons Total Landscaping, by Rudy Giuliani and a supporting cast of equally buffoonish fantasists, all seemingly playing roles in the script of an unmade Marx Brothers film. But if the presidential election had been closer, who can doubt that the Republicans would be actively prosecuting a more plausible version of the same maneuvers? Ridiculous as Trump’s current flailing-about seems, it needs to be taken seriously lest we find ourselves in the midst of a history about to repeat itself, as Marx famously did not put it, the first time as farce, the second time as tragedy.
The answer to the question posed by yet another anonymous Republican hack, ‘What harm can it do to indulge Trump until he comes round to having lost?’, is obvious; the de-legitimization of the election and of the Biden presidency amongst a very large percentage of Republican voters, and a smaller, but nonetheless significant, percentage of the total electorate. And just whose (short-term) interests might that result strengthen? Why those of an emboldened Republican party, determined to stymy Biden at every turn: to exacerbate the economic and public health consequences of the pandemic by not passing a sufficient relief bill and then pinning the resulting misery and anger, not to mention their very own Republican-created deficit, on the Biden administration, just in time for the mid-terms. After all, as even Tommy Tuberville has noticed, if Biden is not the legitimate President, then opposing everything he does is not heedless obstructionism, but patriotic duty. McConnell may be malign and cunning, but his strategy is hardly original: it worked before in 2011, and might well work again in 2022.
Much of the reporting about this systemic Republican malignity has been hampered by the media obsession with the bright shiny object that is Donald Trump and the decision of a variety of Democrats to run against Trump and not Trump and the Republicans. Both the media and the Democrats seem to have a collective determination that things ‘return to normal’ after Trump so that reality can once again conform to their own entirely conventional categories and expectations and return to business as usual.
This situation has been exacerbated by the vociferous presence in the media and in politics of a small group of now ex-Republicans desperate to make Trump the story and thus to render the corruption and malfeasance of the Republican party a recent phenomenon, a function of its subservience to the loathed Trump and his (in fact, their own carefully cultivated) base, rather than of proclivities rooted in the Republican politics of the last fifty plus years. Viewing Trump as sui generis, an aberration, has enabled them to cast a pall of nostalgia over a lost normal, in which both Bushes emerge as statesmen, Ronald Reagan remains an American hero, John McCain is elevated to the status of a secular saint, and Barack Obama becomes a great president. This is the world according to self-appointed prophets of American-ness like the oleaginous John Meacham, and it is a mere fiction; one that enables these recovering Republicans to think of themselves as the people they would like to have been, rather than as the people they were. In the privacy of their own homes, such exercises in self-exculpation would be harmless enough—after a certain age, even us non-politicians find it hard enough to live with an illusionless version of our own pasts—but performed in public, as acts of political analysis and prognostication, self-delusion on this scale becomes part of the problem from which these people are trying, so desperately, to distance themselves.
All of this delusional thinking matters because, bizarrely enough, the reward for the extraordinary efforts of millions of voters and thousands of activists and volunteers in prizing the election away from Donald Trump is—wait for it—Joe Biden, a mediocre centrist politician of advanced years who seems not only seems not to have learned the lessons of the Trump years, but to have missed out on those of the Obama administration as well.
Biden is now the arch-purveyor of the myth of Donald Trump as aberration, and hence as the problem. The danger is that he actually believes his shtick about ‘restoring the soul of the nation’, bringing the country together again by reaching out across the aisle to the Republicans. He shows no sign of wanting to investigate or unmask the excesses and crimes of the Trump administration, and every sign of wanting to fill his cabinet with the sort of centrists who inhabited the Obama administration. That prospect is bad enough, even if the Democrats were to win Georgia’s two Senate seats. The prognosis will be disastrous if they don’t.
The Democratic Party has a dismal record of wanting to ‘move on’ in order to ‘preserve the stability of the country and return to normal’. The list is long: it starts with their failure to impeach Reagan after Iran Contra—a far worse abuse of presidential power and subversion of the Constitution than anything attempted by Nixon or Trump (at least until the last couple of weeks); their acquiescence in the judicial coup in 2000; their leaving the torture regime of the Bush administration uninvestigated and unpunished; their caving in on Guantanamo; their collaboration in a bank bail-out that left no banker even disgraced, let alone imprisoned. In the medium to long term, these errors were all disastrous. They gave us the reverence for Ronald Reagan and all that has meant for the limits of the sayable and doable in American politics in the decades since; the Afghan and Iraq wars, not to mention the Katrina debacle; a well spring of populist anger waiting for a Trump to come along and exploit it; the likes of John Yu, speaking from the comfort of Berkeley’s law school, rather than from disgrace at home or better yet in prison, and the egregious Bill Barr, in the Justice Department, of all places, trotting out the same extreme versions of presidential prerogative that underpinned Iran Contra and the Bush torture regime in order to defend Trump from impeachment.
The normal to which we are supposed to want to return is what gave us Donald Trump in the first place, and the forces that produced that outcome have not gotten weaker in the interim. Nor is there anything ‘normal’ about the pandemic and its economic impact; about the climate crisis, or about the levels of inequality, poverty, and incarceration current in this country.
Biden, in his former persona as Senator for the credit card industry, and a sponsor of the Crime Bill, was (admittedly a small) part of the normality that got us here. Like many an old man, he seems to hanker after what he recalls as the certainties of the good old days when he could cut deals with Strom Thurmond. However, if he is to do anything about the current conjuncture, or indeed preserve the electoral coalition that won him the election, he has to leave his past behind. Nor can he or we expect much help from the ‘socialist’ Kamala Harris, who alas turns out to be no such thing, but just another ‘pragmatic’ centrist with no discernible ideological commitments or policy chops, used to running on who she is rather than on any very acute analysis of what is wrong or what is to be done. Obama ran on not being George Bush, the prospect of becoming the first African American president, and being quite cool, all of which he managed to pull off. As noted, Biden ran on not being Donald Trump. Making good on that promise also seems to be well within his grasp. But that won’t be enough.
Right now, the realities of the Trump regime need to be tied around the Republican Party’s neck. Refusal to act on the pandemic and the economy needs to be similarly tied around the neck of Mitch McConnell and his Republican cohort in the Senate. Republicans must be made to pay the political price for their obstructionism and norm busting. The campaign for the mid-terms needs to start now. For their part, that campaign seems to be all the Republicans are thinking about. Democrats will not get anywhere by holding back, hoping that Republicans will help them govern or act in anything like good faith. Given the history of the last few decades, that impulse represents a triumph of hope over expectation of heroic proportions; one that will both hobble Biden in the exercise of the powers he does have and hand an enormous political advantage to the Republicans. All Biden has to do to avoid that danger, is, in his late seventies, purge himself of the political and mental habits of half a century. Promised land, anyone?
Peter Lake is the University Distinguished Professor of History at Vanderbilt University. His books include The Antichrist’s Lewd Hat (Yale University Press, 2002) and The Boxmaker’s Revenge (Stanford University Press, 2002)
Copyright 2020 Peter Lake.