by Akim Reinhardt
Every Democrat, and many independent voters, breathed an enormous sigh of relief when Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump in the November election. Now they are all nervously counting down the days (16) until the last of Trump’s frivolous lawsuits is dismissed, his minions’ stones bounce of the machinery of our electoral system, and Trump is finally evicted from the White House. Only then can we set about repairing the very significant damage that Trump and Trumpism have wrought upon our republican (small r) and democratic (small d) institutions.
Yet at the same time, many savvy Democrats do not want Trump to actually go away. Remain out of office, whether president or dog catcher? Absolutely. But quietly fade into the woodwork as former presidents generally do, and no longer be a presence in American politics? Well, not exactly.
Why? Because here in the waning days of Trump’s presidency, Republicans face a potential crisis. Like a piece of hot iron on an anvil, the party is being bent in two different directions, hammered by a simple question: What comes next?
The answer is no simple matter because Trumpism was not politics as usual for America, and especially for Republicans.
Unlike Republican presidential nominees before him, Donald Trump did not ascended to the top of the GOP by building alliances with party power brokers. Instead of playing nice with them, he actually alienated them. They opposed him, and won despite them by pulling an end around and appealing directly to primary voters. He built up his cult of personality by channeling an excitable brand of right wing populism that partly eschewed Republican orthodoxy.
Trump was perhaps uniquely positioned to do this successfully.
The Clean Slate: With no political experience, the GOP owed him no favors, and he owed it none. He was free to piss off everyone who mattered, save for the voters.
Fame: A seasoned celebrity, he was well versed at maximizing his perverse, antagonizing charisma to gain attention and draw followers.
Flexible Ideology: A semi-illiterate dolt, his lack of ideological grounding allowed him to treat any and all political issues as nothing more than fodder for his cult of personality.
Win at All Costs: A narcissistic charlatan, he would sell his own family to white slavers if it got him what he wanted. And he wanted to be president. Not actually do anything in particular as president, but to simply be president. Or as he saw it, something more like King of the World, who’s every whim would be attended to.
Trump paved his unconventional route to victory by larding the path with racist, nativist, sexist, and fundamentalist anger, paranoia, and resentment. That, in and of itself, is acceptable to the GOP. At least to a degree. Republican politicians have excited, or at least tolerated these hatreds since the mid-1960s. But there are limits. These stances have always been reconciled them with Republican orthodoxy on issues that party leaders hold sacred (eg. lower taxes and big military spending).
What made Trump different was his willingness to discard such reconciliations to pursue his ever more populist appeal. His vitriol has not always lined up with the core GOP agenda consecrated by the Reagan Revolution. Instead, he has promoted a hodgepodge of whatever works best for him.
Not enmeshed in dogma, Trump instinctively understood that there are really only two sacred cows to the Republican masses: guns and fetuses. Three if you count the flag, but that’s not a specific policy stance, just something to wrap yourself in. So Trump did what any successful, modern, right wing American politician must do: he consistently fed the crowd anti-abortion and 2nd amendment red meat.
But as a supreme huckster, Trump’s genius has been to occasionally crash through the velvet rope of Conservative Republican dogma, and pitch other morsels that Republican voters lapped up, but which gave the party’s leadership and donor class indigestion. Like pebbles wrapped in bacon.
It began with his 2016 campaign tirades against undocumented immigrants. The topic was nothing new. Some Republicans have long spewed right wing populist bile against “illegal immigrants” to stoke racism and fear about crime. But there’s a line. Say whatever you want, but don’t actually do anything to stop the flow of undocumented immigration that floods the labor markets, because the Republican (and Democratic) business class profits immensely by exploiting this vulnerable class of workers.
However, Trump didn’t simply up the rhetorical ante by calling Mexicans murders and rapists. He ranted about building a wall and actually preventing anyone from coming in. Stop immigration from Latin America? This was heterodox to the GOP, the party of business. But Trump didn’t care, and his extreme nativism resonated with millions of Republican voters. So he kept pushing it, making it the central issue of his 2016 presidential campaign.
The issue of international trade played out similarly. Bitching about China? Have at it. Republicans love a little international rivalry fueled by xenophobia. But actually pushing for trade tariffs? Free trade has been Republican dogma for almost a century. Promoting free trade has been so successful for them, that even Democrats, the party that had promised to protect unionized manufacturing jobs, gave up and got on board in the 1990s.
This was not what GOP power brokers wanted. But just as many Republican voters chanted “Build that wall!” they also responded heartily to Trump’s protectionist message that tariffs would bring back manufacturing jobs.
It’s true that the wall and tariffs were unlikely to ever amount to much, and could not effectively achieve their stated goals even if they did. Trump’s claims about the wall were incoherent and nonsensical: it would run the entire the entire length of Mexican border, nearly 2,000 miles of it; Mexico would pay for it (that one still makes me laugh); and apparently it would be immune to shovels and ladders. And tariffs? Congress simply would not pass anything substantive and/or lasting.
But to some degree, none of that mattered, and neither did the very real question of whether Trump understood any of this. It seems likely that he still doesn’t, but let’s not place too much importance on that. He’s very stupid. We already know this. Rather, the point is that he championed proposals that openly defied Republican policy goals. And when Republican voters responded energetically to them, he kept doubling down, feeding his ego and garnering their votes.
Right wing populism, which partially defied Republican orthodoxy and created intra-party tensions, were central to Trump’s presidency. Many of the more doltish Republican back-benchers genuinely lionized Trump. But most of the GOP power class secretly loathed him, in part because he is an utterly reprehensible person, and more importantly because major elements of his political agenda oppose standard Republican orthodoxy. Yet nearly all of them were too cowardly to standup to Trump once he had cemented his popularity among Republican voters.
But now the bell tolls for Donald Trump. The hour is nigh, and of late some Republican leaders have rediscovered a modicum of political courage. Not enough to do the right thing and outright denounce Trump, but just enough to forcefully push back on issues favored by party power brokers. Last week saw two firm Republican rebukes of Trump.
First, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (KY-R) killed any chance of $2,000 Covid relief checks to Americans, making them settle for the measly $600 passed earlier. He did this even though as recently as Wednesday morning Trump tweeted “$2000 ASAP!”
Then, Republican leaders in both the House and Senate worked with Democratic leaders to do something unthinkable just a few weeks ago: override a Trump veto. Congress mustered bi-partisan, two-thirds super majorities and re-passed the Defense Bill that Trump had shot down. The bill included a pay raise for military personnel, which made it easier for Republicans to standup to Trump. But it wasn’t too long ago that Republicans would have made damned sure to avoid ever even being in this position, only passing a bill that Trump would personally promise to sign.
Recent actions by McConnell and other top dog Republicans illustrate how some GOP politicians are tentatively moving away from Trump, or at least away from populist elements of Trumpism that defy GOP orthodoxy. Welfare spending for the poor and working classes? Not spending eagerly and lavishly on the military? Enough is enough.
But Trump is still here, and Trump is still wildly popular among Republican voters, so it’s not as simple as that. Even as the party’s leadership begins ushering its return to orthodoxy, many Republican politicians continue to publicly embrace Trumpism. And not just the glassy-eyed true believers, but especially the cynical carrion feeders among their lot. Those who want to build up their own power bases in the aftermath of Trump’s loss.
Like cheap, snapping plastic pieces in the child’s game Hungry Hungry Hippo, many GOP politicians are frantically scrabbling to scoop up Trump’s supporters after he is out of office. Right now that means pandering to Trump’s most precious agenda: authoritarian dreams of eternal power.
Trump shits all over over the constitution and they say nothing. What’s more, they make a very public show of doing his dictatorial bidding.
Nearly a quarter of Senate Republicans have announced they will formally object to the electoral college vote count on Wednesday. They all know that the protest will not actually change the election results. However, by pandering to Trump, they hope to charm the roughly 40% of Republican voters who have fully descended into delusional cultishness and believe Biden’s election victory and upcoming presidency are illegitimate.
The impending Senate objection is just one of many shameless and profoundly cynical actions by Republicans that have the potential to gravely harm the U.S. constitutional system by destroying norms of governance. But it also reveals a Republican schism that can possibly divide the party for years to come.
On the one hand, as sorry as they are to lose the White House, many Republican politicians and donors are very glad that the untamable and erratic Trump will soon to be gone. On the other hand, many Republican politicians will continue to promote Trumpism so long as Donald Trump remains the
golden orange calf who tens of millions of Republican voters worship
This division depends on Trump hanging around. He is clearly a man of limited agency, and his voracious ego and endless insecurities will almost certainly lead him to continue demanding attention. Maybe he returns to being a little more than a largely apolitical reality TV star. Or maybe he continues splashing about in the political tub because he cherishes the attention, affection, praise, and promises of power it brings him.
Gosh, he really does seem to love holding those rallies.
So perhaps Donald Trump does not really go away. And the dirty truth is, some Democrats would be happy with that. They want him to remain in the limelight, to continue shouting and stamping his feet, and thereby continue making it difficult for Republican leaders to push pure Republican orthodoxy.
Out of office, Trump’s ability to inflict real damage is minimized. But so long as he has a massive bullhorn, his ability to continue dividing the GOP remains strong. And if this spray-tanned carnival barker can still sell tickets to the media circus, then he will continue to have an enormous platform. If his popularity among Republican voters persists, if he remains politically focused, and if he continues advocating rightist populism, then GOP power brokers will be forced to choose between quietly bucking him and loudly sucking up to him.
And should a Big Mac Coronary not strike him down over the next three years, then perhaps Trump’s lust for power and attention will lead him back to the campaign trail in 2024, and drive an even deeper wedge into the Republican Party.
Sometimes it’s too much to hope for the best, and all that is left to us is wishing ill upon our enemies.
Akim Reinhardt’s website is ThePublicProfessor.com