There is no telling what Donald Trump, his lawyers, and the mobs he stirs up will do, no telling what norms and laws they will break or what havoc they will cause, but there is no doubt that a significant majority of voters are about to hand him a more thoroughgoing condemnation than he and his supporters expect or are equipped to understand.
The impetus for seeing to his demise has been in the works since even before Day One, as voters’ remorse began to break out among those benighted “moderates” who voted for Trump four years ago. Anti-Trump militancy has been on the rise ever since.
But the hardcore Trump base has remained steadfast; in some quarters, it has solidified into something very like a cult. This makes anti-Trump voters nervous, afraid that 2020 will be 2016 all over again.
But with Election Day almost upon us, the tide seems to be turning against the Donald, increasing the already substantial likelihood that, before long, he will be toast. This is happening not so much because his base is splintering, but because the anti-Trump opposition is more fired up than it was four years ago. The realization that a second Trump term would pose an existential threat to nearly everything worth caring about seems to have had that effect.
But why has it taken so long, and why is it happening now?
Clearly, not because the Biden-Harris ticket has captured voters’ hearts and minds. Intent on maintaining their own power and, insofar as there is a difference, on pleasing their donors, the Democratic Party establishment put their worst, not their best, foot forward — quashing the Sanders and Warren campaigns and then deciding to make Joe Biden their man. Trump is about to become toast in spite of, not because of, his opponent.
The reasons why this is now more likely than ever has little to do with his character or abilities. After all, it is hardly news that all his qualities are negative, that the man is boorish, laughable, misogynistic, racist, nativist, psychologically damaged, morally vile, and patently unfit to be the president of a super-power.
Awareness of his obvious shortcomings caused nearly everyone four years ago to think that he didn’t stand a chance in the general election. It was preposterous enough that he somehow managed to defeat the stooges he ran against in the GOP primaries. But the presidency? The very idea defied credulity.
Thus, it is only in retrospect that people have come to see their way clear to blaming Hillary Clinton, corporate and social media, our semi-established duopoly party system, the obtuseness of roughly half the electorate, and the undemocratic electoral institutions, the Electoral College especially, that our “founding fathers” bequeathed us. At the time, there was no need for explanations; it wouldn’t, it couldn’t, happen.
Nevertheless, H.L. Mencken’s prophesy came true: that “on some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” That day was Inauguration Day 2017. Since then, what passes for “democracy” in America, never much to brag about, fell into a precipitous decline.
In the view of Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), “the government is best which governs least.” After Trump, even libertarian ideologues will have a hard time repeating that one. No American president in modern times has governed less and also governed worse than he has.
Over the past four years, he has achieved hardly anything that anyone who is not a plutocrat, a xenophobe, or an outright racist could be pleased with. All that he has done is make every situation with which he has involved himself more onerous for the vast majority of Americans.
Thus, his singular legislative triumph, a tax cut for corporations and the rich, has increased our already prodigious levels of economic inequality, exacerbating the many problems that inequality causes. Like all of his predecessors in this neoliberal age, but to a greater extent, Trump has helped make the rich richer and the poor worse off.
His administration has rolled back scores of regulations that offered inadequate but nevertheless significant protections against global warming and other assaults on the earth’s ecosystems. Protecting the environment has no place in his worldview; he cannot be bothered. His concern is only to feather his own nest, and to secure the support of other capitalists similarly determined to despoil whatever they believe they must in order to cause their wealth to grow. More people than ever now understand that this is so, and it is not making him any more popular.
Neither are his efforts to reset US-China relations in economically and militarily dangerous ways, his fondness for and subservience to authoritarian regimes abroad, and his disdain for countries with more robust democratic practices and institutional arrangements than our own.
With the Soviet Union gone, and the historically Muslim world not quite up to the task of sustaining a perpetual war regime, the American military-industrial-national security state complex is becoming increasingly desperate for a Cold War. They need one to justify themselves and to keep taxpayer money flowing their way.
But, thanks to the Clintons and their cohort, the Democrats had first dibs on Russia, the easiest and most obvious target. And thanks to who-knows-what, Trump has never shown any interest at all in making an enemy of Russia in any case. Too bad for him that the only other plausible enemy capable of filling the void, China, has such a large economy that is so inter-twined with our own.
Going after the Chinese at a rhetorical level can serve a political purpose. Obama realized that too; it is what his “pivot towards Asia” was about. But going after China for real only spells trouble. Most Americans know it too. This is yet another reason why he is on the brink of becoming toast.
But, to the shame of the American voting public, getting to that point has turned out to be a slow and arduous process.
Upon assuming office, Trump became crueler and more reprehensible than anyone before his election could have imagined. If the notion of “crimes against humanity” has any meaning at all, his family separation policies – tearing children, including babies and toddlers, away from their parents’ arms and putting them in cages – is and ought to be a textbook case.
Trump deserves to be toast on this account alone, but it hasn’t happened. Even with his cruelty on display, his approval ratings have remained basically the same from the time the dust settled after the 2016 election until the present moment. His ineptitude and malevolence – indeed, his depraved indifference — after the covid-19 pandemic struck, seems to have left his base unmoved.
But there is movement on the other side as despair gives way to activism. Four years ago, it seemed obvious that Trump could not possibly win. Then, for the past four years, it has seemed that, one way or another, he would never be gone.
But with the prospect of four more years of him looming, the anti-Trump majority is finally coming to appreciate the power it wields, and the urgency of wielding it. There are, of course, still plenty of ill-informed and indifferent citizens around, and apathy remains a problem. But the mood outside the Trumpian ambit is changing. For this, paradoxically, we have mainly Trump himself to thank.
It is not exactly news that the man is a moron. But there is, as the cable networks would say, “breaking news” on this front even so. It is that Trump is a “special” kind of moron, one who likes to cut the ground out from under himself.
I cannot say whether this has always been the case and is only now becoming apparent, or whether new developments in the political scene are giving rise to new turns in the dark recesses of Trump’s mind. This is an interesting question, but, for all practical purposes, it hardly matters which.
Here are some examples worth pondering:
1) Evangelicals have a demonstrable ability to believe nonsense. Most white Christian evangelicals have a particular affinity for reactionary politics as well. They will therefore make common cause with those whom their ideological ancestors would have regarded as ungodly reprobates, whenever doing so accords with their conception of providential design.
Thus, they love or at least tolerate Trump.
Theirs is, however, not just a marriage forged in hell; it is also a marriage of convenience. Trump needs them for votes, they need him to further their goals.
However, they realize that, as matters now stand, Congress cannot do as much for them as the federal judiciary can. Republicans in the House and Senate can and do get in the way of policies reactionaries deplore, but they cannot defy the popular will on, say, abortion, and they cannot be counted on to secure exemptions for them from federal and state laws on ostensibly religious grounds. For that, they need the federal courts, the Supreme Court especially, under their thumb.
What they wanted from Trump was a Supreme Court packed with reactionary justices. Because they fear, not unreasonably, that, when Trump is gone, that window of opportunity will close, they seized upon the vacancy opened up by Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death to ram through Amy Coney Barrett’s lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court. Coney Barrett is a woman with as sterling a rightwing record as any retrograde Evangelical could desire.
However, for Trump, her appointment is a mixed blessing, whether he realizes it or not. On the one hand, because he campaigned on making judicial appointments that would make mincemeat of women’s reproductive freedom, it lets him boast of “promises made, promises kept.” It also puts a Justice with a deciding ninth vote on the Court who could help him enormously should the election results be brought within that court’s bailiwick and should she lack the decency to recuse herself from its decisions.
On the other hand, though, her appointment removes the main reason why evangelicals have been among his most reliable defenders. Now that they have what they want, their reason for putting up with the likes of him is shot to hell.
Of course, the joke is on them and on Trump too because if Biden wins and the Democrats win control of both the House and the Senate, they can easily neutralize the harm that Trump and Mitch McConnell’s GOP Senate caucus have done. All they would have to do is expand the Court.
This, of course, assumes that Biden and Democrats like him have backbones. On that, the jury is likely to be out for a while.
So far, though, they have not exactly been coming on like gangbusters. Of course, with only a few days to go before the final votes are cast, this may reflect judiciousness more than inveterate cowardice. Biden may be thinking that, at this point, there is no need, to trouble those suburban Republican women that they keep talking about winning over. Or, just as likely, his timeworn right centrist soul may be asserting itself yet again.
2) There is nothing yet to be determined about the wisdom of Trump putting his supporters in harm’s way by encouraging them to ignore public health guidelines and by bringing them to covid-19 super-spreader events in “hotspots” in so-called “battleground states.” This is apparently Trump’s “closing argument.”
Why do they willingly, indeed eagerly, put themselves, their families, their friends, and their communities in mortal peril just to hear Trump air his grievances? This is a matter for future historians and psychologists to ponder; their bizarre behavior is almost certainly of more clinical than political interest.
Our presidential elections are more like sales campaigns than anything the great democratic theorists of the past imagined. And, as any competent huckster knows, you don’t insult or otherwise disparage your marks, at least not to their face. Conmen know this best of all.
But this is what Trump does every chance he gets, at rally after rally. Turn on the news at any time and marvel as examples accumulate.
Hucksters don’t kill off their marks either or go out of their way to make them sick. Somehow Trump seems to have missed that lesson in business school.
A fair observer might conclude that he is actually intent on sabotaging his own campaign. Perhaps he is at some level. But he is also as psychologically invested as can be in winning. Indeed, it is because he realizes that he is on track for becoming toast that he is presently decomposing in full public view.
Why is he so intent on bringing on the thing he wants least? The most obvious answer is also the simplest: that his self-described, “very, very large” and also “very stable” brain is unable to rise above foolish inconsistencies.
How else to explain the hundred and eighty degree turns he makes almost as frequently as he tells outright lies? He has been flip-flopping all along, but lately he seems to have ratcheted up the pace to a truly alarming level.
On this basis alone, it is fair to infer that until we see the back of him, thoroughly and definitively, grave dangers lie ahead.
3) The danger that now seems most concerning is that he will not vacate his office voluntarily. It is no secret that Trump has a fondness for “strongmen.” Lately, it has become increasingly clear that he aspires to become one himself. But with some sixty percent or more of the people dead set against him, time is not on his side.
No matter how self-deluded he may be, and no matter how much he believes his own propaganda, he is surely cunning enough to realize, at some level, that, if he loses both the popular vote and in the Electoral College, any chance of becoming what he wants to be will be forever shot. He must realize that he is more likely to spend the rest of his life in prison than in the Oval Office.
I would venture, though, that his chances of becoming the strongman he aspires to be are nil – not so much because our institutions will hold the line, though they likely will to some extent, and not because our political class will rise to the occasion, though there are grounds for hope there too, but again because Trump, a moron of a special kind, the kind that does himself in.
How ironic is that!
Were he smarter and less ignorant, he would realize what every strongman instinctively knows and what every student of history could tell him: that, even with forty percent or more of the population behind him, he can’t get to where he wants to go just by running a con.
Strongmen are nothing without the support of the most dynamic sectors of the ruling class, the media, the military, the national security state apparatus, and the bureaucrats who actually make state institutions work.
But instead of cultivating these forces, Trump has seized every opportunity to disparage them – to the point that they will be as glad as anybody to see the back of him.
In the strongman worldview, political power grows out of the barrel of a gun. Trump has done his best to turn those guns against himself – the ones that actually matter, not the ones wielded by the morons who come to his rallies in open-carry states.
Thus, with Trump-friendly media in tow, he mouths on endlessly about the evils of “the deep state,” giving voice to a paranoid delusion about dark forces out to get him.
Not long ago, the “deep state” concept served a useful purpose. Political scientists and others used it to explain how it is that in parliamentary political systems, where top offices change hands frequently, political stability is generally well maintained. The reason is that the deep state, the bureaucrats who do the actual governing, hardly changes. Even as policies and personnel at the top change, the personnel doing the actual governing remain largely the same.
Students of the politics of countries in the Mediterranean region – Turkey and Italy especially – found this concept particularly useful.
Now it has become almost useless outside the political fantasies of the far right. This is hardly the worst thing Trump’s delusions have led to, but it is regrettable.
It should be noted, though, that the opposition of the deep state as Trump (mis)conceives it is perhaps our best defense against whatever shenanigans he might try to unleash after November 3.
What was he thinking? The short answer is: he wasn’t thinking. Morons aren’t capable.
Were he more lucid and self-aware, he would realize that there is no deep state out to get him; that he is out to get himself.
This is why, sooner or later, he will indeed be toast. Sooner is, by far, the better bet; and for this we can only rejoice.