Donald Trump entered our political bloodstream propelled by racism and mendacity—the bogus “birther” movement intended to delegitimize America’s first black president. Six years later he is exiting our highest office trailing lies and extra-constitutional maneuvers aimed at maintaining power by disenfranchising black voters.
In between he inflicted on us a presidency which was ignorant, cruel, reckless, lawless, divisive, and disloyal. Mendacity and bigotry became the mode of communication between America’s president and his party’s base. Not only did he worsen a deadly pandemic—by immersing an angry and alienated minority in his alternate reality, he is sickening our future.
Trump did not materialize from the ether. He rose from a political party bent on thwarting demographic change by subverting the democratic process; a party whose base was addicted to white identity politics, steeped in religious fundamentalism, and suffused with authoritarian cravings—a party which, infected by Trumpism, now spreads the multiple malignancies metastasized by Trump’s personal and political pathologies.
Since the civil rights revolution triggered an influx of resentful Southern whites, the GOP has catered to white grievance and anxiety. Trump’s transformative contribution has been to make racial antagonism overt—a badge of pride that bonds him to his followers in opposition to a pluralist democracy that threatens their imperiled social and political hegemony.
Hence the 2019 tweet in which America’s president told four congresswomen of color—three native-born Americans and one a naturalized citizen—that they should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” With poisonous efficiency, Trump managed to combine racism, xenophobia, and hostility to non-white immigrants to inflame his followers’ antagonism against “the other.”
He comprehends his audience all too well. Take the poll released last week by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) measuring the attitudes of “Fox News Republicans”—the 40 percent of party adherents who trust Fox as their primary source of TV news. The survey found that 91 percent oppose the Black Lives Matter movement; 90 percent believe that police killings of blacks are “isolated incidents”; and 58 think that whites are victimized by racial discrimination, compared to 36 percent who think blacks are.
Their animus toward immigration is equally strong. Substantial majorities believe that immigrants consume a disproportionate amount of governmental services, increase crime in local communities, and threaten our cultural and ethnic character. Support for Trump’s wall is nearly unanimous (96 percent); two-thirds (66 percent) favor barring refugees from entering the United States; and a majority (53 percent) support separating children from their parents when a family enters the country without permission.
Another key subgroup of the GOP base, white evangelicals, harbors similar attitudes. The poll found that the majority adamantly disbelieve that the legacy of racial discrimination makes it difficult for African Americans to succeed. The head of the PRRI, Robert P. Jones, concludes that Trump arouses white Christians “not despite, but through appeals to white supremacy” based on evoking “powerful fears about the loss of White Christian dominance.”
That sense of racial and cultural besiegement pervades the 73 percent of Fox News Republicans who, the survey found, believe that white Christians suffer from “a lot” of societal discrimination—more than double the number who say that blacks do. This religious persecution complex explains the otherwise mystifying ability of evangelicals to conjure a “war on Christmas” from the greeting “happy holidays”—simply because some Americans choose to acknowledge our divergent beliefs.
In sum, the GOP is now the party of white identity. In 2016, Vox reports, Trump carried whites by 54 to 39 percent; in 2020, by 57 to 42 percent (per the raw exit polls). Whites are the only racial group whose majority supported Trump; in both elections, Trump lost overwhelmingly among nonwhite Americans. It has long been apparent that the party cannot indefinitely survive the changing demographics which are making us a multiracial democracy—and which engender such resentment in its electoral base.
That fear of displacement helps explain the profound emotional connection between Trump and Republican voters. Their loyalty is not to the political philosophy traditionally embraced by the GOP, but a visceral sense of racial, religious, and cultural identity—and the need to preserve it—which is instinctively authoritarian and anti-democratic.
This linkage is captured through research by Vanderbilt political scientist Larry Bartels which Philip Bump reported in the Washington Post last September. Bartels surveyed respondents regarding four statements which, taken together, read like a blueprint for Trump:
- The traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.
- A time will come when patriotic Americans have to take the law into their own hands.
- Strong leaders sometimes have to bend the rules in order to get things done.
- It is hard to trust the results of elections when so many people will vote for anyone who offers a handout.
Reports Bump: “Most Republicans and Republican-leaning independents agreed with the first statement. . . . Nearly three-quarters agreed that election results should be treated with skepticism.” Republicans and Republican-leaning independents were also “significantly more likely to say they agreed with the other two statements than that they disagreed.”
“Ethnic antagonism,” Bartels told Bump, is “the most powerful factor associated with willingness to resort to force in pursuit of political ends and support for ‘patriotic Americans’ taking the law into their own hands and ‘strong leaders’ bending rules.” This lies at the heart of Trump’s appeal: his shared sense of victimization by an insidious elite; his unvarnished denunciation of white America’s supposed enemies; and his promise to keep them at bay—if necessary, by force. For many in the Republican base, he fulfills a psychic longing for an American strongman.
This will to autocracy as self-defense is supplemented by fundamentalist fanaticism. In the New York Times, Katherine Stewart describes the growth of “a radical political ideology that is profoundly hostile to democracy and pluralism, and a certain political style that seeks to provoke moral panic, rewards the paranoid and views every partisan conflict as a conflagration, the end of the world.”
Further, Stewart observes, “Christian nationalism is a creation of a uniquely isolated messaging sphere. Many members of the rank and file get their main political information not just from messaging platforms that keep their audiences in a world that is divorced from reality, but also from dedicated religious networks and reactionary faith leaders.” Their unwavering loyalty despite Trump’s glaring personal faults is, she adjures, “proof enough that the religious-nationalist end of the right-wing information bubble has gotten more, not less, resistant over time.”
Stewart chillingly describes a November 11 virtual prayer gathering organized by the Family Research Council. One speaker asserted that Joe Biden’s election embodied “the whole godless ideology that’s wanted to swallow our homes, destroy our marriages, throw our children into rivers of confusion”; another that Biden and Kamala Harris represent an “ideology” that is “anti-Christ, anti-Biblical to its core.” When electoral defeat augurs a religious apocalypse in the minds of evangelicals, democracy itself becomes their enemy.
This compound of racial, cultural, and religious anxiety drives the GOP’s longstanding aversion to minority voting rights—and to representative governance in an increasingly diverse society. As Republican strategists well appreciate, a party whose appeal is confined to conservative whites is, over the demographic long term, doomed to defeat. The GOP’s design is to postpone as long as possible their electoral day of reckoning.
The party’s efforts to suppress the nonwhite electorate through voter ID laws, upheld by its conservative Supreme Court majority, have been amply documented—as have its massive voter purges and poll closures in minority precincts. The cynical pretext for these measures—the prevention of voting fraud for which no evidence exists—became the GOP’s primary means of tilting elections long before Trump appropriated it to enrage his credulous base.
No such excuse precedes the party’s overt reliance on extreme gerrymandering to fix congressional and state legislative elections—upheld, once again, by Republican justices. Examples abound. In 2018, Wisconsin’s electorate gave Democrats 53 percent of their votes, whereupon Republicans won 63 of the 99 seats in the state assembly; 11 of the 17 seats up for election in the state senate; and 5 of the state’s 8 congressional districts.
But these subversions of the popular will, however grotesque, merely serve as the gateway to Trump’s efforts to steal the presidency by rigging the Electoral College to reverse Joe Biden’s indubitable victory. In launching his naked attempt to disenfranchise the majority of voters in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin through assertions of fraud unprecedented in their speciousness and scope, Trump took the GOP’s distaste for free and fair elections to its logical conclusion: the abrogation of American democracy at the highest level.
Trump justified his anti-democratic sociopathy by proliferating a plethora of groundless and preposterous falsehoods calculated to delegitimize our electoral processes. He claimed that millions of phony mail-in ballots had been cast for Biden; that voting machines had been re-engineered to exclude millions more cast for him; and that Republican election observers had been excluded from many polling places by a host of local officials bent on serving a labyrinthine conspiracy to purloin the White House.
“The Radical Left Democrats,” Trump tweeted, “working with their partner, the Fake News Media, are trying to STEAL this Election.” Never once did he or his lawyers cite a shred of evidence supporting any material impropriety. Rather his purpose was to convince the Republican base that they were being cheated of their leader by the insidious “other.” Numerous polls confirm that it’s working; typical is a Politico/Morning Consult survey showing that 70 percent of Republicans don’t believe the election was fairly conducted.
So persuaded, the base supports Trump’s desperate efforts to overturn the results. He began with a spate of bogus lawsuits seeking to invalidate many thousands of ballots in five critical states—particularly those cast by African Americans in major cities like Philadelphia, Detroit, Atlanta, and Milwaukee. This effort at race-based disenfranchisement differed only in scale and timing, but not in kind, from the GOP’s traditional efforts to prevent minorities from voting at all.
Subjected to an embarrassing series of defeats, Trump then turned to attacks on long-established norms which exposed the seamy reality of banana Republicanism: By attempting to prevent partisan local and state officials from certifying the results confirming Biden’s victory, Trump hoped to persuade Republican state legislators to appoint a rival slate of Trump electors and then ask the Congress to choose them over Biden’s—or at least to judge enough electoral votes unsettled to throw the decision to the House of Representatives. The House would presumably then hand Trump a second term because, per the constitutional provision for “contingent” elections that was last used in 1825, each state delegation would get one vote—and at least 26 delegations in the new Congress will contain more Republicans than Democrats.
Setting aside that this would shred American democracy, Trump’s plan suffered from a situational flaw: In key states, Democratic governors could prevent this from happening.
Last night, this improvisational strategy finally collapsed from its own incongruity. Newly spotlighted by unwanted celebrity, Michigan’s canvassing board voted—with one abstention—to certify the state’s electoral results. Shortly thereafter, the head of the federal government’s General Services Administration, who had for weeks stymied the orderly transition process to the Biden administration, at last authorized the transition to go forward. However defiant, Trump is destined to leave office without acknowledging his loss.
One can fairly ask whether, in a closer election, Republicans would have pushed even harder to give Trump a second term he had lost at the ballot box. And even now one can ascertain the ongoing harm to our democracy from Trump’s aborted efforts.
It is not just the death threats against secretaries of state from both parties who defied Trump’s wishes. It is the perpetuation of a distrust in democracy among a significant segment of Americans; the encouragement of Republican state legislatures to pass more restrictive voting laws; the image of a president using the trappings of his office to lobby state officials; and the prospect of more successful efforts to rig presidential elections. As Trevor Potter, a Republican who formerly headed the Federal Election Commission, told the New York Times, Trump “is creating a road map to destabilization and chaos in future years. . . . What he’s saying, explicitly, is if a party doesn’t like the election result they have the right to change it by gaming the system.”
One danger has become abundantly clear: far too many elected Republicans are just fine with Trump’s anti-democratic moves, or at least would not honor their sworn responsibility to defend the Constitution from his depredations—often because they are simply too terrified of their party’s base, and the voracious right-wing media which inflames it.
That partisan media, ever more toxic, is creating a separate America fed by infinite servings of hagiography and disinformation meant to nourish Trump’s cult of personality. Their latest target of opportunity is Fox News, which has thrived on igniting a Republican audience galvanized by fealty to Trump. As Trump works to undermine the election, outlets like Newsmax and OAN are striving to cannibalize Fox’s viewership by outdoing its hysteria in perpetuating Trumps lies and endorsing his methods
Here, remarkably, Tucker Carlson serves as a cautionary tale. When Carlson dismissed, as gently as possible, the crackpot allegations of Trump lawyer Sidney Powell about a sweeping conspiracy using rogue voting machines, he was savaged across the right-wing echo chamber as a spineless quisling. Lesson learned.
At bottom, this is about money. As Paul Waldman of the Washington Post observes: “It is not enough for the GOP’s base to be disappointed in the results of the election and determined to do better next time. They must be enraged. For the conservative media, creating and feeding anger is a business model that goes back decades.”
Republican officials who defy Trump can expect no sanctuary save on media loathed by the base. Their cautionary tale is Mitt Romney, conspicuous in his forthright denunciation of Trump’s efforts to overturn the election: “It is difficult to imagine a worse, more undemocratic action by a sitting American President.”
Duly castigated, Romney stands virtually alone. Most elected Republicans have spent the last three weeks vociferously supporting Trump’s machinations, timorously hiding behind pusillanimous verbal formulae about combating fraud and counting every vote, or tepidly allowing that Biden might—eventually—become the president-elect. Some, like Lindsey Graham, even pressured state election officials to honor Trump’s wishes. Collectively, they have quickened the GOP’s transformation into a quasi-authoritarian instrument of minority rule.
Trump himself will give his nominal party no surcease.
His need for omnipresence is omnivorous; his means various. Already he is contemplating running for president again in 2024—or at least teasing a run so he can soak his most ardent followers. He is seeking to control the Republican National Committee by supporting the re-election as party chair of his factotum Ronna McDaniel. He is planning a PAC to finance his public activities—and, no doubt, his private needs.
Other widely discussed possibilities include starting his own media company to compete with Fox News, which he deems to have been insufficiently loyal. Whatever the means, he will perpetuate the myth of a stolen election for his political and personal profit. Given his vengeful nature, one can expect him to take noisy revenge on any Republican who dares to contradict him.
For the Republican party, Trump will be kudzu in human form: near-impossible to kill. Predicts former RNC chair Michael Steele: “Unlike any of our former presidents, he will be an ongoing presence. . . . He wants the party to continue to be consumed by him and his madness.”
Ultimately, this otherworldly obduracy stems from Trump’s manifest psychological illness: his imperishable narcissism; his ineradicable drive to be noticed; his relentless need to dominate; his comprehensive carelessness of all considerations save what pleases him in the moment. Television turned this moral pygmy into a mythic figure—and he cannot let go.
His loyal supporters reciprocate his needs. They will become whatever he desires—the base for his political comeback; the funders for his PAC; the audience for his new media entity. Their devotion will make a pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago de rigueur for Republican officeholders ambitious to rise.
More than ever, they will dominate Republican primaries. As Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg wrote in the Atlantic, the forces of whiteness who constitute Trump’s base—evangelical Christians, conservative Catholics, and Tea Party adherents—are an increasingly prohibitive majority of the GOP electorate.
The consequences are inescapable. As The Bulwark’s Jonathan V. Last wrote in the New Republic:
Republican elites want very much to turn the page on Donald Trump following his loss. But . . . they do not have any say in the matter, because their party now belongs to him. And the party belongs to Donald Trump because he has delivered to Republican voters exactly what they want.
That’s why one sympathizes with those hopeful Republicans who imagine building a reformed GOP through a multiracial coalition rooted in an economic agenda which codifies Trump’s pseudo-populism. Trump was never about programs so much as feelings—foremost a racial and religious defensiveness fundamentally opposed to diversity.
Moreover, a notable phenomenon of Trump’s presidency is the degree to which financially embattled working-class whites imagined, contrary to observable reality, that their economic situation had improved—or soon would. There are few better examples of how politics mirrors psychology more than lived experience.
This fidelity is why some Republican gurus remain committed to Trump’s strategy of maximizing support among middle-class and blue-collar whites. After all, they argue, despite Trump’s defeat the GOP did better than expected in senatorial and congressional races. Why risk tinkering with his formula?
Finally, economic populism is antithetical to the donor classes who, in truth, did better under Trump than did anyone else. They got their tax cuts and their judges—the GOP’s pipeline for judicial nominees, the Federalist Society, is dedicated to advancing pro-corporate jurisprudence. This is not the prescription for worker-friendly policies.
It’s difficult to identify a potential Republican candidate with sufficient gifts to reorient the party, or even to beguile the base with a more rarefied Trumpism. Far more likely the nominee in 2024 will be whoever best channels Trump in the raw. And who better than Trump himself or, at least, some Trump—more likely the suitably unhinged Don Jr. than the White House Barbie.
For the foreseeable future, Trumpism will define the GOP. The path to regeneration runs not through reform but, one fears, must proceed from self-destruction. The wait time will be painful for the party, and fateful for the country.