You have heard it for four years: ‘Trump is a fascist. Trump is a dictator. Everything is different now. This is not normal.’ Meanwhile, while this rhetoric reached fever pitch literally all of those points were provably incorrect. Trump is a right winger, but far too lazy and non-ideological to be a fascist. Trump is a bully, but was too weak and scatterbrained to be a dictator. Everything is different now, but in the same way that things are always changing and history in America is getting over its long postwar boom and, thus, returning to normal.
Despite the incredible obnoxiousness of Trump’s fan base and their cult like loyalty to his person over any kind of political platform, they are not the ones who surprised me these last few years. Anyone capable of paying even a modicum of attention to American conservatism since Gingrich could have seen this coming. If anything, the ideology being somewhat loosened from its evangelical and libertarian pieties into atavistic nationalism makes it more bearable than its formerly sanctimonious moral-majority and market-fundamentalist basis.
No, what surprised me was just how rapidly the opposition to Trump degenerated. Certainly, being a liberal in the Twenty-First Century is very much akin to staying behind to run the Heaven’s Gate website after the rest of the cult got whisked up to the comet above. The prophecy of the End of History failed to come true which means the followers do not do the rational thing and realize they believed in a lie, but rather double down and blamed everyone but themselves for the failure. If only every one else had supported them then this would all be fine. And so the liberals have become more obsessed with American Exceptionalism and culture war, becoming the new woke version of what the republican party was in the aughts. They now expresses valorization to intelligence agencies and giant corporations and prioritize pet causes based in their stifling moralism rather than in measurable material gains.
This happened because they let themselves be driven mad by a clownish president. But that president was as weak if not weaker a political leader than Jimmy Carter. Despite having two years of one party unified government his only accomplishment was a standard Bush-style tax cut for the wealthy. The kind of thing that would have happened under a Rubio, a Romney, or a Cruz. Likewise, the only lasting institutional effect of this supposedly-norm-breaking presidency will be to fill the ranks of the judiciary once again with the strange Opus Dei-like cultists that can always be found in the Federalist Society. Also something that would have happened under any other republican president. The only meaningful difference between Trump and these others is that he is less warlike. He is also, it is worth noting, less warlike than many democrats these days too. Not to give him too much credit here. His Iran policy is utterly unhinged and did immense damage to U.S. interests, and he managed to make his prior presidents look positively independent of Saudi influence. But compared to his GOP rivals in 2016 or Hillary Clinton, we almost certainly dodged a bullet in Syria and Venezuela. After all, the best news story of the now famously dismal year of 2020 had to have been that whole Silvercorp USA thing.
That’s right. With hindsight I am now saying that Trump was the lesser evil to Hillary in 2016. Sure, her Covid response would have been better, but not too much better as the USA was always going to take a pandemic the hardest of any developed country given its poor health systems infrastructure and employment based benefits that fail under economic downturns exacerbated by lockdowns. Meanwhile, a reinvigorated refugee crisis brought about by more regime change operations across the world would not only have facilitated the spread of the disease, but also of reactionary politics at home and abroad. In this alternative world something far worse than Trump would now have just won the presidency in the 2020 election, possibly Tom Cotton. We would have the Iran Deal at least, but far worse relations with North Korea. Besides, what is the point of an Iran Deal if we still stumbled into a conflict with Tehran through the Syrian backdoor? Three separate times in the 2016 election, H-Bomb stated that her first priority in office was regime change in Syria, what was by then obviously a recipe for the black flag of jihadism to fly over Damascus. I remember because I was watching, determining if I could pull the lever for her as a lesser evil. I couldn’t. Still glad that I didn’t today.
Of course, two bombing runs later Trump invoked The Curse himself, ending up a one termer. If ever you are thinking about uttering the fateful words, don’t.
Meanwhile, Trump’s terrible relationships with most governmental institutions actually weakened the process of centralizing power behind the imperial presidency, something that had been growing nonstop for decades. Trump’s transactional understanding of politics was brute and often misplaced, but it was a real unmasking moment for a country used to believing itself and its system to be exceptional and widely admired around the world. Trump unintentionally undermined even domestic faith in American Exceptionalism, and I will take it. So too did his horrific immigration policies finally force a discussion on Obama’s immigration policies as well, showing this to be a bipartisan issue. Trump will leave office having deported less people than Obama did.
It may seem dour that the era of Trump paradoxically removed any remaining vestigial feelings I once had about there being any lesser evils in the two party system, but it is actually quite liberating. I know, going forward, that if I support someone in public service that it will only be because they offer a platform that provides real alternatives. And if there are no such people to support, that is fine too. Change does not, in fact, come first from voting but by what you write for, organize for, and take part in directly. Giving up on any sense of being able to rely on a political party is giving yourself a greater level of independence and agency, and thus potential critical thinking. Something definitely needed in our moralistic dark age.
For all the problems Trump exacerbated, none of them were new to him. He is an accelerant rather than the spark. Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George Bush Junior all had a much greater role in building the world that we presently live in. Obama too, though he at least took the foot off the gas even if he resolutely refused to apply it to the brakes on this car hurtling towards a cliff. And it is his surveillance apparatus we live in now more than anyone else’s.
In the end, Trump will be remembered by historians as a grotesquely fascinating era that symbolized our societal decline, but was too late in the game to be its cause. He might also be the first person since Grover Cleveland to pull off two non-consecutive terms. A wet sack of potatoes could defeat Kamala Harris in a debate after all. She better hope someone far less charismatic than Trump runs against her in the future so she stands a chance. But whether he will be back or not he leaves us with an attitude and an aesthetic and little else.
A truly ineffective presidency. Which I suppose at this state of the game could almost be considered damning with faint praise as much as an insult. The spectacle was certainly something. Whelp, enjoy some Clown Core.