Donald Trump, the great pretender
On Wednesday, the Trump presidency will draw to a close. Whether the Trump Era ends with it remains to be seen.
The question hinges partly on the Senate's Republican caucus, and whether they will make a decisive break with the outgoing president by convicting him and barring him from office. It depends partly on the media — traditional, right-wing, and social — and whether they will frustrate his future attempts to claim the spotlight. But most importantly, it depends on the American people, and whether we want to move on.
Whether we will do so depends greatly on whether we come to understand what Trump's presidency truly has been. Donald Trump inspired profound devotion and visceral loathing of a kind rarely manifested by American political leaders. Even before the Animal House Putsch at the Capitol, nearly half of Americans strongly disapproved of the president, and even after the insurrection he inspired, over a quarter strongly approved. These people see something in Trump, whether they love it or hate it. But do they see what's really there?
I wonder — and I decided to start by asking myself: Did I see this presidency for what it really was, both before Trump's election and as it played out?
My very first column on Trump the candidate, misunderstood in many quarters as an endorsement, was an attempt to understand what he meant — and I think I got a lot of things right from the beginning. His rise was a reaction to the manifest failure of the Republican establishment in policy terms, and to a separation of the bi-partisan American elite from a broad swath of the American middle. "America First" meant, before any specific policy agenda, a demand for a political reorientation, away from principles and toward raw interest — away from deals claimed to be "win-win" that seemed to generate quite a lot of losers, and for deals that are just about winning.
I still think that was right, and that understanding helps explain many aspects of the Trump phenomenon, including why an overwhelming majority of white Evangelical Protestants enthusiastically supported a pagan libertine thug as president and why there was never mass outrage about Trump's grotesquely transparent corruption, both of which I recognized early in Trump's presidency.
But I failed to understand something more fundamental, which proved crucial to Trump's endurance. Trump's promise wasn't fundamentally to deliver victory for "his" people — to enact policies that improved their lives. At bottom, his promise was to win vicariously on their behalf — that is to say: By achieving victory for himself, he would deliver his supporters a sensation of victory that they could call their own.
This kind of personal identification has always been an aspect of democratic politics, but it has rarely if ever been quite so determinative. Rather, elections have historically turned on whether the party in power had delivered real results for a set of voters that could constitute a governing coalition. I thought, when Trump first emerged, that he represented an insurgency within the Republican Party of exactly that kind — a revolt against policies and politics that had not delivered. But the policies barely changed. Trump's judicial appointments were conservative, but any Republican would have appointed similar people. His legislative accomplishments were limited mostly to a tax bill written by Paul Ryan, and his economic record was based largely on a willingness to abandon any semblance of fiscal restraint (and a Fed that largely abandoned longstanding fears of inflation). He never delivered on promises to rebuild infrastructure, nor to improve health care — but he also never really tried to build his fabled wall, which will now remain largely unfinished for the next four years, and likely for longer. Even on his signature issue, his main objective was always trolling, not winning.
I anticipated much of this. Trump's retreat from substantive populism was clear from the early days of his administration, and his coopting by the establishment in terms of policy, and his lazy willingness to betray his core supporters' interests were clear from even earlier. That his highest-profile battle — his trade war with China — ended with so little to show for it shouldn't have surprised me at all. Indeed, when I guessed wrong about what Trump would bring, it was usually when I assumed he might actually take action.
For example, before the election, one of my biggest fears was that Trump would do something wildly irresponsible in foreign policy, a fear that seemed like it might come true when he named John Bolton his national security advisor. Meanwhile, one of my weirdest hopes was that Trump's very sloth and weakness might help America escape the Thucydides Trap and smooth the power transition with a rising China without provoking a catastrophic war. Neither proved to be the case. Trump's wildest gambit — the overture to North Korea — has gone nowhere, while his most notable success — peace treaties between Israel and some Arab states — merely confirms changes on the ground that were long in the making. President Biden will inherit a suite of foreign wars that Trump declined to end, and an alliance system strained but not torn asunder, while China has only become a more daunting opponent with the prospects of a peaceful power transition more remote than ever.
But even before the pandemic exposed Trump's manifest incompetence, I thought there would be a political price to pay for this thin record of accomplishment and substantial record of failure. And yet, electorally, trolling was frequently enough — enough to hold together most of his coalition, to gain Senate seats in 2018 and House seats in 2020, and to lose the Electoral College by the same whisker that Trump won it by in 2016, even as he lost the popular vote by a much greater margin.
The pandemic throws this aspect of the Trump presidency — that positioning matters more than performance — into particularly sharp relief. This was a disaster that began in China — which lied about its seriousness from the beginning — and it exposed the weakness of relying on global supply chains for crucial products. If there was ever an "America First" issue, this was surely it. Predictably, though, the Trump administration never took enough interest in how to respond to actually protect America; that would have required the focus, attention, and operational involvement that this president has never exhibited.
But that's in the realm of reality. What I failed to anticipate was how successful Trump would be at divorcing politics from that reality, at making a triumphant rallying cry of "he fights" even when the result of those fights, over and over, is "we lose." That's how Trump's manifest failure on the pandemic could have almost no electoral consequence, but instead get folded seamlessly into the grievance machine that has governed nearly everything in the Trump era. And Trump's success at such maneuvers has never been more alarming than in the wake of his election defeat, which he has somehow turned into a foundation stone of a politics of the lost cause that has already led some of his most fanatical supporters to kill and die to assuage his bruised ego.
That, and not Trump's corruption or his brutality or his murky relationship with Russia that so obsessed the center-left for the first three years of his presidency, is the true and enduring threat to democracy that Trump posed, and it's the most important thing I missed. That, in turn, is what America has to turn its back on, comprehensively, for the Trump era to end. We — not only Trump's strongest supporters, but his strongest opponents as well — must decide that we matter more than he does.
Trump was not a good king who embodied the nation. Nor was he a bad king, the embodiment of our nation's worst self who must be ritually extirpated for the nation to be redeemed. Rather, he was never king at all, and inasmuch as he played one, and got us to treat him as one, he was a usurping pretender.
Trump was merely a bad man who was an exceptionally bad president, because sovereignty belongs to us — to the people themselves.