Opinion

Welcome to the Trump circus — without the clown-in-chief

Other politicians are now playing the same destabilizing role as the former president

Remember the Trump administration? I sometimes wonder if we do.

Not the big moments — the corporate tax cut, the chummy meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, the insults to our NATO allies, the two impeachments, the insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021. Those events have become part of our country's recent political history and remain fully present in our minds.

I mean the feeling of those four years. The sense of the country descending into chaos, driven to mad derangement by the president of the United States tweeting insults and provocations 24/7. To cite one example among thousands, on the morning of April 17, 2020, more than a month into lockdowns connected to the COVID-19 pandemic and a day after issuing guidance for reopening the country that deferred to state officials, President Donald Trump tweeted "LIBERATE MINNESOTA!," "LIBERATE MICHIGAN!," and "LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd amendment. It is under siege!"

What did it mean? Was the president inciting an insurrection against the governors of these states? Was he joking? Trolling half of the country like some social media
s--tposter with an unusually large and attentive following?

Just about every day of the Trump presidency felt like the morning of April 17, 2020. Our president was a gaslighting demagogue-carnival barker, the ringmaster of the three-ring circus he'd set up at the center of our national life. To cover, closely follow, or comment on the news during those years was to question one's own sanity and capacity for shock on a daily and sometimes hourly basis.   

And then it was over.

Despite Trump's pathetic incapacity to accept the truth of his defeat in the 2020 election, he in fact lost and left office at the appointed time, losing access to his social media megaphone in the process. The result has been at least a partial reversion to a more normal style of politics, with a fairly boring president doing properly presidential things, and a political news cycle somewhat less manic and harried. And as a result, we've begun to forget the experience of political psychosis that marked the preceding four years — while vaguely dreading its return the moment the 45th president launches another campaign for the presidency a little over a year from now.

Yet recent events show there's no reason to treat Trump as a necessary and sufficient condition of political mayhem. Like all good teachers, he produced protégés — students eager to follow his lead in pumping sewage into our democracy.

I'm not talking about the many right-leaning intellectuals trying to forge a coherent policy agenda around Trump's populist instincts and impulses. I'm talking more about those aping Trump's quasi-absurdist style of conman provocation. The style works like this: Make one outrageous accusation or insinuation after another; wait for one to gain traction, defined as getting pick-up on social media as a meme shared by one's own side or as a target of defensive outrage or mockery by political enemies; then double down on it, reinjecting it into circulation with new variations that gain additional attention. Before you know it, politicians and media personalities will be using the once-outrageous accusation or insinuation to frame discussion of events in the news.

Consider what's happened during the three weeks since Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley tweeted a long thread accusing Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, President Biden's choice to succeed retiring Justice Stephen Breyer on the Supreme Court, of being soft on "sex offenders, especially those preying on children" because she has sometimes opted to impose lighter sentences for those convicted of possession of child porn.

Mainstream media outlets as well as prominent conservative authors immediately rose to Jackson's defense, calling Hawley's attack thoroughly "disingenuous." Some pointed to harsh statements she'd made in her career about those trafficking in child porn. Others noted that 38 Republicans in the Senate supported, and Trump himself signed, the First Step Act in 2018, a criminal justice reform bill that included reductions in sentencing guidelines broadly congruent with Jackson's actions on the bench. As a result, the consensus prior to the start of Jackson's appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee was that Hawley's accusations were groundless.

But that didn't keep Hawley and others on the committee from raising them repeatedly over the course of the hearings. Or the right's leading media personalities from spreading the sleazy claims, which played into QAnon-based conspiracies about pedophile rings at work within the Democratic Party and Washington, D.C.

By the time Utah Sen. Mitt Romney announced his intent to join fellow Republicans Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Susan Collins of Maine in backing Jackson's nomination, the Trumpian right was ready to pounce. Unsurprisingly, first out of the gate was Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican who appears to spend all her time in the House attempting personally to resurrect the derangement of the Trump years. She tweeted on Monday evening that "Murkowski, Collins, and Romney are pro-pedophile." And that led to a series of right-wing rabblerousers echoing and amplifying the risible accusation.

Meanwhile, on another front in the culture war, conservative muckraker Christopher Rufo has turned his defense of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' controversial "Parental Rights in Education" bill into a full-on demagogic crusade against the Walt Disney Company. Rufo's campaign against a major employer in the state of Florida began as a vendetta against the company for its public statements opposing DeSantis' bill. But now the battle has become, once again, about pedophilia, with Rufo tweeting repeatedly about the subject, including several in which he insinuates, without providing journalistic context of any kind, that Disney has a longstanding problem with hiring child-sex criminals.

And all the while, chiming in from the bleachers are an army of right-wing trolls, grifters, and jerk-whisperers slinging the scummy term "groomer" at everyone from real-life child molesters to teachers struggling in good faith to answer questions in the classroom about homosexuality to any conservative who believes in higher standards for public debate.  

That's the Trumpian circus in action — with Trump himself playing no role at all in provoking or directing it. One senator makes a lurid, unfounded allegation, and three weeks later, variations on it ricochet throughout the nation's political culture, doing damage to those caught in the line of fire, diminishing and degrading the rest of us, and in the process helping to advance the cause of an ever-more shameless and radicalized right.

Donald Trump may well opt to run for president again in 2024. But his party hardly needs his help anymore. His fellow Republicans have amply demonstrated their ability to degrade American democracy all on their own.

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