Let the world beware: Trumpism was a long time coming, and it will be a long time going. It threatens to haunt us so far into the future that, by the time it’s gone, what U.S. President Joe Biden on Thursday called “the American experiment” may no longer be recognizable—or even salvageable.
That’s the most reliable conclusion we can draw from the malign spectacle of the last 20 months since former U.S. President Donald Trump was dragged kicking and screaming out of the White House, after he sought to destroy what was left of the U.S. constitutional order by fomenting a mob eager to hang his vice president (with Trump’s endorsement). And nothing Trump’s successor, Biden, has done seems to have vanquished the Trump specter; on the contrary, Biden has co-opted much of Trump’s populist “America First” agenda even as he recently condemned Trump’s movement as “semi-fascism.”
Similarly, very little that has come out of the congressional hearings around the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, scheduled to resume in September, appears to be changing the minds of Trump’s millions of supporters. According to a Monmouth University poll released in early August following eight of those hearings, which revealed previously undisclosed details of how Trump incited the insurrection at the Capitol last year, only about 40 percent of Republicans believe Trump did anything wrong—approximately the same percentage as did before the hearings began—and 61 percent of Republicans still embrace his false assertion that the election was fraudulent.
The Jan. 6 mob may have been dispersed, and more than 900 of its alleged participants prosecuted, but the angry amorality of that mob still dominates the Republican Party, rendering many of its elected and appointed officials mere toadies to Trumpian lies.
So serious is the danger that Biden, in his Thursday speech at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, declared that Trump and what Biden called “the MAGA Republicans”—referring to Trump’s Make America Great Again movement—“represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our Republic.”
Why is the Trump phenomenon so durable? A slew of new and forthcoming books seeks to tell us. In one of them, The Destructionists: The Twenty-Five-Year Crack-Up of the Republican Party, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank goes a long way to explaining why Trump’s fingernail marks are still on the doors of the Oval Office and why so many people think he was unfairly forced out. Trump didn’t rise out of nowhere as some “hideous orange Venus emerging from the shell,” Milbank writes. Rather, he was “a monster the Republicans created over a quarter century. He is a symptom of their illness, not the cause.”
The reason Trump sauntered so effortlessly into power, with so little opposition, is that he was merely picking his way through the rubble of what used to be the Republican establishment agenda, Milbank writes. Trump’s lies spread so easily because for an entire generation the party base had already been subjected to lies and vicious innuendo almost as outrageous as those Trump would go on to use, as Republican leaders sought to appease their shrinking white base with populist anthems and nativist appeals, especially anti-immigration sentiment.
Trump’s only distinction is that he was better at it than any Republican before him, and he arrived at a moment in history when the internet, social media, and 24-hour cable TV news allowed the lies to insinuate themselves deeper and more extensively than ever before. Starting in 1992 with Pat Buchanan—in many ways the ur-populist of the modern Republican Party—and Newt Gingrich’s angry ascent to the House speakership a couple years later, party insurgents mounted many trial runs that demonstrated, again and again, “the political power of an endlessly repeated lie.”
Gingrich and other Trump precursors even bequeathed him his vocabulary: In 1990, “Gingrich’s political action committee mailed a memo to Republican candidates for public office instructing them in the fine art of demonizing Democrats,” Milbank writes. Among the recommended terms to tar the opposition party with: “traitors,” “steal,” “incompetent,” and “anti-flag.” Trump’s insupportable lies about the 2020 election were presaged more than two decades ago by equally nonsensical allegations about Vince Foster, the White House attorney who died by suicide early in U.S. President Bill Clinton’s administration. Despite incontrovertible evidence that Foster’s death was a suicide, then-Rep. Dan Burton and other leading Republicans insisted (with help from future Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, then a Republican apparatchik writing legal opinions) that Foster was murdered by Bill and Hillary Clinton. And that was only the beginning.
“Before the Big Lie about the 2020 election, Republicans fabricated libels about Obamacare ‘death panels,’ the false accusation that Saddam Hussein perpetrated 9/11, and an endless stream of conspiracy theories holding that Bill and Hillary Clinton were nothing short of serial killers,” Milbank writes.
The difference is that while these beta versions of Trump eventually stumbled by overreaching, Trump has shown that overreaching is no longer a problem in a nation so polarized that every assertion by the other party is deemed false upon delivery. (It finally took an undeniable microscopic fact, COVID-19, to turn a majority of voters against him.) Today, the Republican Party is little more than a Trumpist cult, or perhaps a mafia-like family run by a ruthless political godfather—call him Don Donald—built on corruption, dark money, and bottomless deceit, lacking only actual hitmen. Any way you want to define “mob,” this is mob rule.
Little or nothing remains of a party that once stood for reasonable conservatism and compromise. In 2016, then-U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell insisted to Politico that Trump was “not going to change the basic philosophy of the party.” As Mark Leibovich writes sardonically in another new book, Thank You for Your Servitude: Donald Trump’s Washington and the Price of Submission: “This turned out to be 100 percent true, except for Trump’s ‘basic philosophy’ on foreign policy, free trade, rule of law, deficits, tolerance for dictators, government activism, family values, government restraint, privacy, optimistic temperament, and every virtuous quality the Republican Party ever aspired to in its best, pre-Trump days.” By the time the 2020 election rolled around, Leibovich writes, “The party did not bother to even produce a new platform, for the first time since 1856.”
The durability of Trump and Trumpism is bringing into harsh relief many of the deeper flaws in the U.S. political system. In numerous books and articles, scholars are questioning the Founding Fathers and U.S. Constitution with a brazen lèse-majesté rarely heard before. Consider the absurdly undemocratic institution that is the U.S. Senate, with the same voting power assigned to sparsely populated red states such as North Dakota and Wyoming as to populous blue ones such as New York and California. The Senate is split 50-50, and Biden has barely squeaked through his biggest legislative plans, but in truth Democratic senators represent at least 40 million more Americans than Republicans do.
The problems of an Electoral College system that does not always reflect the popular vote caused few ripples in the past. But in the last six U.S. presidential elections, the electoral college has allowed two presidents—Trump and George W. Bush, both among the most disastrous in U.S. history—to take office despite losing the popular vote. The most recent rupture to civil peace, the elimination of federal abortion rights, has come from a lifetime-tenured Supreme Court in which partisan ideology has plainly trumped the imperatives of justice.
The U.S. Constitution itself, once considered sacred scripture, is “broken,” two legal scholars, Ryan D. Doerfler of Harvard University and Samuel Moyn of Yale University, wrote recently. The Constitution is “hard-wired” with too many antiquated features, such as the Senate and Electoral College, that are designed to impede change, they argued, “which is why it serves reactionaries so well.”
The far right has taken up the argument that U.S. democracy is irreparably damaged as well. In Arizona, the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, Blake Masters, is calling openly for the dismantling of many institutions of American democracy, which he has described as a “dystopian hell-world.” So is Masters’s mentor, Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, who once declared: “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.”
In the past, these concerns about the flaws in the constitutional system—its vulnerability to imperial presidencies, the inequities of gerrymandering, and so forth—tended to fade, even though they were never corrected, because the system righted itself as the founders intended. During the Red Scare of the 1950s for example, fellow Republicans ultimately stood up to the demagogic Sen. Joseph McCarthy, vanquishing the threat he and his red-baiting campaign, McCarthyism, posed to the democratic process. At the height of Watergate, a group of powerful Republican legislators—Sen. Barry Goldwater, House Minority Leader John Jacob Rhodes, and Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott—pressed then-U.S. President Richard Nixon to resign, and Nixon did. Other extremist threats to the system such as the John Birch Society remained on the margins.
The persistence of the Trump mob is more alarming. Trump is the first true demagogue in U.S. history not only to be elected president but also to remain kingmaker well afterward—a stark contrast with most losing presidential candidates, who typically descend swiftly into irrelevance. As former MSNBC anchor Brian Williams said upon retiring: “The darkness on the edge of town has spread to the main roads and highways and neighborhoods.” America’s most senior elected officials have chosen “to join the mob and become something they are not,” Williams said on air in late 2021, as Leibovich recounts. “They’ve decided to burn it all down with us inside.”
Leibovich details how mainstream Republicans, one by one, fell in line with the Trump mob, forming a “parade” of Republicans “willing to discard every principle they once held for the purpose of staying in office.” Most of them read Trump correctly in the beginning. Before the 2016 election, then-South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley sensibly noted that Trump represented “everything we hear and teach our kids not to do in kindergarten.” Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry called him a “barking carnival act.” Sen. Lindsey Graham labeled him a “race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot.” And Sen. Ted Cruz labeled him “utterly amoral” and a “sniveling coward.” Yet all of them became, instead, sniveling Trump supporters, and so they remain. The party’s most stalwart opponent of Trump, Rep. Liz Cheney, was trounced in her Wyoming Republican primary by a nearly 40-point margin. Her political career—at least in the Republican Party—is almost certainly over.
Is there any way back from Trumpism? Any plan at all? “We’re just waiting for him to die,” a former Republican congressman told Leibovich. Trump’s permanent withdrawal from the scene will certainly help: No one quite as pathological as Trump has dominated national politics before, and it will likely be a while before someone so malignant and unpredictable does again. And as Peter Baker and Susan Glasser write in another forthcoming book, The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021, some U.S. institutions are holding fast—most critically, perhaps, the world’s most powerful military.
In an excerpt published in August, Baker and Glasser write that over the tumultuous four years of the Trump presidency, it was often the military—typically, in countries that possess more independent militaries, a central player in successful coups—that managed to stymie his worst instincts, including on Jan. 6, 2021. “It turned out that the generals had rules, standards, and expertise, not blind loyalty,” write Baker, a New York Times correspondent, and Glasser, a New Yorker staff writer.
Unhappy with the Pentagon’s resistance to his demands that active-duty soldiers be deployed to crush domestic racial justice protests in the summer of 2020 (Trump had wanted to invoke the rarely used Insurrection Act of 1807), Trump at one point favorably invoked Adolf Hitler’s generals as models for behavior, Baker and Glasser write. And in the days after the 2020 election, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley feared that Trump might invoke martial law and, they write, that “Trump’s ‘Hitler-like’ embrace of his own lies about the election would lead him to seek a ‘Reichstag moment,’” when Hitler’s henchmen set fire to the German parliament to take control of the country in 1933. In the weeks after the election, Milley reassured Democrats close to Biden that he would not allow Trump to use the military to stay in power, and that Jan. 6, Milley and acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller dispatched National Guard troops to the Capitol to stop the insurrection.
Yet Trump has set baleful precedents that could long outlast his lifetime, including an unwillingness to accept election results and a peaceful transfer of power. He may now face indictment for mishandling classified documents after leaving office, but even that is unlikely to stop him (or land him in prison). If he manages to solidify those precedents in 2024, he could be supported by a battery of Trump-aligned state officials who are running for offices responsible for certifying elections—and many of whom believe what some have termed his “Big Lie.”
Republics of the past have perished—and civil wars have begun—for lesser causes. An astonishing over 40 percent of Americans think civil war is at least somewhat likely in the next decade, according to a new survey by YouGov and the Economist. In another recent survey, more than 40 percent of respondents agreed that “having a strong leader for America is more important than having a democracy” and that “in America, native-born white people are being replaced by immigrants.”
But this is where a deeper analysis is needed of the generation-long trends that led to Trump. If Trump didn’t just appear out of nowhere, as Milbank writes, then neither did Gingrich and Buchanan. It wasn’t just that lying became the modus vivendi. Populism and nativism held so much appeal—and Trumpian populism was really only the other, if far more vicious, side of the coin from U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders on the left—because both political parties had failed the American people with bad policy that exacerbated inequality and inequity. Nor do some of these books explore in a deeper way how the internet fractionated public opinion and allowed lies to spread more extensively and permanently than ever before, turning E pluribus unum—“Out of many, one,” the traditional motto of the United States—into a pluribus without much left to hold it together.
Milbank ascribes the rise of lies and demagoguery in the Republican Party—and its current status as “an authoritarian faction fighting democracy”—largely to race. Simply put, democratic means have failed the party as America grows less white demographically. “In the eight presidential contests since 1988, the GOP candidate has won the popular vote only once, in 2004,” he writes. Race did have a great deal to do with the radicalization of the Republican Party and its attempts to manipulate future elections by gerrymandering and excluding nonwhite voters. In another just-released book, Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s, Vanderbilt University scholar Nicole Hemmer writes that even before the Ronald Reagan era ended, the so-called New Right was rising, energized by opposition to the Great Society, specifically the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
This conclusion was bolstered in recent years by a powerful 2020 book by New York Times economic columnist Eduardo Porter, American Poison: How Racial Hostility Destroyed Our Promise, which argued that racial animosity by the shrinking white population, tracing back a half-century or more, led to the Tea Party and Republican obstructionism of nearly every progressive agenda. Porter contended that since the New Deal, the nation’s social welfare contract has been fatally fractured by animosity toward minority beneficiaries on the part of whites who are “unwilling to share the bounty of state with people of other races and creeds, heritages and colors.”
By the time Trump came along, having built his campaign on challenging the birth legitimacy of the first African American U.S. president, the race issue had become a dangerously dry pile of tinder. All the carnival barker from Queens had to do was apply a match. Thus Trump’s astonishing triumph in 2016 did have a lot to do with what the political pundit Van Jones called a “whitelash” (a portmanteau of “white backlash”). “What Trump has exposed in his presidency is there’s a significant portion of the American populace that has never accepted the full implications of the civil rights movement,” Joseph Ellis, a presidential historian, told me in 2020, at the height of the protest movement that erupted over the murder of George Floyd.
Yet there was more to the story. Emerging class differences had just as much to do with today’s political polarization as race did, and this also helps to explain the continuing populist appeal of Trumpism. Geopolitically and socially, two major things drove the generation-long Republican transformation. First, the Cold War ended, depriving the Reaganite right of its biggest unifying issue. And then, gradually, beginning under Clinton in the wake of the collapse of Soviet-style command economics, the Democrats began to co-opt the right’s Reaganite message of free markets. They, too, embraced trickle-down theology—kowtowing to Wall Street, turning welfare into “workfare,” and permitting regressive tax policies to remain in place.
This shifted the axis of the economic agenda sharply rightward, transforming mainstream Democrats into “Eisenhower Republicans”—as Bill Clinton lamented—and formerly moderate Republicans into anti-government zealots who resisted any new programs intended to ameliorate inequality. Both parties were culpable in denigrating the role of government in saving the middle class as the so-called China shock and tech boom decimated the livelihoods of the undereducated, giving rise to the backlash against free trade.
This trend in turn led to the 1992 presidential campaign of business magnate Ross Perot—like Buchanan a populist defector from the mainstream Republican Party—and the first iteration of the protectionist agenda that Trump later embraced (and that Biden has partially adopted). Both parties moved right on immigration as well. This fomented the progressive wing in the Democratic Party—and led to Sanders’s startling surge in popularity—which in turn only drove the Republicans further rightward. Into that vicious spiral—and emerging chasm—stepped Trump.
So there is a lot of blame to go around. One of today’s biggest ironies is that Liz Cheney is admired as the Republicans’ most heroic dissident against Trump—and yet her father, Dick Cheney, played a big role as George W. Bush’s vice president in destroying the very Republican agenda that made Trump possible. It wasn’t just the disastrous and expensive Iraq War: the Cheney-sponsored lie about the false connection between Iraq and 9/11, which fed the insurgencies of Obama and later Trump. When Cheney pushed relentlessly for more tax cuts, and Bush’s prescient first-term Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill worried aloud in a meeting about rising deficits, Cheney barked that “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter.”
Thanks in large part to Cheney’s influence, Bush’s attempt to be the second coming of Reagan—the “compassionate conservative”—was utterly immolated in his misdirection in the so-called war on terror and the catastrophic failure of government oversight leading to the 2008 financial crash and Great Recession. The aftermath of all those policies left the rich richer and the poor poorer, as the economist Joseph Stiglitz has written.
Biden has worked hard to correct these inequities, with almost no help from the Republican Party, as seen in the party-line passage of Biden’s 2021 stimulus plan and his recent Inflation Reduction Act. The only real question remaining is whether, with one of its two major political parties gone completely rogue, the American experiment is beyond repair. “Remember,” John Adams, the nation’s second president, wrote in 1814, “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes exhausts and murders itself. There never was a Democracy Yet, that did not commit suicide.”
One wishes there were some sort of suicide hotline available for democracy. But the Republicans have no one to call on but themselves.