It’s impossible to talk about the Trump phenomenon without talking about ‘Trump voters’ themselves. I’m not going to go into too much depth here because it would basically require a lengthy piece unto itself to do it full justice, but there are definitely a few points I want to touch on. And just to preface: although it would be the obvious — and, arguably, most important — thing to dwell on the entire time, I’m actually going to be mostly putting to one side all the abhorrent -isms that Trump played on in order to garner support from the more unsavoury quarters of the electorate. That’s something I’ve already explored earlier on in this piece, and not exactly in a glancing way either.
It’s now just conventional wisdom that one of the main factors which motivated many people to pull the lever for Trump in ’16 was a desire to really stick it to the political establishment. In fact, I once heard this quite memorably described as Trump being employed like a ‘murder weapon’. I suppose the naive hope was that Trump could be fired at the beltway status quo like some precise laser-guided weapon that would only destroy what it was intended to destroy, cleanly and efficiently. Kinda like a human version of that nightmarish variant of the famed Hellfire missile which doesn’t even explode, it just shoots out long blades on all sides upon impact to impale and eviscerate the assassination target. (Haven’t been able to forget about that bad boy since first reading about it. It’s jarring how something designed to reduce unintended casualties can seem so disturbingly barbaric in its own right.) Once Trump actually got into office though, it became clear that the things he was damaging most were the fabric of American society and the proper governance of the country, and I think the motivated reasoning of his supporters had to shift a fair bit to keep up. It seemed to morph into viewing Trump as being more akin to chemotherapy: alright, yes it’s a messy process and it’s unfortunately going to harm the whole body too, but it’s worth it because it’ll eliminate what’s really ailing you. To crib from classic five-stages language, this combines both ‘denial’ and ‘bargaining’ into a neat little package deal. And oh man did a lot of the MAGA faithful snap up that deal and lean on it like a crutch for four long years. They told themselves that the country had already been so abominably ruined by the Democrats and was in such desperate, urgent need of rescue that it was acceptable if, to echo that infamous battlefield quote from the Vietnam war, “Trump has to destroy America in order to save it.”
What I’m getting at is that I can at least comprehend both these rationalizations. I’m not saying I agree with them. (I would hope that after having spilled so many thousands of words about how severely I loathe Trump and Trumpism that would be abundantly, even painfully, clear.) I’m also not saying they actually made sense or passed any kind of moral checksum whatsoever. They didn’t. Not even a little bit. They were based on wildly faulty reasoning and fundamental misjudgements about Trump’s motivations, Trump’s goals, and really just the way that the American political system functions. That being said, it is possible to see how people let themselves be gulled by a steady stream of chimerical promises. That’s what I’m trying to get across here. The conclusions they arrived at were illogical, but there’s still a sort of comprehensible logic to both how these people were deceived and why they then also self-deceived to fill in the gaps where necessary. It isn’t because Trump’s so spectacularly gifted in the charlatan arts. As I expounded upon earlier, he is actually drastically and shockingly untalented as a con artist. Which in turn makes it so remarkable that he’s surely also quantifiably one of the most successful con artists of all time. (He makes that guy who managed to ‘sell’ the Brooklyn Bridge multiple times look like a piker with no vision. But then again, in the hierarchy of grifting, nothing really compares to making a play for the presidency of the richest, most powerful nation on earth, does it?)
His meteoric success, I would say, testifies merely to the fact that his millions of marks were in such a prime state to be duped. Conservatives were so incredibly desperate for anything which could revitalize their movement. They knew it was fast becoming enervated and drab from its reliance on conventional, buttoned-up Mitt Romney types who possessed only a sort of limp, hopelessly overstretched charisma at best and who were still stuck playing the political game like it was played thirty or forty years ago. They needed someone who could reinject some colour into the GOP and — gasp — maybe even make it seem interesting or exciting again. Whatever it took to turn the tide back in their favour. Whatever it took to recapture the White House. I mean, there’s no denying that the Obama years had really done a number on them. They were as exasperated by his massive, transformational cultural effect as they were infuriated by his various policy initiatives. And it’s not hard to imagine how that kind of thing can really eat at you over eight long years. Seeing someone whose political program you hate being feted by so much of the world as a beloved figure. Their nerves were frayed. They were worn out and very much dispirited by how the electoral and culture-war losses kept piling up. And once they had gotten to this place, they were willing to buy into any amount of lies and back any old creep if it meant that their side would get back on top and they wouldn’t have to grind their teeth every time they turned on the news. Enter Donald J. Trump, lying mega-creep extraordinaire. It wasn’t just some weird coincidental timing, okay? Whether consciously or unconsciously, he was drawn to that situation by the stupendous gravitational pull of such a glaring opportunity. Or to put it another way, his political career was willed into existence by all the people who prayed for some magic fix for their sickly, no-new-ideas, no-new-blood party, instead of doing the hard work of remedying its real problems. Because there is almost nothing in life which you can get simply by wanting it, but this is one of the notable exceptions: if you wish to be taken advantage of, your wish will be granted.
The thing which really baffles me, however, is how in the fuck did Trump get them a second time? This is the question that makes my brain hurt. I mean, alright, you bought into the false promises in 2016, but then once you got to see Trump in action and had it empathically proven to you that he was incapable of delivering on most of his most important pledges, how did you make yourself believe that his second term would magically be a different story? He said he was going to appoint a Special Prosecutor to investigate Hillary Clinton. He didn’t. He said he was going to scrap Obamacare. He didn’t. He said he was going to enact term limits for members of congress. He didn’t. He said he was going to profoundly rebuild the country’s ‘infrastructure’. He didn’t. Despite the fact that managing construction projects, albeit on a smaller scale and not always with stellar results, is one of the only forms of useful experience he had coming into the job. He said he was going to erase the national debt over the course of eight years. (Given that this would entail finding a way to repay a sum totalling more than the GDP of the entire country, this has to rank right up there as one of the most shockingly absurd promises ever made on the presidential campaign trail. It’s so preposterous that it’s hard to even know what to say. It’s like a slow child telling you they’re going to conquer Jupiter: you just smile and nod along, you don’t even bother explaining why it’s not possible. Except the smiling and nodding should rightly be replaced with eyerolls and expletives when it comes to Trump, because in this case the slow child gets to decide the federal budget.) After one term, the amount owed has shot upwards in dramatic fashion, increasing by more than a third — which means he “oversaw the fastest increase in the debt of any president” ever. Truly, who could’ve guessed it? Another blue ribbon for Trump to add to his tally of reverse-accomplishments.
Where were we? Ah yes, he said he wanted to ban muslims from entering the country. He didn’t even try to enact that blanket restriction. And the watered-down versions he hazarded in its place kept getting thunderclapped by the courts and then of course only watered-down even further as a result. He said he was going to deport all illegal immigrants. He didn’t even remotely scratch the surface. Obama far, far outpaced him, in point of fact. He said he was going to end birthright citizenship, even though it’s guaranteed by the constitution. He didn’t. He said he was going to build a beautiful, impenetrable wall along the border and America’s southern neighbour would even be footing the bill. Well, he’s managed to build only a small fraction of it; it’s ugly as fuck, just an absolute eyesore; it can be scaled by ladder or even just bare-handed climbing with minimal difficulty, which means a single video of that happening permanently shatters any deterrence factor the wall might’ve had; and, as far as I know, Mexico hasn’t yet Venmo’d even a single peso to defray the cost. That’s a failing grade, by any reasonable measure. And, comically, he also managed to piss off and further alienate the few actually principled conservatives left standing whilst he was fucking this project up, because of the substantial use of ’eminent domain’ powers to seize land from property-owners against their will. (That they were almost certainly Trump voters is an irony whose deliciousness we should, alas, probably have the gracious restraint to avoid savouring too much.) This is a backlash Trump’s team should have been able to see coming a million miles away. If there’s one thing any true conservative should never ever ever be able to stomach, it’s Big Government using lawsuits to confiscate land from ranchers and farmers for some boondoggle whose only real purpose is to serve as a chantable slogan come election time.
And even if you look at the things Trump did manage to do, it’s often questionable how much credit he’s even due for them. One could argue that his most significant, lasting action in office was appointing a trio of new Supreme Court justices. It would just be idle to pretend that establishing a comfortable right-wing majority on the SCOTUS bench for probably decades to come isn’t a huge victory. It obviously is. It’s a game-changer which has the potential to
regressify shape America in ways and to an extent that no single president — whether one or two-termer, whether backed by a compliant congress or not — could ever hope to. But it’s hard to see how Trump can really claim this as a personal achievement in any meaningful sense. Nor can it somehow be sold as proof of his efficacy as president. The opportunity to appoint new judges is based on matters of timing which he has zero control over. And then when the opportunities do arise, what is he gonna do, not nominate conservative candidates? (Though, there’s a point. Keep in mind that he didn’t even have the balls to go with some of the more extreme choices that many in the MAGA world were hoping for, despite having carte blanche to do so without fear of blowback from anyone whose opinion he has to care about. You couldn’t ask for a more cushy position of invulnerability to make a controversial decision from. So if he’s not doing it then, he’s not doing it ever. Too bad /r/TheDonald wackos, turns out your guy’s not as dependable as you thought.)
As for the final piece of the puzzle — i.e. confirmation — the Republicans controlled the Senate, and that’s that. You just ram it through. There’s no genuine uncertainty or difficulty to contend with: any stragglers in your ranks who feign like they’re on the fence are almost always just using their momentary leverage to extract some private bargain from the party leadership before promptly falling back in line. Just business as usual. It has all played out so many times before that everyone knows the score by now. It might take a little bit of behind the scenes horse-trading here and there, but if your team has the numbers on their side, the outcome of the game is predetermined. This is yet another reminder that there is only one ‘contest’ which exists in politics, and it happens at the ballot box; there’s such little possibility of flex or flux or doubt in everything occurring inbetween those times that it’s mostly just pseudo-event theatre to make you, the customer, believe that something’s happening which goes beyond merely a simple numerical equation of partisanship playing out the only way it can. Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett were confirmed because of the favourable outcome in Senate elections which happened years beforehand, not because of the course of their Confirmation Hearings. This should be obvious to anyone paying attention. And, remember, Trump can’t even take residual credit for that ease-of-confirmation because the GOP had already regained their Senate majority before he was even on the ticket. He’s just the lucky son of a bitch who walked in and found himself presiding over a can’t-lose situation. You don’t get any kudos for that, sorry.
The reality is that when you properly inventory all of Trump’s alleged successes whilst in office, he has quite little to hang his hat on which is both truly substantial and truly his. He’s just hoping that most people won’t bother to examine his record closely. I don’t blame him, because it really does start to fall apart when you do. Many of his so-called accomplishments are really just him taking credit for others’ work: e.g. filling the federal judiciary with conservative judges, which is better attributed to the much-discussed ‘long-game’ played by Mitch McConnell. I mean, it’s been the underlying mission that his entire decades-spanning political career has been dedicated to, so you really can’t pretend Donald J.(ohnny-come-lately) Trump did much more than hop on at the last minute and ride the train right into the terminal station. And, elsewhere, his legacy-claims are merely symbolic gestures: e.g. moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem, which was little more than his usual headline-grabbing incendiarism. Or they’re moves which are just patently not in the interests of the average person: e.g. slashing the corporate tax rate or rolling back emission standards for cars. And for any MAGA faithful who happen to be reading this, I don’t want to hear any argument about either of those last examples, capiche? Unless you have LLC at the end of your name in lieu of Esq. or can claim personhood only in the mindboggling Citizens United v. FEC sense, the former example ain’t doing shit for you. When big corporations get tax breaks, they aren’t exactly known for passing the savings down to their customers, let alone their employees. There’s only one form of trickle-down to be found in those workplaces; it sure as hell isn’t pay-raises, as the drones labouring therein can affirm. And if you happen to be one of the poor saps born with those last-gen lungs that are only compatible with oxygen and not exhaust smog, the latter example cannot possibly be a salutary outcome.
All that being said, what should presumably appall the average Trump voter even more than the fact that he both broke most of his promises and managed to do so little whilst in office is the dire failure to live up to what was supposedly the fundamental impetus behind his presidential bid. Namely, to ‘DRAIN THE SWAMP!’ As I mentioned earlier, a lot of his supporters saw him as a means of disrupting and damaging and eventually reforming the political establishment. If those people didn’t end up feeling bitterly disappointed, they must have been in a vegetative state during Trump’s first term. Because, predictably enough, all that ultimately happened is Trump decided to simply make the swamp even swampier and take up residence there. (Makes perfect sense. No, really. After all, there’s a storied history of hucksters’ fondness for ‘swampland property’.) He did nothing to get rid of the class of good-for-nothing, empty-suit, on-the-take career politicians that he so derided and decried during his campaign. The GOP remains as well-stocked with these slimy bastards as ever. And Trump was even so kind as to invite plenty of them to serve in his administration or to fill open positions elsewhere in government. This was so easily foreseeable one can barely even muster up the energy to try and crow about having foreseen it. The idea that he was ever going to be the sworn foe of beltway crookedness was a silly fantasy and nothing more. As long as they’re willing to do his bidding and prostrate themselves before him, Trump has never met a hack politician or unscrupulous civil servant he doesn’t like.
(On a somewhat related note, it’d always make me laugh when you’d see red-state voters being interviewed and you’d hear them earnestly say things like ”I just think Mr Trump understands hardworking folk like me who just wanna keep on the straight and narrow and earn an honest buck.” Meanwhile, of course, Trump cut his teeth in New York real estate in the 70s & 80s — famously one of the shadiest periods in one of the shadiest industries in the whole of America. And just to put the cherry on top, his mentor was the spectacularly immoral and mob-connected Roy Cohn. Can you even… fucking… imagine the type of shit Trump got up to during that time to make sure his various projects got green-lit and went smoothly? The quotidian reliance on bribery and fraud and blackmail and backroom deals and favours from mafiosos and so on? It’d be enough to make your head spin, I’m sure. It will never cease to amaze me that people could look at someone with a history like Trump’s and convince themselves that he’s nevertheless the perfect candidate to come take a broom to the moral rot in the political system. To call this cognitive dissonance would be too kind. It’s just stupidity. The only problem Trump has ever had with corruption is when he’s not part of the in-group getting to benefit from it, which is why he railed against it before he became president and then unashamedly enjoyed the fruits of hypocrisy once he did. That’s some QED shit right there.)
The degree to which Trump was actually a fond friend of the #swamp is neatly summed up and exemplified by one of his very last actions in office. With just hours left on the clock, he quietly revoked a restriction he had enacted early on, which prevented his appointees from leaving their posts to become lobbyists focused on whatever agency they had worked at — and, yes, this only covered a specified timeframe after they’d left, but it was still better than nothing. If you happen to know jack shit about Washington, you know that this revolving door between government service and private lobbying firms is one of the most deeply rooted and maddeningly normalised forms of jobbery it has. It’s corrupt as hell and yet it’s still seen as just one of the perks of the job. People even openly discuss it as such. You suffer through the unglamorous, poorly-paid hard work expected of you as a servant of the people so that eventually you can cash in big time. To illustrate what this looks like in practice, let me paint you a picture. You spend a few years working at the EPA, tasked with ensuring that your fellow citizens have clean air, clean water, et cetera. Then once you’ve thoroughly learned the ins and outs of your agency and have relationships with everyone of importance, you shake hands with all your colleagues, eat some crappy supermarket cake at a going-away party, and show up the next day at that monolithic plastics company who made you a very, very lucrative job offer. Now the fun can begin. Now you can advise your new paymasters how best to avail themselves of all the little-known EPA loopholes and deficits in inspection protocols, and you can make good use of that long list of insider contacts you have if ever the need arises to pressure the right shotcallers to make favourable rule changes or grease the right palms to overlook any snafus.
It’s really just… crazy. It’s like ferrying the trade secrets from one corporation to its competitor, so that they can be weaponized and used against it. Only, the corporation getting fucked is the federal government, its shareholders are the American citizenry, and instead of simply trying to hamstring its profits you’re trying to induce it to let you pollute the country’s fragile environment as much as possible. It’s such a no-brainer that this sort of moneygrubbing double-crossing of the people you once pledged to serve shouldn’t be allowed. And personally I don’t get why the prohibition should only extend for five years after leaving government or whatever. That’s not a bad start, but frankly I see no reason why it shouldn’t be a lifetime thing. Government service can reasonably entail certain sacrifices, and this should just be one of them. There’s a million billion ways to earn a paycheck when you re-enter the private sector; you can pick any of them as long as they don’t fall into this egregiously unethical category. That doesn’t seem like such a big ask to me, I have to say.
When the average person talks about how they have no faith in government anymore, how they think none of those bozos in D.C. feel bound by a sacrosanct duty to act selflessly and honourably, THIS kind of thing is why. It’s exactly why the whole political class is despised and seen as mercenary assholes. In short, if the swamp-creatures of Trump’s rhetoric exist, it’s bullshit like this which permits them to spring up from the fetid waters and wreak havoc in the first place. And, thus, in case you were ever in any doubt about Trump’s relationship with the ‘SWAMP!’, you need only look at how calculatedly he pretended to be interested in doing the right thing, simply to play both sides as needed and gain maximum advantage. A week into his presidency, he issued an executive order putting the lobbying restriction in place. Naturally, it was announced with much fanfare. And it elicited the hoped-for reaction. Hooray, said his supporters. “Trump really IS a man of his word, he really IS serious about shutting down all the dirty tricks of corruption! We weren’t dupes or dopes at all; we put the right person into that office; he’s doing what needs to be done, even if all of Washington will gnash their teeth and hate him for it! God we’re lucky to have such a fine, upstanding president like him!” And Trump got to benefit from that positive opinion all four years of his term.
Then, on the final day of his presidency — you can’t make this shit up — he issued another executive order whose only purpose was to completely erase that first one. Even worse, it was done sneakily. Everything possible was done to pre-emptively bury this as a news story. The buzzer-beater timing meant that Biden’s imminent inauguration was sure to massively overshadow it, and this was even coupled with the fact that on the same day Trump also announced a large final tranche of pardons. (Many of which courted plenty of controversy by being brazenly corrupt in their own right, like the one for the odious Steve Bannon or the ones for family friends/hangers-on/Republican fundraisers/etc. I wish there was a law where such people had to come collect their pardon in person and it involved first handing Trump a Mar-a-Lago napkin that has ‘IOU’ scrawled on it, right in front of the television cameras. Just so the visual could be as ridiculous as the reality. Just so we could all be reminded that there was some sordid favour or briefcase full of grubby cash that bought them this get-out-of-jail-free card.) Furthermore, because Trump was too slippery and/or cowardly to even offer an explanation for this abrupt about-face — surely red-blooded conservatives should abhor someone who acts like a ruler issuing fiats and disdainfully refusing to even justify them to his subjects? — there wasn’t much for journalists to hang a story on without engaging in that most dreaded, most verboten of all vices in the prestige press, speculation. This is an annoyingly effective tactic for making sure some controversy will self-extinguish before the next news cycle. Though one which, for obvious reasons, Trump has not often had the discipline to avail himself of. By refusing comment and making sure your allies/public defenders don’t get baited into proxy-commenting either, you pre-emptively kill one of the main ways that government controversies traditionally get kept alive by the media well past their initial moment-of-impact: picking apart the official justification from various angles, reporting on the opposition party’s response to the justification, reporting on the administration’s response to that response, et cetera. There’s a lot of power in simply not allowing that runaway chain reaction to start up in the first place. And naturally it works even better when there’s a crowded news cycle to help provide some extra distractions (a.k.a. chaff) as well, as was the case here.
Like I said, your average reporter can get tripped up when confronted by a news story which has very little meat on the bone. They oppose being put in a position to have to insert themselves into the writing of it in order to connect the dots and sling a couple accusatory sentences in the direction of those who’re due them. And, I mean, I get it, fair enough. I suppose there’s something to be said for that old-school, high-minded sense of propriety. Probably for the best that we still have a few outlets like, say, the NYT who cling on to anachronisms like not colouring outside the lines when putting together news articles and whose style guide still has them throw the Mr./Mrs./Ms. before someone’s surname to carry on the stiff formality of newspaper prose from yesteryear. That type of thing has its place, you know? I, however, am not a journalist of any sort. (As perhaps you may have already surmised from some of the… colourful language employed in this piece so far.) And I consider wanton speculation to be one of the essential pleasures which compensates the independent-minded scribbler for his or her toil. So I will happily oblige you here. I think it goes without saying why Trump would want to overturn his own lobbying prohibition. He wanted to reward his cronies, by restoring their ability to make some easy, ethically-dubious paydays now that the whole administration had been handed its walking papers. Simple as that. I’m sure he had countless favours done for him over those four years that needed to be repaid, and here was the perfect opportunity to take care of all that in one fell swoop. It was a very pragmatic decision, when you think about it. A mob boss does have to generously remunerate his underlings if he doesn’t want them blabbing about unsavoury things down the line.
It just boggles my mind that Trump voters don’t look at something like that, and the way it typifies how Trump only ever paid opportunistic lip service to the ideals they cared about, and feel disgusted. They somehow still don’t yet realize that they were simply used by him, just like all the enabler hacks around him were. This stubborn obliviousness is, I think, testament to the strange spell that Trump managed to cast upon these people. It really seems like they love him so much that no matter what he does, no matter how he betrays or exploits or abandons them, they will not… perhaps cannot… accept that he has done them or their movement wrong in even the slightest way. There’s something so disturbing about that. At a certain point, the glaringly obvious comparison between the MAGA crowd and the clichés about brainwashed cultists cannot be ignored.
It’s funny how the so-called ‘character question’ litmus test for candidates has long been associated more so with Republican voters. They just seemed far more persnickety about invigilating pretty much every aspect of a candidate’s personal life and history, looking for firm evidence of adherence to conservative moral values. You know the type of criteria I’m talking about. It spans the gamut, really. Have a respectable family unit with no estrangements or bad apples to reflect badly on your powers as a strong but nurturing patriarch. Don’t have too many divorces, or have committed adultery. Ideally no sleaziness around women whatsoever actually. Even if you’re wealthy don’t flaunt it: politely act like you’re just some aw-shucks blue-collar everyman who came into money, rather than the trust-funder with a nepotism-jetpack that you really are. Don’t live a dissolute or extravagant life. Be a man of faith. (Though let’s be real, really just one in particular. That kooky one where the blue-eyed white guy was crucified in the Middle East). Speak highly of your religion and your god, and humbly of yourself in relation to them. Be intensely patriotic, never issuing anything but deluges of praise for America past and present. If you came of age during a time of war, either have joined the service in some way or have a damn good reason why you couldn’t. Don’t have said or written anything too leftist or libertine or inflammatory during the heady, rebellious self-discovery of your college years. Don’t have done drugs, or at least not provably. Speak reverently of the founding fathers and have a good store of memorized quotes from them to trot out whenever necessary. Display a deep empathetic understanding of the average hardworking, god-fearing, tax-paying American and their cultural tastes. Don’t ever seem arrogant or callous or petty or duplicitous or ill-tempered or condescending. And so on and so forth. There was a time when you were generally going to have to tick most of these boxes — or go to great lengths to engineer that impression — if you wanted any chance of Republican voters throwing their weight behind you. They wanted a quote-unquote ‘good man’ to represent them. Perhaps out of genuinely-felt moral convictions or perhaps simply because they thought that choice reflected well on them or their country. Or maybe it’s just because it’s what their parents did and said one ought to do, and so the weighty momentum of tradition carried it along into the next generation, I don’t know. I’m not a social anthropologist, I can’t say for sure where or why this impulse originated.
But, anyhow, I think you see where I’m heading with this line of thought. Trump obliterated all of that. He completely circumvented the idea that you have to prove yourself — not just as a politician, but as a person too — worthy to be president. Out of all those criteria I just listed as examples, it’s not hard to argue that he literally doesn’t fulfil a single one. Nor does he meet almost any other customary metric of sound or admirable character. Again, those being from the perspective of your typical heartland conservative with ~2.4 kids and a flagpole on their lawn. And the really startling thing is that most Trump voters are one-hundred percent cognizant of this fact. The Evangelicals know that Trump is about as much of a Christian as he is a brain surgeon. They know he has practically zero knowledge about scripture and makes no effort to adhere to the ethical teachings therein, such as they are. The ‘family values’ types have, I would say, a pretty good sense of exactly what kind of family man he amounts to. Look, I’ll grant you, none of us are perfect, but not everyone has quite so many members of their extended family who hate their guts and not everyone was accused of rape — though she later downgraded this language to a “violation” — by an ex-wife in a sworn deposition. The rah-rah pro-military types know about Trump’s comical draft-dodging and the insults he allegedly directed at fallen servicemen. (Talking of which, surely the GOP will have a hard time criticizing any future Democrat candidates for ‘disrespecting the troops’, a favourite vector of attack, given that the Dems can just release a supercut of every notable GOP figure very conspicuously keeping mum when Trump badmouthed the war-dead or even backing him up when he savaged his own Generals in the most scathing terms.) And once more I could go on and on here. Donald Trump flunks every test of rectitude, outrages every sense of decency. He is a man so low on moral fibre one has to imagine his conscience is downright constipated. So the question becomes: were the standards already shifting for Republican voters before Trump or did they just decide that such things didn’t matter these last two go-arounds because Trump was such a unique candidate? And, even if it’s the latter, are the floodgates now open as a result? Once you decide your principles are contingent and you make an exception for one person, it becomes so much easier to do that again for someone else. So can even worse scoundrels than Trump also effortlessly get the stamp of approval now? This is a pulse-quickening possibility to consider.
It also creates an interesting disparity with the Democrats now. To my eye, the Democratic Party are moving in a direction where candidates are, if anything, only going to be subjected to more and more stringent evaluations of acceptability going forward. That’s just where things are trending on the left. There are soon going to be elaborate and even arcane wokeness purity tests applied to presidential hopefuls not just in the present moment but retroactively too. I hope you didn’t tell off-colour jokes during a radio interview back in 1981 because if so… beat it, bub. It doesn’t matter if you’ve spent the forty years hence championing every righteous bill that came up for debate in congress. Your legislative record doesn’t mean squat, your conduct in office doesn’t mean squat, your time spent advocating for worthy causes doesn’t mean squat. That’s the smokescreen of trivial shit that used to distract us back in the bad old days. It’s your offhand remarks and breaches of social etiquette we really care about now. If you’ve ever said or done anything that offends the most finicky progressive sensibility in 2021, you are hereby certified a trash-monster forevermore.
We can argue until the sun goes down about whether this insistence on spotlessness is just or not, whether it’s reasonable or not, but the likely practical consequences of it are obvious. Politics is, alas, a winner-takes-all game. If the Republicans are willing to hold their nose about basically any sin or failing of their candidates in order to have a robust field of them and to get to eventually hitch their wagon to one that can surely win, whereas the Democrats are throwing candidates onto the pyre with reckless abandon for little more than peccadillos, how’s that gonna work out? I won’t lie, I don’t have any formal training as a soothsayer, but I’m willing to venture a guess nonetheless. The tragic reality is that this radically asymmetrical scrupulousness might well be electorally fatal for the Democratic Party. Even if it is indeed the right stance to take on moral grounds, you can’t pretend it doesn’t put them at a huge disadvantage. Listen, I’m no fan of the ‘electability over everything else’ attitude myself. In fact, I find myself sickened by it and its foul consequences more often than not. But I also can’t help but feel anxious about the prospect of a long unbroken string of Republican presidencies arising in the near future, especially given the calibre of candidate they’re ostensibly now willing to stomach. I don’t know what the answer is here. I don’t know if there’s a workable middle-path, nor what it would look like. But I do know that the muckety-mucks calling the shots in the Republican Party must be rubbing their hands together with glee. All they care about is winning. (That’s why their party is able to be such a ‘big tent’, containing factions with what seem like irreconcilably profound differences of opinion: it is an unhappy coalition of people united by the fact that they each think their cause is so important it warrants pursuing victory at all costs.) You make it easier for them to do so at your own peril, frankly. There’s gonna have to be a conversation about that sooner rather than later. You can’t winnow your pool of talent down to next to nothing — and for spurious reasons to boot — and expect it not to cost you dearly.
How could they possibly vote for Trump again in 2020 after seeing what a dangerous fuckhead he really is?
I hate to put this so bluntly but, well, there’s not really any other way to say it: I just don’t see how relations between Trump voters and those who despise them are going to get back to normal anytime soon. How is that bidirectional animosity going to heal? Can it even do so? Or is the civil war mentality now too deeply ingrained?
This is something I think about quite often really. Obviously it was incredibly, incredibly important for Trump to lose, but his loss isn’t some sort of panacea. It doesn’t magically fix the ruptures he’s opened. Anti-Trump people still feel a great deal of simmering anger towards Trump voters, and in all honesty I find it hard to really blame them. It must be tough to deal with, knowing that half your fellow citizens — not really half of course, but we’re talking symbolically here — saw fit to unleash this destructive whirlwind of stupidity and virulent, hate-filled toxicity on your country. And not just once, but twice! They emphatically doubled down on the decision, as if to leave no doubt in anyone’s minds about whether 2016 was just a crazy one-off anomaly, a mere product of the smirking giddiness that an outrageous reality-TV star was running for president. They really, really wanted to make it clear that Trumpian politics had not just been a passing phase, it truly was something that spoke to them deeply. Now, that insight must dramatically change how you look at and think about the strangers around you. I mean, it really must. How could it not? Nobody’s going to suddenly forget that the very people who felt such a strong resonance with Trump’s worldview are still out there. It’s not like they just vanished come Biden’s inauguration. And so, alright, I’ll grant you, things might well start regaining the semblance of normality again. Maybe even in short order. But it’s like trying to live alongside a dog which once bit you: you never really stop glaring at it with enmity and distrust.
Because the horrible, unignorable reality is: of course not everyone who voted for Trump was actively/consciously racist, but they all decided that Trump’s racism and racist dog-whistles were not a deal-breaker. And that goes for all the other awful things about him and all the other prejudices or regressive sentiments he played on in order to get elected. For almost sixty-three million people in 2016 and over seventy-four million people in 2020, none of that heinous shit constituted a deal-breaker. Okay, so what is that? Is that a full-fledged endorsement of all those repugnant things? Well, not necessarily, not in every case. As with anything else, there will be a spectrum. All the way from the unrepentant, unashamed true-blue bigots on one end to the people on the other end who were perturbed by the uglier aspects of Trump but who have always voted Republican and are so passionately opposed to the Democrats’ policies that it became the overriding factor for them.
Nevertheless, I do not think that feeling ensnared by the two-party system dilemma really absolves them of anything in a moral sense, quite frankly. Not in this case. Let me put it like this. Yes, it is probably reasonable to argue that one sometimes has to put up with a few particularly unpleasant or aggravating things about an otherwise acceptable candidate. (This is assuming you buy into the core logic of representative democracy in the first place, of course. I personally do not. I think it’s a really terrible deal no matter which way you cut it.) For instance, liberals tend to wince and give you the evil eye when you bring this up — or perhaps accuse you of ‘whataboutism’, which is all-too-frequently a buzzword huffily resorted to whenever a valid comparison is advanced which the other person is too lazy or dishonest to grapple with — but let’s not forget that when Barack Obama ran in 2008, he was firmly and even vocally against gay marriage. Not just legally, but even in terms of his own personal convictions too. This was spelled out in no uncertain terms at the time. (I wonder how it makes you feel to learn that later on his top advisor would indicate that this stance was actually just a disingenuous pose meant to appease religious sensibilities? Talk about doing the wrong thing for the wrong reason, good grief…) And yet, would it be fair to call Obama voters homophobes because of that? No, not really. Many of them felt compelled to overlook this element because A) you didn’t exactly have your choice of leading primary candidates who did support gay marriage, and B) it was ultimately just an unfortunate blot on a good candidate who seemed poised to affect the country in a very significant and very positive way. This is a defensible tradeoff to make. No candidate is ever going to perfectly align with what you’d like them to be. They’re all going to have flaws and detractions to a greater or lesser degree depending upon your perspective. Voters have to decide whether they can accept the particular bargain that each candidate is proposing, the compromise that each candidate themselves represent. That’s just how it goes.
But Trump is a different animal entirely. Voting for him isn’t covered by this defense because he himself is beyond the fucking pale. It’s as simple as that. There are times when your responsibility to your fellow citizens not to inflict an utterly unconscionable or unworkable president on the country ought to move you far more than either your party loyalty or your single-issue-voting myopia. Because it is unquestionably more important. Sometimes you just have to take the hit, know what I mean? That’s kinda just what being a good person/doing the right thing entails from time to time. I don’t give a damn how strongly you feel about border security or lower taxes or blah blah blah, there should still have been no way for you to cast a ballot for Trump in good conscience. When your team’s guy is an incompetent scumbag and a threat to the republic itself, you let the other team’s guy have the four years this time around. You just do. Otherwise how in the world can you claim to care about the welfare of your nation in the slightest? What it boils down to is this: there will be other elections, other opportunities to reclaim the White House, but the harm that a Trumpian figure can do to your society and your government could very well be irreparable for quite a long time. You can’t play around with this shit. You can’t just say “ah, well, we’ll just give him a chance and see how it goes”. The audition process is supposed to be the campaign, not the first term. You put someone in the Oval Office, it’s not some kind of job-training probationary period where you get to just safely evaluate their performance; it’s the real thing, you’re handing them the keys to the castle. A considerable amount of damage can still be inflicted even in the span of just a single term. And, even scarier, the mistake might end up being one you’re stuck with and won’t even get the chance to remedy down the line, as we saw when Trump attempted to refuse/overrule his own ouster. That’s why there’s only one honourable recourse. You suck it up and don’t put the country in that predicament to begin with.
And alright, it’s true, conservatives have been asked to reach this selfless vote-sacrificing conclusion three times in the last thirteen years. (Given that situating the bird-brained and trivial Sarah Palin first in the line of presidential succession was also clearly not to be countenanced by any serious person. This bizarre sabotage of his own ticket’s viability is something McCain only had himself to blame for.) If you happen to be one of those conservatives, I can imagine that probably smarts a bit. It probably doesn’t seem very fair. Maybe you’re even pretty angry about it. This is an understandable reaction. But hey, don’t get mad at me. I’m just the dude pointing out the facts on the ground. If you’re looking for a deserving recipient for your frustration and resentment, you might well start with the putrid cynicism of the GOP establishment or the foolishness of Republican Primary voters. They’re responsible for presenting you with shitty choices you’d have to morally bankrupt yourself to vote for.
And although it might still seem a little too convenient that I’m only preaching to one side of the aisle here, I can assure you that this is not some sort of biased hamstringing. I can promise you that if the Democrats were to one day put forward an unredeemable nominee who was either incapable of properly carrying out the duties of president or who possessed/employed a bunch of vile ideas, I would equally expect those on the left to put their own partisanship and single-issue manias to one side and make the right choice (i.e. conscientious abstention) too. This is a universal standard, okay? There are sometimes more important things than winning a particular presidential election. More than that even: there are sometimes situations where the only ethical standpoint is to actively hope your side loses. Period. End of story. Anyone with even a lick of moral intuition should be able to understand that, no matter their political persuasion.
I suppose I just hope that in time — we’ll probably need to be well clear of the Trump era’s emotional gravity well for this to happen though — a decent number of Trump voters will realize and own up to the fact that it was a fucked-up thing to do, to stand behind and empower a man like that. You don’t have to change any of your policy positions in order to state that. You just have to admit that it was wrong to overlook or hand-wave away all his odiousness because he promised he’d enact them. And the reason why I say I hope this happens is because otherwise I just struggle to see how those who understandably feel like support for Trump was a de facto attack on them/their social group (for lack of a better term) will ever be able to move towards forgiveness and reconciliation. I mean, for example, if I were to try to put myself in the shoes of a black American and ponder how I’d feel about someone who voted to re-elect Trump after seeing all his comments and actions concerning black people, I don’t expect I’d have a… positive opinion of them. I’d probably be profoundly wary of them going forward, to say the very least. I imagine something along the lines of this would be running through my mind: “if you decided that some dirtbag who disparaged and belittled and ignored the concerns of people like me should be given the most powerful position in government, what does that say about how you think about me? What does that say about what kind of country you want to live in?” And who could really argue that isn’t a legitimate response? That’s why there needs to be some accountability being taken. Some throwing up of hands and admitting of mistakes. You can’t forgive someone for a slight against you if they won’t even concede they did it, right? That needs to happen on a large scale, frankly. There needs to be a sense of closure for these societal fissures to finally start to close and scab over. I know that it sounds extreme, maybe even melodramatic, to talk about ‘forgiving’ someone for who they voted for but, again, this is a rare circumstance, a special exception.
Is there even the remotest chance of any of this reconciliation happening, or is it just a quixotic pipe-dream? That’s a good question. And a lot depends on the answer. My personal read is that a good percentage of conservatives have been employing some sort of severe cognitive dissonance — and even that is probably not putting it strongly enough — to completely stop their brain from grappling with Trump’s monstrousness, because, hey, he was winning victories for their ‘side’. I do think it’s possible… not probable, not likely, but possible… that when we finally have Trump in the rear-view mirror for good though, the bubble will also finally pop and the weird sort of hypnotic hold he had over so many people’s minds will dissipate. And then we may well see a rash of those same people posting about how they can’t believe they ever supported him and how unpalatably horrid he all of a sudden seems, talking just like de-programmed cult victims. I have a feeling that one day a little cottage industry of Youtube videos will pop up, with titles like ‘Wow! Ex-Trump supporter sits down with BLM [or LGBTQ or immigration or etc] activist to apologize!’ and dramatic looking thumbnails of an emotional face-to-face conversation. And I’m sure they’ll get a fuckton of views, because there’s such a hunger for it. Will seeing that type of thing actually produce any genuine, lasting sense of catharsis for people though? That I’m a lot more sceptical of. You can’t really just artificially induce that to happen by proxy, it has to come about both firsthand and organically I’d say.
I get why some conservatives will be especially leery about this kind of talk. In fairness, there is indeed a background of boy-who-cried-wolf-ism to consider here, which certain more hysterical elements of the left bear responsibility for. If you demonize John McCain and you demonize Mitt Romney, if you use vitriolic hyperbole in a desperate attempt to make moderate Republicans seem scarier or more extreme than they actually are… well, damn, people on the other side are sure gonna remember that. (And, yeah, true enough, the right deserves their own portion of blame for, say, misportraying Obama as some nefarious crypto-radical too. But that’s already had plenty said about it, and has arguably gained mainstream acceptance now.) This is another dimension to my some-things-transcend-winning-a-certain-election point. If you’re always willing to play stupendously fast and loose with the truth just to make sure your side cinches the victory each time, you’d better hope something doesn’t come along down the line which makes you sorely wish you hadn’t progressively expended all your credibility already. Like when you feel morally obligated to scream from the rooftops “no wait, for real though, we’re serious this time: Trump really is a proto-fascist, he’s by far the most dire threat this country has faced in living memory!” Now you’re in a pickle. Because the group which, in terms of practical importance, you most need to believe that claim is… drumroll please… yep, that’s right, the Republican masses. Only, that’s not going to happen, is it? There’s no good will left. There’s no trust in your capacity for non-partisan truth-telling left. Eventually all your foolish short-term-ism catches up with you. And because fate is apparently so fond of a warped and depraved notion of tragicomedy, it’s guaranteed to happen at the worst possible moment too.
Let me do a little bit of pollyanna fantasizing now. It would definitely be nice if the ‘Trump experience’ which the nation just went through, given that it represented the acme of venomous ultra-polarization and frenzied, no-holds-barred political warfare, will prove to have imparted some lasting lessons. I hope it changes the way that elections play out. (This is assuming that Trump, or another candidate as bad as him, doesn’t return to plague us all again. Because all bets are off in that case.) I hope that elections and the debates surrounding them can regain some degree of civility, of honesty. I hope they stop feeling like the political equivalent of ‘The Purge’ movies: intoxicating quadrennial bouts of maximum hostility where so many people feel entitled to lose themselves in the supercharged emotion of it all and take leave of their senses and say/do whatever necessary to destroy the villainous other side. And to get there, we need to turn the fucking temperature dial waaaaay down overall. I mean, jesus christ. People have gotten accustomed to viewing presidential elections as though the world is going to end if their side doesn’t win. It’s treated like we’re teetering on this apocalyptic life-or-death pinnacle every time, where a loss will mean that the country will be ruined and evil will be given free reign and the skies will split asunder and up will be down and down will be up and the smell of brimstone will appall the nostrils and et cetera, et cetera. It’s crazy. It’s a crazy backdrop for democracy to take place against. It creates a situation where the half of the population who ‘loses’ an election will always be left seething and shellshocked and bitter and despairing and enraged, and that’s a pretty severe psychic ordeal to undergo… every… four… years. The wounds barely even have time to heal before they’re torn open once again.
Whereas, let’s be real for a second, most of the time we’re talking about a contest which pits a relatively moderate Democrat versus a relatively moderate Republican. And even if you lose this time around, you’ll get another crack at it soon enough, and in the meantime it can often be pretty shocking how little truly substantial and durable change the ruling party is able to enact, either because they didn’t capture the governmental trifecta or simply because they were impeded by all the other checks and balances specifically intended to ensure that too much doesn’t happen too fast. It’s not that elections don’t matter. They do. They’re consequential in a lot of different ways, having ripple-effect cultural ramifications as well as the more obvious practical ones. So yeah, there’s no question they’re worth taking seriously. It’s just that you’ve got to be able to keep things in perspective and not lose your head. No matter what sea-change bullshit someone overpromises on the campaign trail, no matter how gung-ho and frighteningly wild-eyed their party seems this time, the country isn’t going to be transformed overnight.
What all this really boils down to is the much deeper problem of vilifying the other side. It goes without saying that this occurs on both the right and the left — probably in fairly comparable measure too. But when it comes to talking about it from personal experience, I’m better able to discuss it from a left-leaning perspective, because that’s the world I’m much more familiar with, that’s where most of my political affinities lie. (Moreover, I do think there’s some validity to that old saying “keep your own side of the street clean first”.) It has really disturbed me to see how many lefties seem to simply regard conservatives as bad people. A loathsome enemy who is only to be despised and mocked and fought against tooth and nail. Of course, it’s rare that this is actually made explicit though. It’s more often apparent when you read between the lines of how lefties speak about them; you realize it’s what explains the tenor and rhetoric being employed. That being said, I’ve also spoken to people who will happily tell it to you straight, saying it like it’s the most obvious thing in the world… It’s like they’re so thoroughly baffled by the conservative mindset and so deeply disgusted by conservative stances that the only way they can make sense of it is to assume that these must just be mean, backwards, selfish people who have a fucked-up way of viewing the world. Like, how could you possibly be ‘pro-life’? You must hate women and want to control/oppress them. You’re either a misogynist man or you’re a poor confused woman who’s fallen victim to internalised misogyny because of your unfortunate upbringing or the retrograde milieu of your community.
This is the kind of thing you have to think when you decide that there’s clearly only one ‘right’ answer to each political question and your side holds the monopoly on them, and therefore the other side must just be maliciously ignoring that truth because they’re simply hateful assholes or something. That interpretation means you get to shame and excoriate them without feeling bad, which is its own twisted sort of pleasure. It’s also a lot easier than trying to grapple with the inconvenient fact that many of the people who take an opposing stance to you did so because they genuinely weighed everything up and their own moral compass led them to a different conclusion. (Naturally, this is talking about matters — which is, frankly, most of them — where it’s possible for reasonable people to disagree. Obviously there isn’t a range of understandable/acceptable opinions on some fundamental things, like racial or gender equality. The book has rightly been closed on that kind of shit long ago…) The cost of realizing this is that then the clear-cut philosophical implication of it boxes you in: the worst you can really think about those people is that they’re confused and/or mistaken. And it’s quite tricky to despise someone for being mistaken, isn’t it? I mean, maybe you can keep it up for a while, if you’re well-practiced at such things. But eventually it’s just going to seem so contrived and pointless and hollow, and as hatred is a very hungry furnace it will soon haughtily extinguish itself when underfed. At which point, the only recourse left is to convince them that they are in error and that your position makes far more sense practically or ethically or what have you. That’s what politics is supposed to be about: a competition of persuasion. What it shouldn’t be about is deciding that half the country are just incorrigibly evil pieces of shit who deserve only to be shouted down and shunned.
The disturbing apex of that, of course, is when people casually say intensely vicious things like “I can’t wait for all those conservative voters to die off, so we can finally run the country right and make everything so much better/fairer!” The fact that this has now become such a commonplace remark to make, and it usually barely elicits so much as a cocked eyebrow, never ceases to amaze me. It’s totally nuts. First of all, you’ve definitely veered down a bad road when you’re not only longing for the death of those you disagree with, but even presenting it as a cure-all. I get that that’s a really out-there claim on my part, but you know what, wait, yeah, I think I’m gonna stand by it. And secondly, where to even begin with all the faulty logic underpinning this shit? You just wanna grab these people by the shoulders and shake ’em and say listen my dude, it’s not like in fifty years your country will somehow be exclusively left-wing. Like, what are you even thinking? Young conservatives are a thing, and they’re very far from the rare phenomenon some imagine them to be. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news and all, but they’re going to be around in the future, precluding your single-minded utopia. You’re gonna have to find a way to coexist. Maybe even cordially interact. Maybe even talk about your differences of opinion and try to sway them with argument. Yes, yes, I know that’s abhorrent to you, I know that engaging someone who’s leprous with wrongthink in conversation makes you shudder in disgust — or worry about getting cancelled for fraternising with the enemy — but that’s the price of potentially getting them to change their minds. It just takes effort. And that’s exactly why it’ll never happen, isn’t it? What really depresses the hell out of me about the people who glibly toss out the remark I mentioned earlier is that they represent a growing subsection of the left who are so self-satisfied and intellectually inert that they both will not and cannot defend their ideas. (And, by the way, conservatives feel so embattled in the current moment that they typically make sure their pouch of go-to rhetoric is well-stocked in case they’re ever confronted. So, uh, how do you think that imbalance in debate chops is going to work out long-term?) For real, they’re taking the ‘I’m too lazy to try to persuade people’ thing to its most absurd, most insane conclusion: “actually, fuck it, what if everyone who needed to be persuaded was just dead instead?” I mean, sure, congrats on your ingenuity, I guess. What an elegant solution. It certainly does save you a lot of time and inconvenience… (Huh, come to think of it, it’s kind of like the dipshit-leftist incarnation of what Bostrom was saying in his paperclip-maximizer scenario about the dangers of A.I. pursuing the simplest/uttermost way to carry out a given task.)
The other thing that bothers me about this whole line of thinking concerns the other end of the age spectrum. If you’re the type who believes that right-leaning senior citizens simply don’t care to think things through for themselves and are just stuck in the mud, mindlessly parroting the outdated political stupidity of the benighted time period they grew up in, maybe throw a glance up at the mirror once in a while, hey? I know you’re nineteen and you think you’ve got all the answers already. But what is your treasured set of correct-opinions if not just a regurgitated emulsion of, well, what? ‘Funny’ lines from the brain-trust of ‘Chapo Trap House’. (Or, really, from anyone in that edgy-sarcasm-and-namecalling-is-tough-and-cool-and-revolutionary, inside-jokes-are-better-than-ideas, centrists-are-worse-than-klansmen crowd who are trying so ridiculously hard to make the far-left somehow seem punk rock it’s embarrassing.) Some gilded comment breaking down why $32.50 an hour is, in fact, the proper minimum-wage sweet spot by an ‘economics professor’ on /r/explainlikeimfive. Propaganda memes, cooked up by high-school dropouts whose only skill is online attention-harvesting, on Twitter and Tiktok. Even more propaganda memes, but this time devised by KGB disinfo maestros. Very Important Issues™ that AOC said you ought to care about whilst she played a video-game on a livestream to pretend she’s down with the kids. Some faux-poignant slogan from Nike’s latest woke-washing advertising campaign. Half-remembered shocking factoids about some half-remembered subject on John Oliver’s show. That gender-politics thing your favourite irreverent Gen Z pop-star cryptically referenced in the lyrics for their hit song about how nice fucking is and how not-nice depression is. (I don’t really broadly dissent from that thesis, of course. But it does only bear so much repeating, I must say.) And et cetera, et cetera. You see what I’m getting at? People like to imagine that their political opinions are superbly well-founded and that their opponents’ are based on bullshit or moral befuddlement or thin air. It’s like, come on, wise up already. Why don’t you aim for some sliver of self-awareness at the very least?
Something else which really grinds my gears is when someone resorts to claiming that the moral truth of a particular political stance is just self-evident and so they don’t have to engage in any debate about it or even explain it. This is, I’ve long found, one of the surest signs that you’re just not dealing with a serious person. Let’s recur to the abortion debate. There’s countless activists on both sides who think theirs is so obviously the only righteous way to look at it that there’s no point in even dignifying the opposition by engaging with them. And yet, the question about whether society/law should have a more permissive or more restrictive attitude towards abortion access is, as we all well know, famously the quintessential polarizing shouting-match in practically all western countries. In the U.S. specifically, it’s often almost a comically even split between people who identify as ‘pro-life’ or as ‘pro-choice’ when responding to pollsters. So… therefore… it can’t be that fucking self-evident, can it? Frankly, I don’t know what it must be like to imagine that fully half your country is just so incurably brainwashed or dumb or evil that they’ll do something they know is horribly wrong. What is even left to you at that point besides embracing full-blown us-vs-them warfare? This is why these people feel like they’re justified in abandoning all propriety and restraint and stooping to any expedient form of foul play (e.g. smear campaigns or scare tactics) to just win. Win no matter what. Win at any cost. The enemy are monsters and can’t be reasoned with; all that matters is beating them.
Again, I totally acknowledge this is pie-in-the-sky naïveté, but it just seems so clear that one of the ways to prevent a Trump from happening again is to somehow repair political discourse. Because who would deny it’s in the worst state it’s been in for a very long time? Let me assure you, I’m not the type who pretends that there was some halcyon golden-age where politics was just like a polite dialectic over tea in a cozy drawing room. There’s been animosity and pettiness and bad faith road-blocks and what have you since time immemorial probably. But, even still, it’s fair to say that things really are off-the-charts bad at the moment. Forget about even restoring civility and open-mindedness to the conversations surrounding important issues, the first remedial step needed right now is far more basic than that: just bringing the two sides back into contact with one another at all. And obviously I’m not talking about the hateful, fingers-in-ears, head-in-the-sand hobgoblins on the fringes here. The ones who screech their dogmas with a dead-eyed stare, who are so far gone and have the taste for endless conflict so deeply soaked into their bones that there’s really nothing you can do with them. No, I’m talking about the middle majority who are reasonable and genuinely feel an impulse towards trying to reach ethical conclusions. This is the group that needs to be communicating more, recognising their commonality more.
It’s hard to overstate the extent of the self-segregation that’s going on today. I’m sure it’s always been true throughout history that mostly gravitating towards concordant voices is the norm, and that’s probably an unavoidable aspect of human nature that one needn’t get too vexed about. But now that you can so comprehensively and so minutely curate your intake of information and opinions, it’s become a perfectible art. That’s a development which, alas, typically has a way of becoming a bit of a dangerous siren song for us. And you can see the effects of it with your own eyes. So many people have not just retreated into their comfortable little echo-chambers, they’ve made a home there and boarded up all the doors and windows. I can say from personal experience that it’s jaw-dropping how common it is for lefties to be completely, unabashedly up-front about the fact that by choice they only have left-leaning friends, only read left-leaning writers, only listen to left-leaning podcasts, only click on left-leaning news outlets, etc. (And, worse, if they ever veered from this straight-and-narrow path out of curiosity and admitted it on social media, it would be seen as a dire black mark against them and they’d risk incurring ostracisation. It’s a self-policing thing, which is why the system itself is so powerfully self-sustaining. The constant peer pressure keeps them in the close-minded pen, keeps the blinders on them. It’s bleak, man. There’s just no way to break free when you get ensnared by that ‘being accepted is the most important thing to me’ trap.) Some of these people have literally never had a proper, real-life conversation about politics with an openly conservative person in their entire lives — outside of maybe older family members, I suppose, but those are usually just surface-level conversations anyway. And, in case it even needs to be stated explicitly, this of course applies vice versa. That’s the whole point. I don’t doubt that there’s just as many conservatives who only listen to right-wing talk radio and only converse with other people exactly like them in insular, strictly moderated right-wing Facebook groups.
Each side is increasingly walling themselves off and losing any sense of how the other side truly think and speak and feel. That lets you forget their humanity, lets you just treat them like a faceless foe who embodies everything wrong with the world. And soon enough, abra-motherfucking-cadabra, a guy like Trump will appear and use this sad polarized state the country finds itself in to full advantage. Everything was already so well primed for him that it was a cakewalk to convince right-wing voters that the anti-god, anti-America liberals really are so dangerously morally bankrupt that all they care about is grabbing guns, killing babies, and turning a blind eye to foreign adversaries and job-market-decimating immigration. (And then naturally he even balkanized the right by encouraging them to split into pro-Trump and anti-Trump camps. That’s the final step that really cinches things for you. It’s not enough to just keep the country off-balance by having its two sides at each others’ throats. Ideally you want to fertilize squabbling and factionalism in each side too, so that there’s exploitable instability at all levels and in all places.) And is this any surprise? If you only glimpse the world through the wacky conservative-media prism and only have social interactions with other fanatical ‘deplorables’, then of course it’ll be a hell of a lot harder to see that the scaremongering caricatures you’re being handed of the other side are just triple-strength horseshit. Without any error-correcting mechanism available to them — i.e. coming up for air once in a while and looking at the reality of a given situation directly — their minds are easy pickings. I’m telling you, something is gonna have to be done about that sooner rather than later. Because Trump has laid the blueprint for how to fully capitalize on this zero-day vulnerability in human psychology, and other shady characters with kindred ambitions have no doubt been watching closely.
I’m not gonna bullshit you: I have nothing short of an ear-to-ear grin about the vicious internecine conflict happening in the GOP at the moment. (And here I was thinking that the left owned the patent on self-sabotage via endless infighting… Ah well, not to worry. They might finally have some competition now, but the left’s mastery of eating itself is pretty much untouchable. Perhaps as a gesture of good will they can reach across the aisle and offer some helpful tips? A video tutorial maybe?) This is something that has been brewing for a long time, and the eruption of the battle almost happened during the Tea Party movement but I’d argue that was more of a false start really, because the party leadership was still able to exert enough control to largely contain and quell it. It took an explosive catalyst like Donald Trump to tip things over the edge irreversibly. Now the party is consumed by fighting. The factions are not merely saying their opponents do not represent the GOP and its future direction, they’re often going so far as to say that their opponents do not even belong in the GOP anymore. That’s how you know this is not just yet another little skirmish, this is a full-on war. Part of me is hoping that it’ll be a case of mutually-assured destruction and they’ll all be so enervated and politically damaged by the end of it that the party will be forced to reboot and rediscover its founding principles, but I don’t think fate is quite that kind.
Anyhow, so yes, the Republican Party is presently looking very much worse for wear. It’s arresting proof of the notion that one of the most dire things that can happen to a political party is winning the wrong way and for the wrong reasons. That’s what makes it extra hilarious when you see some slack-jawed, blank-stare Republican congressman on TV claiming that “Trump is the best thing that ever happened to the GOP!” It’s like holy shit, you dolt. You still don’t get it, do you? No amount of toeing the party line is going to magically change the facts. The damage has already been done. Listen, no-one’s gonna deny that Trump was — unfortunately for the rest of us — the perfect candidate to hitch your wagon to in ’16 from a purely electoral perspective. His big-mouthed brashness really was the perfect counter to Hillary’s nauseating phoniness and miasma of establishment-stink. And so he got you those four years in the White House. Yep, he sure did. Whoop-de-doo. Congratulations. But it’s like shooting yourself up with a big, oversized syringe of pure adrenaline because you want to take first place in a 100m sprint. Well, okay, maybe it’ll work, maybe you’ll run so fast for that one race that your legs will just be a Looney-Tunes-esque blur of circular motion. But afterwards, you’re fucked. You just wrecked yourself with that overdose in order to get it done, and now the best you’re gonna be able to do in the subsequent races that are coming up is shamble along and try not to puke all over yourself. You see what I’m getting at here? You’ll have paid for winning that one presidential contest by hobbling yourself for, say, the next two or three. And you have to be cognitively-challenged to think that math works out.
I really don’t know how anyone could credibly deny that Trump has left the party in a very sorry state. There’s the recent losses of the presidency and the Senate, which is a colossal reversal of fortune. There’s the bloody internal melee between those who are still willing to bow before the dark lord and those who aren’t but nonetheless refuse to politely deliquesce and vacate the party. There’s all the habitual Republican voters who feel disgusted and alienated by what the party’s become. Their emotional bond to it, which is a crucial asset in politics, has been weakened — perhaps even severed in some cases. There’s the profound reputational harm the party has suffered. (I know the GOP has never exactly had too much to lose in that regard. But, even still, it has sullied itself beyond belief now. There are fucking tobacco companies who get better press, whose mere mention doesn’t make people wrinkle their noses quite as much.) And who knows whether Trump might not be the gift that keeps on giving here. He may well have a long tail as a scandal-machine, with more damaging info coming out about the chicanery of his reign even years after it’s over. He’s also may well incur some long-due, long-delayed legal trouble at some point in the not-too-distant future, which will reflect badly on the party itself if they haven’t made clear he’s no longer their flagbearer by then.
And despite all this… incredibly, the majority of the GOP establishment seems dead-set on continuing to chain themselves to Trumpism. It’s hard to even know what to say about that. How does one sufficiently stress how nuts that is? Probably, one can’t. And one ought to just let its nuttiness speak for itself. But I can, and will, venture a few words on how surprising it is. In the run-up to the 2020 race, I felt pretty sure that Trumpism was in a bit of a do-or-die predicament. It seemed like it needed to prove it wasn’t just a one-time flash-in-the-pan type of thing. Because it was causing such intense PR headaches for the GOP that you’d imagine they’d want to see it prove its long-term viability and worth before they permanently bonded it to their DNA. “Granted, you’re making us come across like out-and-out racists/misogynists/etc, but if you keep winning, then… hey, who cares about silly ‘labels’ anyway, right?” So if he had won, I‘d have understood how that had cemented the advent of the Trumpian style, and I would have expected it to be with us for a good while to come. (Meaning the field of principled, honourable conservatism — if we are to posit that such a thing did or does indeed exist — would be doomed to lie fallow and polluted.) It’s very easy to follow that flowchart from beginning to end. The GOP just does not possess even a tiny fraction of the civic-mindedness or moral fortitude required to reject/replace something ghastly which is nonetheless consistently winning them elections. It’s just not gonna happen. Not in this lifetime or the next.
Yet, on the flipside, I predicted that if Trump were to lose — especially if he lost big, which he did — the shine would be off the apple and the GOP would likely either decouple from him entirely or at least relegate him to a supporting role, and veer back to relative normality. Trump could then be treated as a regrettable hiccup rather than a radical rewriting of the party’s underlying ethos forever more. This is the only response that makes sense. Well, to anyone who’s employing, y’know, the traditional, terrestrial version of human logic anyhow. As soon as something starts being more trouble than it’s worth, you cut the dead weight and leave it behind, don’t you? And that would seem to apply doubly so here because Trump had failed them despite being in the best possible spot to succeed. He was the incumbent, for christ’s sake. That’s a fantastic position of strength and solidity to be contesting an election from. The game is yours to lose. Alright, yes, you’re getting outspent by the Democrats but, hey, what else is new? They way outspent you in ‘16 too, and it didn’t amount to jack shit. (Talking of which, I dare say Michael Bloomberg’s unbelievably embarrassing crash-and-burn served as an object lesson about how worthless deep pockets are when they aren’t coupled with organically gaining real traction with voters too.) You can pile up an endless supply of ’earned media’ — a stupid term, to be sure — with your outlandish antics that easily makes up the deficit. And your campaign’s messaging/sloganeering is inarguably much better, much simpler and more effective than the absurdly messy line the Dems are stuck hawking: “okay, so it’ll be like the Obama administration redux, but not quite, but actually it’ll be very different in some ways, but in fact it’ll simultaneously be more moderate and also somehow more progressive because…” Furthermore, Joe Biden is not exactly the most fearsome candidate the world has ever seen, is he? As possible opponents go, it’s an excellent roll of the dice to get him. I don’t want to belabour this point, but I think we all know what I mean when I say that he’s extremely fucking beatable. And yet… for all this… Trump STILL managed to mess it up big time. That’s damning. That’s really, really damning. If you’re one of the GOP shot-callers trying to steer the future of the party, I don’t know how you look at that and not worry that 2016 was indeed some kind of right-man-right-moment fluke and accordingly Trump’s political value is now waning. Turns out he’s not your next 49-state Reagan, he’s more like some weird fad whose novelty quickly wore off. Pull your head out of your ass and face facts. Don’t be like that creepy out-of-touch store on the corner that’s still desperately trying to sell racks of fidget-spinners after everyone’s already sick of them. Move the fuck on. Find something new, something different.
The GOP, however, bless their stony hearts, apparently do not see things this way. They know they’re wallward bound and have decided that the best course of action is to step on the accelerator even harder. It’s amazing to watch, if nothing else. For reasons which I just cannot fathom, they seem intent on refusing to abandon Trump no matter what and are even gladly permitting him to retain his iron-fisted, remoulding control over the party. (I’m sure the irony hasn’t escaped you either: this is completely antithetical to what Trump would do if the roles were reversed. How many times has he ranted about scornfully dropping a ‘loser’ once their usefulness is expended?) My intuition is that the GOP are clinging to Trump for no better rationale than he’s all they really have left right now. He’s their only political superstar. He’s the only asset they have which is able to electrify the base and consistently grab substantial media attention when needed. What or who else do they have to rally behind going forward? They clearly had no contingency plan for if Trump lost, which reveals a truly mindboggling level of hubris. So now they’re just scrambling, they’re just grasping at anything they can. They clearly don’t have even the foggiest idea how to reinvent themselves post-Trump and find some new way to stay relevant.
It’s fascinating to consider the bizarre abusive-relationship Trump has had with the Republican Party since announcing his candidacy way back when. Everyone knows that during the primary the Republican leadership did not like Trump, did not want him there. I’m assuming that they resented him turning it into a freakshow with his trash talk and his uncouth theatrics. He probably just seemed like an annoying distraction in the beginning. A lot of people, myself included, suspected that he wasn’t really serious about this presidential bid, that it was just an elaborate, expensive PR stunt that would net him a lot of airtime. This is not something you can put past a guy like Trump. It’s not hard to imagine that he might’ve planned to use this spotlight to reinvigorate his national celebrity and maybe even parlay that into an opportunity to launch some new business ventures off the back of this renewed focus on him. Get in, get out, reap the spoils. In fact, funnily enough, that would have suited everyone. Early on, when it seemed like he had no chance of even winning the primary, I’m sure the GOP establishment types were hoping/expecting that he’d just flame-out fairly quickly and then, *deep sigh of relief*, the contest could go on as normal and resume its respectable tenor. A Jeb Bush or Ted Cruz or even robo-pol Marco Rubio would end up getting the nomination and it’d be business-as-usual heading into the general election. Comfortable. Familiar. Safe. Then when Trump rapidly started gaining more and more of a foothold, the seeds of a dawning panic were sown. It was very palpable that they were praying that something would happen to derail him. Some even had the balls to come out and make plain their opposition to him and what he represented. A scant few #NeverTrump-ers even dared to use quite dramatic, inflammatory language to help hammer home this point. (NARRATOR: oh boy would they later come to regret this.) But finally, of course, things reached the tipping point where Trump’s victory seemed increasingly assured. This was when you could sense that people inside the party were begrudgingly making peace with it, were trying to adjust to the new reality and decide how best to handle him. They hadn’t Dr. Frankenstein’d this monster into existence in the first place, but now they were left to deal with it all the same. (And, remember, the moral of Shelley’s story is that those who won’t or can’t tame their unwanted monsters are doomed to see them cause suffering and pandemonium. Not just that, but you’ll lose everything and be left in a sorry, broken-down state as you futilely try to limit their path of destruction, and eventually you’ll even perish at their hand. Anyone have Mitch McConnell’s home address? I‘ll happily send him a nice leatherbound, large-print copy of the book. I think he could really do with reading it…)
It’s fairly easy to imagine the effect this icy reception must have had on Trump. He knew that the GOP’s upper ranks didn’t want him there, had strenuously tried to prevent his rise. He’d had to force himself on the party. The GOP has welcomed all manner of crackpots and unsavoury or no-hoper characters in the past, and yet now they somehow decided to take special exception to poor old him. You have to look at this the way someone with Trump’s psychology would. Trump is used to being courted, he’s used to being approached by the most exclusive groups/businesses/institutions to accept a complimentary membership with them, just so they can brag about having him amongst their ranks. He’s used to being desperately wanted because he’s seen as such a high-value person to be associated with. This ain’t how it went down with the GOP though. Imagine what a slap in the face that must have seemed like to him. He must have been absolutely flabbergasted. Even though he was the best thing that had happened to this party in a long time, still they had spurned him. Even though he had provided it with a perfectly-tuned new rebranding strategy that worked fantastically, still they had spurned him. Even though he had infused it with a potent new energy it had been sorely missing for ages, STILL these ungrateful motherfuckers had spurned him. They had forced him to resort to the indignity of conquering a party which should rightly have been falling at his feet and begging him to be their champion. Here he was, the ultimate presidential candidate on steroids — a world-famous, charismatic billionaire who isn’t afraid to speak hard truths and who knows how to get things done — and yet, for some reason, by some prodigious exertion of stupidity and injustice, these people didn’t even realize how lucky they were to have him.
You can see how this being the origin story of Trump’s political partnership with the Republican Party would have implanted a deep-rooted bitterness and resentment in him. I don’t think Trump ever really forgot the insult that was paid him, never quite let it go. And you could see this manifested in the way he treated his party whilst he was president. He did not treat it kindly, that’s for sure. He didn’t see it as an organization which was working for his benefit and seeking the same larger objectives; he saw it as an organization which he couldn’t fully trust, which had to be carefully controlled and continually reminded of his dominance over it. It was just yet another tool to be ruthlessly employed for his own personal ends. And again, don’t let’s forget, Trump had much the same relationship with the GOP congresspeople themselves as he did with his own White House staff: he violently hates you if you oppose him on even the smallest thing in even the slightest way, but he also secretly looks down on you if you do bend the knee and make yourself his unconditional vassal, because it means he cannot respect you. It’s like some cliché about being the children to an abusive father or something. You can’t win either way. You’re just going to drive yourself mad trying.
I’d say it’s quite clearly a bum-deal to vie for Trump’s favour directly, given that he’ll expect you to do ten times what he does for you in return. (It should be no surprise really. This is the kind of golden ratio which someone at the very top of the pyramid-scheme that is capitalism would have no doubt become strongly accustomed to enjoying.) You spend four years singing his praises to high heaven every chance you get, using precious airtime which could be better spent touting your own political bona fides instead, and you’ll be rewarded with… what? A half-dozen tweets positively namedropping you, an official endorsement you’d have gotten anyway, and maybe the big guy will swing by one or two of your re-election campaign events if it’s on the way to where he’s heading that day. How much does this amount to, really? Not very much. It is, in terms of practical value, a pittance of recompense for your endless talking him up and all the times you voted the way he asked you to and all the times you endangered your own reputation to stick up for him during scandals. It’s the equivalent of him just sending you a basket of mini-muffins and a Walmart giftcard. But hey, that’s Trump. He likes to wring people out. He likes to wring them out for all they’re worth and pay as little as possible for it. That was his strategy in business, and that is sure as hell still his strategy in politics.
Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean there aren’t better, shrewder ways to take advantage of the Trump phenomenon if you’re a Republican with a glint of ambition in your eye. You just need to realize that greater rewards are to be had by surreptiously focusing on the source of his power instead: the MAGA crowd themselves. By publicly having Trump’s back, yes you’re keeping him happy, and yes that can have some value in itself, but more importantly you’re winning over his base and endearing yourself to them. That’s the real, weighty political spoil, right there. After all, it’s the MAGA crowd who will cast ballots for you, who will go door-to-door canvassing their neighbourhoods for you. And you know what? They’re gonna be around, continuing to provide you those benefits, a lot longer than Trump’s gonna be on the scene. That’s why you need to use your vocal support for Trump as a way — or, rather, a pretext — to reach them and start building your own sense of connection with them. Get ’em to love you as an ally of Trump and then hopefully that affection will persist even post-Trump and you’ll have thus wrangled a powerful asset to call your own from your otherwise lopsided relationship with him. It’s the smart play. And there are quite a few minor figures in the party who obviously agree because you can plainly tell they sought to avail themselves of this tactic. These are people who don’t really have any interesting identity or reason to be well-known besides being a bulldog for Trump. They made a name for themselves out of it. They saw the opportunity for what it was.
In terms of congresspeople, I’m not really talking about guys like Jim Jordan here, who already had some profile even pre-Trump, I’m more so thinking of newer members like Elise Stefanik and Matt Gaetz. (I have to say: from the very first time I ever saw him, there’s something about Gaetz that I just can’t stand. And believe me, out of necessity I’ve long since become inured to much of the emotional effect of watching politicians I despise. But he’s an exception. There’s just something about him that’s, well, pretty fucking formicatory. Perhaps because never has anyone looked and come across more like the central-casting snake-oil salesman who rolls into town to remorselessly fleece everyone out of their life-savings with a rictus grin and a smarmy bad-impression of charm.) Those two both really went to bat for Trump hardcore during his impeachment hearings — they had just enough knack for solemn-faced political theatre that the clips of their performances got a lot of play on conservative social-media — and this provided them with invaluable national exposure. They really milked every drop of publicity they could out of that. And, hey, you can’t deny that it worked. There was much talk about it positioning them as the GOP’s next up-and-coming ‘stars’. Naturally, it also ingratiated them with Trump’s supporters, making them very well-liked figures in that quarter. And they maintained their rabid pro-Trump posture throughout his tenure to keep that love coming their way. Interestingly enough though, however much of a boon that may have been during those years, the durability of it afterwards has proven somewhat dubious. In fact, it even has a way of eventually backfiring if you’re not careful.
Here’s what I mean. Matt Gaetz is going through what can only be properly labelled an abrupt and surely fatal career implosion right now, given the news that he’s being investigated for allegedly sex trafficking an underage girl. That’s the type of crime whose mere mention makes you sit up a bit straighter in your chair, huh? This is serious shit we’re talking about. And although he’s been doing his utmost to keep the MAGA crowd on his side, because he’s desperately trying to cling to any visible bastion of support which will make him seem less pariah-ish, it’s evident that they’re largely starting to move on from him. They know that his political career is flatlining and, if he’s charged and especially if he’s convicted, its corpse might well be a highly radioactive thing to have in close proximity to their already PR-challenged movement. They’re smart enough to realize that no amount of yowling on Gaetz’s part that this is really just a left-wing hitjob is going to magically make people forget A) that the investigation was started by Bill Barr’s Justice Department, which is not customarily the clubhouse for reputation-assassins with Mother Jones subscriptions, and B) all the creepy licentious behaviour of his that has now become public knowledge. Also, as if to doubly confirm that the door really has been shut in this guy’s face, there’s the following development too. When everything started unravelling for him, there was a rumour floating around that he was toying with leaving congress — “always jump before you’re pushed”, right? — and heading to the MAGA-aligned outfit Newsmax to settle into a new life as a ‘political commentator’. But even Newsmax, as it turns out, wouldn’t have him. That’s just humiliating. His contingency plan would have already entailed such a major downgrade, going from being a congressman to being a mere mouthpiece-asset for the scuzzy, small-time propagandists at Newsmax. Working for them really is scraping the bottom of the barrel, and yet even that opportunity for self-abasement was denied him. When somewhere like Newsmax decides you’re below their hiring standards… I mean, Jesus, that’s really saying something. It’s like the garbagemen turning their nose up at your trashcans for being too dirty and foul, and speeding away in their truck in disgust. What else can you do but just sit down on the curb and hold your head in your hands at that point? So yeah, that’s about where Gaetz finds himself now. He’s now such a liability that no-one, not even his erstwhile pals and comrades-in-arms, wants to touch him with a
ten twenty thirty-foot pole. It must be quite a shock for him to discover that going all-in on Trumpism can’t save you from everything. The people he thought he had gotten in good with have now spurned him in his hour of need. Still, he’s got no other tricks left up his sleeve, nothing else to pivot to, so he’s stuck banging that MAGA drum. An unwanted, unappreciated cheerleader. He’s currently holding sad little rallies with the exceptionally stupid and vile and deranged Marjorie Taylor Greene, who makes sense as the only person willing to partner with him because she’s also so toxic that even her own party wants to wash its hands of her and her stinking political-mucus.
Whilst Gaetz is being carried by a powerful katabatic wind down into the scrapheap where disgraced politicians are left to whine and moulder, Elise Stefanik is, well, doing much better. Her present career trajectory is pretty much the opposite of his. It’s going up, up, up. After Liz Cheney was recently deposed from her party leadership position for being too vocally anti-Trump as of late, Stefanik was tapped as her successor. That’s pretty crazy, really. This woman has had such a meteoric rise in the GOP. Before Trump she was a little-known freshman member of congress; now she’s the third highest ranking Republican in the House. That’s an undeniably impressive climb, especially at such a young age too. And when I first heard that Stefanik was going to be given Cheney’s chair after they power-washed the blood off of it from the broad-daylight headshot to her career, I remember thinking that the MAGA folk were sure gonna be happy. It’s hard to find someone who has been more consistently or vehemently outspoken in their support of Trump. Stefanik has been absolutely dogged with it. Going above and beyond even what was expected as the party-line in defense of him. Hell, she was even one of the small gang of rogue Republicans who tried to block the electoral college count being officially certified. (An outrageous, bald-faced attempt to subvert the democratic will of the people, by the way. It’s a mark of immense shame for all involved which ought to be impossible to live down. And will likely come back to haunt them in the long run, at the point where the tide finally turns and conservatives start to rub their eyes and look back on the Trump era and all who abetted it with amazement and disdain. Let’s see if your idiotic protest gesture intended to curry favour with your one-term failure of a king seems quite so worth it then…)
So you can imagine my surprise when I read that large swaths of Trumpworld had apparently turned on her rather severely, saying some disobliging things about her and even going so far as to object to her appointment and demand a better replacement. See, as it turns out, Liz Cheney’s voting record was actually far more reliably (92.9%, by one metric) in lockstep with Trump’s positions than Stefanik’s (which sits at a ‘modest’ 77.7%) when examined objectively. This is why they were so mad at her. She had made them think she was one of them through and through, and reaped the rewards of their backing. But then when she was poised to gain a position of real influence, they vetted her more closely and were infuriated when she didn’t pass muster. She was in fact too moderate for their tastes. She had only presented herself as the kind of hard-line conservative they coveted, only recited the things they wanted her to say. Once this realization dawned on them, they felt misled and used. And that’s a real trigger for them. They gravitated to Trump in the first place because they were sick of feeling used by the two-faced political establishment, and yet here it is happening all over again in this movement which was supposed to be a refuge from that. You can bet they’re gonna take that personally. Oh yes. And so now Stefanik’s viewed with distrust, even contempt, by these people. That will serve as a thorn in her side for a while to come. And it aptly demonstrates that although there’s a lot of upside to be found in the utilise-the-MAGA-crowd gambit, it also has a very stark element of diceyness too: don’t get caught in the act, or you’ll discover that those who were just cheering you are suddenly sharpening their pitchforks.
There’s a lot to be said about how Trump’s relationship to the GOP’s head honchos has shifted over time. I’m referring to the true, stalwart party ‘lifers’ here. The ones who have dedicated their entire careers to it and, for all their selfish personal ambitions which are simultaneously active, I think it’s probably fair to say that they really do have a strong emotional connection to it, really are trying to ensure its success even in ways that don’t benefit them. They actually give a fuck about the party itself, in other words. They want to leave it in good shape when they finally step away from politics.
These people know that Trump has no real sense of affection for or loyalty to the Republican Party. None whatsoever. They know this. It has always just been a means to an end for him. He choose the only party that he could feasibly use as a vehicle to get to the presidency. Simple as that. He has shown on countless occasions that he does not have the best interests of the party at heart, and will not put it first in any matter, regardless of how miniscule the cost to him. So you can just imagine the conflicted feelings those running the show at the GOP must have had during the Trump years. On the one hand, Trump had gotten them back in the White House. That’s a big fucking deal, both practically and symbolically. And he had clearly provided a long-missed sense of excitement and vigour to the conservative movement, had given it its edge back. So understandably the party faithful — i.e. the rank-and-file base —were riding an intense sugar-high. And that’s a very valuable thing to bring about, politically. It’s short-lived, sure, but boy can you harness that manic energy to get a lot done before it evanesces and leaves only a headache in its place. Yet, on the other hand, there’s the simple fact that Trump carried with him such immense, omnipresent danger. There’s no getting away from that. He was like a grand statue carved out of unstable plastic-explosive, which all this incredible newfound success for the GOP was built around like fragile scaffolding. The statue looks great, real big and imposing. And everything seems just dandy. But, at any given moment, you could very suddenly be reminded that it’s made out of white C4, not marble. It wouldn’t even take much. Just a knock from some errant passerby’s elbow, or maybe there’s a little eddy of static electricity dancing invisibly through the room? Sorry, that’s that. It could detonate and destroy the party. Or at the very least leave it smouldering and scarred at the bottom of a crater. That was the trade-off when it came to Trump which they just had to accept. And I’m sure the constant anxiety about that did no favours to any of their blood pressures.
Obviously there were all the outrages he could potentially cause in office which could bring about that doom-laden explosion, but there were also all the things from his past which could finally resurface too. The thing I always think about is that rumoured n-word tape from ‘The Apprentice’. Though I’d fully understand someone who fell on the more skeptical side of the fence, I’d say there are reasons to believe that, on the balance of probabilities, it likely does exist. There’s the sheer number of people who say they’ve heard the tape or know someone who has; the fact that a family member has attested to his long-running use of racial slurs; the fact that contestants on the show have claimed that Trump would habitually say extremely offensive things of all varieties between takes; that secretly-recorded private conversation where Trump’s team are discussing how to potentially do damage-control if the tape ever emerges, which includes his own national spokesperson confidently stating “he said it. He said it. No, he said it. He’s embarrassed.” Okay, yes, this would all be labelled ‘circumstantial evidence’ in a court of law. That’s true. But I’m not a judge, nor am I impaneled on a jury. Just like anyone else, I simply try to look at whatever facts are available and draw sound inferences from them. What else can you really do, you know? And in this case, these kind of corroborative details add up pretty neatly if you ask me. Though I consider it far from certain, they do incline me towards a particular conclusion. And I think I can honestly say the outcome would be no different even if my feelings about Trump were different.
But anyhow, what I’m getting at is just think how crazy it must have been to have to worry about the very real possibility of a tape coming out where your party’s president says the n-word, as well as supposedly making severely demeaning/disgusting comments about black people, jewish people, women, etc. It’s frankly laughable that there was evidently even that incipient attempt to brainstorm ways to defuse the tape’s impact, because I think it would be an absolutely catastrophic meteor-strike of a news story, no matter what dark arts of spin they bring to bear on it. (Some people doubt even something like this could kill Trump, given his famed political invincibility. A well-founded pessimism, to be sure. Still, I tend to disagree. If I am to retain any shred of faith in humanity, I have to believe that there are still lines which may not be crossed.) I mean, what would their magic-fix press release even say? Well, actually, knowing the GOP, I think I can probably hazard an educated guess. They’d just throw everything they could at the wall. It would be some heinous salad of stuff like “it was just a misguided joke”, “those clips are misleading, they were deceptively edited”, “we all make mistakes”, “Donald Trump has a lot of black friends, here are some testimonials from them…”, “it might well be a deepfake”, “this is no different than the off-colour banter which hardworking blue-collar Americans of all races engage in behind closed doors”, “here we go again, the leftist woke-police are simply trying to ruin another innocent man’s life”, “no-one’s ever done more to help the black community than President Trump”, “if anything, Biden’s the real racist, because…”
And if you’re amongst the party leadership, you not only have to worry about these big, spectacular blow-up moments happening and collapsing everything in on itself — which, to be fair, are at least subject to non-certain probabilities — you also have to deal with the gradual damage which is definitely already happening to the party right before your eyes. This is the other price of what Trump was able to do for them. The profound multifaceted harm being done to the party’s image, the ammo given to the enemy with every scandal, the disunity and quarrelling he was sowing in the party ranks, et cetera. (It’s akin to one of those morality tales, where a nefarious figure comes along and offers some sap what he wants most in the world, but the catch is that this deal-with-the-devil will end up costing him everything else he holds dear. Only in this instance there’s no-one to feel sad for: it’s just a greedy scumbag and an amoral organization each hoping to take maximum advantage of one another, and the former succeeding a great deal more.) And just to add insult to injury, as Trump was screwing over the GOP every which way and saddling it with the unique shame of having a twice-impeached president, he still had the gall to demand that it reassure him that it had his back no matter what. He was like a restless child who constantly needs to be soothed and dandled. Meanwhile, of course, I’d bet dollars to fucking donuts that there were secret conversations held SEVERAL times during Trump’s term where the highest-ranking Republicans got together — I don’t know for sure that these huddles took place in some sort of dimly-lit bunker, but that’s what I’m picturing — and discussed whether or not it might be time to preemptively abandon him and start distancing themselves, lest his sinking ship drag the whole party down with it. And when exactly might these conversations have happened? Oh I don’t know, before each impeachment maybe? And most definitely once again there at the end, when he was utterly out of control and willing to splash gasoline all over the Oval Office rather than admit to an election loss.
In fact, the end is where things really start to get interesting. The Republican head honchos didn’t quite decide to turn on Trump, but it became clear that their patience was depleted and their relationships with him had completely deteriorated. Two examples of this come to mind. Kevin McCarthy, who I’ve read enjoyed a good personal rapport with Trump once upon a time, reportedly had an enraged shouting-match phonecall with him during the Capitol attack. McCarthy was inside the building as it was being overrun by maniacs with decidedly impolite intentions, and Trump not only refused to take action to try to call off this mob he’d incited, but he even went so far as to mock McCarthy with some lame jibe. At this, McCarthy apparently lost his shit and yelled “who the fuck do you think you’re talking to?!” Which is, uh, y’know, a pretty wild thing to say to the President of the United States. I’m not gonna lie though, I dig it. It puts a little pep in my step when I think about it. At the risk of sounding what I believe the kids would term too thirsty, I would gladly, in a heartbeat, no takebacksies, trade all my future Christmases and birthdays and maybe even threesomes in order to hear a recording of that exchange. I don’t care if I have to listen to it on a crackly fucking gramophone. I don’t care if I even have to get Neuralyzer’d afterwards. I’m telling you, I want it bad.
And as for Mitch McConnell, he very conspicuously decided to finally try and put some insulative space between the party and Trump right there at the very end. He declined to marshal the party full-force behind Trump’s attempts to delegitimize and/or overturn the election, and even gave that remarkable speech on the Senate floor where he repudiated Trump’s effort to egregiously circumvent the Constitution in plain sight. Although I do think it was quite a good speech when considered in a vacuum, please understand that I have a well-justified autonomic reflex which renders it impossible for me to give McConnell even the most tepid praise, and it’s definitely kicking in here. First of all, this was truly a case of right-deed-wrong-reasons opportunism, given that any attempt to prevent election certification was doomed to fail and there was also no longer a pressing need to appease Trump’s madman-whims now that he was about to be put on ice for a long while. So McConnell found himself in a position where it was really low-cost to pretend to be honourable for once. Might as well, really. It was practically the only feasible or worthwhile option left to him at that point. And secondly, well, his long history of hypocrisy and underhandedness and just general all-round shitbaggery has frankly already cemented him as a lowdown little weasel from now until the rapture. That doesn’t get undone or forgotten because you say the right things in one eleventh-hour speech. No way, man. Fuck that noise. This is literally the very least you can possibly do. And I can tell you right now: no amount of pretty words will ever be enough to redeem you. I hope you believe in reincarnation, Mitch, because you’d have to live out several lifetimes of saintly do-gooding to even begin to make up for the damage caused by this monster you helped unleash upon America.
But, anyway, I digress. When I saw that speech, I was pretty astounded. It was so clearly the final nail in the coffin of any relationship McConnell and Trump may once have had. (And it was certainly in very ill-health already. Don’t forget that although McConnell ultimately pulled him out of the fire yet again during that second impeachment, he did go so far as to label Trump “practically and morally responsible for provoking“ the Capitol attack. Which had to smart. Also, how the hell do you say that and then NOT impeach the guy? It’s preposterous. But that’s another matter…) I knew Trump was guaranteed to go full-on motherfucking apoplectic at that speech. He would see it as the ultimate betrayal. A slap in the face and a dagger in the heart, for all the world to see. And so, predictably, he’s now openly feuding with McConnell, which is a crazy thing to watch. The most popular man in the party, and its former president to boot, naked trying to destroy the man who has now resumed his position as technically the most powerful man in the party. A clash of titans, if you will. It’s so rare to see something like this play out in public. Usually you’d only find out about this kind of animosity/power struggle way down the line, when piecemeal details finally get disclosed in various memoirs and behind-the-scenes books by investigative reporters.
The statement Trump put out in response makes for quite a read. To say Trump goes hard in it would somehow still be putting it mildly. It unequivocally reads like the declaration of hostilities at the beginning of wartime. He viciously tears down McConnell as a failure and a fool and a total embarrassment, attacking him from every direction and in the most personal terms imaginable. Even McConnell’s family get dragged into the rant, when their supposedly “substantial Chinese business holdings” are used to bludgeon him. Trump also subjects McConnell to one of his favourite put-downs, which is the claim that someone abjectly grovelled for his endorsement. It is a letter which is positively dripping with fury and venom. If I can be real with you for a second: I was pretty giddy with glee when I read it. I love it. What an absolute treat. I’d like to be a bigger person, but sometimes you just gotta indulge in the little petty joys which make life worthwhile. I mean, it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. You get your just deserts when you get into bed with emotionally unstable egotists like Donald Trump. Although actually, on second thought, McConnell’s probably still getting off lightly. Keep in mind: Trump thinks like a wannabe-tyrant. If memory serves, at this point he has said that Obama should be in prison, Hillary Clinton should be in prison, and Joe Biden — and even some of Biden’s family members, of course — should be in prison. So that means he’s called for his predecessor, his successor, and every presidential election opponent he faced off against to be locked up. He’s covered pretty much all the bases. Anyone who has read even a little bit about the typical tactics of third-world dictators will recognize that this is plucked straight out of their playbook. And the final step is usually to even go so far as to call for rivals in your own party to be imprisoned, thus making your power incontestable from all angles. Trump might have subjected McConnell to the verbal equivalent of pointing a leaf-blower filled with razor blades at someone, but at least he hasn’t tried pulling that last-resort move. Well, not yet anyway…
The other key takeaway from that letter is that Trump announces he’ll be backing the new wave of insurgent MAGA-zealot candidates who intend to primary insufficiently pro-Trump Republican incumbents. This goes back to what I’ve already talked about quite a bit, which is that Trump is trying to take over the party and remake it in his own image. He’s not seeking to do it slowly or subtly or cleverly, he’s just swinging a wrecking ball. And he sure as hell doesn’t care whether this struggle for control hurts the party itself. And it surely will. Practically speaking, putting so much energy into primarying GOP congresspeople will just be giving a major gift to the Democrats in a lot of cases. Even if it fails, you’ve just put the incumbent through a tough fight for their life and so they’ll limp into the general election bloodied and battered, with the back-and-forth mudslinging during the primary probably having unearthed some new dirt or failing which their Democrat opponent can then use against them. And if it does succeed, you’re generally going to be replacing a tried-and-tested political veteran with some inexperienced, inept shmuck. Because, let’s be honest, Trump isn’t exactly going to be rallying the cream of the crop to his banner on short notice. He’s gonna be attracting the fringe kooks, the inflammatory provocateurs, and so forth. The kind of people who don’t mind potentially just being sacrificial cannon fodder in Trump’s skirmishes against the GOP establishment. (Because these primary challenges are probably going to have a relatively low success rate, I’d wager. Trump knows that though. It’s more about probing weak spots and applying pressure and maintaining a belligerent stance.) And the other thing about these replacements is that they create serious instability going forward. If you’ve got some four-term congresswoman holding down a district for you, you know they’ve already proven themselves, they’re reliable. Barring some big unexpected turn of events, that’s likely a safe seat for the foreseeable future. You can count on that, plan around that. But the fucking MAGA dingbat who beats them in some gratuitous Trump-orchestrated primary… well, who knows what you’ve got on your hands there? They’re a precarious asset for the party at best. Quite possibly they’ll make too many waves in office or prove too much of a screw-up and get ousted after one term. So the Dems get to pick up a seat they should never even have had a chance at snagging. Much rejoicing at the Democrat HQ; much wailing at the GOP one. Remember, in the Senate, the Republicans are dealing with ultra razor-thin margins, they can’t afford to lose even a single race. That’s why these hypotheticals are the type of thing that will keep Mitch McConnell up at night. Whereas I promise you Trump doesn’t miss a wink of sleep because of them. He’s probably sniggering to himself as he drifts off. He enjoys the chaos, revels in it.
Even though it has indeed now become a battle of wills between the two men, Trump is playing a very different game, with very different rules and victory conditions. McConnell wants the GOP to be strong because that increases the scope and magnitude of his own power in turn, but Trump just wants to dominate and/or crush his enemies, whatever that means in any given context. This is why their approaches are going to look so different over the next few years. McConnell is going to do his best to retain his long-time iron grip on the reins of the party through traditional political manoeuvring. And, furthermore, he’ll tend to the health of the party itself. He’ll seek to salvage its reputation and shore up vulnerabilities and do whatever’s necessary to preserve future electoral prospects. Whereas Trump will just be coming to wreck shit and hopefully rule supreme in the rubble. That’s just his M.O. He’s always known that his best chance at taking over something is to break it first. He looks at the Republican Party like a company he’s targeting for hostile acquisition: if you surreptitiously besiege and degrade and sabotage that company from all sides long enough, its shareholders will eventually beg you to come ‘save it’, and you’ll get to buy in for pennies on the dollar. (This metaphor can also be neatly transposed onto how he tried to take over the country itself, but let’s not get too sidetracked. We still have a fair few Frostian “miles to go” before we’re done.)
If I were McConnell, I’d be rather anxious about my chances of winning this battle. Trump is such a force to be reckoned with because he’s beloved by the voters — that is a rock-solid and enormously potent source of power. McConnell is just a senator who worked his way up to the top of the GOP’s internal hierarchy over a long period of time and then ruthlessly consolidated his control over the party. No-one loves Mitch McConnell. No-one is smitten with him, or has any emotional investment in him whatsoever. In fact, if you look at approval ratings and favourability polls and just that general man-on-the-street opinion-harvesting reporters like to do to pad out stories, he doesn’t even seem to be all that well-liked in his home state of Kentucky, which is just astonishing. I mean, to give him his due, he has been elected to the Senate seven times on the trot. And considering the Senate employs bizarrely long six-year terms, no one could deny that that’s quite the feat. It’s incredible longevity. It means he’s been there since pretty much the Stone Age. But, y’know, all the same…. I’d venture to say that getting elected as a conservative in Kentucky, which has only become redder and redder in recent decades, is not all that difficult even if the people don’t particularly jibe with your personality or have gotten tired of you. What else are they gonna do, vote for the ‘gun-grabber’ Democrats who want to tear down statues and who refuse to allow prayer in schools?… Besides which, if they care about the standing of the Republican Party whatsoever, they’re not going to want to decapitate and embarrass it by voting out its leader, regardless of their feelings about him. So he has special electoral protection from several different angles.
My feeling is that unless something happens which just totally removes Trump’s piece off the board, he’s probably going to emerge victorious in this struggle for the GOP. Don’t get me wrong, McConnell wields enormous influence inside the party, and he’s respected and feared as a Machiavellian operator for good reason. He will no doubt put up a good fight for as long as it’s tenable to do so. Yet the truth is that however skilled he may be as a tactician and a puppet-master, he’s inherently replaceable in a way that a full-blown superstar like Trump is not. And, along similar lines, when it comes to rallying people to your cause, Trump also has a far more tempting carrot to offer. McConnell can elevate you inside the party structure, give you opportunities of that sort. But if you’re a politician, that can only get you so far. You can be handed a spot on the most sought-after committees to nab yourself some limelight, you can be tapped as the nominee for some sweet wide-open congressional seat, that’s all great, but the reality is that elections are elections and winning them largely comes down to you. You can’t rely on the aid of the party apparatus as a crutch forever. If voters don’t care for you, if they don’t find you interesting or likeable or impressive, if you haven’t actually won them over, if they’re moved more by party affiliation than voting for you personally, you’re gonna come unstuck sooner or later. You’ll also always have a hard ceiling on your career prospects because you’ll never be able to win any closely-contested elections on your own merits, you’ll only ever be fit for safe seats that require special catastrophes to lose. And this is why Trump has the more enticing currency for bribing people to join his side in this internal strife. He can promise to sell you to his followers, to vouch for you and sing your praises, giving you a quick-and-dirty boost of second-hand cachet. If you’re a politician who’s not all that charismatic or all that talented, this will seem like the perfect shortcut to get people to give a fuck about you. (I’ve already explained earlier in this piece why it’s actually just fool’s gold. But, well, fools greatly abound, do they not? So a robust market for it persists nevertheless.)
Don’t forget this either: if and when Trump fully succeeds in making the Republican Party his personal uncontested dominion, people like Mitch McConnell will only have themselves to blame. This has to rank right up there as one of the most perilous yet readily foreseeable slippery slopes of all time. It’s the equivalent of there being a big billboard at the top of one of those ridiculously steep San Francisco streets advertising both the sharp angle of the decline and the fact that a tanker filled with olive oil just jack-knifed and split open there, and some foolhardy dumbass seeing that sign, reading that sign, and still taking off their shirt and leaping headfirst down the hill like someone bodysurfing on a slip-and-slide, with no plan for how to stop once they get to the intersection at the bottom at breakneck speed. (That analogy, besides clearly being fit for the hallowed pages of the ‘American Journal of Political Science’, proves the point that if you want to make sure you’re not being derivative, even accidentally, just write something so whacked-out that probably no-one else would’ve dared go there first. As it turns out, originality has an obnoxious and unseemly cost.) McConnell exposed his beloved party to the threat posed by Trump with eyes wide-open. The nature of what he was dealing with was superapparent from the get-go. But he clearly thought he could neuter its most destructive and sinister excesses and mould it for use in his own designs. Look how that worked out. Any dope could see what was going to happen. He midwifed the birth of a dark new force destined to one day try to personally destroy him. It’s reminiscent of that trope of occult fiction where some amateurish summoner brings forth a demon which they ultimately cannot subdue/overmaster and will inevitably end up devoured by as karmic comeuppance.
And to zoom out and look at the bigger picture: Trumpism, being the product of one extremely possessive man, has been engineered to be hardened against outside alteration or amelioration. Only Trump may say what Trumpism is or is not, in other words. Therefore, the brute-fact is that the GOP cannot change Trumpism, but Trumpism most certainly can change the GOP. That narrows the range of outcomes rather considerably, wouldn’t you say? This is why it’s not at all surprising that things have come to a head just four years after Trump entered the scene. Trumpism regards the GOP as nothing more than a convenient agar plate which helped incubate and strengthen it and ready it for massive dissemination. (You might say that makes the party somewhat akin to a bioweapon laboratory. But I just want to stress… those are your words, not mine.) And once the growth medium has been used up, what use does Trumpism have for the petri dish which is now just constraining it? Why would it consent to be subsumed by something else, when it’s clearly more powerful?
Still, a lot of people have mispredicted what that endpoint is going to look like. Trump’s staying put. He doesn’t need to go elsewhere. There are ways of destroying and reshaping a party from the inside which allow it to still bear the same name and be staffed by the same fake-smile creeps but have become a totally different thing. That’s the play here. All those rumours about Trump potentially breaking away and creating his own rogue political party were so silly. You’re telling me the guy who didn’t want to deal with the cost and headaches of starting a TV channel is needlessly going to try to do something ten times harder than that? Something probably ten times riskier too? Yeah right. Give me a break. I mean, hey, I don’t deny that real, credible outlets were reporting that insiders told them it was being discussed. (If memory serves, I believe the first word of it came from Axios, and I certainly rate their reporting highly. They’ve had a veritable bonanza of scoops in recent years.) But the smart money says this was one of two things. Either it was just Trump, angry and seething after the election loss, talking a big game as he was ranting to his cronies — who are no doubt well-practised in mentally going to their happy place because of how often they have to patiently listen to this sort of splenetic whining. “The Republicans want to desert me at the bottom of the ninth?! Those traitorous bastards! After all I’ve done for them?! Yeah, well, maybe I’ll start my own party and bury them! See how they like that! I’m the only good thing the GOP has going for it anyway…” Something along those lines. You can just picture him saying it, can’t you? Nothing more than empty bluster meant to vent his rage and make himself feel better. Or else it was just a bluff he deliberately had his people ‘leak’ to the press, in order to quicken pulses amongst the Republican leadership and keep himself in the headlines. (Sidenote: the prospective name for Trump’s splinter group which was being bandied about, the ‘Patriot Party’, is not only cringeworthy to the max, but it’s also exactly what a hack writer would call some fascist new party which springs up in their TV show’s alternate-history version of an America which descends into tyranny.)
You can be sure it was never a real intention because there are two important constants about Trump: he takes the path of least resistance, and he makes other people do most of the hard work for him whenever possible. Unless he somehow loses a 2024 primary or the GOP literally ejects him and bans him from returning, and both scenarios are fantastically unlikely, he knows that the party is still his for the taking. So why would he resort to an infinitely inferior political vehicle if he doesn’t absolutely have to? The other thing to keep in mind is Trump’s ego. Although I’m sure he would find something gratifying about starting a party that’s entirely his and which is utterly, fundamentally dedicated to worshipping him as its golden idol, it would still be a profound step down for him. Not only does he lose the prestige of heading a long-running, storied major party like the GOP, but he would be tacitly admitting that he has no intention of genuinely trying to win the next presidential race. If we are to step into the world of hypotheticals for a moment, I freely concede that a Trump-led third party could probably do quite well, but only relative to what’s even possible for a third party in the first place. The main barrier he’d face is the high likelihood that a Trump-less GOP would nonetheless run a pro-Trump/Trumpian figure as their candidate next time, thus competing in an extremely direct way and hampering Trump’s ability to market himself as a truly unique alternative. Even still, I could see him having approximately a George Wallace level of success with the popular vote, peeling off somewhere around 15% for himself, and maybe he’d even win a small state if he made that a specific moral-victory priority. (Remember, that’s a feat which even Ross Perot couldn’t manage, so it’s nothing to shake a stick at.) But impressive as that would be in context, and as much as that cannibalizing of the right-wing vote would surely doom the GOP’s chances that year, obviously it does not a presidential victory make. And for Trump to erase — both mentally and publicly — the shame of having gotten trounced by Biden, he would need to become president again. He very much knows that. So it just doesn’t really make sense for him to settle for the absurdly lesser prize of becoming king of his own tiny little political kingdom which has next to no real, concrete power.
Unless, of course, his other options have been revoked and it’s all that’s left to him. But, even then, I would still tend to doubt he’d go for it. The problem is that there’s just so obviously no future in it. In ’92, when the weird mania surrounding Perot was at its feverish peak, he got 18.9% of the popular vote. A stellar achievement, no doubt. I think the current political climate is so different and the two-party-system stranglehold so much more intense that even Trump probably wouldn’t be able to exceed that figure. Yet then when Perot outstayed his welcome/outlived his novelty by running again in ’96, he got a mere 8.4%. I don’t exactly have to draw you a graph, do I? Let’s just say the line is going the wrong way, pretty precipitously. That’s the nature of the beast. Things have their moment and then it passes and you’re left holding the bag and asking the backs of people walking away from you what happened. As a renegade, Trump could be a truly significant force for one election-cycle. He could play spoiler for one election-cycle. Thereafter, the best his third party would be able to hope for is acting as a minor nuisance and troublemaker. That would be a lame, ignominious way for Trump to end his political career. Relegated to ineffectual irrelevance. For someone like Trump who subsists on attention and the ego-boost of feeling powerful, that’s a fate worse than death.
I feel I ought to add that I have actually been pretty impressed by some GOP figures who’ve thrown caution to the wind and put their necks on the line in order to publicly tear Trump down and demand the party leave him behind. Expectedly, they’re all too few and almost none of them are in positions of real power or influence within the party, but it’s still heartening to see all the same.
I’ve particularly been impressed by a guy named Adam Kinzinger, a sitting congressman who’s got rather good anti-Trump bona fides I’d say: opposed Trump back in ’16, voted for impeachment second time around, called for the 25th amendment to be invoked to remove Trump after the Capitol attack, has made many statements savagely lambasting Trump and his enablers, and has been quite steadfast in demanding that the party do the right thing and move into a post-Trump era. That’s not too shabby. Of course, one has to keep things in perspective here. The praise has to be tempered and qualified. As is often the case with Trump critics inside the party, Kinzinger played it fairly safe for most of Trump’s term and didn’t really embrace the role of critic until near enough its dying days. But one certainly cannot deny that when he finally picked up the ball, he ran with it hard. I’ve found his comments about Trump to be lucid and, more recently, appropriately vociferous, which is enough to seem like an oasis in the desert when juxtaposed with the mind-bogglingly craven, extravagantly slobbering ass-kissing which is still SOP in the GOP. I think he especially deserves credit for being one of the rare Republican voices who almost immediately expressed disgust at Trump’s efforts to, both via rhetoric and courtroom moon-shots, overturn the election. He really didn’t hold back. It was quite remarkable to see. That was an extremely febrile moment in the GOP, where it seemed like they were ready to cut the throats of anyone who wouldn’t keep quiet and give Trump the time he needed to at least attempt his improbable gambit. It would’ve been a lot easier/safer to just play the wait-and-see game like everyone else, so you’ve gotta give him his attaboy for that. You’re definitely taking a big career risk by going all-in before the future is cemented one way or another. If Trump had somehow succeeded, there’s no question that people like Kinzinger would have been put in the political guillotine the day after. He would have been running as a pariah-independent in his next election and the GOP would have parachuted in some of their best people to make sure whoever they ran as their candidate demolished him.
It obviously ought to be a question of conscience first and foremost, but it’s also worth remarking that for all the career jeopardy dissenters like Kinzinger are incurring in the near-term, they’re also making the smartest long-term strategic choice if you ask me. The Trump era cannot last forever. It may even, god willing, be in its sunset right now, assuming Trump doesn’t trouble to reinflict himself on us in ’24. And once it’s gone and dusted, once it starts to seem — even to former Trump voters — like the horrid low-point it was, those who resisted it and even stood against the machinery of their own party to do so will come out smelling like roses. They will enjoy a very potent reputational boost, mark my words. It will be seen as a badge of honor that they put the republic before their own political advancement. Whereas the scummy GOP opportunists who lashed themselves to the mast of Trump’s sinking ship are going to carry that taint for a long time to come. And forget about just the bell curve of their fortunes at the ballot box, one day these people are going to have to explain to their children and their grandchildren why they bodyguarded this heinous crook through thick and thin. Good luck breaking down the shrewd realpolitik calculus for those youngsters. I’m sure that’ll do the trick. I’m sure they won’t feel embarrassed and ashamed to have to be related to you.
And again, fair enough, the Kinzingers of the world who are right now fighting the good fight inside the Republican Party wield very little actual power, but it’s still something that needs to be supported. That agitation has an effect. It’s certainly a lot more impactful for a six-termer like Kinzinger to be speaking up and making waves than, say, that risible news story about a group of Republican outsiders and has-beens and nobodies threatening to form a third party. I mean, seriously, go scan the list of names who signed that letter, and tell me if that isn’t a veritable fucking who’s who of “who?…” You’ve got a few former state-level office-holders and a few ex-congresspeople thrown in there to thicken up the mixture — though in some cases we’re talking about figures who are decades removed from power — but that’s about it. It’s embarrassing that the media gave this story as much coverage as they did. What a stupendous nothing-burger. If all those undersigned people pooled their collective political capital in one focused laser-beam, it would probably still be insufficient to elect someone to the lofty office of town dogcatcher. And these are the mopes threatening to create a third party? (Or rather “hasten the creation of [one]”, to use their evasive weasel-wording. What are they gonna do, encourage other people to create a party for them? Who? How? Why? The deeper you unpack it, the less sense it can possibly make. As crocks of shit go, this one is the bottomless all-you-can-eat variety.)
And by the way, what the fuck are you waiting for? If you’re gonna do it, now would be the time. In fact, about five years ago would have been the ideal time to do it, but I suppose today is better than nothing. And yet still they want to hide behind this ‘ooooh, be careful, or maybe someday we might do this’ language. What exactly is it that you’re waiting to see play out? Trump has already cost the GOP the presidency and the Senate, has already fractured the party and its voter-base, has already toxified its reputation and profoundly mangled its soul, has already made it abundantly clear that if he cannot rule the party he would rather see it destroyed. If you claim to care about the future of the Republican Party, then it’s long past time to make a stand. And I mean a real stand, one that irrevocably commits you to a course of action. Not this lame-ass shit. Not these faux fighting-words that are just a way to get your press release full of bland clichés a great deal more media attention that it actually warrants. ‘Grandstanding’ is a dismissive term that gets thrown around too often and too inaccurately — Trump was a big fan of resorting to it, as a matter of fact — but I’d say this fits the bill pretty squarely. No-one should be dignifying this nonsense. Actually, I’d go even further: it ought to be upbraided, because this is too important and too pivotal a moment for people to be wasting our time with silly, attention-seeking bluffs. Opportunists begone. Go find a way to scrape some relevance for yourself elsewhere.
See, the thing is, only naive people complacently murmur “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” and leave it at that. The anti-Trump cause can certainly be a big tent and naturally one sometimes has to stomach rubbing shoulders with some ungallant, unlovable fellows to get stuff done, but that doesn’t mean you just abandon all semblance of critical thinking because someone claims to be fighting the same thing as you. Be careful about who you give a free-pass to. There are plenty of shady people out there who very quickly noticed they could bilk a lot of easy money and approval from liberals who were a bit too drunk on the anti-Trump fervor to realize they were being used. Take that whole The Lincoln Project debacle. I’ll tell you right now, hand to god, that organization seemed fishy to me from the jump. I couldn’t say exactly why, and obviously it was hard not to enjoy how some of their ads were trying to directly play mind-games with the president himself, but something just set off my bullshit-detector. It definitely didn’t help that they seemed so clueless — or perhaps that’s giving them too much credit, because it implies unintentionality — about how to achieve their core mission in the first place. You claim that you’re a bunch of Republicans seeking to convince other Republicans that Trump is so unconscionable that he must be abandoned for the good of the party and of the country. You’re hoping to peel off enough of his support that he loses re-election. Alright, coolio, I’m with you so far. Glad to hear it. Let’s get it going. But then why do so many of the caustic anti-Trump ads you’re putting out there come off like you’re really just inviting liberals to jeer at Trump for all the reasons they already jeer at him? Those ads don’t read like you’re seeking to reason with ambivalent Republican voters, to talk to them respectfully like you’re one of them, like you’re from their side and you understand them and you ultimately want the same things as them. And if you’re not managing to do that, then what are you doing? Just mocking Trump for the sake of mocking Trump. Because you know it’ll go viral on the Democrat-voting side of social media. A pointless preaching-to-the-choir strategy which benefits your organization’s visibility/follower count and nothing else.
But even worse than this is the fact that The Lincoln Project went so far as to try to oust pro-Trump GOP congresspeople by supporting their Democrat opponents. (Though they also bizarrely targeted incumbents like Susan Collins. A fairly moderate Republican who no-one could describe as particularly pro-Trump, who has even had a few shining moments of sticking it to him. This testifies to an incoherency of objective, to say the least.) That kind of thing strongly undermines your ability to make Republican voters believe you’re on the same side as them. Now you’re explicitly trying to denude the GOP itself of some of its hard-won congressional seats. That’s crossing a red-line right there. It’s tantamount to a declaration of ‘total war’. Your average Republican diehard out there in Wyoming or Utah or Arkansas, whatever their potentially leverageable qualms about Trump might be, isn’t going to like that. Not one bit. It’s going to make them suspect that you’re just undercover born-again liberals who are exploiting the vestiges of your former right-wing identities and credentials in order to hoodwink them into harming their own party. And then, as if just to put the final blue nail in the red coffin, you endorse Joe Biden for president. This numbskull move is the sign of an organization which either has no fucking idea what it’s doing or which simply doesn’t care about achieving its stated goal. In the vast majority of cases, the very best you’re going to be able to hope for is to get Republican voters who have become increasingly turned off by Trump to sit home in November. That’s already going to be hard enough to achieve, especially when both your rhetorical and operational approaches are so piss-poor and/or off-target. So why don’t you just focus on getting that done? Persuading them to withhold their vote for Trump is one thing, but it’s a major step beyond that to actually go out and cast a ballot for the Democrat. They’re typically not — I repeat, not — going to even consider doing that. It would feel like becoming an actual turncoat, rather than just protesting the state of the party. So by asking too much of them, instead of aiming for what’s realistically attainable, you’re just shooting yourself in the foot and you’re probably gonna end up with nothing. And correct me if I’m wrong, but when it comes to something as monumental as attempting to prevent the re-election of a president, there is no amount of nothing you can heap up that’s gonna cut it.
Here’s the skinny: Republican voters can readily tell the difference between someone who’s just anti-Trump and someone who’s anti-Trump because it’s a corollary of being pro-Democrat. They can sniff it out from a mile away. Lamentably, this is partly why so much of the mainstream left’s outcry about Trump has fallen on deaf ears there. The suspicion of dual motives is just too overpowering. And thus, individuals or organizations who attempt to do what The Lincoln Project purports to be attempting to do are vital. One well-known, well-respected right-wing figure coming out and forcefully denouncing Trumpism is worth a hundred left-leaning celebrities doing the same, in this context. But, to reiterate, everything hinges on your audience buying that A) you’re still really a conservative in the way they understand that word, and B) your motivation here is sincere and relatable. If you’re going to try to speak to the dyed-in-the-wool lifelong Republicans who are disgusted by Trump and could potentially be persuaded that the party must willingly forego a presidential cycle to rid itself of this parasite, they must believe that you’re advocating this because you feel the same deep attachment to the party as they do. You want to save the GOP, not punish it or injure it. You want the party to be remade from the inside, for its own good. This has to be the wrapper for whatever message you’re trying to communicate, unless you want it to be scorned and rebuffed. And you’re not exactly nailing that by telling people that the GOP must have its congressional ranks slashed, giving the Democratic Party a major, difficult-to-reverse upper hand. That doesn’t make you seem like a reformist; that makes you seem like someone trying to pull some sneaky shit. (Of course, just to be clear, personally I would dance a little jig if the GOP went the way of the Whigs. It would be a well-deserved demise. But we’re just talking in hypotheticals here, just isolating mechanisms of persuasion.)
And, just to wrap up, what pisses me off even more about The Lincoln Project is not just that they’re inept, but there’s an unignorable element of grift that’s thrown in the mix too. Y’know, contrary to popular cynicism, not absolutely everything is always really just about the money even in the famed morality-abattoir that is politics, but it’s also true that if you adopt that assume-the-worst suspicion as your default mode, it will serve you well more often than not. Per the Times, when the organization was started, there was an agreement between the founders that they were going to directly “pay themselves millions of dollars in management fees” from the money donated to it. That brazen beak-wetting did not come to pass. (Though there was also the questionable use of funds to employ the services of a founder’s consulting firm. And some of that money may have lined their pockets as a result. The specifics of all that are conveniently shielded from view, so there’s no definitive answer. But come on, you don’t funnel money into your own company for unselfish reasons, do you? Ironically, it’s rather Trump-esque, in fact. He did the same kind of thing all through his term…) Still, it gives you an idea of the mindset they entered into this endeavour with. They claimed that their organization was a response to the catastrophically urgent national moral-emergency of Trump’s ascent to the presidency and yet… somehow they still found time during its genesis to hash out mechanisms for redistributing donations to themselves. It’s really quite amazing. They were concerned with self-enrichment from day one. And frankly it seems like all that happened was they simply realized it was smarter, and potentially several orders of magnitude more lucrative, to be a bit more patient before trying to cash in.
Just a year later, they were readying to make their move. And they were certainly dreaming big! I mean, they might as well have been wearing dollar-sign contact lenses when they put this plan together. The intention was to exploit the interest and name-recognition and good-will The Lincoln Project had garnered in order to roll it into a “billion-dollar media [company]” in the space of just the next “five years”. How the fuck they imagined this was going to happen, I cannot begin to fathom. You can only ride that conservatives-who’ve-seen-the-light telling liberals what they want to hear gravy-train for so long. It was a gimmick that got them a lot of traction during the Trump years for obvious reasons, but afterwards… once the #resistance has won… once the liberals have their guy in the White House… what’s the appeal anymore? None of this seems to have occurred to them. As usual with people like this, their greed outstretched their reason. But even if this pie-in-the-sky media enterprise next-step was likely to fizzle out, they’d already had plenty of success with The Lincoln Project in its current form. They pulled in eighty-seven million dollars in donations: a staggering amount for an outfit that mostly just runs its mouth and produces slick ads. (There are non-profits doing work which produces concrete benefits — such as fighting to advance LGBTQ rights in legal battles — who cannot count on anywhere near that level of financial support. My word, that’s galling to think about.) And yes, that surely includes the patronage of a handful of whales who can easily afford to throw money around like it’s nothing, but given that they had “more than 500,000 donors” they also hustled a massive number of normal people too, which should be enough to get anyone’s blood boiling. Those working stiffs gave that money in good faith because they believed in the ‘mission’. Sadly, they didn’t realize that The Lincoln Project was more about building The Lincoln Project brand into something highly valuable than it was about truly eroding support for Trump. And now the organization has more or less imploded because of allegations of sexual harassment and predatory behaviour by one of the founders. A sordid end for this sordid endeavour.
Like I said, always be very careful where you place your trust… It’s a crying shame so many people can so easily tell Trump is an apex-predator mega-huckster but then that somehow distracts or preoccupies them so much that they can’t pick out far more minor hucksters elsewhere.
It’s an interesting question to consider, where the GOP goes from here. As I already went into in some depth, it seemed obvious to me before the 2020 election that the long-term health of the party would be best served by taking a walloping for their sins this time around. And, to be fair, they did indeed get a’walloped. But I evidently gave the GOP too much credit when it comes to their ability/willingness to course-correct when reality smacks them in the face. It seems very much like they’re gonna carry on clinging to Trump. They’re gonna stick with the factionalism and backbiting and leader-worship which he stirred up. (Though, in fairness, this was just him activating and supercharging a malignant defect which was already present in the party’s DNA like a sinister, thorny gnarling of its double-helix.)
There’s something so baffling about this decision. Perhaps it’s because I live in Britain, where the hard-and-fast tradition is that when a leader loses an election for their party, they’re done for. At best they step down and are henceforth treated as yesterday’s news. But sometimes they’re even bitterly thrown on the pyre as a ritual sacrifice to sanctify the new fresh-start a party is hoping for. (Like, say, poor old Jeremy Corbyn, who was suddenly viewed as the bane of all goodness and justice in the world once he lost Labour the election and there was now an incentive to finally take the grousing against him as if it were scripture.) And I mean, look, perpetually hopping to the next prospect in this way does make sense. If someone comes up short, why wouldn’t you cut your losses and move on? What’s the point of sticking with them if they’ve proved they either can’t gain enough traction with the electorate to begin with or else they’ve lost whatever traction they did once have? Elections are infrequent: second-chances and do-overs are a luxury you can’t afford to grant. It’s just not wise. Candidates don’t exactly become more attractive once they’ve already got the stink of failure/rejection on them. This logic no longer has much purchase in the Republican establishment, however. If Trump does indeed decide to give it another shot in 2024, it’s perfectly clear that they’ll rally behind him and bet everything on him once again.
And as for if Trump sits it out… well, one hesitates to even speculate about the ilk who’ll likely throw their hats in the ring, given that the party is still largely under the spell of Trumpism. Alright, maybe you’ll have a few ‘serious’ — albeit not exactly heavyweight — candidates like Nikki Haley, the humiliated husk we all politely deign to continue referring to as Ted Cruz, Florida’s DeSantis, and Maryland’s Hogan. Mike Pompeo also sure seems to want everyone to know, whilst trying to be cute by not actually saying it out loud, that he’s absolutely champing at the bit to run for president. You’ve got to laugh, haven’t you? I cannot imagine how he imagines he could possibly even stand out in a crowded primary, let alone win the whole thing. It’s delusional hubris at its finest. Who actually likes Pompeo? He has all the charm of a grouchy gym-class teacher who’s pissed off he has to be there. Even conservatives never really warmed to him that much, and at this point they don’t seem to give a flying fuck about him. And so that’s pretty much that when it comes to winning the ultimate popularity-contest.
In the wake of Trump shaking things up and rewriting the rules of the game, there’s no doubt going to also be a bevy of non-politicians who decide that the moment is ripe for them to try their luck. I have a feeling we’ll be entering a strange new world in this regard. It might well be a rather wacky, overstuffed primary in ’24. Will other high-profile, outspoken billionaires decide that the ground has been sufficiently prepared for them to shoot their own shot? Mark Cuban, for instance, seems to be endlessly flirting with the idea of transitioning to the political arena. So much so that it’s become quite tiresome and annoying. But maybe he’ll finally have the balls to do it. On the other end of the scale, probably a few conservative social-media stars will even give it a go, just to be able to say some crazy stuff and get their name out there for however long their campaigns can be sustained via fundraisers on, I don’t know, Gab or Parler or whatever other den of edgy idiots happens to be most popular by then. Also, one is always hearing about how Tucker Carlson may make a presidential bid sooner or later. In a rare exercise of restraint, just as a change of pace to keep things fresh, I’ll merely describe that possibility as… hmm, let’s see… intensely shuddersome. It’s the type of thing which makes you grit your teeth just to think about. And I say that because — sorry, I kept up the restraint for as long as I could, I swear — he’s a straight-up piece of shit. (It would take far too long and be far too nauseating to revisit all his ‘greatest hits’ of well-deserved opprobrium, but him calling Iraqis “primitive monkeys” and women “extremely primitive” beings — what fanatically varied diction this bigot has, huh? — should give you the general idea.) And unfortunately he’s much more intelligent than Trump, which would presumably make him better at the game of politics and give him greater powers of self-preservation, so that’s potentially a bit of a scary scenario really. Of course, if it’s not to be Carlson specifically, there’s a whole stable of other Fox News talking-heads/long-loyal propagandists who will no doubt spend the next few years weighing up whether they ought to quit their cushy gigs and roll the dice in the Republican primary. I’m sure you’ll agree that that’s a lovely, cheering thought.
I’ve also read that it’s at least possible that Donald Trump Jr., that odious little good-for-nothing twerp, will jump in too. If only for the publicity he’ll generate for himself by running some incendiary campaign. Though lest we forget, his father quite obviously had the same low expectation at first, and then ended up running away with the race. But, at the risk of tempting fate, there’s surely no way Trump Jr. would be able to recapture the same lightning-in-a-bottle. He doesn’t have it in him. And I doubt that even if junior simply attempts to ride his daddy’s coattails as hard as possible it’d be enough to win him the presidency. For one thing, even though Trump Jr. is every bit the slimy, sleazy, bigmouth weasel that Trump Sr. is, I think it’s self-evident he’s lacking some of the basic conman’s savvy that has served the latter so well. More importantly, he didn’t inherit even a small fraction of the charisma — for lack of a better word — of his old man. And by ‘charisma’ I really just mean entertainingness-on-camera. But, hey, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that that counts for a hell of a lot in the televised era of politics, and especially so when you have practically nothing else to offer as a candidate. He also has a few other key disadvantages. For one thing, Trump Sr. reads as ‘rich guy’, is in fact the quintessential walking self-caricature of a billionaire. Whereas Trump Jr. merely reads as ‘son of rich guy’, which is a lot less impressive and a lot less interesting and typically just earns you a fair bit of eye-rolly disdain. Sure, arguably they both ought to share in that designation, given that Trump Sr. is likewise not a self-made man at all. But in fairness, both in terms of money-making and celebrity, he has done enough to establish himself as a figure in his own right. Trump Jr. has not. He is still firmly ensconced in his father’s shadow. That’s a big difference. His entire notability derives from whose testicles he once swam his way out of. And, lastly, there’s also the fact that he’s not just a jerk-off, he even looks like a jerk-off too. He looks like the type of guy you know you’re gonna hate before he even opens his mouth. There’s also just a certain essential trashiness to him. He seems like someone who, if he was just a normal person and didn’t have a bank account balance which reads like a phone number, would own one of those weird stores you walk past in the mall, the ones that reek of bad cologne, are inexplicably still blasting dubstep, and solely sell cheap, gaudy suits and eyesore graphic tees for gym-bros who love ‘Scarface’ and often talk about maybe trying MMA someday. You know what I mean? He’d be sitting behind the counter, reading some PUA manual and nodding pensively to himself.
My feeling is that it will be a tough sell to get the American people to choose someone like that as their president. But, then again, in the beginning I thought that Trump Sr. was probably going to flame out of even the Republican primary before too long, so what the fuck do I know? Voters have a knack for disappointing you in ways you didn’t even think possible: that’s just kind of one of the iron laws of politics you have to make peace with eventually. Even still… a President Trump Jr.? I just can’t see it. Though I must admit that might just be because my brain rebels against the hideousness of it within a few seconds of trying to contemplate it. For there to be an actual, factual Trump family political dynasty… I mean, good god. I want to backflip into an active volcano just typing those words next to each other. What a nightmarish possibility. Heaven fucking forfend.
But, alas, our skyward pleas seem like they’re to be as bootless as ever, because there’s also a persistent rumour that Trump’s daughter Ivanka is feeling the itch to try her luck as a political debutante. So the dynasty has multiple potential paths to get started. Honestly, I know too little about Ivanka to have even formed an opinion about her. All the same, the scuttlebutt about her maybe challenging Marco Rubio for his Senate seat was pretty flabbergasting. That would be quite the ambitious undertaking. And if someone like that is able to just stroll right into a Senate seat — not to mention besting a well-known incumbent to do so — on largely the strength of the Trump family name alone, that would be… well, quite depressing, even for Florida. One hardly wants to root for Rubio in any situation whatsoever, but in that case I’d probably be pulling for the poor bastard, if for no better reason than that I just instinctually tend to side with whoever’s the sad-sack underdog in a given contest. And that description would certainly apply to him here. I think he’d really have his back against the wall if Ivanka alights in his district with filled-in FEC forms in hand and Trumpworld accordingly turns its collective cannons on him. He’s just not a guy who functions well in high-pressure, high-antagonism situations. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that that’s what most non-Floridians know him for. So it definitely won’t have escaped the notice of Ivanka Trump. Now, could she actually take advantage of that during a heated debate? That’s the key question. We have no idea whether she has any aptitude as a politician at all. Can she handle herself well in those kind of moments? More importantly, does she have her father’s ability to go for the throat as soon as you sense weakness? I almost want to say: I hope not. But I find hope to be a very scarce commodity nowadays. And I’m just not going to waste it on something like this.
Will the Democrats finally really stick it to the GOP now they’re in control?
I’m really just throwing this final section in here for the sake of completeness, because, well, listen, you’re a grownup and I’m a grownup and neither of us are being exceptionally cognitively-impaired by some brain parasite leisurely worming its way through our prefrontal cortex, and so we both know the question answers itself. To begin with, the likelihood of anything particularly crazy happening during Biden’s term is quite, quite low. Anyone who understands the first thing about what kind of guy he is knows the score. If you’re aware of his reputation as a crossing-the-aisle dealmaker who’s somehow long-time friends with every mover and shaker in sight or you’ve ever heard him intone about how much stock he puts in the old-school values of mutual respect and proper decorum and honouring tradition and so on, you know he’s not going to suddenly be loaded for bear and go on the offensive. He’s a status quo figure. That’s no doubt why he seemed like such a comforting choice for many voters who were longing for the now seemingly-halcyon days of pre-Trump political languor — and, y’know, fair enough — but it also means there are hard limits on what you can expect from him.
That is going to be a very unpleasant surprise for all the people who bought into the bullshit ideas that the Democrats were happy enough to float in the run-up to the 2020 election to get people amped up and feeling like the party was on the warpath right beside them. There was clearly a widespread feeling that the time for words had passed and it was now time to take drastic action. To take just one example: the Supreme Court is a battlefield that liberals are positively spoiling to go extract some revenge on. Hell, forget about the more recent fuckery that’s happened during confirmations, I think they’re never going to forgive that whole Merrick Garland affair. In a lot of ways, that was the turning point. That was the moment where the GOP let the mask slip and showed exactly what kind of party they are, showed they were willing to fabricate nonsensical reasoning on-the-fly to try to justify their appalling, purely-partisan obstructionism. And I don’t blame liberals for not letting that one go. In fact, I rather respect it. That’s some grade-A righteous spite right there. (And I can say that with some authority. When it comes to political shit that’s pissed me off over the years, I’ve got a heart as black as anthracite dipped in vantablack and a memory like an elephant on goddamn nootropics, okay? I hold grudges like a motherfucker. It’s a skill. You have to cultivate it. So I can’t help but tip my hat to other adepts.)
But expanding the Supreme Court? That’s the counterpunch you’re hoping for? Just… no. Good lord no. It’s a ridiculous fantasy, plain and simple. And I’d say we ought to be glad of that. For one thing, it’s a foolish way to redress the Republicans’ brazen chicanery during the Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett nominations. Instead of trying to get to the root of the problem — i.e. the GOP’s dirty tricks — and actually devise a solution for it, you’re just hoping for a crude easy-fix which skirts all of that. It’s lazy strategy, it’s bad strategy, and, worse still, will likely just be viewed as petulant, irresponsible score-settling. Most people don’t want the Supreme Court to be inflated; they regard it as one of those sacrosanct things you just don’t screw around with. They feel that the ‘Court of Nine’ structure is fine as it is, even if you happen to dislike the particular ideological makeup of the Justices at any given time. And then there are the practical consequences of declaring that arbitrarily modifying the SCOTUS headcount is fair game. This is the type of thing that any old dunce can foresee. It will just be an endless tit-for-tat escalation. The Democrats would have to tack on FOUR new liberal Justices to tilt the current lopsided 6-3 conservative majority back the other way. (In terms of its logic, this remedy is like discovering that someone has been pickpocketing money from you every so often and deciding that what you’ll do is simply overstuff your coin-purse to such a degree that the thefts won’t even matter anymore…) That level of expansion would be absurd. We all know it would seem completely illegitimate. And, moreover, what are the Republicans gonna do when they inevitably take power again? Inject their own slate of newcomers to re-balance things in their favour. And then the Democrats will have to counter that in turn once they’re back in the driver’s seat down the line. And so on and so forth, until we get to the point where every time the Supreme Court convenes it involves several busloads of robed men and women being disgorged in front of the building. Now, yes, that would be kinda funny to see. But also very not-funny in a rather pressing and dismaying way. Because there are some institutions which a country can ill afford to become a laughing stock. If the Democrats didn’t learn that from the Trump years, then they didn’t learn anything at all.
Also, while we’re on the subject, I remember a few fringe figures even bandying about the idea of impeaching Kavanaugh to free up a slot. This is so dumb on so many levels that one hardly knows where to start. In fact, I think I’d be wasting my time and yours to expound on it in any great depth. I’ll just point out that the last, and only, time someone on the Supreme Court was impeached was over 200 years ago, and it was a failed effort to boot. There were eight articles of impeachment that time, and they specifically concerned that Justice’s conduct as a judge. I’d hope any reasonable person can see that there’s quite a stupendous gulf between that and impeaching someone for sexual assault allegations which are supported by personal testimony alone. If you make a he-said-she-said situation sufficient grounds for removing a sitting Supreme Court Justice, you might as well disband the court and call it a day. Because once you throw open that Pandora’s box, things are going to spiral into a very dark, very confused and anarchic place. Case in point: this footnote to the Kavanaugh saga has now been mostly forgotten, but there was a woman who made incredibly serious allegations against him and later recanted them entirely, even admitting they were an attention-seeking ploy necessitated by the futility of her previous attempts to oppose his confirmation. Obviously that has no connection or relevance to the other women who came forward, and I don’t at all mean to imply that it does. They may well be telling the truth and I fully support their right to speak up about it. My point is just that the sad reality is there are malicious, mentally unstable people who can be counted on to crawl out of the woodwork whenever the opportunity arises to bring down some high-profile figure they despise, especially if they know that success is guaranteed. And don’t for a second kid yourself that this will only have a unidirectional effect: left-leaning figures will be targeted by this and right-leaning figures will be targeted by this, and probably a few hapless, mild-mannered centrists will be caught in the crossfire for good measure too. Because if one thing’s for sure, it’s that there is a small but reliable number of crazy people willing to do some fucked-up shit sprinkled across the entire political spectrum. Call it the Nutjob Constant. These people are just a part of life, yes, but that doesn’t mean you ought to grant them an automatic veto on who can and cannot be appointed to the highest court in the land.
As for what other bold moves the Democrats could make, there’s always idle talk about finally biting the bullet and eliminating the Senate filibuster, a.k.a. invoking the ‘nuclear option’. (By the way, if you know the almost trivial little move that that ‘nuclear option’ entails procedurally, you realize that it’s a hilariously melodramatic misnomer. For something to truly be worthy of that name, it would have to be a really insane tactic like, I don’t know, using some weird loophole to eject all the other party’s Senators from congress. Something genuinely earth-shattering like that.) I think it’s at least possible this could happen, but I’d still rate it as unlikely. Just as a simple practical matter, I’d imagine that the Democrats would struggle to even get all fifty members on board with the proposal. From what I’ve read, there are at least one or two Senators who are obstinate old-school traditionalist types who probably aren’t going to go for this one, no matter what favours the party bribes them with behind-the-scenes for their support. And as long as that remains true, then it’s a non-starter. And so all the handwringing public debates about the ethicality of it are moot, are just grist for political pundits’ columns on slow news weeks. In addition to that — if you should happen to need more reasons for its improbableness — Biden himself seems decidedly cold on the idea, which comes as no surprise because he also happens to be an old-timer with a special reverence for the Senate and its ossified array of unwritten rules. And given that he’s not well disposed to the idea to begin with, I just can’t see how he’ll be convinced to expend precious time, energy, and political capital on trying to get this done. Not when there’s already so much else on his agenda that’s gonna be extremely difficult to pull off. Understanding what to prioritize is everything. It’s a well-worn pearl of wisdom, I know, but it remains true that presidents who try to do too much often end their terms having done fairly little. And someone like Biden, who’s not at all a beloved figure in his own right, is going to really want to have a laundry list of good, tangible accomplishments when the battle for re-election rolls around. It won’t be like Obama in 2012: Biden’s not going to be graded on a generous curve because so many people have such deep fondness for him. The American people are his employers, and they’ll be conducting a clear-eyed job performance review. Better have something to show for yourself when that day comes.
I have to be honest with you: I don’t really have particularly strong feelings when it comes to doing away with the filibuster. By which I don’t mean to suggest I’m ambivalent about the soundness of doing so. I’m not. I understand the argument for getting rid of it, and I agree with those usual talking points to a large extent. It is indeed an antiquated loophole which allows the minority party to hold bills hostage and pretty much just gum up the works whenever they feel like it. And it does indeed tend to be used, or the threat of its use tends to be employed, in bad faith. It serves as a cheap pressure tactic to gain negotiating leverage where none ought to be up for grabs. This is all true. I can’t deny any of it. To apply the classic age-old test: if the filibuster didn’t exist as an option, how would one credibly argue it ought to be created? That would, I suspect, be incredibly hard to do. Either you’re committed to the principle that the party which gets enough votes to end up with the majority of elected representatives ultimately gets to have the final say or you’re not. (This doesn’t preclude certain momentous decisions requiring supermajorities, which I’m typically in favour of keeping in place.) It’s a shame that the right-wing trolls have co-opted the saying “elections have consequences” as a smug bludgeon to deploy in online bickering, because it sums up my thoughts on this rather nicely. The filibuster is just a way to short-circuit democracy. If the Democrats’ activist wing wants to throw it on the rubbish heap, I certainly won’t get in their way. I might even find myself in the unsettling position of cheering them on for once.
I think why I find it difficult to get too passionate about this one maybe comes down to an emotion-dampening counterreaction to how much some people overemphasize its importance. Eliminating the filibuster is often framed in such a way that you’d think it must be a silver bullet for fixing the Senate. Personally, I disagree. Actually I would even go so far as to say that I heartily disagree. One has to be quite naive to believe that it will solve all that much. To some extent, the United States congress — though perhaps especially the Senate — is fundamentally reliant on a mess of archaic rules and bizarre precedents and grandfathered-in unspoken constraints which don’t make all that much sense relative to our modern expectations for how things should work. (And, sadly, I know whereof I speak. Trust me, the British Parliament is greatly worse in that regard, as one finds is
sometimes often always the case when it comes to comparisons between the two countries, which is only to be expected given that Britain is like the unreconstructed ancestor of America. Our Parliament is about as coherent as the Mad Hatter’s tea party, and somehow even more ridiculous because it’s also trying so hard to seem dignified at the same time. The amount of time/energy/ritual dedicated to maintaining that flimsy facade of gentlemanliness is really very stupid. But, hey, my country will cling to its faux-genteel anachronisms until the very last. What else have we really got to set ourselves apart with?) You’re simply kidding yourself if you think that plucking one of these pain-points out, even a highly conspicuous and measurably impactful one like the filibuster, will negate the underlying structural problem itself. And, moreover, as with the proposed SCOTUS tomfoolery I discussed above, you’re really just treating the symptom rather than the disease.
The reason why the filibuster is such a problem is the same reason why party politics itself is such a problem. If the parties are increasingly hostile, increasingly polarized, increasingly unwilling to compromise even when the nation is in extremis, you’re going to encounter profound dysfunction, okay? It’s just inevitable. When the political arena starts to feel more like anything-goes warfare than well-meaning debate meant to zero in on the best, most-palatable solutions, of course anything that can be weaponized will be. Unless you go some way to remedying that, what’s the point? Unless you shift the sociopolitical norms which have made it seem unremarkable when some dedicated, shameless obstructionist — like, oh I don’t know, Mitch McConnell maybe — turns the Senate into a legislation graveyard because they can’t get their way, all you’re doing by closing this abusable loophole or that abusable loophole is inviting them to become more creative and concoct new forms of attack. Doing that kind of thing needs to stain you with the sort of ignominy that doesn’t just wash away because you made it to the next session of congress and everyone has a short memory. By sabotaging the proper functioning of the Senate, you’re quite literally denying the American people their due: they elected surrogates and tasked them with bettering the nation via new laws and initiatives, not ALMOST doing so and then getting deadlocked in acrimonious squabbling and recalcitrance. You don’t get any points whatsoever for nearly doing your job, as far as I’m concerned. Because then you’re really just playing at being a congressperson, whilst still drawing your salary for it. And the American people ought to be scrupulous enough and self-respecting enough to stay fucking mad about that. That’s the only way any real change will ever be effected. Don’t vote for the politicians who do this shit; criticise them, call for their ouster, demand there be a paradigm-shift in Washington, etc. If you disincentivize a pattern of behaviour hard enough, it will stop happening. I promise you. It’s a permanent fact of human affairs. And take heart: it arguably holds true for no group more than politicians, whose only lifeblood is public support.
I will say this though, if the Democrats don’t eliminate the filibuster whilst they’re in power, I foresee the Republicans doing so when they next regain the upper-hand. Naturally, they’re going to pretend that’s not in the cards. McConnell always troubles to say that he’s wed to it as a sacred tradition of the Senate, but, gosh, I think I’ve made clear how much stock I put in that man’s assurances. If I received a telegram from him telling me the sky is blue, I’d stick my head out the window and venture a quick glance up at it just to make sure. It’s as simple as that. Whenever you read his comments, it’s a bit like parsing the preposterous official statements from regimes like North Korea: you know you don’t have to waste time determining which parts are true and which parts are lies, you only need to try to figure out what purpose each lie is intended to serve and hopefully deduce the truth by working backwards from there. But, anyhow, yes, I think it’s more likely than not that the Republicans will do it if they’re not beaten to the punch first. Although it’ll be completely transparent, I bet they’ll even say that the mere fact the Democrats were discussing eliminating it is what put that option on the table in the first place. So their hands are being forced, don’t you know. They’re really just reacting the only way they can to that incendiary change in the state of play. Tee fucking hee. Ironically enough, the Democrats already have a much, much better excuse to lean on, and yet seem way, way more reluctant to use it. They could easily, and very effectively, claim that they’re justified in getting rid of what’s left of the filibuster given that the GOP scrapped filibustering SCOTUS nominees so that they could ram through Neil Gorsuch in 2017. (Of course, the Democrats were the ones who began chipping away at the filibuster back in 2013, but, y’know, I think everyone Down For The Cause™ will agree to conveniently forget that, to help grease the skids. Don’t even worry about it.)
And so here we recur to the point that’s really at the heart of the matter: the acute asymmetry between what the GOP are willing to do and what the Democrats are willing to do. There’s no getting around this. The GOP care exceedingly little about seeming hypocritical or underhanded or absurd or power-hungry or incoherent or bloody-minded or anything else like that. All they care about is accumulating hard power. That’s it. They’re looking to notch up significant, durable wins here, there, and everywhere, and using those as a base to build on even further. And if it’s the price of getting that done, they don’t mind coming off like a horde of grinning scoundrels intent on skullfucking the rules and institutions they’re oath-bound to obey and protect. I mean, let’s not mince words here. We all know the score. We’ve all seen the grotesquery of their scheming, seen when it even gets kicked into overdrive from time to time and starts to absolutely beggar belief. And this isn’t to say they’ve just been driven out of their minds by their lust for control. It’s a very conscious, very calculated decision about what to prioritise. They’re betting that reputational dings can be buffed out and forgotten if you ultimately please your base enough by ticking items off their wishlist, no matter how shady the process required to do so. “You get a challenge to ‘Roe vs. Wade’ heard before an ideal Supreme Court line-up that’s the judicial equivalent of loaded dice and we’ll give you a knowing wink and pretend we never saw all those times you ignored the constitution because it was expedient to do so.” Such a lovely, charming bargain, wouldn’t you agree?
The Democrats are practically the inverse, which is their eternal disadvantage when it comes to the pure zero-sum chess game aspect of politics. They care about appearances first and foremost. This is because image-politics is not only one of their greatest areas of expertise, but it has served them very, very well in the past. (Not just on the overall party-reputation level, but on the individual level too. I’m sure I don’t have to remind you about Obamamania in ’08, where with incredible finesse they managed to make him into a sort of protean eidolon, so that each voter saw exactly what they wanted to see in him. The GOP’s spindoctors can only gape at such feats. When have they ever been able to give a candidate this kind of holographically-omnipleasing appeal? It’s a trade secret I’m sure they’d love to pilfer, if they could.) But it’s an approach which requires upkeep, requires sacrifice. They will frequently — yes, not always, not by a long shot, but reliably often — forgo naked power grabs or other assorted roguery expressly because they know it’ll reflect badly on them. They’re intensely worried about how they’re perceived. To the point of paralysis sometimes.
Now, this is not to say that I see the Democratic Party as some paragon of integrity and virtue. Let me reassure you on that count. For example, no-one who knows anything about how the sausage gets made when it comes to the DNC and primaries and so on can avoid grimacing. It’s grim stuff. It truly is. You’d be forgiven for reading about some of the shenanigans which abound there and thinking that it’s really just a toned-down, buttoned-up, lawyer-vetted echo of Tammany Hall tactics. But that dirty laundry just concerns internal matters at least. In their outward-facing behaviour, they’re careful to
weigh up pessimistically overanalyse the optics of any big moves they’re considering. They’re wary of anything too embarrassingly untoward. And it’s not because they’re a bunch of do-gooders being led around on a leash by their own overactive consciences. Oh heavens no. Perish the thought. It’s because they understand the sheer functional political import of visibly trying to maintain the moral high ground. It’s a great selling point for them come election time. “Vote for us! We’re not perfect, but at least we’re nowhere near as bad as those treacherous bastards!” This pitch has yet to win me over, I must confess, but it certainly seems to do the trick for a lot of people.
The Democrats are also concerned about the flipside of this equation. By and large, the Democratic Party base reacts much more strongly to instances of perceived unscrupulousness, and is definitely more apt to convey their displeasure with open criticism or even by withholding their ballot. They’re just far more willing to hold their party to account for that kind of thing. It would be fatuous to deny this. The GOP have, over years and years of steadily numbing the ethical ganglia of the party faithful, tried to give themselves as much room to manoeuvre as possible. And they’ve now gotten to the enviable position of being able to sink to almost any abyssal depth to get things done whilst still safe in the knowledge that their voters will not forsake them, will not even dare to rap them on the knuckles for it. This is a colossal difference. The better you understand it and its implications, the more the texture and tenor and to-and-fro of contemporary American politics itself becomes explicable.
As for my personal opinion… well, let me put it like this: it couldn’t hurt to see the Democrats actually go gloves-off against the GOP for a change. It’s always nice to try something new once in a while, don’t you think? Plus, now’s the perfect time to do it for maximum effect, while the GOP is still so strife-riven and off-balance and ailing. (I don’t see this vulnerable state changing anytime soon, by the way. In particular, I judge the likelihood of a rapprochement between Trump and McConnell to be… low. Trump’s gonna be sitting on the sidelines for these next few years, glaring bitterly at the man who’s now back to running the show. And as he gets more and more rankled by it, his animosity will be re-stoked and their destabilizing conflict will just continually resume. The Dems should thank their lucky stars for this gift that keeps on giving.)
I would also venture to add that long-time Democrat voters should really feel entitled to see it happen at this point, given that they’ve been left grasping a fistful of empty-promise IOUs and not much else. Whenever the Republicans pull off some especially ignoble gambit, the Democrat muckety-mucks always talk a big game and rattle their sabres and strike a fierce pose and swear that they’re finally going to punish the Republicans for their dirty tricks by really sticking it to them once the chance arises, but then they… never… fucking… do. It’s a tale as old as time. I might even go so far as to say that it’s a song as old as rhyme. But it’s a ditty I’m truly sick to the back teeth of hearing. And, hey, I’m not even American. I live thousands of miles away. These assurances were never actually made to me. And although I might be emotionally invested in all this from afar, I’m nonetheless detached from the practical consequences. So I can only imagine what it must feel like for someone who’s forever pulling the lever for the Democrats and who therefore considers themselves to have a stake in the party. I can’t help but wonder if they’ve become inured to the disappointment or whether they still feel that indignant pang of annoyance when it turns out the tough talk was just hot air once again.
If such a person should happen to be reading this, could I just ask one question of you?…
Let me preface by pointing out that I’m really not trying to be a dick here. I’m just genuinely curious. You were subjected to all those super passionate, stare-right-into-the-camera-because-I’m-so-sincere-and-pissed-off, rabble-rousing speeches about how the GOP have lied and cheated and revealed their contempt for democracy and given short shrift to widows and orphans and just generally outraged all standards of propriety and/or decency. And you were treated to all the crowd-pleasing pledges stating that because the GOP had ventured so beyond the pale, there was no way it could be ‘business as usual’ again once they were ousted: a post-Trump Democratic Party had to be willing to fight fire with fire and undo the Republicans’ abuses and deviousness by taking extreme measures. I mean, given all that, how does it not drive you crazy when… in a perfect, darkly comedic anti-climax… it all comes to nought? Assuming you bought into any of that crap, which many of the #resistance types very tangibly did, how are you not pulling your hair out when you see the Democrats get back into power and declare that, actually, they’ll be the bigger person and stick to the sacred norms of good government and be civil and placid and conciliatory. And, accordingly, get fuck-all done. I really find it hard to fathom how people don’t get more incensed about things like this. How can you be led on for so long and then have your party totally break faith with you and yet simply walk away from the experience with a shrug? I just don’t get it, man. Or maybe I do and it’s just too much of a bummer to fully grapple with. I guess people have just become so deeply accustomed to politicians bullshitting them as a matter of course that it barely even registers with them anymore. Eurgh, is all I can say. I just hate to see it, so very much. This lowering of our expectations and this deadening of our sense of wrath when they’re still not even met is, I would aver, one of the most dispiriting aspects of our age.
I’m not saying that I want the Democratic Party to morph into the same ruthless, unmoored from principle, totally results-oriented animal that the GOP has long been. I’m just saying that at a certain point, something has to give. That should be obvious to anyone. We all just watched the GOP spend four long years getting their hands dirty down in the trenches in order to lock in huge achievements like, say, confirming countless new conservative judges all across the country, thus tilting the judiciary to the right for a whole generation. And so who could relish the prospect of the Democrats whiling away their opportunity to throw a few counterblows? Who’s psyched to see them just stay firmly saddled up there on their high horse, polishing their halos like a bunch of feckless fools? Or to boil the matter down to its essence: who needs a party of preening peacemakers in a time of political war? If that war can be avoided, all the better. But once you’re past the point of no return and it’s raging all around you, you either actually fight to win or you make ready to take some heavy losses. But you can’t just carry on like before, like nothing’s changed. You can’t pretend that you’ll be able to hash out deals with the opposing side if you just try hard enough, as though they’re good-faith actors. Well, actually, I suppose you can, but they’ll simply be laughing at you and your stupidity behind closed doors. (Remember how the GOP duped Obama — and his self-endeared administration who were so sure they could accomplish anything — into thinking they were reasonable and open to cooperation? I sure do. Good times. They said they’d play ball with him if he just shifted their way a bit and made some concessions, then they mostly just stonewalled him and tried to run out the clock as much as possible. McConnell, Boehner, Cantor, et al, probably couldn’t believe their luck that that shit worked. To say it’s the oldest trick in the book doesn’t even do it justice; I’d venture to guess it’s pre-book; I bet you can find it scribbled on a papyrus scroll of political strategy in some ancient-history museum somewhere.) This politics of complacent make-believe is always something that can be ill-afforded, but in the current moment it is hideously irresponsible.
I suppose it wouldn’t be so bad that the Democratic leadership seems so disinclined to take up the gauntlet in the way they promised to if there were at least a decent number of political streetfighters — that’s the best term for it I can come up with — in their rank-and-file who could make some headway whenever things devolve into a melee. As barely even needs to be said, the GOP is overflowing with such people at every level. Yes, it makes a political party seem a bit unseemly when they’re present in such abundance, but it is nonetheless one of the GOP’s greatest strengths. It’s why they can just muscle their way through so many obstacles. It’s why when the argument turns ugly, and the invective becomes personal, they’re usually able to out-ugly the Democrats and win. Because, listen, politics isn’t cricket. Sometimes things get extremely heated and unpleasant and dramatic and, in a practical sense, it no longer even really matters who’s right or wrong. (Obviously that’s rarely the deciding factor anyway. But in these cases it becomes even more irrelevant.) The victor is largely going to be determined by an old-fashioned battle of wills: who’s willing to be more dogged when it comes to doing the dirty work of discrediting their opponents and trashing their arguments, who’s willing to never cede an inch no matter what. These are the moments where everything devolves into the simple, primal logic of a schoolyard fight. Doesn’t matter what preceded the fisticuffs; doesn’t matter who threw the first punch; doesn’t matter who’s won more fights before; doesn’t matter who’s expected to win this one. The fight is the fight. It stands alone. It exists in its own separate, self-contained sphere of possibility. You land the most blows, you beat your opponent badly, you beat them into submission? The crowd doesn’t have to confer. There’s no hair-splitting scoring criteria which must be consulted. Every spectator just intuitively understands who won. And then all the facts surrounding the fight seem to fall away and become redundant.
And, no, it’s not good that this type of thing is still an occasional occurrence in modern politics. But as long as it continues to be true that we still have a very long way to go with the perfectibility of man, that’s likely to remain present. So you have to acclimatize to it to some degree. Yet the Democrats are still incredibly uncomfortable with this. They’re still bucking against this necessity more often than not. Hell, if you want to know the level of silliness we’re dealing with, there was much pearl-clutching and embarrassment when some of their people dared to even swear in anger. Rashida Tlaib caught a lot of flak, even from her own side and its sympathizers, for trying to amp up a crowd of supporters with the exclamation “we’re gonna impeach the motherfucker!” (I think it’s a fine sentiment, and appropriately expressed, myself. But what are you gonna do? The DNC stopped calling me up for my input on things… sheesh… must have been thirty, forty years ago now.) And that’s just the most highly-publicized example. There are plenty more where that came from. It’s like they’re afraid of the inevitable ensuing flood of faux-aggrieved op-eds from right-wing outlets, the ones crying ‘these foul-mouthed liberals are a disgrace! They’re polluting the dignified decorum which politics ought to have!’ It’s a bizarre anxiety, really. Because no-one takes that kind of thing seriously anyway. We all know the game that’s being played there. We can all see the ludicrous hypocrisy of attacking Democrat politicians for dropping f-bombs but staying silent about all the disgusting things Trump’s said. It’s not even worth a second thought. It’s definitely not worth verbally straightjacketing yourself to try and avoid.
Moreover, this is just some infantilizing shit. We’re all adults, so let’s not be afraid of ‘bad words’, hmm? Politics entails the discussion of matters of grave, momentous import; it’s okay to use strong verbiage to convey one’s level of emotion about them. You know why? Because that’s how normal, everyday people express themselves too. So they tend to like it when they see politicians getting fired-up and talking about things the way they and their friends do during passionate, unguarded conversations. Anything that makes a politician seem more like a real person — instead of a lifelike android regurgitating the same PR-screened platitudes and double-speak — is worth its weight in gold. Again, this is something the GOP have understood for quite a while now. They get that it’s actually sometimes good for certain politicians to seem overemotional and rough around the edges: it makes them come across as more genuine, more relatable. The Democrats, alas, are only now playing catch-up. And they’re doing so slowly and reluctantly. More’s the pity. But that’s what happens when you have leadership positions occupied by people stuck in their ways and adverse to adapting with the times. It’s like they think that if they just bury their heads deep enough in the sand and pretend things still work the way they did decades ago, it might actually work out somehow.
I would go so far as to say that the Democrat shot-callers seem remarkably wary of firebrands emerging in their lower ranks at all. It seems like they’re perpetually flustered by and apologizing for Maxine Waters’ outbursts. (Who, to be fair, does need to take a remedial class or two about where exactly the line is. She’s one of those shoot-from-the-hip types who can sometimes get far too carried away when she’s ranting. Her infamous call for people to swarm and harass Republican politicians caught in public was obviously repugnant.) And they’re also clearly pretty intent on trying to induce AOC to tone her rhetoric down. In fact, there are quite a few people in the younger crop of activist-minded talent the Democrats have gained in recent years who are ruffling feathers with their propensity to make strongly-worded pronouncements and pick fights with the other side and court controversy with little political stunts. The party hopes to bubblewrap them as much as possible, and they’re trying mightily to rebel against this. But the party is the behemoth and in the end the behemoth always gets to win. It’s only hurting itself though. Like I said, I fervently believe you’re doomed to be an utterly ineffectual political party if you don’t at least have some figures, even minor figures, who are willing to abandon all niceties and posturing and simply go for the jugular on your behalf. Even fucking Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour had them, for crying out loud. A mild-mannered, white-haired socialist had people willing to break out the brass-knuckles and molotovs for his cause. The Democrats ought to be able to match that. I mean, come on. They claim they’re fighting for America’s survival in one of the most precarious, feverish, peril-fraught moments in its modern history and yet also want to pretend they have no need for that kind of political muscle. Like, someone must’ve grabbed one of those old-fashioned perfume-bottles with the little tasselled pump-ball and given that argument a few generous spritzes of eau de bullshit, because its nonsense reeks to high heaven.
The other consequence of trying to suppress any outspoken firebrands who spring up, beyond it just sucking up precious time and energy you can’t afford to squander, is that this discord erodes the internal stability of the party. And these people are already going to be the cause of a certain amount of friction anyway. Because they disdain the moderates heading the party, like Joe Biden, for being far too wishy-washy and milquetoast and accommodating for their liking. So you don’t want to add extra reasons for butting heads, if you can possibly help it. There’s another advantage the GOP has. My read is that the loose cannons lower down the Republican totem pole understand that they’re doing what the ‘dignified’ establishment types at the top of it can’t, and they know they’re secretly appreciated for it. Everyone has a role to play, after all. A freshman congressperson can say things that a congressional leader just cannot get away with saying — or, at least, they’ll have a much lesser magnitude of backlash to contend with, which makes it easier to weather as a habitual cost-of-doing-business. I get the sense that in the GOP there’s an unspoken understanding that more important than the PR value of presenting a unified front is people in different positions providing different services to the party. There might be a semblance of disunity as a result, but ultimately you’re all still putting the party first. You’re just contributing to it in non-overlapping ways. And so that’s a key difference to how it is with the Democrats. There, a lot of the troublemakers are more than happy to sabotage and/or tear down the party if it’ll raise their individual profile nationally or help cement their bona fides as a fierce, take-no-prisoners radical. Of course, this is made even sillier by the fact that — in the opinion of your humble correspondent — true radicals are about as common in the Democratic Party as hen’s teeth. Only when backgrounded against the extremely staid political atmosphere found there can some of these people pass themselves off as such. It’s something to be on guard about, I’d say. Only in the Democratic Party can AOC seem like Che Guevara. Don’t buy into the hype. Just ask yourself who’s genuinely trying to remake the party and who’s content to simply be activists shouting from the sidelines because it garners reliable media coverage without the inconvenience or risk of having to actually do something.
But yeah, the Democrats need to wise up. And quickly. The GOP realize they’re not operating from a position of strength anymore. I imagine they’re hoping to just drag their feet as much as possible, in order to make sure Biden’s first term is a depressing nothingburger.
McConnell is going to pull the same crap he always does. His stratagems are so old the copyright on them has expired. It’s not hard to see what’s coming. For one thing, he’s going to dangle the tantalizing possibility of bipartisan bills — for whatever reason, the Democrats seem to covet the schmaltzy PR wins of come-together-for-the-good-of-the-country bipartisanship way more than the Republicans — and in doing so he’ll tie up the Democrats in lengthy negotiations that go nowhere and achieve nothing. (Or perhaps in a few cases the Democrats will decide to cut their losses and, slinking away defeated, try to make do with the butchered, neutered, compromise-ruined version of the bill they’re now left with. This will also hurt them. Having to turn around and sell people on legislation which bears no resemblance to what it was originally is a powerful humiliation.)
That’s what I’d bet their whole gameplan is. Just stall and entangle and keep the Democrats running in circles as much as possible. Time-waste all the way to 2024, where they can then contrast themselves with the empty-handed and seemingly useless Democrats, pitching themselves as the party of action, of bold initiative and vision. The party that isn’t content with simply saying the right things or just appeasing the vocal fringe with symbolic gestures. The party that’ll roll its sleeves up and make some shit happen, come hell or high water. All that classic guff which sadly never quite goes out of style in politics. It’s what you fall back on when you don’t actually have any new ideas or… often… even any solid blueprint for your proposals at all. It just sounds good to people who interface with politics on a surface level. And if you time it juuuust right… for instance, when the other side just spent four exasperating years achieving precisely jack and squat… it can be enough to net you their vote.
My feeling is that if the Democrats want to evade this really, really dull doom, they need to kick things up a few gears whilst they still have the chance to actually get stuff done. It’s infuriating how little they seem to grasp either the urgency or the necessity of this though. Part of me just wants to channel ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ and yell “Get mad, you sons of bitches! Get mad!” at them. Playing nice and making a big show of being the more mature, honourable, by-the-book party is a luxury you really can’t afford right now. Take heed. Before it’s too late.