Whether he’s the President or not, we will be stuck with him
✎ WAYNE K. SPEAR | NOVEMBER 2, 2020 • Current Events
MONG THE MORE foolhardy undertakings is the prediction of future events, especially now, when we are hours from an election and the speculations multiply on matters that would have been taken as granted only a few years ago. Will the President declare victory before all votes are counted? Will Republicans allow a thorough counting? Would Mr Trump accept a defeat? Will there be a peaceful transition of power, or is the country headed for chaos and violence?
Should this President remain in office, and by whatever means, what might we expect of the next four years? This is the concern of the present essay, and while I have meagre confidence in my ability to foretell, the past four years have provided decent material from which to conjure an outline. Some conclusions are plainly obvious—for example that the President will spend the next four years propagating lies and assaulting those who refuse to pay him tribute. No one doubts that wherever Donald Trump goes, chaos happens. What I aim to accomplish in the following paragraphs is a deliberation of outcomes that are less obvious but nonetheless plausible.
If re-elected, Trump will find himself surrounded by hills that need surmounting. Opposition to his government will be fervent and the Democrats will throw up every conceivable obstacle to his administration. Past experience tells us that the opposition to Trump is ineffective, but this will not discourage it. The second term will be more dramatic than the first. The thirteen current investigations into the President’s business affairs will yield shocking revelations and, if they are sufficiently lurid, efforts once again to remove him from office. These scenarios will be taken as granted by Mr. Trump, and he will set himself to the business of preventing them, replacing the bothersome officials that he can and pre-emptively neutralizing those he cannot. At some point the President’s rhetoric will have reached the pitch at which even his own supporters, driven mad by the constant spectre of dangerous radical leftists, will turn on him, unless he produces show trials and sentences.
The 2020 election will have taught the Republicans important lessons that they will begin to apply on day one of the next term, along the lines of how to maintain power as a beleaguered minority-rule party with a diminishing base of voters and a populous and dedicated opposition. The Trump administration’s approach to this election has been scattershot and improvised, especially their focus on mail-in ballots and what they consider to be voter fraud. It remains to be seen if this administration institutionalizes its thinking, by making systemic changes that reflect their pet theories. The general tenor of the administration will be of a heroic struggle against the organized forces of evil. Increasingly what Trump does will matter less to his supporters than what Trump is, the occupant of an office that would otherwise be occupied by The Enemy.
The transformation of a professional civil service into a political operative division will continue, as will the reconstitution of the federal justice system as a personal legal team whose chief purposes are to give teeth to the President’s grievances and to dispense absolution to loyalists. For years now Trump has endeavoured to reproduce the working conditions he knew as a businessman, surrounded by underlings who did what they were told, no matter how criminal or irrational the instruction may be. It will likely take another four years at least to purge the federal bureaucracy as well as the courts to the President’s satisfaction, and he will set himself eagerly to it. He will cast Presidential term limits as a Democrat conspiracy to steal offices from Republicans, and the Republicans will indulge this fiction as they have every other.
The war on media will go on, even though the battle has been won. At least as far back as Reagan, conservatives despised journalists and paid them no attention, except to denounce them as dangerous hateful traitors. Now journalists and journalism are held in low regard across the political spectrum. When the revolution arrives, those who write for the papers or who serve as talking heads will be front of the queue for the guillotine. The uselessness of the media is evidenced in the fact that four years of damning news, some of it remarkably detailed and well-researched, has not dampened the President’s approval rating. In any case, many media outlets are only steps from insolvency and are no less likely to be gone in four years than Trump is.
I have said little so far about policy. Trump is less a policy President than he is a dealer in sentiment and symbolism. He is more interested in inciting crowds over the notion of a border wall than he is in building that wall. He knows that anger over a fabrication is real anger. The appearance of something will do just as well as the reality of it. Television taught him that an educated person will take medical advice from someone who once played a doctor, and for this reason he invests heavily in perception. Whenever he is asked about a specific legislative proposal, such as the Republican health care plan, he adverts to feelings rather than proposals. He can not say for sure what the Trump health care plan might be, only that it will be wonderful and everyone will be happy.
This administration of course has not been without policies. Where they exist, they are not that different from conventional Republican policies: tax cuts, generous spending on the military, deregulation. President Trump stands apart when one considers immigration, trade, and America’s relationship with the rest of the world. But as I have suggested already, these are less intellectual policy differences than they are a sentimental distinction, for all share a common emotional denominator: the frightening menace of the outside world. Foreigners take advantage of the United States with crooked trade deals, drag American soldiers into their wars, and send criminals and rapists to hollow out the country from inside. This bleak view of human nature is applied to the country itself, which is understood above all else as a struggle between Patriots and Radical Anarchist Antifa Leftists. Completely absent from the Trump worldview is the notion that people with whom one disagrees can ever have honorable motives. Trump policies are reducible to self interest and to psychological dramas and their attendant emotions, especially fear and ressentiment over perpetually being victimized.
As he has for the past four years, the President will make the noises that his advisors tell him are pleasing to his political base, white evangelical Christians. For the most part his concessions to them will be unserious, such as his yearly claim to have brought back the phrase Merry Christmas, but in other cases like abortion real things will be at issue. In the back of every Republican’s mind will be the hazards of 2020, which no one will want to repeat, and the GOP will feel compelled to work out once and for all how they can go on governing with little more than the votes of old white men to sustain them. The answers thus far have been gerrymandering, voter suppression, and political messaging that trades in apocalypse. Another four years would provide opportunity to work on other arrangements, such as incentives to boost white fertility rates. As improbable and outrageous as this idea may sound, it is the most obvious long-term solution to the challenge now confronting Republicans—the dwindling of their base—and it’s unlikely they haven’t thought of it.
A good many people are finding their comfort in the imminent removal of Donald J. Trump from the White House, but even if this happens, we should expect the man who has so much dominated the news for the past four years to continue doing so over the next four. At bottom this President is a propagandist and an agitator and a show business celebrity, roles he could fulfil as easily outside Washington as inside it. He will need money to finance his considerable debts, and he will need attention to satisfy his bottomless appetite for validation, and combined these needs will push him in the direction of the spotlight and megaphone. He is also now the leader of a massive cultural movement that is only incidentally Republican or even conservative, a fact that will not be lost on him and that he will exploit in both financial and political ways. If and when the GOP-Trump alliance breaks down, his movement will follow him and not the Party of Lincoln, and for this reason a November 3 defeat will not mark the end of the Trump era and will in fact mark the beginning of a new phase of it.