Spring has arrived, and a responsible federal government is back in Washington, D.C. We’d all like to get back to business, namely dealing with a global pandemic, creating a green economy (the only kind we can afford) and having a baseball season that runs from April to October. While we do that, it is worth pausing for a moment to think about the nightmare we inflicted on ourselves and have only just begun to escape.
We were ruled, not governed, for four years by a demagogue whose aim was autocracy and whose instinct was tyranny. We need to understand how such a man could have ascended to the highest office of the world’s oldest democracy. We must weigh the damage we suffered from him and appreciate the difficulty we face in undoing it.
Let us begin with the man himself: Donald Trump, a cheap grifter with an insatiable ego who had staggered through four decades gaming the bankruptcy system in casino gambling and real estate speculation, skirting the seamier edges of celebrity culture but always on the edge of its contempt—a clown, in short. That such a man could aspire to, let alone achieve a place of responsibility in a mature political system should have been unthinkable. But circumstance conspired to offer him an opportunity in the middle of the second decade of our century, and, with a gambler’s throw, he seized it.
Trump battened on a carcass called the Republican Party. It has been a matter of courtesy for some time to call the Republicans a party, in the sense of a political grouping with the capacity for national government. The last Republican to run for president with any sense of purpose or fitness for the job (apart from Dwight Eisenhower, a war hero whose candidacy was sought by both major parties) was Herbert Hoover, whose humanitarian relief work in post-World War I Europe saved many lives but tragically failed to meet the challenge of the Great Depression.
Eisenhower gave a leg up to Richard Nixon, whom he chose as his vice president. He also gave free rein to the most dangerous demagogue to precede Trump, Joe McCarthy, and acquiesced in his party’s characterization of the New Deal and the battle against fascism as “twenty years of treason.” One could go on through the story of Ronald Reagan and both Bushes, but suffice it to say that by the time Trump announced his candidacy in 2015, the Republicans—having lost the trust of most of their constituency—were ripe for a hostile takeover by an outsider whose chief appeal was that he had no connection to the party, having spent most of his life a registered Democrat.
That got Trump halfway home. He should, in any functioning system, have been dead meat in a general election—his opponent, Hillary Clinton, famously confessed her incredulity at not being supported by three-quarters of the country. But, in Clinton, the Democrats had nominated the second most unpopular political figure in the country after Trump himself. It might have seemed, and perhaps it was, as if both parties had a death wish. And that wish nearly came true, for all of us.
What gave Trump the presidency—apart from Russian meddling, voter suppression, Jim Comey and an Electoral College that installed the loser of the popular vote? It was, put simply, that he ran against both political parties, even if under the nominal banner of one. His victory said one thing, loud and clear: that the country, or at least a very substantial proportion of it, was fed up with the political process as it stood, and it was willing to roll the dice on someone who gave voice to that sentiment. Trump the gambler took us all into the casino. Literally, no one knew what to expect of him. And that was precisely his appeal: he was the hammer to smash the anvil.
Trump himself most likely had none but the haziest idea of what he intended, other than to enjoy the power that was suddenly his and to profit from and cling to it as long as possible. He proceeded at first with relative caution, relying on the operatives and opportunists—a Reince Priebus, a Steve Bannon—who surrounded him. But his underlying instincts soon began to emerge. His first was that he needed a populist base of support independent of any institutional party and loyal to him alone. He achieved this, in classic demagogic style, by holding massive post-electoral rallies featuring himself alone; it was to be, throughout his presidency, his chief occupation. Sure enough, his followers crawled out of the corpse of the Republican Party (with a fringe of Independent voters and former Democrats) and became his.
Trump had beaten his first opponent, the Republican Party, and Party elders now offered him their obeisance. His next target was the government itself. He attacked the courts when they opposed him; he neutered Congress, bypassing it with a flurry of executive orders and negating its legislative authority by undermining its laws and its power of the purse. His main target though was the Executive Branch he headed, and he aimed to make it a pure instrument of his will. He recast the Justice, Commerce, and Agriculture Departments as political tools and forced agencies—from the hydra-headed Intelligence bureaus to the National Weather Service to the Centers for Disease Control—to bend their data and expertise to his will.
Those agencies he saw as mere impediments, such as the State Department, he simply ignored, taking over their functions himself. He lavished money on the military but humiliated a succession of generals unwise enough to agree to serve on his cabinet or staff—the former being the institution he gutted most directly, forcing its secretaries to grovel in praise before him in a scene unprecedented in the history of any democratic country. In a coup de grace, he inveigled the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to accompany him in a rout of peacefully protesting citizens outside the White House.
Most presidents have role models among their predecessors; Trump simply pronounced himself the greatest president of all, with a nod only to the last president to openly war with his government, Andrew Jackson. But his true admiration was reserved for despots such as Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, whom he praised for guaranteeing themselves life tenure in power. It was that, as he made clear repeatedly, that he wished for himself, masking his intention only under a casual veneer that hardly concealed it. And it was that goal he pursued, from refusing to accept the possibility of defeat in the 2016 election to rejecting the fact of it in the 2020 one, and then waging the campaign to overturn its result that culminated in the lethal attack on Congress that he summoned and commanded—a near-reenactment of the Reichstag Fire that consolidated Adolf Hitler’s power in Germany in 1933.
We came closer to losing our country on January 6 than all but a few have admitted. It took a world war to deal with Hitler, but Donald Trump is alive and well, still undealt with and still effectively in command of a Republican Party whose ruins he walks on. Our institutions held, but barely, and the oligarchic, antidemocratic elements in our political culture have if anything more deeply rooted themselves. Yes, there’s a new sheriff in town. But, as Will Kane learned in “High Noon,” one man’s badge alone won’t save it.