It’s still really 2016. We had an election that year that produced an unprecedented event: We elected a demagogue. We’re still stuck with him, and there’s no guarantee that we’ll be rid of him anytime soon. There are still people who can’t understand how that happened, including the putative leaders of both major political parties. So maybe we should take another look at what took place in both parties, if we can still speak of such entities.
To begin, the political system we had three years ago doesn’t exist anymore. Donald Trump has created a new one, in which only one figure truly exists — the leader — and only one mass movement — the base. True, there is still an opposition party, the Democrats, and they are now attempting the lengthy exercise of an impeachment. Absent unforeseen events, it will fail in the U.S. Senate. Donald Trump will then all but certainly serve out the remainder of his term, and (if Moody’s is to be believed) win a second one.
Even if Trump wins, there is no guarantee that he will not seek an extension of his presidency beyond two terms and not necessarily by election. He has often hinted that a life presidency is on his mind, which would obviate the need for further elections and opposition parties. Even if he loses, there is good reason to suspect that he would not leave office willingly, and no procedure exists to remove him in that case. In short, we could well be confronted a year from now with dictatorship.
If such a scenario seems unlikely, we must remember to whom it would appear so. For people who play by the rules, when you lose an election, you concede defeat. Al Gore even conceded defeat in the 2000 presidential election when it was by no means clear that he actually had lost, because the Supreme Court, issuing a ruling it had no right to make, said that the country had run out of time to conduct a recount. That’s really agreeing to play by the rules.
Donald Trump, the man who said he would accept the result of the 2016 election only if he won, doesn’t play by any rules. I wouldn’t expect him to behave any differently next year.
One of our biggest rules, or norms if you like, is that elections are a contest between two big parties, each of which selects a slate of candidates from municipal offices to the presidency. It doesn’t say so explicitly anywhere, although our electoral rules have come to be predicated on it. But to have the rule, you need to have two parties. And that’s what was no longer the case in 2016. The Republicans didn’t run a candidate named Donald Trump against one named Hillary Clinton in 2016, even though they technically nominated him. Donald Trump ran an election that year against both the party that nominated him and the one that opposed him. He beat them both.
The Republican Party did not want Trump as its candidate three years ago. Any number of its leaders denounced him as unfit and worse, and in the end, they made desperate efforts to prevent his nomination. Even after these failed, many said they would refuse to support him in the general election, until they turned around and did so.
What had happened? Trump not only captured the Republican nomination but the Republican electorate and a decisive smattering of independents and disaffected Democrats. This was a new kind of affiliation, conjured up by one man and belonging to that man alone. Commentators called it “the Base.” Its characteristic was not an adherence to principles or a preference for policies, but loyalty to a leader.
Trump may not have realized he was creating such a tumor on the body politic, but he nurtured it as it emerged. He fed it dreams and he fed it lies; above all, he focused it on himself. In this he exercised his one natural gift, which was to make the world about him. That quality — narcissism — is normally among the least attractive humankind produces. But when the times are ripe for a demagogue, there is none more appealing, especially when it is dressed up as concern for others. Trump presented himself as a man supremely confident in himself to those who had lost all confidence in themselves: those without jobs at a livable wage or jobs at all; without hope for a better future; without pensions for a modicum of dignity in old age. He offered himself as the winner who could lift up all the losers he privately despised and appealed subliminally to them as one who, for all his wealth and swagger, was at bottom as insecure as they were and so as fearful and resentful.
Trump thus bonded with his base in a reciprocal fiction. The preposterous ostentation of his private life — his towers, his estates, his golf courses, his harems — gratified his base, which lived its fantasies through him and accepted his promises as those achieved for himself. At the same time, he had only to put on his baseball cap to become what he himself most needed to be: the man adored by a throng.
On a practical level, what Trump has created is a movement faithful to himself that has replaced a Republican Party whose cynicism, honed over decades by its embrace of an unholy trinity of racism, ethnic and religious bigotry, and Wall Street corruption made it finally vulnerable to someone who could outbid it on all fronts. Of course, Trump knows deep down that it’s all all a colossal con, for what else does success consist of in his world? He can afford that much truth, if he is willing to indulge it. But his followers, at least so far, can’t.
There was another politician who took on a political establishment ripe for challenge in 2016. Bernie Sanders sought the nomination of a party he refused to join and came uncomfortably close to winning it. He, too, has a base still deeply loyal to him this time around. Needless to say, Sanders is a man of principle whom one can respect even when one disagrees with him (as I sometimes do); that is to say, he is the very opposite of Donald Trump. But they both represent an at least partly overlapping phenomenon, as men in considerable degrees against the parties they wish to lead. Both, too, could take the vast majority of their supporters with them if they chose to run on their own.
If the two-party system is in trouble, it’s because it’s failed too many people for too long. Why that is so is a long story for another day, but established parties are fracturing now throughout the democratic world. Donald Trump is only a sample of what you can get as a result.