Yes, I’m about to launch into a talk on politics. If you’re sick of the topic or just don’t care what a nerd on the Internet has to say about the United States government, go ahead and skip this one. I’ll go back to screaming about comic books and role-playing games next time around.
So, here we are at the end of the term of President Donald Trump–three words together that once seemed so far-fetched that they were a joke on The Simpsons. The past four years in the United States have been largely defined by political divisions, racist policies, and a frightening lean into outright fascism. They culminated in an attempted coup at the Capitol Building that claimed lives. This is not the first time this sort of thing has happened, and I’m sad to say it won’t be the last time. But maybe we can prevent it from happening again for a long while. Maybe we can even learn from it as we move forward?
I don’t really feel like trying to prognosticate about the future of the United States and its elected representatives. But January 6, 2021 is going to be a defining moment in American history, as will the immediate aftermath of the insurrection. As the chapter of President Trump comes to an end, I’d like to take a moment to reflect and get my thoughts down. As the incoming President Biden vows a return to normalcy–whatever that means–I think taking a snapshot of this moment in history that I can look back upon will be very useful in the days to come.
Hubris was One Enemy…
How did we get to the point where America empowered a narcissistic fascist in the first place? In my opinion, it largely boils down to the sheer arrogance and sense of the people in power within the political system.
The Republican party didn’t want Trump to be their nominee in 2016, but they couldn’t get out of their own way to stop him. More than 20 candidates entered the primary, and they squabbled amongst themselves while largely avoiding the guy they say as the joke in the room. But they were all fighting over the same group of voters, while Trump had a significant base locked down for himself. That base was populated not only by the bigots that became the public face of the MAGA crowd, but also by a large chunk of people who were sick enough of typical politicians to tie their hopes to a guy who was definitively a political outsider. So the Republican party fought amongst themselves until it was too late to stop Trump’s momentum, and he became their nominee.
(For comparison’s sake, the Democrats in 2020 had an equally large field, but narrowed their support and focus much more quickly when it became obvious that Bernie Sanders could win the nomination. Most candidates dropped out quickly and hitched their wagons to Biden. I personally would have preferred a President Sanders to a President Biden, but I also think the Republicans of 2016 would have been better off getting behind the non-Trump candidate they would have most preferred well before the South Carolina primary.)
Meanwhile, the Democrats of 2016 basically played the opposite game, lining up their support early for Hillary Clinton. She faced no significant heat in the primaries aside from Bernie Sanders, who was pretty much a loose cannon and not somebody the establishment wanted at all (again, see the unified response against him in 2020 when he threatened to run away with the nomination). Riding high off of a popular president in Barack Obama and believing Trump to be a joke candidate, the Democrats had no problem fielding one of the most unpopular presidential candidates in history.
Meanwhile, the American public gave Trump all the ammunition he needed to run a successful presidential campaign. Networks played his rallies in full at times, and much of the country was transfixed by his lunatic ramblings. Nobody thought he was anything but a joke, as illustrated in The Daily Show‘s coverage when he announced his candidacy (a bit that seemed hilarious at the time but has aged painfully). Even as Trump started winning primaries and Clinton struggled in the polls, nobody believed he was a serious candidate. As late as October 24, 2016, President Obama was throwing taunts at Trump on Jimmy Kimmel Live, clearly expecting that Clinton would mop the floor with him on Election Day.
Here’s the thing: fascists are ridiculous people. They’re thin-skinned, short-tempered, pathetic individuals who do everything they do largely to assuage their own fragile egos. They look and act like clowns, but they should never be treated as such. Guys like Hitler, Kim Jong-il, and now Trump all got dismissed as fools. But when you invite a clown into your home, they can steal your silverware while still making you laugh.
Had people recognized Trump for what he was early, he never would have gone anywhere in 2016. But this is America, and we love our entertainment. Moreover, we have an arrogance that those bad things that have happened in other countries can’t happen here. So right up until Election Day 2016, we laughed at Trump and assumed that the voting population would right itself, ignoring the evidence that pointed toward him winning.
…and Cowardice was Another
Hubris got Trump elected, and cowardice enabled him. The Republican party saw him for what he was early in his campaign. Senator Mitch McConnell reportedly stated that they would “drop him like a hot rock.” Paul Ryan denounced him as a racist several times during the primaries. But as Trump’s victory got closer, those leaders and many other Republicans fell in line because they valued a political victory over their own principles.
Ted Cruz, incensed that Trump had implied his father killed JFK and who called his wife ugly, used his platform at the Republican National Committee to withhold an endorsement of Trump…only to fall in line weeks later and spend four years as the President’s lapdog. Trump gave out Lindsey Graham’s cell phone number, and the Senator called him poison, only to dance to his new master’s tune once the election was over. Virtually every member of the Republican party denounced Trump or reviled him at some point, but they all bent over backwards for him because political opportunity came within reach.
A remarkable amount of our democratic republic relies upon having leaders with courage and conviction. Seeing a threat to democracy, the Republican party needed to work hard to keep Trump in check and make sure that they remained the party of fiscal conservatism, not white supremacy. But doing the right thing is hard, and the vast majority of senators and representatives lack a backbone. Their cowardice enabled a fascist, and only the fact that Trump himself was so grossly incompetent as to not know basic facts about the presidency kept things from getting even worse than they are currently.
America’s Institutions Held, but Only Barely
Following a very clear Biden victory in November 2020, Trump abandoned the duties of his office (in the midst of a pandemic, no less) so he could embark on an attempt to overturn the election. This attempt to throw out the will of the people led to dozens of failed court cases and a riot during the certification of the Electoral College results that led to his second impeachment.
Ultimately, America’s institutions held and kept a fascist from throwing out the will of the people. The Supreme Court, which Trump had packed with conservative judges believing they would save him in just this eventuality, held firm and refused to hear his ridiculous lawsuits targeted at throwing out votes in key states. Judges and state legislators across the country, liberal and conservative alike, did just enough to make sure that the US Constitution would survive for another day.
But while it would be nice to reflect upon US democracy as this unbeatable thing ever pointing toward justice, that is not the case. The seeds to defeating Trump in 2020 were planted in 2018, when voters turned out in droves to send control of the House of Representatives to the Democrats. We saw during Trump’s first impeachment trial that the Republicans would divide along party lines to protect the man who got them their votes, refusing to hear witnesses and ultimately seeing only one Senator break ranks to say that the President had abused his power. I have no doubt in my mind that, if the Republicans held both houses of Congress on January 6th, they would have voted to throw out the Electoral College results. If that had happened, then American democracy would basically be over–if the voters count for nothing, then the country is a total failure.
Is this an uncharitable view? Perhaps. Maybe there would be enough people of conviction in such a Congress to hold the line. But the fact that Republicans enabled the appointment of cabinet members who had no business being involved with the executive branch at all, the fact that they crammed a Supreme Court justice through the nomination process in record time so she could be sworn in prior to the election, and the fact that so many who had previously denounced Trump opted to defend him leaves me thinking that, if they knew they could get away with it, Republican congresspeople would have thrown the election to Trump.
The 2020 election was like breathing a sigh of relief after you fell asleep driving and woke up just in time to avoid a head-on collision. It’s good that things didn’t get worse, but we need to realize how bad things almost got.
It’s not Over
I’m scheduling these thoughts to post on January 20th at noon–the same time that I hope to be watching the swearing in of Joe Biden as the next President of the United States. Biden has already stated his desire to act as a unifying force in America. While I doubt he will succeed, I really hope I look back on this post at the end of his term and say, “Phew, he made it.”
While many will see Trump’s last day in office as the closing of a particularly ugly chapter in American history, he and his family are not going away. His eldest son has already vowed to back primary challengers against those who go against him. That’s one dilemma that keeps politicians, a breed of human lacking in courage or conviction, from acting according to their conscience. The biggest thing that Trump brought into the Republican party is a reliable base. Unfortunately, it’s largely a base of bigots.
No, not every Trump supporter is a bigot–although knowingly voting for the guy endorsed by the KKK is arguably a huge sign of bigotry itself. But over the last four years, a lot of people on the conservative side of things have undergone a transformation. I watched throughout 2016 as self-identified Republicans initially said they would never vote for Trump, then convinced themselves that he was a better option than Hillary Clinton, and then embraced his rhetoric whole-heartedly.
People take on the personality of their leaders. I’ve watched in horror as people I respected started spewing the same racist, sexist, and transphobic lines coming out of the President’s mouth. My summer became filled with friends and family talking loudly about how COVID-19 was just a Chinese hoax, that masks were an attempt to control us, and that Bill Gates was behind some sort of secret tracking device that would be slipped in the vaccine (all said, of course, while they were also checking their phones–ideal tracking devices in and of themselves). These weren’t people who would buy this stuff prior to 2016, but they do now. When you hear the rhetoric and repeat it enough, you start to believe it.
Trump began his presidency by empowering hatred and division in America. As he continued his time in the White House, that venom spread to other, once reasonable people. Instead of treating the cancer of white supremacy in our country, we stopped chemotherapy and then gave it tumor-enhancing drugs.
Inauguration Day 2021 feels to me like a very important date in American history. In recent years we have had a fascist in the White House, and in recent weeks his attempted coup turned violent. The United States weathered both of these storms, but at a cost. The country is less stable than it was. I hope that Biden proves to be a strong, ethical leader. Even if he is, the rest of the people in the country have to do their jobs. That means staying aware and active, acting with courage and conviction, and making sure to vote your conscience in every election…not just the ones with presidential candidates in them.