There are millions of Republican voters who carried in the past five years their own version of the Ross Douthat versus “Ross Douthat's Right-Wing id” debate: Trump is a charlatan, potentially dangerous, unsuited for the presidency versus Trump has actually gotten a lot of good things done on immigration, working class wages, not starting stupid wars. Moreover, those on this side argue Trump has a great natural political touch which no one in a generation can match. That debate came to an unfortunate and unambiguous conclusion in the last month, with Trump failing to recognize that his legal attempts to challenge the election results had gone nowhere, that he had lost more or less fair and square, and it was time to move on.
What transpired instead was perhaps the most self-destructive sally in American politics since Jefferson Davis, a weeks long campaign in which Trump and his associates escalated rhetorical and legal charges about election to an hysterical level. In addition, Trump and his associates, were stifled in the courts while mobilizing a mob to march on the Capitol to overturn an election result. You can see a video of them, Trump with family and close aides gathered in a presidential tent right before that fateful last speech, the president watching the crowd he was about address on one of a half dozen wide screen TVs, while younger elements of his entourage took selfies and shimmied to “Gloria.” What they thought would happen after the speech is not yet known, but what did happen—a mob assault on the central symbol of American democracy resulting in five deaths, will forever be Donald Trump’s main legacy.
There will be no Trump second act. Whether or not he is convicted in his pending impeachment trial, he will not be able to live down what happened. Polls which still show him popular among GOP voters will change slowly and then all at once: a few generations ago all anti-communist Republicans stood in awe and fear of Joe McCarthy’s popularity with voters, but as soon as the star dimmed slightly, roughly half joined in the Senate’s censure of their once simultaneously feared and beloved colleague. Within a year, and without losing his Senate seat, McCarthy become a virtual political non-person. The man who was the second most-admired politician in America (after Eisenhower) in early 1954, was asked to leave a state party fundraiser banquet in Milwaukee two years later when he showed up uninvited. (A reporter later found him weeping in an ally outside). After McCarthy’s censure, the GOP suffered some short-term losses, but anticommunism did fine.
Within a month, ex-president Trump will be entangled in court cases fighting to maintain control of his properties. He won’t have the staff to put together a major rally; he won’t have prominent politicians eager to share a stage with him. They can’t, of course, acknowledge it, but Republicans should not be unhappy that Twitter has banished Trump, who won’t have access to major media outlets like Fox, much less Morning Joe. No Trump, means no Ivanka and no Don Jr. prominence in GOP politics; neither has political resonance separate from the Trump name, which is obviously soiled.
If the GOP’s Trump problem will evaporate more quickly than many think, there is no clear sense of what that means for Trump’s issues and Trump’s voters, who right now have no clear representation. The number of Americans who yearn for a turnabout from globalist neoliberalism—its military adventurism, middle class job losses, its accelerating inequalities, its elites’ smug contempt for Middle America, has not shrunk because Donald Trump proved himself a fool. They voted for him not only because he could hold an audience at a rally, but because he raised issues that other Republicans avoided, and because they would actually benefit from controlled immigration and America first economic policies. The Democrats and newly revived neocons will try hard to connect support for those policies with the Capitol Hill riot, but that effort will eventually fail because the need for such policies is ongoing and real, while the political benefit Democrats draw from the riot will diminish.
In the short run, the riot has distracted attention from the Democrats own internal problems—in simple terms the battle between progressives and centrists, in most immediate terms the fact that policies Democrats avidly support are leading to dramatic rise in the violent crime in Democratic run cities. Those who have been looking expectedly for months for a sign that the great racial reckoning and its accompanying riots had peaked could point to small but plainly encouraging events—Portland Democratic mayor Ted Wheeler admission to the press he would no long try to compromise with antifa; the surprising hostile local media response to San Francisico’s radical District Attorney Chesa Boudin after one of his paroled felons killed an Asian woman; or the more general fact that conservative causes and local candidates did fairly well in California’s last election. The Trump riot has obviously reset the political clock, but not forever. The Great Awokening’s Thermidor has been postponed, not cancelled.
But optimism that the actual political situation is not so dire as maintained, and belief that politics in the United States will soon become more normal is tempered by the fact that in many ways the country is broken beyond the capacity of sensible and normal politicians to heal it. Medicine is broken, the capacity of Americans to meet marry and form families is broken, higher education is broken, as is so much else.
It’s hard to know what is the most broken part, but it’s hard to overstate the current crisis in education, which determines in obvious ways the country’s future. At a moment somewhat analogous to 1957, when American leadership realized, after the shock of Sputnik, that the country had to get smarter to compete with the Soviet Union, there is now a powerful national movement to get rid of standardized tests because their results come into conflict with “equity,” racially defined. Elsewhere in the academy, there is a left-wing impulse to shut down freedom of speech and inquiry advances into areas not reached during the actual McCarthy era. Meanwhile the contrast between China’s ability to contain the coronavirus infection and reopen its economy, and America’s relative failure, whatever its causes, will reverberate all over the world for decades to come. Without science, without respect for intellectual standards, the United States stands no chance of competing successfully with China in the present century. If one seeks reasons to despair about America, they are found here, and have little to do with the failure of Donald Trump to Make America Great Again.
Scott McConnell is founding editor of the American Conservative and author of Ex-Neocon: Dispatches from the Post-9/11 Ideological Wars.