If someone doesn’t know what questions to ask, they’ll never get answer. If they don’t know whom to ask, the challenge is even greater. But an even worse error is to decide on an answer before even asking the question — and then refusing to hear any answers that don’t confirm what they’ve already decided.
America’s political class, especially the pundits and commentators, are guilty of all of these errors (and many more) as they continue to willfully not understand the Age of Trump and how America arrived at this democracy crisis. The Republican-fascist movement is winning because so many people who are supposed to know better continue to view simple questions as puzzling and mysterious, and continue to ignore the obvious answers.
Many such voices among the high priesthood of the church of the savvy and the other professional smart people have concluded that the Republican Party is in the midst of a “civil war” or is in “disarray” in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s presidency. That’s not true: The Republican Party is “evolving” just as other fascist and authoritarian movements have historically done, largely by purging those who disagree with the Great Leader and his vision.
Many of the same voices also announce that Trump’s hold on the Republican-fascist Party and movement is weakening because of diminished attendance at his rallies, or because of rumors and “revelations” about internal resistance surrounding Trump’s coup plot of Jan. 6, 2021. Those are significant details and facts, but they do not override the basic reality that Trump continues to be the leader of the Republican Party and the larger neofascist movement. He received millions more votes in 2020 than he did in 2016, and until he decides otherwise he is the presumptive 2024 Republican presidential nominee.
Republican voters and right-leaning independents continue to view Trump and what he represents as the identity and brand name of today’s Republican Party and “conservative” movement. Moreover, the 2024 election is more than two years away and traditional barometers of Trump’s popularity cannot be seen as reliably predictive.
But those questions pale compared to the grandest misreading of all: the claim that Trump and Trumpism led the Republican Party astray from its core values, and by doing so “sabotaged” it. Reality is quite different: Trump and his neofascist right-wing populist movement set modern-day Republican leaders and voters free to embrace their antisocial, anti-human, anti-democratic, reactionary, racist, sexist, plutocratic, theocratic, conspiracist, anti-intellectual and anti-rational values and beliefs. Trumpism was not suddenly born ex nihilo in 2015; it has been at least 30 years in the making.
Ultimately, what America’s political class, the punditry and most of the mainstream news media refuse to understand is that Donald Trump is simultaneously a man, a symbol, and a cult-leader who embodies a form of freedom — specifically, the freedom to indulge in the worst aspects of human behavior and then to wallow in the chaos and pain and suffering that result. Like other forms of fascism, Trumpism is exhilarating for followers and believers; it gives their lives purpose, meaning and a sense of community, largely by inflicting pain for those designated as its enemies.
In a recent column at Salon, longtime White House reporter Brian Karem summarizes Trump’s hold over his followers and their devotion to him:
Trump has played it close to the vest as he has traveled across the country to a variety of rallies, pitching baubles and trinkets to dazzle and amaze those of simple minds and limited funds. Buy a hat. Buy a shirt. Buy an ornament. Buy an autographed picture. Buy anything Trump is selling — probably up to and including autographed underwear.
Millions continue to support him by buying his cheap and tawdry knickknacks. It makes me wonder what these homes look like. “Come in. clean your feet on the Trump doormat, hang up your coat on the Trump coat rack. Have a seat and a complimentary beverage out of our Trump lemonade pitcher, poured lovingly into a Trump autographed mug.”
Meanwhile, you can take a look at a phone video shot by Donald Trump Jr. inviting you to visit a “top secret” rally with his father — and, gosh, even get a chance to meet Dad! What the hell is a top secret rally? Isn’t that what the KKK used to do?
The following observation is no doubt a challenging concept for those still wedded to “normal politics” and other obsolescent ways of thinking: “Donald Trump” is of immense symbolic importance, but Donald Trump the human being barely even matters. As I detailed in an earlier essay for Salon, “Donald Trump is no longer a mere person. Indeed, to some extent the human being behind the Trump persona has become irrelevant.” In other words, Trump is integral to the American neofascist project — but he is also disposable and can be replaced as the situation demands.
If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. For too many people in America’s political class and the news media, especially, the only lens available to interpret politics is through horserace-style coverage, centrism bias, outmoded notions of balance and fairness, questions about who has “coattails” and is piling up “endorsements,” and of course the results of public opinion polls and focus groups. To acknowledge that these habits and tools no longer have the explanatory power they once did (not very long ago) would be an enormous psychological leap, approaching epistemic collapse.
Here are three examples of how strongly Donald Trump’s power endures, whatever the hope-peddlers, professional centrists and others among the commentariat would like us to believe:
1. The Republican Party announced last week that it will no longer participate in the 2024 presidential debates hosted by the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates.
Debates serve an important function in a democracy and as such have played a key role in many elections. They are especially important for helping low information, independent and relatively apolitical voters decide whom to support. Beyond that, participation in a debate signals a commitment to democratic norms and institutions. Debates also reaffirm a shared belief in the principle that truth exists outside of partisanship and ideology.
Fascists and other authoritarians reject such consensus values. By rejecting the presidential debates, and replacing them with some type of right-wing propaganda theater, the Republican Party is choosing to protect Donald Trump (or his successors) from public scrutiny. Paul Waldman of the Washington Post offered this context:
The Republican Party has just offered us a glimpse of the hell they’re going to put us all through in 2024. What might appear to be a petty argument about the conditions under which general election debates will or won’t be held is actually much more…. But it’s also a sign that the Republican strategy will again feature chaotic, Trumpian whining that is meant to delegitimize the entire presidential campaign process from start to finish, culminating in an attempt to take back the White House by theft if the voters don’t vote the “right” way.
Let’s remember that while Trump performed well in the 2016 primary debates when he was on stage with a collection of empty suits, he did poorly in every one of his debates with Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. By the fall of 2024, he’ll be 78 years old; the idea that he’ll be more disciplined and focused than he was in the past is far-fetched. Everything Americans dislike about him would be on vivid display in a debate, before the largest audience the candidates will have.
If Republicans announce now, two-and-a-half years in advance, that they’re refusing to participate in the debates, it could save them a last-minute act of cowardice. But the more important reason they’re doing this is to reinforce the idea that every institution and practice associated with the presidential campaign must be considered corrupt and biased against Trump and therefore illegitimate, whether it’s the news media, the debates, maybe even the weather — and especially the vote counting.
2. Republicans are enthusiastically doing the bidding of Donald Trump and his fascist project.
We see this through growing support for the Jan. 6 coup attempt and the Capitol attack, the escalating assault on democracy and voting rights, the moral panic around “critical race theory”; anti-LGBTQ bigotry and related conspiracy theories, the campaign to roll back reproductive rights and freedoms, the assault on free speech and other fundamental civil and human rights, the war on reason and critical thinking, the Big Lie, and the support (covert or otherwise) for right-wing authoritarians such as Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán.
This is not a story of “top-down” politics, or elites otherwise imposing their values on a public. Republican voters overwhelmingly support these policies and the values they embody. Donald Trump is a gifted political entrepreneur; he understood that many tens of millions of Americans yearn for fascism or some other form of authoritarian rule.
3. To this point, Republican leaders and candidates are still in thrall to Trump. They must prostrate themselves before him and seek his blessing as a pathway to power.
In a recent article for the New York Times, Shane Goldmacher details how Trump continues to rule the Republican Party and the larger neofascist movement from his Mar-a-Lago retreat:
For 15 months, a parade of supplicants — senators, governors, congressional leaders and Republican strivers of all stripes — have made the trek to pledge their loyalty and pitch their candidacies. Some have hired Mr. Trump’s advisers, hoping to gain an edge in seeking his endorsement. Some have bought ads that ran only on Fox News in South Florida. Some bear gifts; others dish dirt. Almost everyone parrots his lie that the 2020 election was stolen.
Working from a large wooden desk reminiscent of the one he used in the Oval Office, Mr. Trump has transformed Mar-a-Lago’s old bridal suite into a shadow G.O.P. headquarters, amassing more than $120 million — a war chest more than double that of the Republican National Committee itself. …
And while other past presidents have ceded the political stage, Mr. Trump has done the opposite, aggressively pursuing an agenda of vengeance against Republicans who have wronged him, endorsing more than 140 candidates nationwide and turning the 2022 primaries into a stress test of his continued sway. …
“Party leaders have never played the role that Trump is playing,” said Roger Stone, an on-and-off adviser to Mr. Trump since the 1980s who has been spotted at Mar-a-Lago of late. “Because he can — and he’s not bound by the conventional rules of politics.”
Goldmacher raises the question of whether Trump’s “big public profile” will be “a potent turnoff for swing voters” in the fall election, which remains to be seen. But in Republican primaries, “few serious candidates are openly breaking” with him. Former Trump adviser Boris Epshteyn says Trump’s conquest of the party “has been so complete … that even the RINOs are attempting to talk MAGA.”
“Few see an expiration date” on Trump’s dominance of the Republican Party, Goldmacher concludes, “until and unless he declines to run again in 2024 or is defeated.” GOP chairwoman Ronna McDaniel has reportedly told Trump, “We need you.”
Is that a portrait of a fascist leader whose power is in decline? With a war chest estimated at $120 million and a right-wing disinformation media machine largely at his command, at this moment Donald Trump is the Republican Party. The fact that some members of the political and media classes read Goldmacher’s story as announcing the end of the Trump era only reflects the biased and distorted view of reality that led America to this ugly situation in the first place.
According to traditional Christian theology, the devil’s greatest trick was to convince the people of the world that he does not exist. Trump is perhaps only a lesser demon. But do not be fooled by the claim that he is no longer a threat. If America’s political elites fall for that trick, it will likely mean the end of the country’s democracy.