The Darkness to Come.
Even if he's defeated, Donald Trump isn't going anywhere. Neither is his movement.
Reader’s note: This essay was originally published in late 2019, just before the Democratic primaries and the COVID-19 pandemic. Given the outcome of the election—an increasingly likely defeat of Donald Trump—I wanted to share it with you again. I’ll have an updated essay on Trump coming soon.
In 2016, not long after Donald Trump’s black swan victory, I wrote a column in the Daily News asking people to stop comparing the reality TV demagogue to Adolf Hitler. My argument was rather simple: Trump is abhorrent, but to liken him to a murderous Nazi minimized the horrors of the Holocaust, World War II, and 20th century fascism. It was an opinion not shared by many friends on the left, who continue to invoke Hitler and compare the disorientation of America today to Nuremberg-era Germany, when a frail democracy failed to reckon with the fascism in its wake. Three years later, my view hasn’t much changed. Trump, of course, is an awful and corrupt president, as destructive as many liberals feared. He has appointed two right-wing Supreme Court justices, stacked the federal judiciary, and shredded necessary environmental regulations. His immigration policies are savage. White supremacists feel liberated. Trump is very likely violating the emoluments clause of the Constitution. He’s about to get impeached, amazingly enough, for something entirely unrelated to that.
And yet — and here is where my liberal friends may start to lose me — it can get much worse. There could come a day when the left looks back on Trump, the man they compared to the most vile human in history, as the less terrifying version of what’s come before them: a Republican Party marrying the most reactionary elements of today’s GOP — the hatred of immigrants, the tolerance of white supremacists, the ending of female autonomy, the cult of the semi-automatic weapon — with the discredited, destructive interventionism propagated by George W. Bush and his Democratic enablers— a party, in other words, purified of Trump’s domestic incompetence and unreliable instincts abroad.
The enthusiastic impeachment caucus of the Democratic Party should consider what awaits them. I’ll say right here that I believe impeachment is doomed to fail because Senate Republicans, utterly terrified of crossing their president, will not come close to voting to remove Trump from office. This is not 1974. A Fox News-controlled alternate reality media matrix keeps the party base in line. Impeachment is a political, not legal, act, and in a just and functioning democracy, Trump could be indicted like any other individual in America. Keeping the imperial presidency in check will be a project for the next Democratic president, if she or he cares enough. In the meantime, impeachment is the flawed recourse we have.
What comes next? A successful impeachment and conviction awards Mike Pence the presidency. This is a prospect that should absolutely horrify any person with remotely liberal convictions. For now, Pence is blocked, and Trump is just about a lock to top the ticket next November. In either 2024 or 2028, a post-Trump Republican primary will be waged. The future of the party is Pence, as well as Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, who is just 42. Ted Cruz, Trump’s runner-up in 2016, could emerge again. Nikki Haley, Trump’s former ambassador to the U.N., will likely run someday too. And there will be others. Maybe another reality TV star. Maybe a member of the Trump family.
Sanity Won’t Be Restored
There is a naive belief, among a certain coastal set, that Trump’s demise will liberate the political order and restore sanity. Republicans will rediscover their moderation. Democratic norms will be become sacred again. These are the same people who usually call Trump a singular threat to American democracy, forgetting George W. Bush waged two catastrophic wars overseas, immolated an entire region of the world, and engineered a surveillance state that has proved durable through Democratic and Republican presidencies alike. Democratic norms, whatever they are, long ago left us. There are men and women fighting in a war today that began before they were born. That fact alone is far more Orwellian than anything unleashed by Trump.
Barack Obama is currently trying to figure out how he can best influence the Democratic Party he left behind. In truth, there isn’t much he can do. The strength of the party lies in its diversity: there are whites, blacks, Asians, Latinos, moderates, progressives, and even socialists. These disparate coalitions cannot take marching orders from any one leader, no matter how revered. Obama is still the party’s most popular figure, but it is the popularity of a former president, softened by time and distance, like a beloved athlete who comes to sign autographs at a card show, the line snaking around the atrium. Obama already tried and failed to secure his legacy. He cleared the Democratic field, behind-the-scenes, for Hillary Clinton, freezing out his own vice president and paving the way for the Sanders insurgency. Obama’s gamble on Clinton was fatal. She was likely the only Democrat a candidate as polarizing and deeply flawed as Trump could defeat in the Electoral College.
Trump is very different. His remarkable capture of the Republican Party will not only outlast his presidency, but perhaps his life. He may loom, like Ronald Reagan, over the conservative imagination for decades to come. It’s important to remember the Republicans, by sheer numbers, represent a smaller, far less diverse coalition. A Republican president has not won the popular vote since 2004. Republicans can only win national House votes when turnout stays low enough. The party, under Trump, is utterly devoid of factions. The anti-Trump Republican, like the Rockefeller Republican, has vanished. John Kasich can set liberal hearts aflutter all he wants. There are literally no electoral possibilities for a Republican who does not pledge fealty to Trump and his agenda. Within the party, Trump’s approval rating is an astonishing 90 percent. Fox News, once Trump-skeptical, has wholly embraced his presidency, even when he veers from traditional Republican talking points. Fox has maintained its ratings dominance despite the loss of a crucial foil in Obama, who they smeared for eight vicious years. Rupert Murdoch understood, rather quickly, that to keep making his family inordinate amounts of money, he had to calibrate his TV network toward what was popular with the Republicans now deifying Trump. Hence the evolution of Tucker Carlson, a libertarian reinvented as a white nationalist-friendly populist, who now has the second-highest rated news show in all of prime time. Those who defy Trump are quickly canceled. Jeff Sessions, the former attorney general, was an icon of Trump’s nativist movement until he decided to recuse himself in the Russia inquiry. Now he is struggling to win his old Senate seat back. Haley, with her own presidential aspirations, doesn’t want to suffer the same fate, and has transitioned from Trump-skeptical globalist to sycophant, with a new book to prove her undying loyalty.
I’ve heard Democrats hope that Trump’s departure from the White House, whenever that may be, will render him irrelevant. But he is no Obama. He will not hesitate, as an absurdly famous and retired person with time on his hands, to intervene in every political controversy imaginable. He will take sides in primaries. He will troll old rivals. He will celebrate slavishly loyal friends. The next open Republican primary will likely morph into an extended courtship of Donald Trump. Trump, like his old Apprentice self, will decide who to hire and fire in the Republican contest. One lucky winner will have the nomination. The only way to win Trump’s affection, of course, will be to do and say exactly as he does, to double-down on his darkness, to appease the king. The next Republican primary will be a race to lock out as many immigrants from America as possible, to flood the nation with as many guns as possible, and to outlaw, for good, the right to an abortion. Fox News, the GOP’s reliable propaganda network, will goad the contestants on. Every week or so, an aged Trump can take to the airwaves and weigh in, like a bloviating sports talk show host, on the progress of his candidates. This is the future that awaits us.
Trump won’t be alive forever. But his legacy is secure. Trump proved the path to victory in the modern Republican Party is through an unflinching adherence to cultural conservatism. The traditional Republican economic and foreign policy agenda — lower taxes, less government, aggressive austerity, more wars— was never very popular, but Republicans ran on it anyway because what else was there? You couldn’t just promise more government and less annihilation of brown people in other countries. Republicans could campaign on a mix of cultural and economic conservatism, like Bush, and then try their hardest to enact the privatization agenda once in office. Mitch McConnell and the Koch brothers represent this wing — economics first, which meant obliterating the New Deal consensus and handing the country over entirely to oligarchs. Neoconservatives, meanwhile, dominated foreign policy groupthink to a such point that Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate in 2012, could demonize President Obama for attempting diplomacy with the Russians. How times change! In 2016, the hawks were out to fly. Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio promised George W.’s proclivity for disastrous war with a mix of gut-punch austerity back home. Cruz, at times, could veer away from the consensus, but he still wanted to bomb ISIS enough to make their sand “glow in the dark.”
Trump, meanwhile, violated Republican orthodoxy left and right. He didn’t want to privatize your social security. He didn’t want to save NAFTA. He went to South Carolina, a very conservative state, and ridiculed Jeb for being related to the Bush who started the Iraq War. And he won every delegate! Republican pundits didn’t know what to do. The National Review hated him. Trump, though, did not give any ground on social and cultural issues. He spoke the patois of the aggrieved Fox News viewer, the sort of person who rails earnestly about wars on Christmas and Jesus Christ being a white man. Once in favor of same-sex marriage and abortion rights, Trump disavowed both. Stopping immigration and emboldening the white nationalist fringe became a calling card. If Trump’s general election victory was fluky, a product of razor-thin wins in a few key states, his Republican primary win was the opposite. Trump was dominant, from start to finish, a poll leader the entire way as the field flailed in his gamboge shadow.
The next Republicans understand this. Tom Cotton, a Harvard-educated veteran, is something of a mirror-world Pete Buttigieg, an academic over-achiever who went to war and always dreamed of becoming president. While Buttigieg is still struggling to connect with the base of his party — black voters of all ideological stripes — Cotton will have no such trouble. He is an ardent defender of Trump’s immigration crackdowns, including the severe curtailment of chain migration. He has said he believes Roe v. Wade was “wrongly decided.” He voted against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act. He boasts an A rating from the NRA. In 2016, he said that America, a country that imprisons more people than anywhere else on Earth, still doesn’t put enough people in prison. When Cotton deviates from Trump’s party line, it is done gently, but in revelatory ways. Cotton does not wholly embrace Trump’s foreign policy. He criticized Trump’s withdrawal of troops from Syria. He has said it would only take “two strikes” to end a war with Iran. He has not allowed Trump’s dalliances with non-interventionism to color his own views. Like the Republicans who came before him, he believes in more war, not less, much like Trump’s ousted national security adviser, the megalomaniacal John Bolton.
Cotton, and men like him, will lead the post-Trump GOP, a party beholden to the most revanchist, nihilistic elements of Trumpism, dedicated to cultural and economic conservatism of a radical degree we have yet to know. Shed of President Trump, this party will be freed from his sheer incompetence, which squandered an opportunity, with majorities in the House and Senate, to eviscerate the Affordable Care Act. The heir to Trump’s throne will not have his deficit of patience. The heir will lack his vulgarity, his absurd tangents, his addiction to social media, and his sparrow’s attention span. The heir will be Presidential, even relatively polite. The pundits who populate the pages of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the New Yorker will breathe a momentary sigh of relief, because the odds of another sexual predator/reality TV star/WWE hall of famer leading the Republican Party are, statistically, not great. Trump’s heir will probably be a politician. This politician, through a commitment to a certain kind of decorum, will assuage the fears of the coastal class, who always hated Trump most because he could never playact, with solemn gravitas, the POTUS role as they conceived it. Bush may have the blood of hundreds of thousands on his hands, but at least he likes to paint watercolors and not say yucky words.
This politician will also probably bring America closer to fascism than it’s ever come. Under Trump, the word has devolved into a platitude, cheapened with overuse. A fascist society seeks total control of the populace, from the economic to the social to the personal. Fascism, as a World War II veteran once showed me, was Hitler stamping the swastika on a book of music. Fascism is the end of free media, the dissolution of political parties, public education reduced to party propaganda. Trump doesn’t have a youth wing. The Democrats still get to run in elections. America is probably too pluralistic and polyphonic, too large and messy, to succumb to European-style fascism, of the like far more frightening than anything on the offer from a Trump presidency. But the post-Trump Republicans will seek to impose their will on the nation as much as they can, through control of the courts, voting laws, and the demolition of any democratic customs not codified into law. Trump’s isolationist instincts have not reined in the military-industrial complex, but they have kept America out of the kind of murderous regime change wars Bolton and his cohort have sought in Iran, North Korea, and the rest of the Middle East. The post-Trump Republicans will not be so restrained. As long as they keep the flame of the culture wars, they can do whatever they please abroad, where Americans always pay less attention. Like any good fascist party, the Republicans will return to their warmongering roots.
The First Man of the Future
This has all been building to Mike Pence. He is still something a cipher, despite holding the second most prominent office in America. He rarely speaks. He is a dutiful, if unremarkable, surrogate for the most unlikely president in history. But Pence is in every sense the Republican future. A devout Christian and Tea Party warrior, Pence is the bridge to the evangelical coalition, which has stayed loyal to Trump and dragged his social views ever rightward. Liberals are fond of saying Trump is turning America into a version of Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale, though that remains hyperbole. Women are not forced to wear head and body coverings. Democrat-run states protect abortion rights. True theocracies exist in the world — start with Saudi Arabia — and America doesn’t belong to their rank. That all doesn’t mean we can’t slide further in such a direction. Pence represents the best hope of evangelicals to make their gains permanent, to graduate from manipulating a slovenly puppet to having the real knight of their movement rise to the height of power in the world. Pence, a former governor, member of Congress, and talk show host, has been schooled in the tenets of unyielding fiscal conservatism — the slashing and burning of federal government — Trump never bothered to learn. Trump’s occasional feints to a more liberal self, like support for mild criminal justice reform or the withdrawal of troops overseas, would be stamped out in a Pence presidency. He would be the most reliable conservative yet.
Pence can placate the Fox News base of the party, his bona fides as a Trump loyalist unassailable. And he has already mastered the Republican donor class. If each mutation of a virus is stronger than the last, Pence is Trumpism metastasized, able to fuse the most retrograde conception of America imaginable with an appeal to the D.C.-New York political establishment that renders judgement on presidencies from the op-ed pages of all those ancient publications stuffed to the hilt with Ivy League graduates. Pence is an insider with outsider ideas. Most Americans do not want more guns, the end of abortion rights, or new wars abroad. If America is not yet a socialist country, it certainly does not deign to be an Atwoodian hellscape either. Pence is a vessel for the Robert Mercers and Kochs who dream of a mercy-free capitalism that eternally punishes the poor, like O’Brien’s boot stamping Winston in the face, and bestows ever more unfathomable wealth on the rich. He is Mitch McConnell’s ideal, a president who learned D.C. and can turn the levers of power to torch the social safety net. He is the apotheosis. And he is coming. Unless he manages to run afoul of Trump, Pence is the first man of the future. Nativist isolationists, warmongering internationalists, and evangelicals all have a tribune. Unlike Trump, Pence won’t be swayed by the last person in his ear. His mind will have been made up long ago.
The Death and Life of Democrats
None of this guarantees the post-Trump Republicans will always be a winning party. Pence — or Cotton, or someone like them — is engineered to seize the Republican nomination. The general election is another matter. Demographic realities could complicate the GOP’s future. When Democrats vote in higher numbers, they usually win. The Tea Party surge of 2010 and the second Obama backlash of 2014, as Andrew Hacker has noted, were as much a story of plummeting Democratic turnout as a Republican mass showing up to outvote everyone else. If Democrats are successful down the ballot in 2020, they can control the redistricting process in many more states than they did in 2012, when a far-sighted effort among Republican donors and strategists allowed the party to gerrymander many more congressional seats across America. This turned formerly liberal or moderate states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Kansas into laboratories for extreme right-wing governance, crushing unions, slashing funding for public education and women’s health services. Those on the left who want to achieve their policy outcomes and make them last should look to the 2010’s Republicans as a model, mimicking their radicalism for the benefit of the working class and poor, those most victimized in the last 30 years. Take Scott Walker, the former governor of Wisconsin, who spent eight years ruling a state that was once a cradle for socialism and reliably voted Democratic in presidential elections until 2016. Rather than make an appeal to the center in what was (and probably still is) a left-leaning state, Walker governed as a reactionary pure-blood, the sort of executive dreamed up in an Ayn Rand novel. It will take many years to undo the damage. Even with a Democratic governor, the labor movement in Wisconsin is reeling. Walker Republicans in the legislature roadblock the new Democrat in charge. Imagine, for a moment, a progressive version of Walker, a governor or senator who pursues the goals of racial and economic uplift, curbing climate change, and shrinking the military-industrial complex with the same zeal Walker brought to destroying unions.
The Democratic project for the new decade is two-fold: block a radicalized, Trump-dominated political party from gaining further power while ensuring control of the House, the Senate, and the presidency isn’t squandered. Just as Republicans imposed their will on the body politic, the progressive wing of the Democratic Party must do the same, especially if they hope to make their gains permanent. The centrists — those who grasp for a consensus that is long dead — fail to comprehend politics for what it is, a literal war for survival. The moderates studiously cling to a hope that politics, in the era of Fox News and climate crisis and kids in cages, can one day resemble an Aaron Sorkin teleplay. It never will. The Republicans, for whatever reason, have always been a quicker study: Mitch McConnell and Mike Pence and Tom Cotton and their patrons do not ever consider the middle. Democrats can either incubate a new generation of uncompromising leftists unafraid of wielding power to guarantee free healthcare to every American and a home to all those without one— it’s no coincidence that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her Squad arrived D.C. without the blessing of the House Democrats’ campaign machine — or they can be temporary caretakers of the government before the real radicals, Pence and friends, show up to destroy it. President Joe Biden could very well take office in 2021. His policy vision, unlike that of a Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, is already fatally circumscribed, and he is utterly unprepared and unwilling to make deep and permanent the hopes of the progressive project.
The boldest federal achievements of the last century — the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960’s, Medicare, Medicaid, and social security — were so seismic that they could not be undone after the presidents and lawmakers who made them possible were dead. Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush could not obliterate these programs, which all began as socialist pipe dreams over a hundred years ago. They are with us today, belonging to the bedrock consensus, much to the chagrin of the conservatives who wish them dead every day. The lives of those who need help most will not change unless these programs are strengthened and new ones arise to bolster the safety net, especially as life on a warming planet grows more precarious. If Democrats can codify a right to free healthcare, housing, and employment into law, they will have built a popular consensus to withstand the radical assault from the right, to render the Pence and Cotton presidencies impotent — or to forestall their arrival altogether. Maintaining power is not just about winning elections. It is about making your gains outlast you. The Republicans have known this for years. The Democrats, at least some of them, are beginning to figure this out.
A Biden or even Buttigieg presidency that merely tinkers around the edges of what Obama achieved will be like a sand castle melting in the surf. Democrats are fortunate a more competent Republican, like Cruz or Rubio, was not elected to replace Obama, because much of his legacy would be in tatters. The GOP will probably not belch up another Trump, not with enough hardliners among their ranks who can both ape his rhetoric and boast a literacy level beyond grade school. Liberals can imagine stopping Trump will mark the end of a certain history, a quest won, order restored in the kingdom. Watch the credits roll. In 2021, we will emerge from a bad dream, democracy restored. Perhaps Mike Pence won’t mind the break from D.C. He can return home, confer with strategists, pray to God, and plot his own assault on the liberal order. This time, he won’t have to play sidekick. He will be his own man, with a job to do.