The Trump-Shaped Shadow on the Horizon
As we ring in a new year, the country is at risk of heading backward.
As we ring out 2023 and gird ourselves for 2024, I’m getting a squirrelly feeling that reminds me of 2016: a sense that the political bar for decency could be about to drop even lower and that the robust alliances needed to pen in the alt-right and the rejuvenated MAGA movement are fraying to the point of no repair.
President Joe Biden hasn’t handled the Middle East crisis well, and the appalling, and ongoing, loss of civilian life is causing a large part of his domestic constituency to recoil against his presidency. The coalition of interests that drew Black Americans, Muslims, Hispanic immigrants, and Jews into the Democratic fold is, to say the least, in deep trouble, with all these groups feeling unheard and taken advantage of by the broader coalition. The president hasn’t convinced critical masses of voters that the economy is, despite the endless drumbeat of catastrophism, actually in pretty good shape—that unemployment remains at historic lows, that inflation is under control again, and thus that interest rates are likely to start falling in the new year. His messaging on immigration is all over the map. And, perhaps most damaging—because so difficult to create a counternarrative on—the octogenarian Biden has signally failed to tackle the Fox News mantra that he is too old for the job.
All of which has created a shockingly large political opening for the MAGA-fied GOP, and a messaging vacuum that Donald Trump is all too eager to fill with one dark message after another. In this holiday season of goodwill, The Donald took to Truth Social to make a wish, and, not surprisingly, it wasn’t the standard end-of-year fare filled with pabulums of generic kindness and warm wishes: His opponents, Trump opined, should “rot in hell.” When Michigan Democratic Representative Debbie Dingell took umbrage at the sentiment, the ex-president rounded on her as a “loser.”
In actuality, the bit about rotting in hell was perhaps the least off-the-wall language in the post. Trump labeled Biden “crooked” and special counsel Jack Smith “deranged.” He attacked the “Woke Military,” the “Green New Scam,” the “All Electric Car Lunacy,” and miscellaneous other policies and global situations. Earlier in the week, he posted a word-cloud image showing all the phrases being used to describe what a Trump presidency would look like. Prominently displayed in the imagery, as if to indicate that the candidate were embracing these warnings as compliments and as promises, were the words “dictatorship” and “revenge.”
Indeed, even more so these days than during Trump’s 2017–21 presidency, there is a paranoid word-salad quality to his missives. The language is so stream-of-consciousness, the associations so arbitrary and at times surreal, that, were the words less toxic, one could almost see an aspiring Beat poet struggling to shine through. Picture Trump in a drum circle, a bandanna tied around his head, chanting, “Dictatorship, Om mani padme hum. Revenge, Om mani padme hum. Loser, Om mani padme hum,” while the fragrant, mystical aroma of spent AK-47 cartridges wafts over the gathering.
Slice and dice Trump’s language any which way you choose to, and there’s nothing remotely presidential about his tone. It’s the kind of inane political bombast, a mix of boast and threat, that would be rejected in a high school student government election.
As we enter the presidential election year, the sheer volume of bilge coming out of this man’s mouth, the language about immigrants poisoning the country’s blood and domestic political opponents being vermin, sounds like the ravings of a madman. One can hear this sort of rant on any big-city street in modern America, from the disadvantaged, untreated mentally ill who have been abandoned by society to wander from one corner to the next. We may feel sympathy for them, but we rarely pay attention to the delusional fantasies some shout into the ether. Trump, by contrast, retains a cult leader’s grip over a shocking number of citizens, his increasingly bilious messages amplified by the distorting yawp of social media. In recent polling, he consistently comes out marginally ahead of Biden both nationally and in several vital swing states.
Last week, I had lunch in Reno, Nev.—one of those swing states—with a lobbyist who personally loathes Trump but admitted that if Trump becomes the GOP nominee, he will vote for him a third time. He would do so, he said, knowing just how despicable a man Trump is, but hoping that a GOP presidency would result in tax policies he supports, a more secure border, and a rollback of government regulatory systems.
“I don’t have to like my president,” he kept telling me, just so long as the policies that president champions are effective.
That’s the mantra that tens of millions of apologists will hew to in 2024 as the election nears. They know the man’s either a cretin or a creep, but he’s their cretin and he’s their creep. They know that he’s mercurial, but they assume his actions won’t be quite as looney tunes as his statements. That’s how ex–attorney general Bill Barr, who has been scathing in his denunciations of his former boss over the past year, could quietly admit that he was contemplating voting for Trump. It’s how most of the GOP presidential hopefuls—including now-no-longer-a-candidate Mike Pence, who was at risk of being hanged by the Trump-inspired mob on January 6, 2021—justify their pledge to support the party’s eventual nominee, even if that nominee is under multiple state and federal felony indictments, has been found liable for sexual assault in a civil trial, has threatened to have the erstwhile head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff executed, and has made clear his desire to convert the Justice Department into a revenge factory for himself and his allies.
And therein lies the fierce danger to the democratic system. As in 2016, too many people are rationalizing away the unique menace represented by Trump and by Trumpism. In the aftermath of that vote eight years ago, at least they could semi-plausibly say, “We didn’t know just how bad it would be.” In 2024, no one has the luxury of plausible deniability.
This year now ending is hardly likely to go down in the annals of history as a particularly good one. The senseless slaughter in Ukraine and in Israel and the occupied territories alone, along with the growing influence globally of the military-industrial complex, mark it as particularly heartbreaking. The accelerating climate catastrophe casts a further shadow over the planet. Unfettered AI poses a growing risk to not just the integrity of political processes but also the delicate web of human culture built up over millennia. Yet all of this could be prelude to an even greater set of catastrophes if the American democratic system implodes next year, and if an ever-more paranoiac and unconstrained Donald J. Trump, backed up by millions of armed and angry fellow citizens, is once more handed the awesome power of the US presidency.
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