“GOP’s biggest fear: referendum on Trump” barks the headline on the breathless Beltway news-miniaturization site Axios. Mike Allen—the semaphoric voice behind the “Axios AM” newsletter—ticks off the reasons the major party that has followed Donald Trump into the deepest and most incoherent reaches of sedition and truth-mangling now allegedly wants the coming midterms to be about anything other than the 45th president and his squalid legacy.
The main sticking point, of course, is the legal case against Trump for making off with a clutch of highly sensitive classified documents when he decamped from the White House to his Mar-a-Lago compound in Florida last year—even though that case was dealt a major procedural blow by the recent corrupt ruling approving an outside special master to review the material in question. “The Trump documents case is likely to remain in the news for months,” Allen announces, in his trademark style of rendering the obvious as a startling revelation. “I’m told there are lots more investigative threads to pull before an indictment—including interviewing Trump’s lawyers about what they said about the classified documents he kept.”
It does appear, at first glance, that a suddenly jittery Republican Party is seeking to banish its maximum leader down the memory hole—together with the fallout from this summer’s Supreme Court decision overturning the right to abortion. Several GOP congressional candidates have excised images of Trump from their website, The New York Times’ Maggie Astor reports, and have also deep-sixed language approving of the high court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.
The view that Trump may be election-year Kryptonite for the GOP appeared to gain additional traction in the special election to fill the House seat of the late Alaska GOP Representative Don Young. There, former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin—the person who first launched a proto-Trumpian cult of personality in the resentment-filled GOP—lost her bid for political resurrection to a Native Alaskan Democrat, Mary Paltola.
However, Trump-distancing is easier said than done, as we’ve seen in the ongoing fallout from President Joe Biden’s Trump-centric speech in Philadelphia on the “clear and present danger” that “MAGA extremism” poses to American democracy. Biden’s brief provoked a unified chorus of fresh howls of outrage from the right about Biden’s own putatively reckless and divisive spirit—his “assault on the soul of America” and “assault on our democracy,” in the words of House minority leader Kevin McCarthy. (McCarthy had his own short-lived moment of Trump-agnosticism in the wake of the January 6 insurrection, only to revert to GOP-faith militant in unnervingly rapid fashion). This arch-Trumpian rhetoric, trained in truly mind-bending fashion on the specter of divisiveness, is yet more unassailable proof that the GOP is in full thrall to both the person of Trump and Trump’s belligerent and bullying legacy, no matter how desperate it may be to shun the headlines stemming from the Mar-a-Lago search.
Indeed, none of this pre-election positioning from either major party will change the fundamental truth that the Republican Party remains a bastion of Trump and Trumpism. The Trump era will not be wishfully wiped away in the aftermath of a special election, perhaps by means of Photoshop in commissar-vanishes style. And Biden’s Philadelphia indictment, while strong on the particulars, relied on the ritual appeal to the increasingly mythical cohort of “reasonable” non-MAGA Republicans. Such wishful formulations overlook the far more deep-seated clear and present danger in our politics: White nationalist reaction has been the face of modern right-wing politics ever since the insurgent Barry Goldwater presidential campaign of 1964. The heady brew of business conservatism and racial backlash has been the calling card of GOP campaigns, large and small, ever since.
But there’s another reason that tripping the Trump alarm across the political spectrum will fail to meet the real emergency. Our professional political class remains largely unable to clearly apprehend the true character of the threat because it has invested abundant resources, ideological discipline, and career prestige during the past half-century in pretending it’s not there. In one small but telling instance of the both-sides status quo, CNN correspondent Jeff Zeleny described the presence of two Marine honor guards in the Biden broadcast as a departure from bully-pulpit tradition, when it was in fact anything but. And the longer punditizing aftermath of the Biden speech has burrowed still deeper into these fatal elite-media blindspots, with the Washington Post editorial board declaring that Biden’s analysis, while mostly spot-on, was dangerously steeped in “partisanship,” and the New York Times politics team breaking into a drearily pointless refrain of both-sidesism.
Such first-order failures of political comprehension are a key reason the Trumpian variant of backlash politics became so intractable so rapidly: It was all treated as part of the standard byplay of major-party discourse and therefore portrayed as reassuringly containable. The clear corollary, of course, was that any principled opposition to it could be safely dismissed as just more opportunistic political posturing.
The resulting status quo has become a fertile breeding ground for the Trump era’s relentless mood of derangement and instability, masquerading as the rightful vindication of white and moneyed entitlement. “We’re in uncharted territory,” says Northeastern University historian Edward Miller, the author of a recent biography of John Birch Society founder Robert Welch. “We’ve never had a former president who was collecting top secret material. Every time you think it’s over—the Hollywood Access tape, the Mueller report, impeachment—Trump keeps going.” But beneath all these convulsions in the political news cycle is the ongoing core narrative of belligerent white resentment, Miller adds: “They always present it as a kinder and gentler form, and it’s nothing different.”
This lodestar of right-wing reactionary politics can’t be dislodged, for the simple reason that there’s little else left in the conservative playbook. After the fabled Republican National Committee autopsy of the 2012 presidential election—which proposed that the party scale back its apocalyptic culture-war rhetoric, reach out to the Hispanic electorate, and experiment with less overt forms of patriarchal privilege—the Republican Party went into full white patriarchy mode, and gave itself permission under Trump’s leadership to say the quiet parts loud.
“The more trouble Trump gets into, the more he represents a brand of outrage and resentment that the right-wing base is drawn to—a kind of fuck-you politics,” says Nicole Hemmer, a historian at Vanderbilt University and author of the recently published book Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s. This sensibility previously helped revive Trump’s own flagging career as a brash celebrity talking head in the 1990s, Hemmer notes: “There was a media ecosystem in the 90s that rewarded the politics of outrage and said this has to be treated as newsworthy. You see this idea in Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect, and Andrew Sullivan’s introduction to the Bell Curve issue of The New Republic. It’s the sense of offensiveness and controversy being both entertaining and revelatory.”
This same sensibility of outrage-for-outrage’s sake is already on lavish display across the right’s 2022 electoral landscape—from the white identitarian maunderings of Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor-Greene to the militant Christian dominionist campaign of Pennsylvania GOP gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano. What is the Republican Party’s rampaging election denialism but an ideological reprise of the “real American” traditions of white Herrenvolk rule stretching back to slaveocracy apologists like John C. Calhoun?
In any event, Tim Miller, a writer for the Never-Trump website Bulwark and the former communications director for the 2016 Jeb Bush campaign, notes that the window for a Trump-distancing strategy on the right has already closed. “It’s become cliché at this point, but the Youngkin campaign in Virginia was instructive. He managed to get the benefits of Trump without the downside of Trump. But it also helped that people felt like Trump was gone. Now that we’re closer to 2024 with the Mar-a-Lago raid and the Dobbs decision, it’s becoming harder for Republicans to do that kind of pitch.” Now, Miller suggests, the object lesson on the right is what’s become of “pre-primary J.D. Vance”—the Appalachian memoirist who became the culture industry’s anointed chronicler of white working-class malaise after Trump’s election. Vance is now spouting unhinged Trumpian conspiracy theories in his bid to be the next Republican senator from Ohio. “Is a pre-primary J.D. Vance even conceivable now?” Miller asks. “Or was that all bullshit to cover for the conspiracy-mongering and the cruelty?”
File that under questions that will never come before a vote in any Republican election anytime soon—let alone in the quisling centers of power in the terminally Trumpified GOP.