The Aftermath of Trumpism

In the six years since Donald Trump announced his presidential campaign and began to lay waste to the moral structure of American society, he blustered, lied, and spewed word salads; tweeted like a teenager; took impolitic actions and inspired crimes; and discredited the media with claims of “fake news” in ways that mainstream Republicans would not have believed possible. When he evacuated the White House at the end of January, his Democratic conquerors began the process of burying in bureaucratic and court-ordered rubble hundreds, if not thousands, of executive orders, policies, neglect, and other of his proto-political legacies.

In our land, which has been devastated by disease, unemployment, police violence, and racial unrest, separated by ideological borders of Red states and Blue states, and hardly able to sustain a demoralized and exhausted population, lurk, slink, and curdle millions of people from MAGAland, adding to the general picture of Trumpism’s catastrophe their modern interpretations of racism, willful ignorance, cultural insecurity, and political stridency. There is little doubt about the wisdom of the Biden Administration expelling Trump appointees from the federal government—their bungling of the pandemic response alone proved that we need able and competent bureaucrats. But the fact is that people who live outside of the MAGAland bubble–who bore the brunt of Trump’s murderous demographic politics–are worn down by exhaustion and despair, even more than with wrath, at the very idea of having to live with unrepentant MAGA supporters in their midst following Trump’s demise.

The sight of deserted streets in our cities and the knowledge of how Trump cruelly mistreated refugees, undocumented immigrants, and minorities have covered America with a cloud of melancholy. People ask themselves, ironically, “are we great yet?” The new word on people’s tongues is “languish.” Together these sights and knowledge have made the memory of Trump more poignant and more persistent, with the fear of another round of violent political conflict like that of January 6th more actual. Not the “MAGA problem,” insofar as it is a political one within the comity of American states, but the nightmare of backward-looking, restrictive Trumpism in its physical, moral, and political ruin has become as decisive an element in the general atmosphere of American life as any forward-looking (i.e., Black Lives Matter or the 1619 Project) movement that seeks to upend the status quo and expand the commonweal.

But nowhere is the fear of destruction, horror, and American decline under the presidency of Joe Biden more felt and more talked about than in MAGAland. A lack of lucid, cogent response to Trump’s political defeat is evident everywhere, and it is difficult to say whether this signifies a half-conscious refusal to yield to disappointment or a genuine inability to feel anything other than unfocused, existential rage. Amid the smoking ruins, MAGA supporters post photos and slogans on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram displaying the infrastructure of Trumpism, which actually no longer exists. And the indifference with which they walk through the rubble has its exact counterpart in the absence of mourning for political losses in Georgia, or in the apathy with which they react, or rather fail to react, to the fates of George Floyd or Breonna Taylor. This lack of genuine emotion, at any rate this apparent heartlessness, sometimes covered over with cheap sentimentality for the Confederacy, is only the most conspicuous outward symptom of a deep-rooted, stubborn, and at times vicious refusal to face and come to terms with what really happened during the Trump administration.

Indifference, and the irritation that comes when indifference is challenged, can be tested on many intellectual levels. The most obvious experiment is to state expressis verbis what the other fellow has noticed from the beginning of the conversation, namely, that you are the other. This is usually followed by a little embarrassed pause; and then comes—not a personal question, such as “What do you think about police killing unarmed black men?”; no sign of sympathy, such as “Isn’t it terrible that little old Asian-American ladies are being attacked on the street?”—but a deluge of stories about how much white people have suffered (everyone suffers, of course, but beside the point); and if the object of this little experiment happens to be educated and intelligent, he will proceed to draw up a balance between the suffering of white and Christian Americans and the suffering of Black, Muslim, and Asian Americans, the implication being that one side cancels the other and we may as well proceed to a more promising topic of conversation. Similarly evasive is the standard reaction to the carnage left by Trump. When there is any overt reaction at all, it consists of a sigh followed by the half-rhetorical, half-wistful question, “Can we just agree to disagree?” If the MAGA supporter can bring himself to acknowledge failures, he looks for the causes of events like the January 6th insurrection, for example, not in the acts and provocations of Trump, but in the events that led to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise.

Such an escape from reality is also, of course, an escape from responsibility. In this the MAGA supporters are not alone; all the members of the Republican Party captured by Trump have developed the habit of blaming their misfortunes on some force out of their reach: it may be Antifa, the Chinese, the Paris Climate Accord, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez today, the legacy of Black Lives Matter tomorrow; and what little they understand from history in general every day of the week. But this attitude is more pronounced in MAGAland, where the temptation to blame everything under the sun on everything outside of the Trump sphere of influence is difficult to resist: the Texas electric power catastrophe is blamed not on disastrous energy policies, but on windmills and the Green New Deal; the defeats in two Senate races in Georgia are not the fault of terrible candidates, but on the Vichy-like Republican governor and secretary of state; and the source of poverty and lack of services in much of the American South is caused by overreach of the federal government, even though their economies depend on the largess of federal government appropriations, and Southerners’ lack commitment to educating their own citizens. Behind MAGA complaints is a stubborn unwillingness to make use of the many possibilities left to the basic can-do American attitude. This is perhaps most clearly revealed in modern media outlets like Fox and OAN, whose commentators express all their convictions in a carefully cultivated style of schadenfreude, malicious joy in ruination. It is as though MAGAland, denied the power to rule, have fallen in love with impotence as such, and now find a positive pleasure in contemplating international tensions and the unavoidable mistakes that occur in the business of governing, regardless of the possible consequences for themselves. Fear of Russian aggression, for example, does not necessarily result in an unequivocal pro-American attitude, but often leads to a determined neutrality, as though it were as absurd to take sides in the conflict as it would be to take sides in an earthquake. The awareness that neutrality will not change one’s fate makes it in turn impossible to translate this mood into a rational policy, and the mood itself, by its very irrationality, becomes even more bitter.

But, whether faced or evaded, the realities of Trump’s failures, of his actual defeat at the polls and in the Electoral College, still visibly dominate the whole fabric of MAGAland life, and the MAGA supporters have developed various devices (c.f., sedition and insurrection) for dodging their shocking impact.

The reality of the Covid-19 pandemic, for example, is transformed into a mere potentiality: The Trump administration did only what others were capable of doing (“our numbers are better than Europe”) or what others will do in the near future; therefore, anybody who brings up this topic is ipso facto suspected of self-righteousness.

But perhaps the most striking and frightening aspect of the MAGAland flight from reality is the habit of treating facts as though they were mere opinions. On Trump’s first full day in office, the question of whose inauguration crowd was larger – Obama’s or Trump’s — by no means a hotly debated issue (if you believe your eyes), is answered by a surprising variety of opinions. In defense of the indefensible, Kellyanne Conway, an otherwise intelligent woman told a news reporter on TV that “alternative facts” matter as much as accurate reporting. This is only the crudest of many examples. Nor is this transformation of facts into opinions restricted to questions of politics; in all fields there is a kind of gentlemen’s agreement by which everyone has a right to his ignorance under the pretext that everyone has a right to his opinion—and behind this is the tacit assumption that opinions really do not matter. This is a very serious thing, not only because it often makes discussion so hopeless (despite – or in spite of — the presence of the Internet in our pockets and bags), but primarily because the average MAGA supporter honestly believes this free-for-all, this nihilistic relativity about facts, to be the essence of democracy. In fact, of course, it is a legacy of Trumpism.

The lies of Trumpism are distinguished from the normal lying of previous presidencies in times of emergency by their consistent denial of the importance of facts in general: all facts can be changed, and all lies can be made true. The Trump impress on the MAGA mind consists primarily in a conditioning whereby reality has ceased to be the sum total of hard inescapable facts and has become a conglomeration of ever-changing events and slogans in which a thing can be true today and false tomorrow. What one is up against is not indoctrination but the incapacity or unwillingness to distinguish altogether between fact and opinion. A discussion about the events of the Spanish Civil War of the 1930’s, the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, or the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 by agents of the Saudi crown prince will be conducted on the same level as a discussion of the theoretical merits and shortcomings of democracy.

With Trump’s defeat, MAGAland finds itself again exposed to verifiable facts and reality-based decisions emanating from our nation’s capital. But the experience of listening to Trump and his craven acolytes has robbed MAGAland of all spontaneous speech and comprehension, so that now, having no official line to guide them – no @realdonaldtrump on Twitter — they are, as it were, speechless, incapable of articulating thoughts and adequately expressing their feelings. The intellectual atmosphere is clouded with vague pointless generalities, with opinions formed long before the events they are supposed to fit actually happened; one is oppressed by a kind of pervasive public stupidity which cannot be trusted to judge correctly the most elementary events, and which, for example, makes it possible for Trump supporters to complain, “The world at large once again deserted us.”

This is a dangerous situation, but in itself it is not necessarily the worst that could have happened with Trump’s reelection. The real trouble now comes from the nature of the contemporary Republican party. The present Republican party is a continuation of the party that Trump found so surprisingly easy to co-opt and manipulate. The GOP is in many cases run by the MAGA supporters and dominated by the culture of white supremacy – the latter-day version of Manifest Destiny — and the Trump tactics. However, only the tactics have somehow preserved their vitality; Republicans must maintain civil appearances so they can be welcomed by polite society in their communities. In addition, because of inevitable demographic trends, the Republican party cannot very well exist without actual principles and philosophies divorced from Trump. One cannot even say that white supremacy has survived for want of something better; it is rather as though the MAGA supporters–after their experience with naked, public, and unchallenged displays of white supremacy–have become convinced that just about anything will do. The Republican party machine is primarily interested in providing jobs and favors only for their members and supporters. This means that they tend to attract the most opportunistic elements of the population. Far from encouraging initiative of any kind, they are afraid of young people with new ideas. In short, they have been reborn in Trump’s senility. Consequently, what little there is of political interest and discussion in Republican and MAGAland occurs in small circles outside the party and outside the public institutions. Each of these small groups, because of the vacuum caused by the lack of authentic conservatism in the Republican party, is the potential nucleus for a new movement; for the Republican party has not only failed to enlist the support of an intelligent, diverse coalition of independent thinkers, they are also trying to convince the masses that they—not the Democrats–represent their interests.

The melancholy story of post-Trump America is one of missed opportunities. In our eagerness to define Trump as the culprit and his mistakes as his alone, we tend to overlook the more fundamental lessons this story may teach us. When all is said, the twofold question remains: What could one reasonably expect from a people after four years of being gaslighted by political leaders at the highest levels and a cadre of media sycophants? What could one reasonably expect from Democrats confronted with the impossible task of putting back on its feet a wide swath of the American population that had lost the ground from under it?

But it would be well to remember and try to understand the experience of the Allied occupation of Germany after World War II, as Hannah Arendt put it, for we are all too likely to see it repeated in our lifetime on a gigantic scale. Unfortunately, she wrote, “the German example shows that help from the outside is not likely to set free indigenous forces of self-help, and that totalitarian rule is something more than merely the worst kind of tyranny. Totalitarianism kills the roots.”

Politically speaking, the present conditions of MAGAland have a greater significance as an object lesson for the consequences of totalitarianism than as a demonstration of Trumpism in itself. This problem, like all other American problems, can be solved only when Americans start to agree on facts and what we see with our own eyes; but even such a solution seems of little relevance in view of the imminent political crisis in the next election cycle. Neither a regenerated nor an unregenerated Trump is likely to play a great role in it. And this knowledge of the ultimate futility of any political initiative by Trump in the present struggle is not the least potent factor in the MAGA supporters’ reluctance to face the reality of their leader’s defeat.

*****

This blog post is based on, and much of its narrative structure and language, is derived from, “The Aftermath of Nazi Rule: Report from Germany” by Hannah Arendt. Commentary Magazine, October 1950.

You can also view these eyewitness accounts:

Notes on the Trump Mob,” January 6, 2021

Transitions: Morning of the Insurrection,” January 6, 2021

Transitions: The Second MAGA March,” December 12, 2020

Transitions: Million MAGA March,” November 14, 2020

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