Ep. 11 - The End of the Trump Era?
Do the Virginia election results, and the developments in other elections this fall, signal the end of the Trump era?
Show Notes and Points
Part 1 - Is the Trump era over? Arguably, yes.
Not because Trump isn’t still a force to be reckoned with or is no longer relevant
But because the Virginia election demonstrates he’s no longer a center of gravity in American politics
Aside on Buffalo write-in-campaign, why don’t non-Trump conservatives have this kind of political will?
Democratic reactions: Racism, accelearate progressive agenda
Democrats are the ones who want Trump in the conversation
Part 2 – Trump as a wedge issue
I just recorded a podcast episode with Josh Lewis who hosts the Saving Elephants podcast and we discuss some of these kind of issues
Specifically, he asked me why I don’t treat Trump as the existential crisis to the Republic so many other non-Trump conservatives
1. The Democrats have not acted as center-left partners in a “coalition of the decent”
2. They have used Trump and Trumpism as wedge issues to get votes for a progressive vision that the country doesn’t support
3. Biden didn’t follow through with the moderate approach or the return to normalcy he promised (as a I predicted)
4. The Lincoln Project and other “Never Trump” actors haven’t acted as center-right partners in a “coalition of the decent” but have embraced a role as partisan boosters, acting and behaving just like the #MAGA crowd they claim is existentially threatening the Republic
5. Finally, as I touched on earlier, if Trump was truly an existential threat to the Republic, why on earth would Democrats want him in the conversation, why would they goad him to jump into the fray in Virginia, why do they seem to want him around and part of the dialogue? What political objective would be worth resurrecting the specter of a defeated president so that he can be used as a wedge issue to get people to vote for Democrats?
I guess this is the whole point of my frustration. So many of Trump’s political points want the political advantages of a narrative that treats him as an existential threat, but then they engage in politics as usual instead of shifting their rhetoric and their actions in ways that would make sense if he truly was an existential threat.
Part 3 – Trump and Trumpism are problems
Don’t get me wrong, I have long recognized and resisted the nationalism and populism of the Trump era
Written extensively on this unique issue, and the threat that presents to the political health of our society
1. Trump has been a catalyst for the embrace of nationalism on the Right
Nationalism is different than patriotism
Patriotism is love of country for its ideals, believes in exceptionalism based in principles and values
Nationalism is love of country beyond or even in absence of ideas, believes in national supremacy based on some belief of superior traits, whether that’s cultural, ethnic, religious..etc.
American patriotism clings to the norms and moors of our unique constitutional culture, nationalism views these norms and moors as “suicide pacts” and will circumvent them or even destroy them in order to defeat or “own” political enemies.
2. Trump has been a catalyst for an assault on classical liberal values from the Right
Now not only is the Left largely illiberal, the Right has become anti-liberal
Since Trump’s rise, America’s constitutional framework is now under determined assault from serious and determined camps on both sides of the political aisle
Trump has been a catalyst for the dismissal of the importance of private and public virtue in political representation
Too many conservatives no longer consider character and virtue as important and desirable traits in their leaders. They want fighters, they want people who can play dirty. They view character and virtue as weakness and think anyone trying to cultivate or demonstrate character and virtue is going to get steamrolled by progressives who are willing to play dirty.
Over and over again, I hear conservatives say, “We can’t be nice, don’t be nice, now isn’t the time to be nice. We have to fight, we have to play dirty, we have to beat Democrats at their own game.”
So many times, I hear people say that Trump was the “greatest President in history” and I just can’t even wrap my mind around believing that this crass, petty man could be considered a better servant of the people than Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln, Coolidge, or Reagan by people who call themselves conservatives and constitutionalists.
3. Trump has been the catalyst for a Right-wing movement that, more and more, acts and behaves like Leftists rather than conservatives
“Those guys are out to get me”
“I have grievances, they’re more important than your grievances”
“My feelings are more important than your facts”
How many politicians have been chased out of office because they said something Trump didn’t like or proved insufficiently supportive of Trump?
How many conservatives have been chased out of the Republican Party or ran into the political wilderness because they didn’t get fully onto the Trump train?
How many pundits either had to change their tune on Trump or ended up taken off the air or relegated to smaller markets.
And, I can speak from personal experience that many, many insufficiently Trumpy conservatives have either had to self-censor their opinions about Trump or face the loss of friendships, relationships, or even face professional consequences.
Big government used to be something that needed to be dismantled. The conservative movement used to be a movement focused on conserving and renewing the founding vision of limited government, dual sovereignty between states and the general government, and localism.
Now, big government is a hammer to be wielded. Trump had his article 2, which meant “he could do whatever he wanted.” Constitutional norms and moors were roadblocks rather than important bedrock principles.
Trump was cheered for doing things that would be called tyrannical if done by Democrats, like repurposing military funds for the wall or banning bump stocks through the ATF.
The welfare state was suddenly off-limits under Trump. No efforts were made to address runaway entitlements. Trump didn’t talk about it, and he prided himself for not talking about.
Debt and deficits suddenly didn’t matter under Trump. In times of plenty, he ran up trillion-dollar deficits. Pundits and politicians alike admitted that fiscal conservatism was out the window. Rush Limbaugh even admitted no one really cared about it at the end of the day.
4. Perhaps worst of all, Trump’s assault on the efficacy of our elections led to the worst transition of power crisis in our history (second-worse if you count the civil war as a transition of power crisis) and has led to historic distrust in government processes.
Trump’s done this in virtually every election he’s been in, even one’s he won
Primaries he lost
Claimed he won the popular vote in 2016
Was calling mail-in-ballots a path to fraud months before the 2020 election.
Reliably red states like Utah have had mail-in-ballots for years
Called the 2020 results fraudulent the minute it looked like he would lose
Trump won’t talk about anything else. He’s an anchor both on the American republic as a whole and on the Republican Party in particular because the only thing he cares about is his own pride and his refusal to accept that he lost to Joe Biden
Across the country, we’re seeing controversial and questionable election laws all built on the belief that 2020 election results were questionable.
Is fueling needless hysteria. Many of these laws are a result of unnecessary moral panic fueled by baseless claims that continue to come from Trump’s lips and those of his surrogates.
If Trump runs again, whether he wins or loses, it might trigger a serious constitutional crisis and even trigger a rift in the union. There are too many people who will refuse to recognize him as the President again while, on the other hand, an escalation of January 6th like backlashes against his defeat could trigger violence and escalate.
Part 4 – Trump in Context
But notice that in all of this, I’m calling Trump a catalyst
Everything we’ve seen in the last five years, on both sides of the aisle, existed before Trump showed up.
Trump could catch a second bout of COVID tomorrow and die and we would still be dealing with the same issues and the same problems in our political culture.
We are witnessing serial and systemic political dysfunction that has shot through the entire political culture and both major political parties.
Trump was neither the “greatest president in history” nor was he a fascist, wannabe dictator whose re-election would have signaled the end of the republic.
Arguably, nothing he would have done in a second term would have been as damaging or concerning as what happened on January 6th. His defeat proved to be more of an existential concern than his victory would have been.
Trump was a bombastic reality tv star who combined his name id with an ability to tap into some serious fears and anxieties in a certain segment of America and was able to tap into a populist upswell that propelled him past shocked and perplexed political leaders into a position to face the most unpopular politician in recent American history for the presidency.
He was able to rely on negative partisanship and a siege mentality among conservatives who increasingly feel like outsiders in their own country as they’ve been marginalized and demonized by the Left, whose culture war has, in many ways, succeeded in taking over scores of institutions, such as entertainment, sports, the academy, and corporations, and has truly transformed many aspects of our culture and our country.
The reality of Donald Trump is that he’s largely a moron and an idiot, but one that has an entertainment acumen that allows him to instinctually give his audience what they want. He’s a performer, a shock jockey, and a petty attention seeker.
This man, alone, could never in a million years ever threaten the American republic. Even if all the claims that he presents an existential threat are true, that speaks more to the fragility of America in its present state than it does to anything Trump has said or done.
Conclusion: The Trump Era is over, but the era of Political Decay and Dysfunction is far from concluded
I really do think that Virginia demonstrates that Trump is fading, slowly but surely. I doubt that he will ever wield the kind of influence he did at the height of his power between the end of the first impeachment and the lead-up to January 6th.
No doubt, he will still play an outlarged, and undeserved, role in the Republican Party and in the conservative movement...possibly for the rest of his life. But I can’t see how he will ever be the center of political gravity in the country again.
People like Youngkin and DeSantis are already more visible and relevant leaders of the GOP than Trump, and with 2022 building up to be a Red landslide, there are going to be many, many political leaders rising up who are relevant, current, and focusing on the future instead of wallowing in the past.
Trump isn’t even really tapping into the populist messages that propelled him to power anymore. The message that gave him victory was him saying I’m with you, I’ll fight for you, I’ll care about what you care about, I’ll fix it for you. His message today is all about him and his 2020 defeat. He’s not talking about any of the issues that motivate his base anymore, he just wants to relitigate 2020. He’s saying it straight up, he doesn’t want to move on, he wants people to refuse to move on, until his election is re-considered, until his popularity and his pride is vindicated.
The political story is moving on. He’s not the protagonist of the Right anymore, and he’s not truly the antagonist of the Left either (no matter how much they want him to keep being its chief antagonist). In 2021, he’s already been relegated to a sideshow. So, what are the chances that in 2024, he can really be the main event again?
But regardless, it’s never really just been about Trump.
The rise and fall of Donald J. Trump was both indicative and catalyzing.
He brought out nothing in our political culture, in both the Left and the Right, that wasn’t already there.
And, if we don’t take pains to learn the lessons of the Trump era and seek corrective action that can fix the systemic political decay and dysfunction, Trump will not be the last of this brand of demagogue we see.
Will the next Trump be on the Left? Will the next Trump be a double-down on nationalism and populism on the Right? Will the next Trump be a third-party spoiler that discombobulates the entire system? Will the next Trump not even engage in campaigns and ballots, and just do damage from the perch of corporate power or from a media pedestal?
The problems that are plaguing our republic are coming at it from all political directions, and far too many people who could be a part of much-needed solutions are embedding themselves into political narratives that are just perpetuating a vicious cycle.
I get a lot of crap for my “both sides” positioning.
But I’m not engaging in whataboutism. I’m not saying “everyone does it” as a way to excuse what any given side does. I hold a “pox on all your houses” position that recognizes we’re dealing with a political era where responsible discourse and politics is coming from very few sources on either side of the political aisle.
I believe that when something’s wrong, it’s wrong, and it should be called wrong.
I believe that I should lend support to only what I support, and never offer my voice in support of what I don’t support.
I don’t believe in negative partisanship. I don’t believe in choosing lesser evils. I don’t believe in aiding and abetting declared political mandates for political visions I don’t support and that I don’t believe the broad American public actually supports.
I hold to values and principles that I have found through deep study, personal prayer, and constant reflection. I believe that a republic such as ours doesn’t live or die in elections, but rises and falls upon its ideals, upon recognizing and respecting the first principles of government.
America is many things. It’s a nation, it’s a people, it’s a geographical location. But most importantly, it is an idea. And that idea lives or dies in the hearts of the people. My concern and my observation has been that that idea is losing ground in the hearts and minds of the people, and it’s fading because of the anxieties, fears, and emotions that arise from increasingly consequential and vitriolic politics and elections.
From this perspective, I judge political efforts by whether they perpetuate this cycle of dysfunction or seek to break that cycle. It cannot be about choosing sides in the way so many what us to choose sides. It cannot be about engaging in political contests until one or the other side has been sufficiently punished, defeated, dislodged, or marginalized. You cannot engage in any kind of burn-it-down crusade and believe you’re making things any better. This kind of political engagement only further heightens the anxiety, the fear, and the emotions of the political contest. This perpetuates the cycle.
I have argued in this podcast that the Trump era is over, but the Trump era is just one chapter of a broader story of decay and dysfunction, one that may not even end up being the most important chapter.
I have named my newsletter and podcast Self-Evident, I have committed myself to deep study of political theory and constitutionalism, I spend my days seeking the reason and experience of the ages, because the only path out of the mess we’re in, the only path to true renewal for our republic, is to reacquaint ourselves with the principles of government that broke the broader cycle of human despair. Most of human history has been transitions between tyranny and anarchy, despotism and chaos, over and over again. But through the long ages of human tragedy and despair, sages who sought to find a better way slowly built-up observations of human nature and human society that eventually led to forms of government and foundations of culture and society that could disrupt that cycle. It is going to be the same things that break the current cycle of dysfunction and decay that the American republic is currently experiencing. Nothing else will break it, no political victory, no defeat of any political enemy, no defeat of any specific political figure. The first principles of government, the values of America’s constitutional order, the ideals of the founding vision, and self-evident truths must be first and foremost in our consideration. If we set any of these aside for any reason, or say they must wait until another day because this election is too important, this political opponent must be defeated, that policy must be thwarted...then we are surrendering the only real path to a better future and perpetuating the crisis.