Yesterday was a salve to the soul—seeing the footage of Donald Trump leaving the White House for the last time, watching Joe Biden take the oath of office, and finally turning the page on four years of cruelty and spite—all while, thanks to Twitter’s belated enforcing of their terms of service, we heard nothing from the outgoing President. Good riddance to bad rubbish, as my grandmother would say. But of the many questions worrying those of us who loathe Donald Trump and everything his presidency represented, possibly the most concerning is: will there be another Trump? Who is waiting in the wings to don his mantle and lead the MAGA hordes next? And is it even possible for someone to be the next Trump, or was he sui generis this entire time?
I have spent way too much brain power running counter-factuals these past four years, especially as we approached what mercifully proved to be the end of Trump’s tenure. Adam Serwer, who has been one of my lodestones in this era, posted a characteristically astute essay in The Atlantic yesterday, whose title was, helpfully, the thesis of the piece: “An Incompetent Authoritarian is Still a Catastrophe.” In it, he details the number of times pundits and political commenters have waved away Trump’s threat, under the aegis of “Oh, he’s too incompetent to really do any damage.” And then Serwer proceeds to detail all the ways in which Trump, incompetent boob that he is, managed to do grievous damage to the nation that had elected him president.
And yet. I have had many occasions to marvel at Trump’s ability to miss the most obvious opportunities. In hindsight, the nightmare scenario was a Trump who actually carried out some of his promises. Imagine a Trump who didn’t just gesture at “infrastructure week,” but actually devoted serious money to it? Or who followed through on his pledge to tax the rich? Or got real on health care? The X factor here, of course, is whether the GOP would have had his back—there’s a real possibility that this counter-factual would have entailed the invocation of the twenty-fifth amendment before the end of 2017; but would also have entailed a Trump Administration that hamstrung the Democrats by, on one hand, putting forward a critical mass of policies with which they could not argue, while simultaneous enacting the cruelest and most divisive immigration policies in American history. And four years on, instead of conspiracist fantasies, his fan base could point to genuine accomplishments, while all those ambivalent suburban voters who defected to Biden could reassure themselves that Trump wasn’t just a nativist reactionary.
But now, in the hours and days after Trump’s sad and pathetic skulk out of the White House in the early hours of January 20th, we know better. We know that such strategic thinking was never in Trump’s wheelhouse. That he was and is a man of sheer compulsion without the capacity for a sober second thought—or for that matter, sober thought to start with. That even those people around him who might have thought themselves clever manipulators who could use this blunt instrument to their own ends—Steve Bannon leaps to mind—found themselves ousted the moment Trump perceived them as less than absolutely subservient. That even those staffers with altruistic intentions were tainted by their connection to him. And that, in the end, it was only the most lunatic and fanatical of his true believers whom he tolerated to have in his presence.
At the risk of people calling down Godwin’s Law on my head, I would point out that Trump desperately wants to be a fascist, but never learned the first lesson laid down by Mussolini and Hitler: get shit done. Make the trains run on time, as the saying goes. Contra Adam Serwer’s otherwise spot-on article, a halfway competent Trump would have been a catastrophe and a half.
And yet. Would even a moderately competent Trump have commanded the same authority over his base? This is the problem with counter-factual musings—they tend to assume a parallel set of circumstances with a few changed variables, but there’s no way to predict how those changes would affect the base circumstances. Trump was always something of a black swan event, even though the cultural forces he unleashed—white grievance, anti-feminist backlash, the reignition of Confederate sympathies, among others—were always present and predictable. As I said in my previous post, that a preening, vain, pompadoured New York billionaire would become the object of adulation of a segment of America wedded to guns, pickup trucks, and a nativist conception of Jesus, remains a matter of some bewilderment.
At this point, I am several years past any desire to seek empathy with the MAGA crowd. I see no reason to ameliorate my evaluation of their intellects, or, more specifically, the lack thereof. They are idiots. Deluded, pernicious idiots. And in a delicious irony—considering their sub-literate tendency to throw the label “communist” around—they are useful idiots. Useful to Trump in particular, though they may well prove too unruly for Trump’s would-be successors. It is entirely possible that Josh Hawley or Ted Cruz or Mike Pompeo might saddle this particular tiger for their ever-so-obvious presidential 2024 ambitions … but do any of them seem like a likely successor to Trump? Perhaps I’m missing something important, but I cannot see it—it seems highly improbable that any of them, or any other would-be MAGA leader, would be able to capture lightning in a bottle in the mode of Trump. The irony, in my reading, is that Hawley, Cruz et al are too nakedly ambitious; as David Von Drehle observed in the Washington Post, Trump’s adherents aren’t impressed by Joh Hawley:
Hawley believes that there exists in America a “Trump vote” somehow distinct from President Trump himself. But Trumpism is not a philosophical torch that can be passed from one runner to the next; Trumpism is nothing more or less than the star power of Trump. The senator compounds that mistake by failing to see that Trump’s star draws much of its power from the humiliation of people exactly like Josh Hawley.
Let us not forget, Drehle points out, that Trump’s rise “was built on the serial destruction of ambitious men and women with distinguished résumés, flattering suits and neat haircuts,” whom he brought low one after the other during the Republican primary—Bush, Rubio, Graham, and the rest of the clown car. Of all his conquests, only John Kasich retained something resembling dignity; Jeb Bush simply disappeared. And while it looked for a brief moment that Ted Cruz would remain a Trump antagonist—earning boos at the convention when he implored Republicans to “vote your conscience”—it wasn’t long after that that Cruz was phonebanking for the man who (fairly) labelled him “Lyin’ Ted,” as well as mocking his wife’s appearance and suggesting that his father had a hand in JFK’s assassination. I have little doubt that the spectacle of ambitious Republicans yoking their tiny wagons to Trump’s nova was a matter of deep satisfaction to Trump’s base. If there is a “new” Trump to step into his role—assuming that he’s too emburdened and embattled by lawsuits and prosecutions in the coming years to run again in 2024, which is by no means a sure thing—it will almost certainly not be somebody who has subjugated themselves to him these past few years.
My hope in the current moment is that Trump’s ignominious departure, acceding meekly in the end to the reality of his loss, his social media voice silenced, will break the spell. I’m cautiously optimistic: the Proud Boys are now disavowing and mocking him, calling him “weak” (an epithet almost as bad as “loser” in the Trump lexicon); the fact that Biden’s inauguration went ahead without a hitch rather than culminating in arrests and executions and the continuation of Trump’s presidency caused consternation among QAnon adherents; and there is a general sense of Trump’s diminishment—without the presidential bully pulpit, and without Twitter, he can no longer be a squatter in our mental real estate to the same extent.
Which is not to say we’re out of the woods: Hawley and Cruz et al will do their misguided best to vie for the love of Trump’s base, and those forces of reaction and hate that Trump cultivated and unleashed aren’t likely to just fade into the woodwork. On the other hand, I was struck by the diversity of the groups storming the Capitol two weeks ago—not diversity of race, creed, or ethnicity, but the coalition of hate and reaction represented by Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, neo-confederates, neo-Nazis, Tea Partiers, and the broad range of paramilitary and MAGA cosplayers. Granted, they all share a set of grievances (some real, mostly imagined), but the one person who served to galvanize them into a bloodthirsty mob proved not to be the god-emperor in whom they had invested their devotion.
Perhaps Trump stages a comeback. Perhaps Don Jr. will step into his father’s shoes, but he lacks the unerring cruelty of his father that so animated the MAGA crowd (he tries, bless his socks, but he’s even dumber than his dad). And perhaps there is someone waiting in the wings we haven’t anticipated.
But yesterday I saw a president speak in complete sentences and speak honest, hard truths to a nation in crisis. And after four years of cruelty, mendacity, and narcissism, that will buoy my spirit for some time to come.