Celebrate the Facts!
The ugly underside of America rose again in its most significant surge since 1968 with the election of Donald J. Trump in 2016. Trump formed a Republican coalition following the traditional Mitt Romney wing, Tea Party Libertarians, and white racists to ride a narrow electoral college win against perhaps the weakest opponent in American history. Despite the fervent wishes of the Republican party to cling to power, it is likely this event was singular and the roar of the last Tyrannosaurus.
It takes some measure of wizardry and a confluence of unfortunate events to become a one-term President. In the modern era, defined here as post World War II, there were only three one-term Presidents until Donald J. Trump joined the club in 2020.
The most recent one-term President was George H. W. Bush. Bush was a long-time Republican party operative, serving numerous party sinecures, including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director under President Gerald Ford, and Vice-President under Ronald Reagan. Elected President in 1988, Bush succumbed to the temptation to invade Kuwait after Saddam Hussein's invasion in 1990. Bush took his eye off managing a formerly robust domestic economy while he played military hero, and the resultant economic recession primarily resulted in his defeat by Bill Clinton in 1992.
Jimmy Carter won the 1976 election, defeating Gerald Ford, but inherited systemic inflation and subsumed, seeming helpless to change the outcome, to the Iran Hostage Crisis. Ronald Reagan routed Carter in the 1980 election by aligning Evangelical Christians and the traditional Republican base.
Vice President Gerald Ford became President after Richard Nixon's resignation in 1974. However, Ford's controversial pardon of Nixon, systemic inflation, the Arab oil embargo, a tepid economy, and the fall of South Vietnam cost him reelection.
Donald J. Trump formed a massive television following through his successful television franchise The Apprentice, which ran from 2004 to 2017 on NBC. The show portrayed competitors with various professional experiences in an elimination-style rivalry to become an apprentice to a capitalist titan. During this engagement, Trump developed unique styles pandering to audiences and ingrained an identity as an authoritative and successful businessperson.
Trump papered over his sketchy record of bankruptcies, litigation, tax avoidance, and otherwise failed business ventures with the imaginary realism of The Apprentice. Trump parlayed his television gameshow host presence with social media outreach via the Twitter and Facebook platforms, solidifying a political reality and outlook with almost immediate feedback, allowing him to tune his message and find his populist base.
Trump's unique public persona was arguably sadistic, narcissistic, malignantly aggressive, and vengeful. Trump was not the first President diagnosable with personality disorders. Perhaps the leader of an Empire must have some degree of megalomania.
Dismissing Trump as a nouveau-riche party boy turned President is an over-simplification. Perhaps a mad genius would be a more appropriate analogy with the emphasis on mad. Trump test drove his conspiracy theory tactics with his support of the birther movement, casting doubt on Barrack Obama's birth in Hawaii, and found it resonated and was difficult to dispute. Many historians have found through similar battles with Holocaust deniers that fighting conspiracy theorists is frustrating and requires constant attention.
There is a strong argument that Trump would have garnered another term if he had managed the coronavirus in a reasonably responsible manner. Even a tepid personality such as George W. Bush was able to rally the United States in almost universal acclamation in response to the 9/11 attacks, invade Afghanistan, and even initiate the most implausible invasion of Iraq based on manufactured evidence' of 'weapons of mass destruction.'
All mad geniuses have their Achilles Heel, and in Trump's case, it was strategy on managing coronavirus. He could have borrowed from his predecessors' successful management of crises and made fighting the pandemic a patriotic, even nationalistic, cause. Instead, he chose to use it as a divisive issue, making hygiene and mask use a political issue and doubling down on his 'base' to deliver. Despite his base turning out in record numbers, Joe Biden routed him in the general election tabulation, primarily due to the electorate's revulsion to his personality and political strategies.
Political pundits make money from division and conflict, and the current punching bags are numerous for both sides. The Republican party has some fundamental concerns about future viability, mainly because of the lack of bench strength in senior leadership roles. The party now is a minority party clinging to life by attempting to stitch together fundamentally different groups of people.
The old-school Republicans are typically white, educated, suburban and rural, conservative socially, per-military, and quietly racist. This cohort is shrinking as a percentage of the population for various reasons, but most notably due to mortality due to aging and low birth rates.
The Tea Party wing, inspired by AstroTurf movements sponsored by libertarian business interests, is led by extremist House Representatives elected from highly gerrymandered congressional districts and Senators such as Rand Paul from very conservative states. The Tea Party wing has been powerful enough to grind legislative governance to a halt, in many respects achieving the dreams of its sponsors, and will remain a fundamentally obstructive force.
The disenfranchised poor whites, the core of the group mocked by liberal elites, consists of strongly pro-Trump white people who strongly identify with Donald Trump as a political savior intent on helping them. Left behind by mechanization, deindustrialization, and poor educational attainment, these people had not much left to lose, whether they realized it or not, and went all-in with Trump, adopting branding and talking points fed to them by their leader by social media.
Since Dwight Eisenhower's Presidency, Evangelical Christians, a force in Republican party politics, achieved their goals by packing the Supreme Court with young hyper-conservative justices who will be around for decades. With abortion access now essentially a matter of geography, it is hard to imagine other rallying cries strong enough to mobilize this group, and like the old-school Republicans, they are becoming a smaller demographic cohort due to aging and low birth rates.
Post-election defeats usually prompt a move to the middle in terms of platform, but the Republican party has not shown such endeavor and, while still in the thrall of Donald Trump, likely will not.
Mitch McConnell and his ancient and rather feeble colleagues have no natural choice but to maintain the status quo as a coalition reactionary party with no actual proposals and not much of an agenda. To advocate anything provocative would be to tempt losing one of the cohorts to a third party, rendering the Republican party perhaps even more obsolete and powerless and mortal. While many people doubt that the end of the Republican party could occur, American political parties have dissolved before.
To regain relevancy in the absence of a move to the middle, now occupied by the Democratic party, the Republicans require a firebrand to ignite its disparate groups of followers. It is difficult to imagine an intellectually challenged figure such as Marjorie Taylor Greene finding much of a broad appeal. Ted Cruz, resembling an overfed groundhog with the charisma of a two-by-four, seems equally implausible. A gender-fluid Josh Hawley looks unappealing to the lower-class white Trump followers and certainly not spontaneous enough. Ron DeSantis, governor of Florida, has a tin ear for the winds of a political movement, and is pugnacious enough, and might be able to cobble together the coalition, but absent charisma, seems a doomed possibility. The Trump children, despicable enough, also seem unable and disinterested in creating a family political dynasty.
We are in consequential times, but it is indeed likely the Trump administration was the roar of the last Tyrannosaurus.
Michael Donnelly investigates societal concerns with an untribal approach - to limit the discussion to the facts derived from primary sources so the reader can make more informed decisions.