As his term comes to an end, and we can finally see in totality what “President Donald Trump” has meant, it is pretty clear we cannot afford another President like him. This is true in every possible way–fiscally, psychologically, environmentally–you name it. But President Trump was [ah, that feels great to say in the past tense] a symptom of long term failures in governance the GOP has cynically perpetuated in the name of greed. If it really wants to make amends for how bad things have gotten it is not enough to just condemn or impeach Trump, it must also become a constructive partner in governing for the benefit of the American people.
Ultimately Trumpism can’t come to power in a place like America, which despite it’s problems has a long history of pluralistic democratic governance, unless legitimate grievances go unaddressed. The cavalier lying we saw from Trump is not widely accepted unless its target audience has been desensitized over time by less drastic lies. Americans would not believe an election has been “stolen” unless they have long been led to believe unsubstantiated claims about widespread voter fraud. People who may otherwise just “stick to their own” will fight tooth and nail if they are led to believe illegal immigrants and movements by historically marginalized groups demanding a more just society are the reasons they are falling behind. We saw this in the rise of the Tea Party in the US and the far-right in Europe following The Great Recession.
Economic distress exacerbates tribalism, and long-sewn smaller lies make the ground fertile for bigger ones. The GOP has cyclically governed this way for decades because it is the only way it could convince enough people to support a broken ideology that does little for anyone but the wealthiest.
The GOP have been behaving like addicts, wealth addicts. Like a drug addict, there can never be enough. Like a drug addict, it started with smaller lies that had to get bigger to explain the continued failures; scapegoats were needed (illegal immigrants, “welfare queens”, “socialists”, etc.), and anyone telling you otherwise was lying (“experts“, “liberal media”). Like an addict, the lies led to a deteriorating situation with ever increasing collateral damage. And like an addiction, the situation will not get better until it is met head-on–THIS IS AN INTERVENTION!
It is the height of this cynicism, not to mention sadly ironic, that the “solutions” peddled by the GOP–trickle-down economics, deregulation, and fear-mongering about “socialism”–actually exacerbated the legitimate grievances their supporters have. We should not excuse (but may ultimately need to work with) those who knew better but pushed a regressive ideology for their own benefit. Nor should we excuse those who gleefully followed a political party because it’s divisive message dovetailed nicely with their existing prejudices.
But there are many reasonable people who have been left behind by the global economy, and are simply unable to critically consider macroeconomics and other large-scale social phenomena. Their social circles parrot lies from media outlets and Super PACs financed by the wealthy (who actually do benefit from the status quo), forming an echo chamber. They don’t recognize the straw-man arguments and false equivalencies the GOP has come to rely on.
These people must know they still have a home in the Democratic party, particularly the ones that already support much of it’s policy platform. Being “progressive” isn’t just about the policies you advocate for, it’s also about being understanding, respectful, and able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. History ultimately vindicates and condemns pretty well, but rubbing peoples’ noses in their past mistakes right now jeopardizes a better future. If decent people want off the Trump train, even now, they should be welcomed with open arms.
Part of confronting the truly deplorable elements of the far-right is calling them out—directly, unequivocally, and with a unified voice–whenever necessary. But another part is isolating them from the decent people who understandably feel left behind and believe the GOP, however imperfect, is their only means to a life of dignity. These people need education, not condemnation.
Lets briefly examine how we got here:
- An incomplete globalization strategy that doesn’t affordably provide the tools needed to succeed in the global economy increases inequality and reduces economic opportunity for poorer Americans. This hits historically marginalized groups, which have had less time to build wealth, harder, but also hurts poorer white people.
- The GOP stonewalls efforts to correct for these errors under the guise of fiscal responsibility and warnings about “socialism”. It says trickle-down economics will solve everything, trust the “invisible hand” of the market.
- With legitimate grievances unaddressed, and actual avenues for doing so blocked by the GOP, scapegoats are needed (illegal immigrants, “welfare queens”, changing racial demographics, decline of religion / nuclear family / “traditional values”, you name it).
- The Great Recession hits and people are sick of trickle down economics. Obama becomes a two-term President, beating weak GOP opponents in 2008 and 2012, and the party’s 2016 field looks weak as well. It seems like the GOP will finally have to reinvent itself as an actual working center-right party if it wants to remain politically viable. Moderate conservatism is on the ropes, but the Tea Party gains political influence.
- Enter Donald Trump, who energizes this new base of the GOP. Not enough to win the popular vote but because of voter suppression, gerrymandering, and population distribution, enough to control the levers of power following the 2016 election. The GOP sweeps Congress riding Trump’s coattails.
- President Trump continues the old GOP game-plan, just in cruder terms. He “shows trickle-down economics works” by inheriting a strong economy and supercharging it by slashing taxes to a level where we could never introduce the social programs needed to actually address structural issues in our society, and by cutting regulations that protect the working class. It’s all smoke and mirrors but the average person is not an economist, partially explaining why so many people believed in his “economic miracle” and voted for him in the 2020 election.
- As soon as he is elected, Trump starts using the bully pulpit to normalize the idea of “fake news” (an expansion of earlier GOP-lying about the economy and voter fraud, now including anything that paints him negatively). In the run-up to the 2018 mid-terms he irresponsibly starts calling anyone who disagrees with him a “socialist” and anti-American. The GOP, sensing maybe it doesn’t have to reform after all, has become the party of Trump. And it probably would’ve worked, at least through the 2020 election, except…
- Trump botches COVID-19 preparation, lockdowns, and reopenings, and doesn’t support a second stimulus bill until months after he should have. But there is an election coming up and the GOP is too invested in him, so it continues to embrace his increasingly dangerous rhetoric. Trump calls into question the legitimacy of an election hadn’t even happened yet, and suggests he will not leave office peacefully should he lose.
- Trump loses the election in epic fashion, bringing the GOP down with him. Unsurprisingly he acts like a baby. The GOP continues to let Trump do as he pleases, in part because it is morally and ideologically bankrupt, but also because it sees supporting him as important in winning the Senate runoff in Georgia.
- The GOP loses both seats in the Senate runoff. Trump incites a mob of his supporters, who storm the Capitol building.
Look, maybe initially there were true believers in trickle-down economics’ ability to deliver social progress, but over time that has proven not to be the case. This is when good governance demands you try something different. As FDR famously said during the Great Depression: “The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”
Instead, when their platform didn’t work, the GOP doubled-down. They lied, and scapegoated, and then lied some more, because their platform did work for some people–the wealthy. Until we treat the root causes of Trumpism (1-3 above), it will keep coming back. People have long warned the GOPs cynical game may lead to the beginning of the end of American democracy, but until January 6th it was possible for them to deny this—not anymore.
I understand what I am calling for, the wholesale revamp of the GOPs policy platform and governing philosophy, is no small ask. But as recent history has proven further delaying the inevitable doesn’t really help them in the long run, but can be incredibly costly. The GOP can now redefine itself or solidify itself as the party of Trump. Disgusted Americans should not let it off the hook merely condemning an already-enfeebled Trump, while going back to the “business-as-usual” that paved the way for his rise in the first place.
It will never be easier for the GOP to rebrand itself. No grand admissions of guilty are needed, it can be done in a completely face-saving, politically-friendly way. All that it needs to say is that the current context demands a different approach, not blindly obstruct Biden and the Democratic party, and going forward embrace a platform that isn’t so unpopular it relies on misinformation for support.