When staunch Trump ally and FOX News host Laura Ingraham admitted to her viewers that Trump had not won the election in late November, she attempted to sweeten the bad news with the assurance that “on January 21st, [Trump] will remain the most important person in American politics, if he wants to be.” Ingraham said Trump still had “the most compelling voice in politics,” and that he was the key to the Republican party “attracting new voters.” “I personally cannot wait to see what President Trump does next,” she declared, and predicted that he’d remain a “GOP kingmaker” for years to come.
This idea of Trump as post-presidential “kingmaker” in Republican politics was farfetched even before his legacy was disgraced by the mob that attacked the Capitol with his name on their lips. Many of Trump’s positions ran directly contrary to longstanding Republican policies. As veteran Republican strategist and media figure Cheri Jacobus recently told Quillette podcast listeners, he ruled his party largely through a cult of fear, keeping heretics in line not with the force of ideas but rather with the threat of a vicious tweet. Numerous historical examples show that power cults rise and fall with their leaders’ ability to win and keep power. As Trump is finding out, a power cult with no actual power isn’t much of a draw.
The GOP now faces the enormous challenge of rebuilding itself—both institutionally and ideologically—essentially from scratch. In their bid to appease Trump, Republican legislators compromised or even jettisoned numerous longstanding party planks, including on free trade, global security, and the limits of executive power. Many of the old war horses who might otherwise be well-placed to lead the party back to its roots have either been humiliated and exiled by Trump, defeated in primary contests, or simply quit in disgust. Meanwhile, an analogous phenomenon has played out in conservative think tanks and journalistic outlets, as knives were drawn between those who fell in with Trump as loyalists and those who remained principled “Never Trumpers.”
In fact, it’s possible that these intra-GOP splits never heal, and that a permanent split emerges between the old patrician Republican establishment and the populist segment that Trump rode to power. The development of a third party would be fought tooth-and-nail by Republicans who’d see it as a gift to Democrats. But a truly populist party that fought for Trumpism (without Trump) might actually draw in many of the anti-“globalist” Bernie Sanders Democrats who picked Joseph Biden as the lesser of two evils. Certainly, it’s telling that the only real political violence that played out in the United States on Wednesday was organized not by right-wing Trump die-hards, but by left-wing antifa extremists who view Biden as just another capitalist stooge.
As their giddy reaction to Trump’s ouster gives way to the problems of actual governance, Democrats, too, will have to deal with the centrist-radical split within their ranks. Just as Republicans once tried to blame every imaginable evil on Barack Obama, the Democrats have been able to deflect many serious policy questions with the vague assurance that everything would be solved once their guy won the White House. Now that this has been accomplished, and the hard work of running a country is at hand, there will be less tolerance for fringe causes that attract positive attention on Twitter but have little real support among voters. Noisy wing nuts are useful when you’re trying to tear down the other side—less so when you’re trying to stop a pandemic or balance a budget.
One way to view progressive politics in the United States during the Trump era is as an immune-system reaction that gradually ran amok and became its own pathology. By invoking the specter of Trump as all-purpose villain figure, ideologues were able to seize the moral high ground by presenting themselves as leaders of an anti-Trump vanguard. There’s no need to recite the long catalog of absurd witch hunts this purity spiral engendered, as many of these controversies already have been documented by Quillette writers. And we can expect more of the same in the next few months, as political sensibilities remain raw in the aftermath of the election. But as time passes, it will become harder and harder to apply these methods, because Trump’s departure will inevitably lessen the hysterical sense of social panic on which such tactics depend.
To repeat a theme that we’ve emphasized here at Quillette, history moves in cycles, and conservatives have gone through their own share of social panics in living memory—from the relatively innocuous campaigns against heavy metal music and violent videogames, to satanic-abuse conspiracy theories, to the Islamophobic overreach of the post-9/11 security state, and the spread of warrantless surveillance that followed in its wake. That is worth remembering at this important moment, as one can already hear many conservative pundits revving up their outrage engines, set to interpret every syllable Biden utters as fresh evidence that America will soon be run by some combination of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, antifa, and Ibram X. Kendi.
Even if you disapprove of Joseph Biden’s policies, including those he’s already signed into law, the least that can be said for him is that he’s a mainstream political figure. During the primaries, in fact, his centrism was repeatedly (and often contemptuously) written off by progressives who insisted that he didn’t talk enough about abolishing the police, erasing America’s southern border, or creating new multi-trillion-dollar entitlement programs. Notwithstanding Biden’s ill-advised concessions to his party’s hard left, it isn’t unreasonable to hope that he will help restore a spirit of civility, bipartisanship, and moderation into American national politics.
The open question is whether a critical mass of Americans actually want civility, bipartisanship, and moderation. Millions of Republicans still claim, falsely, that the 2020 election was “stolen.” Meanwhile, many progressives demand that anyone who supported Trump be treated forevermore as moral lepers. In the most expansive form of this inquisitorial outlook, Trumpism is casually equated with “whiteness,” thereby casting conservatism itself as a mere mask for white supremacism. Trump has not been fully defeated, we are morbidly assured, but rather has become the Republican Voldemort, off nourishing himself on unicorn blood so that he may again summon his army of Death Eaters.
People who are this far gone, on either side, are too radicalized to help rebuild America’s fractured political landscape. But there is likely a solid majority of Americans who know that Biden won the election, that biology is real, that QAnon is a conspiracy theory, that COVID-19 isn’t just a seasonal flu, that skin colour doesn’t indicate your moral worth, and that abolishing the police is a bad idea. If Biden can empower that silent majority without gratuitously denigrating the 74 million Americans who voted against him, perhaps he can get America to start coming together and stop agonizing about Voldemort—who, as of today, is just an embittered old man playing golf in Florida.
Featured image: Joe Biden, photographed in Iowa, August 9th, 2019.