The Trump presidency is coming to a predictably violent climax, but I'm not going to spend this column rehashing last week's shocking events in Washington. I'm also not going to speculate on what will happen before Biden is sworn in, beyond the certainty that it will be a raging Trumpster fire of pardons, petty grievances, and impeachment redux, all set against a backdrop of rampant COVID. Instead, I'm going to try and look beyond 20 January to understand how the malevolent tribalism that erupted into insurrection last week could continue to disfigure America for years to come.
Despite his hostage video post-riot admission that Biden will indeed become President, Trump isn't going gently into the humid Florida night. He will rage, rage against the dying of the Presidential limelight and, instead of memoirs and charity work, he'll try to reboot his alternative reality show with Season 2: The President in Exile
. There will be no moving on, no renouncement of his narcissistic claim on America's collective consciousness, and no acknowledgment that he was defeated in a fair election.
He won't voluntarily fade away because his campaign to delegitimise Biden has already paid huge dividends. Despite Trump's legal team losing 62 court cases, Republican voters have been successfully brainwashed and radicalized. Recent polls suggest that between 50% and 75% of them are now convinced that the Presidential election was indeed stolen and a shocking 45% think storming the Capitol was justified.
Facts are irrelevant in the face of what has been called a 'firehose of falsehoods'. Trump's Russia-backed propaganda machine has generated high volume, repetitive, multi-channel misinformation which has then been amplified by both social media and sympathetic broadcasters. These accusations don't need to be tethered to reality. All that matters is that they dominate the conversation to elicit a 'no smoke without fire' response.
Trump's lies are the fuel for conspiracy bootstrapping, where the ubiquity of an allegation is cited as evidence that it might be true. This epistemological closed loop of self-validating fabrication is immune to truth. Conspiracy theories like QAnon – which claims a global network of liberal paedophiles exists – seem ridiculous from outside the Trump bubble, but their pervasiveness within the bubble is exactly what legitimises them among loyalists.
'A lot of people are saying' was how Trump first amplified the birther conspiracy against Obama, but since November we've witnessed a fully weaponised disinformation campaign. As Jonathan Swift observed, 'falsehood flies and the truth comes limping after it', and according to the Washington Post
, Trump has lied an average of 14 times a day since he became President. Just since election day, Trump family members, lawyers, and allies have tweeted more than 200 times about election fraud, attracting 3.5 million retweets and nine million likes; and it's worked.
Trump's ongoing relevance will be completely dependent on continuing to feed this beast. Despite inciting a riot, he's leaving office with an 80% approval rating among Republicans and a national approval rating with a hard floor around 40%. Keeping his supporters engaged and fired up will mean prolonging his claims of election fraud while also diversifying to amplify climate change denial, anti-vaxxer claims, and anything else that can polarise the country. His lack of executive power won't matter, because Trump's core message was never that he would make life better for his supporters, but rather that he would make life miserable for the people they hate. The politics of populism is always about us and them, so the Mar-a-Lago megaphone will continue to spew divisive lies if he's permitted to do so.
The easiest way for Trump to translate continued attention into political power is to announce that he's running for President again in 2024. The polls still show that he'd be the Republican front runner, so the party's Faustian bargain to trade support for conservative judges and tax cuts won't automatically expire on 20 January. Although some senior Republicans have belatedly found their spines, if Trump remains popular, a mix of fear and ambition will once again cause many to try and rationalise the events of last week, ignore pleas for real consequences, and genuflect to the dear leader.
Even in the immediate aftermath of last week's violence, 147 Republican lawmakers objected to the election results to avoid being bracketed with the 'surrender caucus'. Those like Senator Ted Cruz who cling to a belief that their fealty will allow them to inherit the Trump political base look set to saddle up again and ignore JFK's warning that those who ride a tiger sometimes get eaten by it. Any chance that the base of the party might make a clean break with Trump was also undermined last Friday when loyalist Ronna McDaniel was re-elected as Republican National Committee Chair. Seemingly, when Trump dialed into that meeting, the delegates erupted in cheers. So much for being ostracised.
Getting banned from social media will likely only be a short-term inconvenience for Trump. If he renounces violence and the platforms beef up their content moderation the 1st Amendment will ensure that it won't be long before he finds ways to reconnect with his supporters. If he refuses to leave the political stage, it will also present a challenge for the right-wing media that profits from division, especially Fox News. When Fox called the election for Biden many Trumpers smelled betrayal and switched channels to fringe networks like Newsmax and One America with their sealed echo chambers of conspiracy theories. The warning for Fox was that in the weeks following the election Newsmax occasionally beat them in the primetime ratings. So, although Fox has distanced itself from Trump over the last few weeks, some light remorse and 'he's learned his lesson' editorials could see the penitent welcomed back into the fold. The fine line they'll try to walk is to keep their viewers angry enough to watch, but not quite angry enough to riot.
Another reason to announce his 2024 candidacy will be to keep the grift going. Trump's delighted that as a politician he doesn't need bad wine, fake degrees, or overpriced steaks to monetise his brand, he can just fleece his supporters directly. Since the election his campaign has sent over 600 fundraising emails that range in tone from Don Jr's admonishment that 'my father is disappointed in you for not supporting him', to the pleading of 'I've unlocked a 10x funding match, but only if you give today!'. Behind the clownish legal antics of Giuliani and crew, a slick fundraising operation has put over $200m of post-election money into the Trump coffers.
For example, during the recent Georgia Senate races Trump sent hysterical emails to his supporters saying, 'We MUST defend Georgia from the Socialist Dems!', but there's no evidence that any money raised got beyond Trump's new 'Save America' PAC. With his fragile personal finances, banks saying they won't lend to him, and boycotts of his businesses, the chance to continue to hustle the gullible and launder their small-dollar donations through his properties and consultancy fees for his kids may be too seductive to ever consider retiring from politics.
But even Trump knows that four years is a long time in politics, so we could see 'Trump by proxy' in the 2022 midterm elections. There's already speculation that Ivanka will run against either Ron DeSantis for Florida Governor or against Marco Rubio for the Senate, showing that allegiance won't stop you getting shanked when convenient. Even more likely is that Eric's wife Lara will run for a vacant Senate seat in her native North Carolina. If the family is on the ballot, expect plenty of Daddy airtime, and 2022 could potentially be a dry run for anointing Don Junior as the dynastic 2024 Presidential candidate when Don Senior needs to drop out for health reasons.
It's all an unappetising and depressing prospect. To prevent the Trump virus continuing to infect the American body politic, several things need to happen in parallel. First, Biden needs to govern with compassion and competence and use congressional control to put quick legislative points on the board. A return to capable government and a focus on rebuilding trust will certainly benefit the country, particularly if Biden grasps the nettle of social media accountability and regulates the algorithmic stoking of fear and resentment for profit. However, the radicalised Trumpers are so far down the conspiracy rabbit hole that – even if the new administration is a model of probity and moderation – it probably won't do much to reverse the debasement of reality in American politics.
So there also needs to be intense pressure on the leadership of the Republican Party to truly disavow Trump. A principled stand by those genuinely appalled by last week's events could bring us back full circle to 1854. That was when the Whig Party fractured over the Kansas-Nebraska Act that enabled the westward expansion of slavery, giving birth to the Republican Party of Lincoln. Maybe protestors defecating in the halls of congress and the prospect of the party spending another four years supine in the shadow of Trump will be enough ensure the success of an impeachment vote and trigger a much-needed realignment of the American right. Even if banned from holding office Trump could still end up leading a white nationalist fringe like Governor George Wallace of Alabama in the 1960s, but it would struggle to be a national force if he is never on the ballot again.
By far, the most effective way to guard against Trump v2.0 is simply to take him off the board. If he pardons himself at the eleventh hour, then that could trigger the new Attorney General bringing Federal charges to establish once and for all if the President is truly above the law. But even if Biden shies away from Federal prosecution, no self-pardon will protect Trump from New York District Attorney Cyrus Vance. Whether it's porn star pay-offs or inflated real estate valuations, without the protection of the Presidency Trump can be indicted and taken down like any other mob boss.
If Trump ends up behind bars and banned from holding office we'll quickly learn whether the dysfunction of the last four years was driven by a unique cult of personality, or whether he was merely a symptom of a far more troubling and poisonous infection at the heart of American society, the treatment for which will likely be long, difficult, and painful.