Columnist Forecasts One, Two, Many Mongos; Heroin Futures Soar

For many, if not most, Americans, the only pleasure to be had from Donald Trump’s presidency is to imagine his premature eviction from the White House. Impeachment, the 25th Amendment, pick your poison. My own scenario places Trump on Richard Nixon’s Watergate resignation timetable, fleeing next August to Mar-a-Lago as federal bloodhounds close in on him, his son, or his son-in-law (or all three) and his party’s Vichy regime on the Hill at last mutinies in the face of what could well be an apocalyptic Election Day in 2018.

But don’t celebrate just yet. Once Trump exits—whenever and however he goes—then what? It’s a continuing liberal blind spot to underestimate the resilience of Trumpism, which, if history is any guide, will easily survive both the crack-up of the GOP and the implosion of the Trump presidency. Whether Trump lasts another three weeks, another three years, or another seven years, our troubles won’t be over when he’s gone. They may well get worse.

What we should be worrying about instead is the remarkable staying power of the American voters who put these guys in office. They’re in for the long game no matter the fate of the current administration. Trumpism predates Trump and Pence by decades and is a more powerful, enduring, and scary force than either of them. The toxic anger that defines Trumpism—a rage at America’s cultural and economic elites in both political parties as well as at minorities and immigrants—will only grow darker and fiercer once its namesake leaves office, no matter how he does so. If Trump departs involuntarily, his followers will elevate him to martyrdom as the victim of a coup perpetrated by the scoundrels of “fake news” and “the swamp.” If Trump serves one or two full terms, his base will still be livid because he will not have bestowed the lavish gifts he promised, from a Rust Belt manufacturing comeback to a border wall. His voters won’t pin these failures on Trump but on the same swamp creatures they’ll hold responsible if he’s run out of office. They’re already blaming the cratering of “repeal and replace” and other broken Trump promises on what Bannon and his allies call “the McConnell-industrial complex.”

Right-wing nationalist populism is nothing new in America; the genealogical lines of Trump and his immediate antecedents, Sarah Palin and the tea party, trace back at least to the later years of the Great Depression, when the demagogic and anti-Semitic radio priest Father Charles Coughlin turned against the New Deal and vilified Jewish “money changers” masterminding an international conspiracy to plunder his working-class flock. The movement was rebooted with a vengeance once the civil-rights revolution took hold in the 1960s: The term “backlash” grew out of the economic columnist Eliot Janeway’s 1963 observation that white blue-collar workers might “lash back” at new black competitors entering a contracting job market. That anger coursed through the quixotic presidential campaigns of the onetime Nixon aide Pat Buchanan from 1992 to 2000, through Ross Perot’s in 1992, and, most especially, through the four presidential runs of the segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace between 1964 and 1976.

What these campaigns had in common besides a similar core of grievances is that the candidates failed to win national elections. And they lost no matter what banner they ran under; like Trump, they and their voters variously identified as Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. But Trump’s unexpected triumph in 2016, claiming the Oval Office for unabashedly nationalist right-wing populism, changed history’s trajectory. His capture of the presidency and a major political party makes it highly unlikely that his adherents will now follow the pattern of their dejected forebears, who retreated to lick their wounds and regroup in the shadows after their electoral defeats.

At each defeat in the pre-Trump history of Trumpism, the rest of the country comforted itself by concluding that this troublesome minority had been vanquished. But these radicals are not some aberrational fringe. The swath of America that has now been reinvigorated and empowered by landing a tribune in the White House for the first time is a permanent mass movement that has remained stable in size and fixed in its beliefs for more than half a century. How large a mass? At the high end, Trumpists amount to the third or so of the country that has never wavered in support of the Trump presidency. A low-end estimate might bottom out at the quarter of the nation that still approved of Trump’s hero Nixon even when he surrendered the presidency rather than face near-certain conviction in an impeachment trial.

To appreciate the tenacity and enduring political constancy of Trumpism, George Wallace’s story is the essential text. Soon after Trump started running in 2015, commentators started to clock the uncanny parallels with his southern predecessor. As Trump’s path into presidential politics was greased by birtherism, so Wallace commandeered the national spotlight by playing the race card, showboating before television cameras to try to block black students from attending class at the University of Alabama in 1963. As Trump’s followers came for the racism but stayed for the nationalism and populism, so had Wallace’s. His presidential campaign slogan was “Stand Up for America.” He inveighed against “pointy-headed professors,” the “filthy rich in Wall Street,” and Washington’s “briefcase-totin’ bureaucrats” while supporting big-government programs like Social Security and Medicare that benefited his base. Wallace, again anticipating Trump, decried the two parties as interchangeable while refusing to offer anything beyond anger and complaints as an alternative.

He loved baiting protesters and courting violence against them at raucous gatherings like his 1968 rally at Madison Square Garden, where visiting members of alt-right precursors like the Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi Party turned up to cheer him on. In his canonical Wallace study, 1995’s The Politics of Rage, the historian Dan T. Carter describes his speeches as “stunningly disconnected, at times incoherent, and always repetitious,” but adds that “his followers reveled in the performance” and “never tired of hearing the same lines again and again.” Like Trump, Wallace knew his audience. His “genius” was “in his ability to link traditional conservatism to an earthy language” rather than the lingo of Republicans like Goldwater who “parroted the comfortable platitudes of the country club locker room.” Wallace was also brilliant at “constantly manipulating television’s infatuation with visual action, dramatic confrontation, and punchy sound bites.” The editor of The Nation groused that “without any conscious bias, the television cameras automatically focus on him.”

Wallace “was the most influential loser in twentieth-century politics,” writes Carter. That was true when he was writing, three years before Wallace’s death in 1998, and it is even truer now. Up until the would-be assassin, Arthur Bremer, riddled Wallace with bullets at a Maryland campaign stop, Nixon had so feared Wallace’s looming threat to his reelection that he tried to derail him preemptively by secretly contributing $400,000 to Wallace’s opponent in Alabama’s 1970 Democratic gubernatorial primary. (The dirty trick failed.) Both in 1968 and 1972, with the race-baiting Spiro Agnew on the ticket, Nixon worked hard to usher Wallace’s disaffected white Democrats into the GOP en masse by pandering to their racial and cultural resentments with respectable code words (“silent majority,” “law and order”) rather than rants like Wallace’s clarion call for “segregation forever.”

When Wallace was taken out of contention, many who feared his movement assumed the threat had passed. Instead, Trumpism has been metastasizing in plain sight ever since—gravitating from the Democrats to the Republicans but in truth a remarkably consistent force no matter what its followers’ party affiliation (if any). When Wallace’s national political trajectory was accelerating in 1971, Donald Warren, a sociologist at Oakland University, began interviewing midwestern voters in depth to come to grips with the phenomenon. He coined the term “Middle American Radicals” to capture their paradoxical politics: They sided “with the traditional left in opposition to the privileges and power of the rich corporations,” but with the right in their fear “of the growing power of the poor and minority groups in our society.” In his 1976 book The Radical Center, Warren correctly surmised that Middle American Radicals “will be a significant force irrespective of their inclusion as part of the established parties,” and cautioned that their dissatisfaction, if left unaddressed, could pose a “great danger” and “affect the political and social fabric with possibly drastic consequences.” His research would be eerily echoed in 2016 when Amanda Taub reported in Vox on recent academic studies finding that Americans with authoritarian traits (a need for order, fear of outsiders, the desire for a strong man to preserve the status quo) are “a surprisingly large electoral group” that aligns with “right-wing populism.” Indeed, an authoritarian mind-set was the “single best predictor” of who would vote for Trump, just ahead of having only a high-school education. Taub sounded a warning that picked up where Warren had left off with his Radical Middle Americans of four-plus decades earlier: This “exists independently of Trump and will persist as a force in American politics.”

One might think that the constituency will finally stop persisting after the failure of an authoritarian and kleptocratic president as grotesque as Trump. Having delivered little but chaos and rhetorical red meat, he will be exposed as a con. His adherents will be disillusioned, and his destructive nationalist and nativist agenda, fully revealed by the unforgiving spotlight of the Oval Office, would be seen as a cancer to be expunged. That logic not only recalls the constant predictions of Trump’s imminent demise during his presidential campaign but flies in the face of Trumpism’s proven longevity. It also underestimates the legacy of those Trump achievements that would endure even if he were to be ejected from Washington tomorrow. Not policy achievements, of course, but the systemic erosion of political, ethical, and social norms that will leave his rabid followers with more wherewithal than ever to keep battling the enemies they will hold responsible for destroying their president.

The magnitude of cultural vandalism Trump has perpetrated in so short a time is impressive. Even without carrying out (so far) such draconian threats as revoking network-television licenses, he has fully discredited the legitimate news media in the eyes of his base and no doubt other credulous Americans as well. The earnest liberal conviction that Trump voters would see the light if only they were exposed to a relentless stream of fearless journalistic investigations accompanied by fiery op-eds and MSNBC sermons was a pipe dream. The press’s herculean efforts both to expose and to denounce Trump-administration corruption are uniformly dismissed by his followers as “fake news” (assuming such efforts penetrate their bubble in the first place).

The actual fake news that provides Trumpists their alternative reality, meanwhile, is more insular than ever. Murdoch has stamped out most remnants of non-Trump conservatism at the post–Roger Ailes Fox News and the Wall Street Journal editorial page. Breitbart, flush with cash from the Mercer family, is liberated from pulling any punches now that Bannon is out of the White House. (A Breitbart headline about the Virginia results read “Republican Swamp Thing Gillespie Rejected.”) The message pushed by such alternative media now goes well beyond the expected diet of racial and nativist outrage and Clinton-Obama conspiracy theories; these outlets are equally determined to undermine the rule of law, as Trump has, with their relentless characterization of the FBI, the Justice Department, and the judicial system as captives of subversive elites out to undermine America. 

The idea that the pre-Trump GOP will make a post-Trump comeback to vanquish these forces is laughable. Old-line Establishment Republicans in the Senate and the House, even very conservative ones like Flake, are engaging in self-deportation, as Mitt Romney might say, rather than face a firing squad in the primaries. The Trumpists will with time expunge the rest, including Paul Ryan (whom Bannon has dismissed as “a limp-dick motherfucker who was born in a petri dish at the Heritage Foundation,” according to Joshua Green in The Devil’s Bargain). It’s a replay of the purge of the 1960s, when the reinvented GOP shaped by Goldwater, Nixon, and the “southern strategy” shoved aside the likes of Nelson Rockefeller and George Romney. Given that 89 percent of Republicans voted for Trump in November and that 80 percent of today’s GOP voters reliably give Trump favorable approval ratings no matter what he has said or done since, that means only a fifth of those Americans identifying as Republicans are (possibly) “Never Trumpers.” Ta-Nehisi Coates had it exactly right when he observed that while “not every Trump voter is a white supremacist”—“white supremacist” being today’s term of art for Wallace’s segregationists—“every Trump voter felt it acceptable to hand the fate of the country over to one.” That’s the GOP brand.

History will show that feckless Establishment Republicans repeatedly missed their chance to take back or renovate their party by being too cowardly, too cynical, or too inept to confront Trumpism as it fanned the flames of racial backlash under Palin, the tea party, and finally Trump during the Obama years.

By illuminating a pathway to power that no one had thought possible, and demolishing the civic guardrails that we assumed protected us from autocrats, Trump has paved the way for far slicker opportunists to gain access to the national stage. Imagine a presidential candidate with Trump’s views and ambitions who does not arrive with Trump’s personal baggage, his undisciplined penchant for self-incrimination, and his unsurpassed vulgarity. The broad lesson imparted at the dawn of the Wallace movement in the 1962 Cold War thriller The Manchurian Candidate still holds: The fascist presidential candidate to be truly frightened of is the pious paragon of rectitude who presents himself (or herself) as a selfless patriot and who purports to protect and defend American democracy even while plotting (with a possible assist from the Russians or Chinese) to destroy it.

Frank Rich

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