From Peter Radford It’s been a month. It seems a great deal longer. Trump has slunk off the stage and the first signs of what the post-Trump political arena might look like are emerging. It isn’t hopeful. Not if you’re looking for peaceful politics. As we become more able to adjust our focus and ask “what just happened?” with a better degree of clarity, it becomes more obvious, to me at least, that the entire movement that has come to be known as Trumpism was not actually Trump’s at all. It pre-existed him. He simply packaged and branded it as if it were one of those buildings that bears his name but which he does not own. Trump was and remains a veneer. He is always willing to push to the head of a crowd and claim it was his idea to gather. He is always willing to present
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from Peter Radford
It’s been a month. It seems a great deal longer.
Trump has slunk off the stage and the first signs of what the post-Trump political arena might look like are emerging. It isn’t hopeful. Not if you’re looking for peaceful politics.
As we become more able to adjust our focus and ask “what just happened?” with a better degree of clarity, it becomes more obvious, to me at least, that the entire movement that has come to be known as Trumpism was not actually Trump’s at all. It pre-existed him. He simply packaged and branded it as if it were one of those buildings that bears his name but which he does not own. Trump was and remains a veneer. He is always willing to push to the head of a crowd and claim it was his idea to gather. He is always willing to present himself as the prime mover of a movement already well in motion. He is a shallow person incapable of the intricacies of creating something complex, but quite capable enough of providing the gilded gloss once it does exist.
So it is with Trumpism.
It isn’t actually Trumpism. The term is a gloss that satisfies Trump’s insatiable ego. He did not summon the movement into being. It searched for, and found him. He needed the movement more than the movement needed him. It gave him strength where he had none. It gave him purpose where he had none. It gave him courage where he had none. It gave him a path too the presidency where he had none. It gave him substance to hide his triviality. All he had to do was to apply some finishing touches.
What we call Trumpism has roots way back in the darker recesses of American life. Trump himself pre-dates Trumpism in this sense. Those dark spaces are filled with a mixture of fear and hatred of the incessant changes encroaching on the way of life of millions of Americans who see their conception of reality being challenged in ways they dislike intensely. That conception of reality is an odd mix of traditional values, myths, and religious beliefs that allow the believers to feel that they, and they alone, are “real” Americans. Everyone else is somehow an outsider or a usurper attempting to subvert the real America and exploit it for “unpatriotic” reasons or shallow personal gains. Those outsiders are now so numerous that they are swamping the traditional ship. The risk is now so great that the true patriots need to take to the streets, just as their mythical founding fathers did, in order to reclaim what is rightfully theirs.
The unresolved civil war and the failure to follow through with reconstruction sit at the heart of the myth the movement holds dear. The impertinence of minorities to assert that they, too, have an active role in defining the true America, or that they can wield political power, is in defiance of the myth. Traditional Americans are not black, or brown, or Asian, or anything other than vague agglomeration of various Euro-centric ethnicities that comprise the white population that brought civilization to the Americas and filled its vast empty spaces with energetic, enterprising, and God fearing warrior citizens. This mangling of history is the bedrock upon which modern conservatism has been rebuilt. It is the explanation for the total opposition by members of the movement to the recent effort to re-interpret American history through the eyes of its black population, or to extend the origins of America back into its deep pre-conquest era. The shock of a black person rising to the presidency was too much to bear. The entire so-called birther conspiracy theory, which is where Trump first made claim to being a full member of the movement, could not possibly exist were it not for the mythical history that emerged from failure of the late 1800s too close the book on slavery. America has never dealt with its suspect past. It may never be able to.
But the myth is powerful enough that those who believe it can take to the streets and defile their own government in complete confidence that it is their right to do so. Only they are the true America. And only they, in their twisted logic, have the right to defy their own constitution. It belongs to them, not to the others who are encroaching on their space. So it becomes patriotic to commit treason. It is an authentic act of patriotism to install an imposter on the throne because there can be no legitimacy in the claim of anyone who is not part of the movement.
Looked at this way, the attempted coup, call it what you will, was an effort not to overturn an election, but to assert a God given right. Only true patriots can be allowed to determine who sits on the throne. It’s that simple. So the entire circus of January 6th can be seen as the movement assembling in order to do just that: assert that it, and it alone, has the right to determine legitimacy in America. That Trump was its chosen leader, and that he both fed and fed off the spectacle, was a side show. Like many such uprisings throughout history the movement needed a face. Trump was that face. And even after the face has gone the movement lives on.
A second issue to contemplate is the role of conservatism in fostering the rise of the movement in its contemporary form.
The Republican Party owes its current prominence to the shift executed decades ago by its various leaders who calculated that the Democrat’s support of civil rights would create an opening it could exploit. This cynical political maneuver stands as a stark acknowledgment of the existence of the self-described true Americans who became the soldiers for Trump. This so-called southern strategy exploited resentment of the extension of rights to people beyond the boundaries of the true Americans and was the foundation of Trumpism. Reagan followed up with his lies about welfare mothers. The Reagan attacks on the state’s extent and competency were grounded in the belief that the state was a vehicle for coddling the undeserving. And those undeserving were leeches on the real America whose solid mythological self-image was grounded in a false notion of self-reliance and exploitation of whatever opportunity presented itself. Real Americans stood on their own two feet. Outsiders — inevitably portrayed as minorities — leeched on the solid body politic.
This gives rise to a paradox that echoes to this day throughout the Republican conscience: how does a modern conservative square a hatred of government with a desire to govern? The answer is found in the Trumpism movement. Governance is the right to assert power and to determine who is designated as a true American. It is the right to turn the engine of state violence inward in order to establish so-called law and order. This power is essential to the maintenance of the supremacy of true Americans and their protection from interlopers. The problem then becomes sustaining this power in the face of the challenge represented by changing demographics and cultural shifts. The solution is to abandon any pretense to democracy, for democracy is an open door to interlopers, and to emphasize the acquisition of raw power through whatever means necessary. This explains the rise of various efforts by Republicans to undermine elections by suppressing votes, gerrymandering district boundaries, and, eventually, simply ignoring the outcome of an election if it turned up an unacceptable result. It explains why conversations about deeper electoral reforms are always met with hasty and extreme opposition fro conservatives. And it explains the attraction to the movement of packing courts with suitably minded justices — even if in order to do so the Republicans have to all sorts of highly un-conservative things like overturning historic norms and contradicting themselves within a year or so of having made up new rules.
This is not to say, of course, that the left does not want to assert political power. It does. Its historic trajectory has always to been to extend the right to enjoy the full benefits of citizenship to the greatest number. You need power to do that. But the extension of rights beyond current boundaries has a moral core and an ethical purpose. The assertion of raw power for the sake of limiting rights to a shrinking minority does not. Not in a democracy, at least.
Which brings us back to the Trumpist movement and the Republican paradox. The movement’s assertion of power on January 6th was a visceral recognition of the ebbing of that power. It was a representation of the clash between movement’s vision of a true America on the one hand and a rising new, and more diverse America on the other. They are irreconcilable realities at least until the work of re-imagining America’s origins and history have been thoroughly seen through. Which is why appeals to unity will have to fail. There can be no unity whilst two visions of America co-exist and contend for the title of truth. Because of this we live in an era of raw power. Getting, and holding power, whilst always the point of politics, has a singular edge to it. The movement of true Americans, with their Trump paraphernalia already knew this. After January 6th everyone else knows it too. This is a pivotal moment in American history. Let’s hope the errors of the late 1800s are not repeated