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Donald Trump Was a Warning Shot

In the end, Donald Trump didn't destroy the American political system. He showed the world how corrupt, undemocratic, and reactionary it already was.

Donald Trump speaks at the White House on June 24, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Mark Wilson / Getty Images)

What was the Donald Trump presidency?

For many, Trump was a dangerous, even fascistic, aspiring autocrat whose unprecedented evils brought national shame and nearly ended US democracy. For others, he was a crusader for the “forgotten man” and “America First” who went down fighting a cosmopolitan and corrupt political establishment. To some, he was the guy who presided over what felt like the strongest economy in years, even if they cringed at the things he said out loud. To many others, he was just another shitty president.

Every historical figure is at the mercy of the vagaries of human perception. Opinion on Trump’s own predecessor was split largely between something approaching either Hitler or Jesus.

But Trump and his presidency seem especially destined to be defined by the scattered shards of reality through which we now read the world, in part because it’s still so difficult to decide what to make of the last four years.

The Many-Headed Trump

Was Trump an authoritarian menace? Certainly. His worst, most deranged impulses became alarmingly triggered during the George Floyd protests last year, as he viscerally proved the point of long-suffering civil libertarian Cassandras warning what could happen if America’s vast, powerful security state fell into the wrong hands. He urged his supporters to carry out violence, winked at honest-to-god white supremacists, launched a ceaseless barrage of lies against an election he was sure to lose, and spent his final year purging enemies from the government and trying to install loyalists in key, powerful positions.

Was he also laughably weak and ineffectual? Absolutely. Trump became the first president in at least forty years not to start a new war and guarantee himself the accompanying lockstep, mindless loyalty from the establishment, not because he was a dove, but because he was too inept to do it. He obediently followed the agenda dictated to him by the Republican and business elite he pretended he was fighting, and proved too weak and lazy to defy them even when it served his political interests to do so. With total control of government, he failed to enact almost any of his signature issues and spent his final year whining that the same courts he’d stacked with his own people were very unfair for repeatedly ruling against him.

Was Trump an aberration? It certainly seems like it. From start to finish, Trump was not just an asshole, but a profoundly weird asshole who showed no regard for basic decency, decorum, or simply normal human behavior. He infected discourse with an ugliness and cruelty that filtered down, spiking racist violence and abuse, and lied almost as a hobby. He and everyone around him were staggeringly, unbelievably corrupt and scandal-plagued, from tax evasion and porn-star payoffs to self-dealing and a rolling series of sexual assault accusations. On the policy front, he broke from the political consensus on trade deals, trashed NATO, and, to the horror of the entire Washington political spectrum, tried to withdraw from Afghanistan and negotiate directly with North Korea (until it became too hard and he lost interest).

But then again, was he? Trump is far from the first president to lie, be racist, corrupt, scandal-plagued, or accused of sexual assault, nor to surround himself with people who were — and Joe Biden’s inauguration ensures he won’t be the last. Ronald Reagan may not have talked about “shithole countries” or “bad hombres” from Mexico, but he did flirt with the Klan and use coded racism that anticipated an upsurge in racist violence while he was president. And Trump’s most shocking atrocities, like his butchering of thousands of foreign civilians or his criminal treatment of migrants, only escalated the barbarity his predecessors, both liberal and conservative, had already cheerfully carried out.

This is the paradox of Trump. His use of the presidency’s despotic powers sparked unparalleled fears, largely because he was less politically adept than the men who used them first. His attempts to overturn the election were at once laughable failures and episodes that laid bare how easy it could be done. He was a dangerous extremist and a clownish buffoon; something new and exceptional, something old and ongoing.

Came In Like a Wrecking Ball

What nonetheless sticks out about the last four years is how far Trump fell short of our worst fears, however seemingly justified. Once in office, Trump, like Reagan and George W. Bush, handed the reins of his presidency over to the Heritage Foundation, the Federalist Society, and a grab bag of establishment Republicans and corporate bigwigs.

Aside from the vile Stephen Miller, the initial cohort of Trumpian weirdos didn’t last, including, critically, Steve Bannon, without whose influence Trump pursued a bog-standard plutocratic agenda of deregulation, ecological plunder, court-packing, heartless budget cuts, and, of course, a tax giveaway to the superrich that remained Trump’s only real legislative accomplishment in his first year — all horrifying, but in a more standard Washington way than many initially expected. Trump, it turned out, wasn’t a fascist. He was just a Republican.

And some conservatives hated him for it. For one segment of the “Never Trump” cohort on the Right — the (at first) anonymous “resister” inside the White House, or neocons like Bill Kristol who had switched to what they thought would be the winning team in 2016 — their dislike of Trump, as they made perfectly clear, was focused on foreign policy. What if he followed up on his promises and actually ended US wars and conflicts?

Others had a more direct stake. After the Barry Goldwater debacle in the 1960s, various prominent figures on the Right had spent decades carefully devising language and strategy to sell a fringe, unpopular agenda to affluent, polite society. Trump dispensed with all that, saying everything the Right had painstakingly trained its adherents never to say out loud: yes, of course, women should be punished for getting abortions; of course, poor, nonwhite immigrants would make the country worse; of course, making voting hard was about keeping Republicans in power.

While the shrinking GOP base loved it, the increasingly woke and well-off who tended to listen to what Republicans said and not what they did were, it turned out, horrified. For elected GOP officials, this was a particularly tricky needle to thread.

The result was a parade of “anti-Trump” Republicans who figured out they could get away with voting in line with the president nearly every single time — even get glowing coverage from an ostensibly Trump-hating press — as long as they loudly tut-tutted at or picked performative, headline-grabbing fights with him: Jeff Flake, John McCain, Ben Sasse, to name just a few. It was so easy, they literally didn’t even need to try, as when Jon Kyl was roundly portrayed as a Trump critic for calling the president “boorish,” the reports not always making clear he had actually been griping that Trump “could be much more effective if he were more politique, more diplomatic.” (“I stand by that comment,” Kyl bravely said about his non-criticism).

Indeed, there was nary a terrible thing Trump did as president that hadn’t come from, or gotten sign-off from, “mainstream” conservatives. It was Bill Barr, the consummate establishment Republican, who proved the fountainhead of some of Trump’s most authoritarian moves. His hard-right Supreme Court supermajority was made possible by supposed sensible moderate Anthony Kennedy, who did what his liberal colleague wouldn’t and retired for the sake of a larger cause, even personally lobbying for the horror show who replaced him. The National Review and a collection of “Never Trump” pundits, realizing they could safely drop the act, became supporters. Even the miasma of election-related lies that climaxed in January’s Capitol riot came out of “respectable” right-wing institutions.

Meanwhile, the “adults in the room,” dispatched to supposedly babysit Trump and stop him from getting into trouble, proved to be anything but. James Mattis persuaded Trump to commit a war crime a week into his presidency, before eventually resigning in protest at troop withdrawals. John Bolton won liberal plaudits for a book detailing his efforts to sabotage peace negotiations. And who could forget the viral images of an exasperated John Kelly listening to Trump speak, mere months after he came up with Trump’s migrant family separation policy, and a few years before enriching himself off of it? Almost without exception, being levelheaded and sensible in Trump’s administration meant making sure he was more aggressive on the world stage.

Age of Unreality

This disconnect, a staple throughout the Trump era, points to what may be its most powerful legacy. Trump may have done little to actually break away from Washington business as usual, but for a president most widely hated for cultural reasons, his impact on political and wider culture was strangely immense.

It’s fitting that a lifelong conman and media darling in the White House would usher in a boom period for both sectors, as the grift trickled down. On social media, a host of frauds and fantasists rode the wave of Trump-minded outrage to sizable public followings, even mainstream attention. In a world where you could get sudden, dizzying quasi-fame and money by pretending you, too, were meaningfully “resisting” Trump, seemingly everyone got in on the act, from former acting FBI director Andrew McCabe to Democratic consultants to the Lincoln Project. For others, the reward was nonpecuniary, with Bush and a squadron of other formerly disgraced political figures realizing, like so many Republicans, that the barest hint of anti-Trump sentiment could be used to rehabilitate their toxic reputations.

For the media, Trump was a godsend. Clicks, subscriptions, book sales, and TV ratings went through the roof as Trump, his latest scandals and intrigues, and his outrageous behavior monopolized news coverage, often at the cost of the mental health of news consumers, who reported increased anxiety and mental exhaustion from the constant bombardment. This was true for none more than MSNBC, whose ratings had hit an all-time low by the start of 2015, the tail end of several reinventions, only to bounce back and grow into a ratings juggernaut under Trump. Same with CNN: both networks quickly reorganized their programming around wall-to-wall coverage of and editorial outrage at the president’s latest antics. Trump had always been good copy and TV, and it was no less true now he was president.

What some hoped would be a second golden age of journalism quickly gave way to an era of strange unreality: four years of cognitive dissonance as legacy political reporting — obsessed with spectacle, mining audience fear and anger, and relaxing traditional standards of objectivity toward Trump while fastidiously maintaining them for the GOP and the wider right-wing movement that created him — stood increasingly at odds with the world it was a part of.

Tear yourself from the exhaust fumes of round-the-clock anti-Trumpism, and little made sense. Trump was supposedly at war with the CIA, yet was giving them more powers. Republicans who voted almost lockstep with Trump were his mortal enemies. Staying the course in an illegal, opaque war used to be a bad thing, but now it was ending such wars that was bad. George H. W. Bush had been a paragon of Republican moderation, but Trump’s hiring of his attorney general was a dangerous move. Reporters who turned confrontations with Trump into best-selling books warned of a war on the press, but were at best uninterested in Trump’s most extreme attack on press freedom. The president supposed to be blackmailed by Vladimir Putin was consistently aggressive toward Russia. And so on.

The need to appear to oppose anything Trump did led to a startling rightward lurch in American liberalism. Where opposition to foreign intervention and the bloated national security state had been cornerstones of liberal opinion under Bush, Trump’s vaguely anti-interventionist gestures and performative hostility to intelligence agencies almost single-handedly produced a 180-degree turnaround, on both counts, among left-leaning Americans.

We’re still stuck in this intellectual whiplash, careening from one stance to its polar opposite based on wherever it happens to stand in relation to Trump at any given moment. Are Republicans fascist enablers for backing Trump for four years, or part of a new, responsible governing coalition after repudiating him at the last possible moment? Is a new domestic terror law still bad and authoritarian like it was when Trump wanted to go after Antifa, or is it now the only bulwark against resurgent Trumpism, following the Capitol riot?

Meanwhile, fear of a second Trump term pushed a large segment of liberals to subordinate any ambitions of a better world to the overriding priority of removing and keeping Trump from power, whatever the cost. That fear was already successfully channeled once by the corporate Democratic establishment to beat back a working-class movement that aimed to challenge the prevailing status quo, and that might not be the last time. Trump may have left the White House today, but he’ll loom on in the liberal mind. How long and how large could determine a lot of things to come.

What Never Was, But Still Could Be

Though Trump showed flashes of serious authoritarianism in his final year, in the end, the four years of his presidency were horrifying for reasons very different, and more banal, than many expected. Whether fascist or not, Trump is, if nothing else, an authentic embodiment of the modern Republican Party, still perhaps the most extreme and powerful right-wing organization on Earth, and one that, to paraphrase Noam Chomsky, is committed through its political program to the destruction of organized life on this planet.

Over four years, the fear of Trump often clouded our judgment and narrowed our political imaginations, not necessarily because of what he was, but what he could’ve been. Whether consciously or not, Trump showed a charismatic, cunning far-right figure could take power in the world’s last remaining superpower, consolidate popular support, wield the vast powers of the federal government for malevolent ends, and even potentially overturn an election under the right circumstances. Trump tripped and stumbled onto the road map for something approaching American fascism; we just lucked out he was too lazy and incompetent to follow it.

Trump was the logical, some would say predictable, product of the failures of not just Barack Obama, but decades of neoliberal politics, and preventing his return or the rise of something even worse requires dismantling the rotting order that gave birth to him and putting something better, fairer, and more just in its place. Not every nation gets as visceral a warning that it’s time to radically change course as the United States just got. It would be a tragedy if it were squandered.