Can America recover from Trump? A radicalized right wing suggests dangers ahead

Getting Trump out of office is only the start. America has a lot of work ahead to repair what's really broken

Published March 9, 2019 12:00PM (EST)

Donald Trump hugs the U.S. flag during CPAC 2019 on March 02, 2019 in National Harbor, Maryland. (Getty/Tasos Katopodis)
Donald Trump hugs the U.S. flag during CPAC 2019 on March 02, 2019 in National Harbor, Maryland. (Getty/Tasos Katopodis)

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The religious devotion of the Trump base to their secular god demonstrates that between 30 and 40 percent of Americans are unfit for participation in Democratic society. For the sake of job preservation, the overwhelming majority of Republicans in Congress have become equally as zealous as their voters in their insistence on ignorance, delusion and racism as criteria for political judgment. Given that polite people across the political spectrum can agree that disenfranchisement is not a legal or moral option, the most relevant question of contemporary debate is, “how do we deal with these people?”

The mainstream press and liberal punditry appear devoted to ducking this inquiry, even as the consequences of avoidance invite further decay of democracy, political violence and social catastrophe. Everyone from editorial page writers for the New York Times to Rachel Maddow act as if the moment Donald Trump drops back down the gold-plated manhole out of which he crawled to claim the office of Lincoln all the country’s injuries and infections will magically heal. The ugly reality, and more challenging truth, is that Trump is not the actual threat, but only its most forceful manifestation.

A recent leak of the president’s daily schedule reveals what anyone rational would have assumed — Trump is lazy and egocentric, devoted more to “executive time,” which includes hours angrily tweeting while watching television and shooting the bull on the telephone with his sociopathic chums, than he is to governance. Several reports also demonstrate that Trump has little knowledge of history and no attention span for public policy, and even as the leader of the world’s most powerful nation is obsessed with opportunities for grift. All this is worthy of celebration, and reason to breathe a heavy sigh of relief.

Imagine if Trump was a brilliant, learned leader committed to the enactment of a consistent agenda; a man who could summon considerable skill and savvy, not merely to promote himself but to fundamentally transform American law and reinvent the relationship between the federal government and its citizenry. As candidate and president, Trump has already demolished standards of civility, worsened the racial and ethnic fractures of the American public, and reduced the Republican Party to a slobbering set of sycophants. And he has done all of this by barely lifting a finger. The true danger might emerge when Trump slithers into the sunset, and his enraged and frenzied loyalists, who now control the infrastructure of one of America’s two major political parties, are looking for a replacement and find the real thing.

Over the course of my lifetime, the leadership of the Republican Party has continually declined in intellectual, moral and political quality. Each successive Republican administration has inflicted greater damage on social service networks, the minimal safety net that exists for the poor, and the institutions and culture necessary to preserve civic liberalism. Republicans went from Reagan to George W. Bush, attempted to anoint Sarah Palin, and eventually landed on Trump.

Before you think “How could it possibly get worse?”, try to remember that that same thought existed about Bush and his ghoulish inner circle of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and John Ashcroft. The licensing of Trump to mock disabled journalists, threaten the free press, demonize reporters, sympathize with neo-nazis and Klansmen, degrade women, encourage the hatred of immigrants and lie with nearly every utterance proves that the Republican rank and file of the electorate has no bottom. They are willing to descend to depths that have surprised even their most strident critics and sympathetic associates.

Republican pollster Frank Luntz, for example, thought that Trump’s mockery of John McCain’s war record would endanger his entire campaign. It did not even cause a temporary dip in his poll numbers. The same goes for the "Access Hollywood" tape. The same goes for the New York Times report on a lifetime of lying about his wealth. The same goes for the conviction of his campaign manager. The same goes for his former lawyer testifying under oath that he is a “racist, cheat and con man.”

Trump lapdogs fetched and rolled over on command recently at CPAC — a gathering of the American right under the sponsorship of the American Conservative Union, or in the words of former Trump official, Count Seb Gorka, “The biggest conclave of conservatives in the United States.”

A dedicated masochist, perhaps bored with the kinkier elements of internet pornography, might want to watch some of the speeches and panel discussions from CPAC, all of them now on YouTube. More than depraved thrills, they offer insight into the modern right wing. Charlie Kirk, the leader of Turning Point USA, an organization committed to Trumpian evangelical work on college campuses, told an approving audience that “liberals have always hated America.” Kirk’s consigliere, Candice Owens, a black Republican who recently told an audience that Hitler would have been fine if he “just wanted to make Germany great,” cited as evidence that racism no longer exists in America the fact that she “has never been a slave.” Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the NRA, advocated arming everyone but toddlers as the solution for every social ill. And speaking of guns, Jerry Falwell Jr., a nut that did not fall far from the family tree, implied that his sons would shoot Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez if she tries to take their cows.

The main event, of course, was President Donald Trump. The emperor made his entrance to the blaring mawkishness of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA,” and actually hugged a large American flag, while grinning ear to ear. The audience roared as Trump made it to first base with the Stars and Stripes. It was one of many times they would rise to their feet in ecstatic displays of devotion. Trump’s speech combined megalomania with right-wing observational comedy. It was almost a combination of Fidel Castro and Jerry Seinfeld, if both men were incoherent.

The most alarming aspect of the speech was not that Trump lied about easily verifiable matters. For example, he claimed that when he took office the stock market was “headed down toward disaster.” (In reality, it finished 2016 with a 13.6 percent gain.) It wasn’t even that Trump lied about matters that might result in the eradication of women’s rights and violence toward elected officials. He repeated the slander, now popular in right-wing circles, that Democrats want to rewrite laws so that doctors can execute live babies after birth. The most disturbing part of the horror show was that no matter how absurd, narcissistic or psychotic Trump became — bragging about his inaugural crowd, inventing stories about conversations with a military general named “Raisin Cane,” mocking concerns about climate change — the audience dutifully and enthusiastically stood at attention, cheering, laughing and applauding. CPAC’s own internal survey showed that 91 percent of attendees “strongly approve” of Trump’s performance as president.

The giddiness of the crowd makes other polling numbers seem rather banal when they indicate that 45 percent of Trump supporters believe that white people are the most oppressed group in the United States, and that 45 percent also believe Jefferson Davis would make a better president than Barack Obama. During the 2016 campaign, majorities of Trump voters believed that his run for the presidency represented America’s “last chance for survival,” and that Obama was born outside the United States.

Fox News has become the bastion of far-right conspiracy theory, which amounts to little more than good business, considering that 46 percent of Trump voters believe that Hillary Clinton’s emails include details regarding “Pizzagate” — the theory that the former secretary of state and first lady was running a pedophile sex ring from the back room of a Washington pizza parlor. Sixty-two percent of Trump voters believe that “millions of illegal immigrants” cast votes, presumably for Clinton, in the 2016 race. Brett Kavanaugh, some might recall, during his testimony in front of the Senate asserted that Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations that he had sexually assaulted her was orchestrated as “revenge for the Clintons.”

Trump’s base does not represent a political movement as much as it constitutes a nervous breakdown in motion. Like any psychotic detachment from reality, it will not happen without painful consequences. Two-thirds of terrorist attacks in the United States are now tied to right-wing extremist groups, the ADL reports a staggering increase in right-wing incidents of anti-Semitism, and everything from white supremacist organizations to state militias continue to show an increase in membership as “conservative” Americans are becoming radicalized to believe anything, and adopt hostility toward the very idea of multicultural democracy.

Two Trump supporters, just in the past year, have plotted to assassinate leading figures in the Democratic Party and the most prominent pundits of the “fake news.” Neither story attracted the attention it deserved, perhaps because the would-be terrorists were unsuccessful. Will we be so lucky next time?

America is playing with matches. Eventually, it will get burned.

The radicalism, resistance to objective fact and comfort with violence on the far right undresses a few of the most prevalent bromides in mainstream reportage and commentary. First, “both sides” are not to blame for the dysfunction of American political culture. Anyone who says as much is willfully ignorant, and deserves permanent placement on mute. Democratic socialism, as much of Western Europe can attest, is not “extreme.” Even if it does strike some voters as overreaching, it is not remotely comparable with anything that the contemporary right espouses.

Second, liberals are not “to blame” for the antisocial politics of the far right. Even if some liberal commentators can seem smug, and even if American pop culture often reduces the heartland to flyover status, that would not justify, or logically explain, the right’s celebration of xenophobia, acceptance of paranoid rambling as substitution for historical knowledge, and comfort with the countless character defects and leadership deficiencies of Donald Trump.

Second, it is clear that anyone who still supports Donald Trump is unreachable. No amount of evidence or erudition will convince someone who still believes that Trump is “making America great again” while he battles the deep state, the Zionist cabal, and the liberal elites.

In the short term, Americans of conscience need to organize with maximum efficiency to elect progressive Democrats to local, state and national office. But the long-term solution will require a collective awakening out of suffocating quarterly consciousness. Temporary solutions are no longer tenable. Instead, America needs to revive a culture of civic liberalism. Such a challenging and grand ambition demands the elimination of the Electoral College and the revocation of gerrymandering and voter suppression laws so as to ensure adequate representation of the American people, most of whom are not wild-eyed Trump zealots.

The resurrection of civic liberalism also means that public education, from kindergarten to college, must receive more robust funding, and place more emphasis on courses in government, philosophy, ethics, logic and history.

America must create media institutions that can compete with the deception and temper tantrums of social media, allowing more Americans to access objective reporting. Since the early 2000s, one-fifth of newspapers have shut down, and even if governmental intervention is necessary, we must fill that void.

Finally, and foremost, public policy must begin to correct the extreme income inequality and financial precarity that now defines American life. Economic desperation not only wreaks havoc in the lives of millions of people, but as Nobel winning economist Joseph Stiglitz explains, “Income inequality creates social distance.” Cultural cohesion and faith in political institutions become impossible for people who struggle to take their children to the doctor or pay the bills of a modest lifestyle, while corporations that profit in the billions pay little, if any, taxes.

The resuscitation of participatory democracy, and the culture that serves as its foundation, is the political equivalent of climbing a mountain on a cold day. But there are signs of hope. Every action provokes a reaction. The gift of Trump’s ascendancy is that it has motivated a new class of progressives — both those in the new Congress fighting for edifying legislation, and those on the ground leading movements that can exert pressure on the political system. Simultaneous with the insanity of the past few years, America has seen more progressives, including women and people of color, seek and win office than ever before, and the swelling of enlistees in environmental organizations, Planned Parenthood, civil rights groups and advocacy networks for economic justice.

Arthur Miller, the great playwright, once said that millions of Americans are “aching for an Ayatollah.” The worship of a greedy and hedonistic self-promoter is odd vindication for Miller’s dark observation. Progressives must maintain their concentration on the quality and severity of the current threat to democracy. Many analysts describe Donald Trump as a danger to democratic norms. He is merely the weapon. The real danger comes from the weapons manufacturers – the millions of people aching for satisfaction of their ancient impulses for authority and control.

By David Masciotra

David Masciotra is the author of "I Am Somebody: Why Jesse Jackson Matters," and "Mellencamp: American Troubadour" and the forthcoming, "Exurbia Now: Notes from the Battleground of American Democracy." He lives in Indiana. 

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