On the de-Trumpification of America: It definitely won't be easy, but it must be done

Defeating Donald Trump might be the easy part. Uprooting the toxic movement he represents could take decades

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published August 1, 2020 12:00PM (EDT)

Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Despite the deep hole he's in, Donald Trump could still win re-election, as we are constantly reminded. If he loses, some observers warn, there could be considerable trouble, even violent resistance. But perhaps the biggest problem facing us in the medium-to-long term is what happens if Trump loses. In particular, what do we do to undo Trumpism? Not just to counter the destruction Trump has wrought, but the decades-long preconditions that made his election possible, if not almost inevitable.

This question was raised recently by Foreign Policy in Focus editor John Feffer, whose 2017 book, "Aftershock: A Journey Into Eastern Europe's Broken Dreams" I reviewed here.  That book was deeply steeped in the difficult challenges of rebuilding democratic culture and, unsurprisingly, Feffer's recent column cited several historical signposts to illuminate the challenge we face — the end of the Confederacy, Nazi Germany and Saddam Hussein's Iraq. All those efforts to rebuild were "flawed in various ways" he wrote — the first and last most dramatically. But learning from them "might help us avoid repeating the mistakes of history." 

The thrust of Feffer's argument is twofold: First, that Trump is backed by an amalgam of forces, including "the bulk of conservative civil society," and even if he's defeated, Trumpism — the particular articulation he's given to those forces — will survive the election and continue to be an existential threat. It "could succeed in finishing what Trump started — disuniting the country and destroying the democratic experiment — unless, that is, the United States were to undergo a thorough de-Trumpification." In fact, he notes that "a post-election insurrection is not out of the question."

Trump himself may be expendable, from the far right's point of view, but Feffer writes that "Trumpism — which lies at the intersections of racial and sexual anxiety, hatred of government and the expert class, and opposition to cosmopolitan internationalism — is not so easily rooted out." In part, that's because it's "a political chimera with the head of an establishment machine and the body of a radical social movement."

Second, Feffer argues that we must learn from the examples of the past, flawed though they might be in many ways, in order to do better. While I agree with Feffer's core argument, both his choice of past examples and the lessons drawn from them are less satisfying. That's not a reason to abandon his approach, but to pursue it more robustly. 

Two of the examples — Nazi Germany and Saddam's Iraq — are classic examples of "pathocracies," which I've written about before, and thus led me to reach out to two experts I've consulted in the past: Ian Hughes, the author of "Disordered Minds: How Dangerous Personalities Are Destroying Democracy," and therapist Elizabeth Mika, who wrote perhaps the most politically crucial chapter of "The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump" (Salon review here). 

"Pathocracy is the situation where dangerously disordered personalities predominate in positions of power." Hughes said. "Such individuals' propensity for violence and greed, their incapacity for basic human empathy and their disordered perception and cognition, which renders them unable to ameliorate their distorted worldviews with reality and reason, mark them out as a danger to others." 

We may not be a full-blown pathocracy yet, Hughes and Mika agree, but we're headed in that direction. 

"We are at the beginning of this process," Mika said. "Like the virus-induced disease, it may need to take its course before it weakens and we can start to rebuild from the devastation it will cause. It's hard to say what shape this devastation may ultimately take."

Hughes referred to "The Dictatorship Syndrome," by Alaa Al Aswany, which describes how a fully entrenched pathocracy operates like a machine, without any need for the dictator's instructions. 

"The U.S. is clearly not in that situation. It does however have many features of a society on its way towards pathocracy," Hughes said, from the "clearly disordered president who enjoys widespread popular support" to the legion of lackeys eager for power and the erosion of democratic institutions they carry out for him, to the state-sponsored spread of "misinformation, hate mongering, and attacks on democratic opponents" and the resulting chaos of antisocial behavior. 

The "partial collapse of democracy" in the United States, Hughes said, "can be used as one guide to the necessary response to Trumpism once Trump has been defeated," Hughes said. "So too can comparisons with previous undemocratic regimes, such as those used by Feffer."

But democratic recovery is extremely difficult, Hughes warns. He mentioned the example of Jared Diamond's book "Upheaval: How Nations Cope with Crisis and Change," which explores how countries have successfully navigated similar major upheavals in the past. "The lesson I drew from his book, however, and from history more broadly, is that nations seldom learn from their descent into pathocracy," Hughes said  So he argued that a more limited, targeted approach is better than one that tries to change everything at once.

Mika is skeptical as well, but from a different direction. "The way I see it, de-Trumpification as such is not possible yet, as we have not fully Trumpified yet," she said. 

What I mean by that is not only that Trumpian fascism has not fully taken over our society — which I hope against hope does not happen — but that we don't fully understand what is happening and why. And understanding is key. Its lack has brought us Trumpism in the first place.

I see Trumpism as an inevitable and necessary confrontation with our shadow. This confrontation is meant to break apart our (deadly) illusions, most of all that about our non-ending progress, exceptional greatness, and immunity to pain and suffering that envelop such large swaths of the world.

We have cultivated these illusions at the expense of our growth and health, as our shadow side remained repressed and invisible, especially to those in power who have been most involved in the production of our toxic myths. Of course working Americans and minorities know the shadow all too well, as it is their daily bread.

This parallels an argument Hughes made in May, describing America as "a place where bad ideas never die." As the depths of America's failure to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic became clear, he contrasted the fate of the two Cold War superpowers:

The fall of the Soviet Union is remembered by many as the end of a bad idea — the idea that a one-party state can violently suppress its citizens in the name of the collective good. The "Fall of America" moment [caused by the pandemic] is of a different nature. It can be understood, not as the end of a bad idea, but rather as the pyrrhic victory of a whole set of bad ideas long present in U.S. culture which have grown to define the country in the last few decades.

The ideas Hughes cited were that "inequality is good," that "religious freedom [so-called] trumps public good," that "in the Civil War, the wrong side won," the myth of "American exceptionalism," i.e., "the idea that the U.S. is a unique, morally-superior civilization destined to guide the world" and "the myth of redemptive violence," meaning "the belief that good can triumph over evil only by means of conflict." These can all be seen as different forms of narcissistic fantasy and, more specifically, collective narcissistic fantasy. The more we cling to such fantasies, the more our shadow grows.

One of those bad ideas ties directly to one of Feffer's three examples, that of "Reconstruction after the American Civil War," and the failure of that process created the historical foundation on which Trumpism is built.  

The lesson Feffer draws is a tough one: "Today's Republicans, the equivalent of the northern Democrats of the post-Civil War era and a true confederacy of dunces, cannot be allowed to persist in their current incarnation as a vehicle for Trumpism." To avoid that, "the next administration would have to drain the swamp Trump created, bring criminal charges against the former president and his key followers, and launch a serious campaign to change the hearts and minds of Americans who have been drawn to this president's agenda." 

To accomplish that, he concludes, "it's imperative to separate the legitimate grievances of Trump supporters from the illegitimate ones," and both must be addressed in different ways. 

This is the strongest aspect of Feffer's argument — which is not to say it will be easy to pull off. Bringing charges against Trump may well be justified on multiple grounds, but doing so itself threatens democratic norms: The winners don't throw the losers in jail, not in fully-functioning healthy democracies. But "no one is above the law" is also a central norm — a norm previously violated when Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon, and that came back to bite us in a big way with the rise of Trump. Clearly, this needs to be carefully thought through, and a professional, non-political investigation into Trump's actual or potential crimes will be required. 

Feffer also ties this point to the example of Nazi Germany and the Nuremberg trials, where "the Allied victors put nearly 200 Nazis on trial for various crimes: 161 were convicted and 37 sentenced to death." To follow this example, Feffer suggests that federal prosecutors should prosecute Trump and his top associates as a criminal enterprise under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. Doing so could "not only remove him from the political equation but could effectively delegitimize Trumpism and prevent a second round of it from occurring."

Yet Feffer also notes that the Nuremberg Trials did not actually delegitimize Nazism. A 1947 survey in the U.S.-occupied sector of Germany found that 55% believed that "National Socialism was a good idea badly carried out," which included Germans under 30 as well.

But there's more to that story, Hughes argued. In contrast to the lesson from Diamond's book that nations seldom learn, "Germany stands out as the truly remarkable exception to this rule," even though "Nazi officials remained in positions of authority for decades after the war."

The idea that Nazi crimes were the work of a handful of evil leaders was widespread for decades, Hughes wrote in his review, and only ended "thanks largely to one man, the German Jewish lawyer and Social Democrat Fritz Bauer," who prosecuted low-level participants in Nazi atrocities, "low-level Germans who had been active at Auschwitz, low-level Nazi police, low-level German judges who had sentenced German resistance leaders and Jews, doctors who had participated in Nazi euthanasia, and rank-and-file German soldiers who had participated in atrocities." 

Without Bauer's tireless efforts, Germany would probably never have faced up its past. As it was, that took decades to accomplish. 

"The lesson for the U.S., therefore, is that few countries have attempted to, and none have succeeded in, the immediate de-pathologizing of society following a period of tyranny," Hughes told me. "Misguided attempts to do so, as in the attempted de-Baathification of Iraq, were an unmitigated disaster. An aggressive attempt at de-Trumpification, or trying to 'drive a stake through the heart of Trumpism,' is therefore not a course, in my view, to be pursued in the aftermath of Trump's defeat," no matter how desirable that might seem.

That doesn't mean doing nothing, but rather focusing intensely on more achievable goals. "Vigorous action is required," Hughes told me. "We need to make the distinction between the minority actively driving an authoritarian agenda, and supporters who are drawn to aspects of their agenda but who will not violently resist democratic decisions," Hughes said. "The vast majority of Trump supporters are not violent and will accept Trump's defeat, even as they organize and campaign for the election of someone who will pursue similar policies and similar means in 2024." 

Of course, Trump is visibly trying to change the equation — and if he wins a second term, he might well succeed. But that's not where we are today, fortunately. Like Hughes, Feffer views the de-Baathification of Iraq as a terrible failure, but draws hope from the fact that Baathism had been in place for generations, while Trumpism is just being established. 

This suggests a twofold strategy, Hughes argued:  

The response to Trumpism, and defense against it, should therefore focus on stringent measures to contain the power of the GOP and its ultra-wealthy backers (as the most powerful anti-democratic forces in the U.S.), alongside initiatives to reduce the polarization in U.S. society and reinvigorate all American citizens' beliefs in democracy as the way to organize society.

Democrats already have some idea of how to pursue the first half of this strategy — though their commitment is still quite uneven. HR 1, the top 2019 House legislative priority, includes a suite of measures to reduce the influence of big money on both parties, including creation of a small-donor-focused public financing system for congressional candidates. (Small donations would be matched at a ratio of six to one, a powerful amplification of grassroots support.) A broader array of elite-power-limiting ideas pushed by Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and other 2020 presidential candidates have gained varying degrees of support, but have not gelled into a unified, broadly-supported plan. Hughes' analysis provides one more reason why Democrats ought to give this their highest priority. 

But the second part of his strategy, to reduce polarization and strengthen faith in democracy, needs much more attention than it's gotten so far. It's particularly difficult because elite opinion and accepted definitions of "consensus" positions vs. "polarizing" positions don't necessarily reflect actual public opinion — especially when the public is exposed to new information and freed from the constraints of elite partisan cues, as the recent dramatic swell of support for Black Lives Matter has illustrated. 

A poll recently reported in Vanity Fair found that even substantial numbers of hardcore Trump supporters polled in June felt that protesters were "completely right" or "somewhat right" — rising to a stunning 59% majority among softer "Lean Trump" voters, and 72% of undecided voters with "mixed feelings" about the candidates. Even more stunning, the poll was conducted in two waves, and from June 1 to June 11, support jumped "a head-spinning 25 points among Lean Trump voters."  

This cuts deeply against the core dynamic that brought Trump to power in the first place, and points to a potential historical opening, and perhaps an attitudinal shift that could lead to lasting transformation, along the lines of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In early July, district attorneys in Boston, Philadelphia and San Francisco, in partnership with the Grassroots Law Project, announced plans to create just such a process

"When marginalized people have needed to finally rely on this system for justice, it has routinely failed them in the worst ways imaginable. This isn't a bug in the system, but a feature," the DAs said in a statement, describing what they intended to transform. 

But the "goals of peace and reconciliation efforts are better defined, I think, where the culprit is relatively clear, i.e. 'just' racism," Mika said. And this initiative is even more narrowly focused on the justice system. Whether it can facilitate broader change, even if it's successful, is an open question"

Trumpism is an amalgam of grievances that, although fortified by racism, go far beyond it. It is not as much a problem to solve or a rift to heal as a fundamental clash of values. There is no reconciliation to be had, I am afraid, between the psychopathic lack of conscience and our recognition, respect for, and desire to live according to higher values. Choosing higher values, however, is the right path, as we acknowledge and grapple with our psychopathic shadow.

That's a tall order indeed, but Hughes sees the beginnings of a solution. "Citizens' assemblies, such as have been put in place in countries such as the UK, France and Ireland, are one possible means of re-establishing practices of democracy which can heal divisions and undermine the appeal of dangerous demagogic leaders," he said. In his native Ireland, that process played a crucial role in repealing the constitutional prohibition on abortion, as well as advancing a set of climate-change recommendations, all passed by majorities of at least 80%, which helped inspire a wave of climate-change citizens' assemblies across Europe and elsewhere over the past year. 

"Pathocracies thrive on chaos and division," Hughes explained. "In an environment of violence and hatred, those whose pathological characteristics match that culture will ascend to power. To destroy a pathocracy, tensions must be reduced, hatreds ameliorated, and reason and care must again become the foundations of society." 

In the aftermath of Trumpism, he said, "the focus must be on defending against those who seek to create and profit from such destructive environments and instead to create the institutions and norms that will allow the psychologically healthy majority of the population to create the rules." That's why he argues that "an aggressive campaign of de-Trumpification would be counterproductive. The best response is instead to strengthen the norms and institutions that [Trump] himself despises."

This is only a broad overview of what will be needed.  I haven't even mentioned the courts. Feffer notes that the 200-odd federal judges appointed by Trump "will do their best to block all attempts to deconstruct Trumpism." His suggested solution, "to make it illegal for judges to be members of the Federalist Society," is comically inadequate to the depth of the problem. But what matters now is that we begin thinking in such big-picture terms. 

Toward the end of his column, Feffer issued a warning: 

To avoid a second Civil War, however, a second American Revolution would need to address the root causes of Trumpism, especially political corruption, deep-seated racism, and extreme economic inequality.

Otherwise, even if The Donald loses this election, the political creature he represents will rise from the ashes and eventually return to power.

This is the scale on which we need to be thinking — not exclusively or obsessively, and certainly not enough to distract from the immediate task of defeating Trump in November. But it's necessary to look down the road, because we need to lay the groundwork for the even more difficult struggles ahead.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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