COMMENTARY

Trumpism will continue without Trump — but its leader is running on borrowed time

George W. Bush was far more popular than Trump has ever dreamed of becoming — until suddenly it all went away

By Heather Digby Parton
Published December 7, 2020 8:30AM (EST)
Donald Trump and George W. Bush (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump and George W. Bush (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

One version of conventional wisdom holds that if the Republican establishment had tried harder to control Donald Trump, his supporters might have started to question him and he would have lost his stranglehold on the Republican base. We fondly recall those Republican leaders, led by the right-wing senator and former presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, going up to the White House to tell Richard Nixon it was over, or the Senate's vote to censure red-baiting Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy, as events that broke the fever and brought their rabid followers back to reality.

As far as Nixon is concerned, I don't think any of us should be soothed by that example. It was only six years later that the conservative movement that had been turbocharged by Goldwater's 1964 defeat reached the pinnacle of national power with the election of Ronald Reagan. The fever didn't break. It got stronger.

And according to an article in the Washington Post by Yale historian Beverly Gage, we might recall McCarthy as the most hated man in America, but he maintained the support of a third of the country even after he was driven out of politics in disgrace. I wrote last week about the GOP's reluctance to confront McCarthy (and Trump), out of both fear and opportunism. But Gage points out that out of that ignominious defeat, a new generation of right-wing activists was born. And she adds, ominously:

Something similar is likely to happen as Trump departs the Oval Office warning of elite conspiracies and rigged ballots, encouraging his base to see themselves as noble warriors against an illegitimate political order. While the Trump presidency will soon be over, the history of Trumpism is just beginning.

We don't often hear, she observes, about "the counter narrative that began to build among McCarthy's grass-roots supporters during those years, in which the sheer volume of criticism aimed at the senator became proof that he was right all along: that the country was, indeed, run by a menacing but elusive liberal-communist conspiracy aimed at taking down right-thinking, God-fearing Americans."

That certainly sounds familiar. Gage also notes that this began the construction of right-wing institutions that took advantage of the conspiratorial thinking that sprang from that era. Over the years they dropped poor old McCarthy from their list of mentors, replacing him with more respectable names like Goldwater and Reagan. But McCarthyism was the genesis of what came to be defined as the conservative movement.

Gage continues:

Trump's story of what happened in the 2020 election bears all the hallmarks of McCarthyite myth: conspiring elites, hidden corruption, even the threat of an imminent socialist takeover. And though Trump will no doubt leave office on Jan. 20, that story — and the powerful sense of grievance behind it — is sure to thrive in the years ahead ...

Today's Republican establishment may ultimately repudiate the man who has held it in thrall — and in fear — for four-plus years. But it is Trump's base, and their interpretation of his ouster from Washington, that will determine the future of Trumpism.

Trump held a rally in Georgia over the weekend, ostensibly to support the two Republican senators campaigning for the runoff election in January and gave his interpretation:

If you wanted a plain and simple definition of Trumpism, McCarthyism or any other version of the conspiracy-addled conservative mindset, there it is. This sense of grievance has been there for many decades now.

I don't know whether this will have legs, though. Trump's supporters are up in arms about what they've been told is a stolen election. They believe their leader when he tells them that he has proof and that his forces will prevail. It's hard to predict what they will do when confronted with the hard cold fact that Trump is no longer going to be president. This Tuesday marks the "safe harbor" deadline for the resolution of all electoral disputes, and the members of the Electoral College will cast their votes next Monday, Dec. 14. Trump's fans may enjoy playing victims, but when it comes to their leaders, they don't like losers.

As we consider whether Trump will retain his popularity with this base, I would just remind people that we've just recently seen a Republican president topple from dizzying heights of popularity that Trump has never come close to seeing. I'm speaking of George W. Bush, who entered the White House having lost the popular vote and won in the Electoral College, thanks to machinations in a state that was governed by his brother, along with an overtly partisan Supreme Court decision. He nonetheless entered office with a 57% approval rating, which soared to 90% after 9/11. Bush soon fell out of favor with Democrats after he launched the Iraq war, but Republicans adored him as fervently as they love Trump.

Bush flew high for years. The mainstream media extolled him as the second coming of Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln rolled into one. His cocksure declaration that the terrorists would "hear from us real soon" at the World Trade Center site had pundits swooning as if he had delivered FDR's "a day that will live in infamy" speech. He was perceived as a cowboy who liked to clear brush on his faux ranch in Texas, but also a guy but with a great arm who could "throw a strike" over the plate in the first Yankee game after the terrorist attack. A year or so later, he was seen as a fighter-pilot president who landed on the deck of an aircraft carrier, evoking hours of stomach-churning, sycophantic media coverage. Here's one of the most egregious examples from that day, a so-called commentary from Chris Matthews:

We're proud of our president. Americans love having a guy as president, a guy who has a little swagger, who's physical, who's not a complicated guy like Clinton. ... Women like a guy who's president. Check it out. The women like this war. I think we like having a hero as our president.

If you think Trump's rallies are filled with ecstatic followers, you don't remember the Bush events in 2004 in which he would land on the field on Marine One to the thundering strains of "The Natural" theme. By the way, Bush actually won his re-election campaign, unlike Donald Trump. And guess what happened after that? Within three years, his war was a train wreck, the economy was in free fall and he had bungled the horrific disaster of Hurricane Katrina. Then the global economy imploded and Bush became monumentally unpopular, seeing his approval rating sink as low as 25% by October 2008, just before the election of Barack Obama.

Will Trump's followers go the way the Bush-loving base once went? I don't know, but it's certainly possible. As I said, for all their grievances and feelings of victimization, Republicans don't like losers. And Donald Trump is most definitely a colossal, historic failure, whose pathetic attempts to pretend otherwise have sealed his legacy as the sorest loser in recent human history.

Unfortunately, whether they call themselves the conservative movement, the Reagan Revolution, proud patriots, the Tea Party, MAGA, Trumpism or something else, that rabid base will still be with us. They love to worship their leaders, but when they get tired of them they toss them out like yesterday's papers and start looking for the next one. But Wingnut Nation will live on, Trump or no Trump.


Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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