The Trump effect is now spreading in all directions

His bottom-feeding is spreading across politics

By Brian Karem


Published May 2, 2024 9:00AM (EDT)

Former president Donald Trump speaks to the media during a break in a pre-trial hearing at Criminal Court on March 25, 2024 in New York City. (Justin Lane-Pool/Getty Images)
Former president Donald Trump speaks to the media during a break in a pre-trial hearing at Criminal Court on March 25, 2024 in New York City. (Justin Lane-Pool/Getty Images)

On the night of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Bobby Kennedy appeared at a public event in Indianapolis and quelled a potential riot. What he said that night still resonates:

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness, but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice towards those who still suffer within our country.

Kennedy was cheered by the mostly Black crowd he spoke to, replacing fear with hope, at least for a moment. Fifty-six years later, there are violent protests on college campuses nationwide, and former President Donald Trump, in comparison, has embraced lawlessness and violence. He was fined $9,000 Tuesday for violating a gag order in Manhattan’s election interference trial. Trump claimed afterward that the judge was “rigging” the 2024 election. He continues to claim that our situation is hopeless and we’re going to hell.

Back in 1968, Kennedy quoted the Greek playwright Aeschylus, saying we should "dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and to make gentle the life of this world."

Now, Trump tells Time Magazine that if he didn’t win the election this year, he wouldn’t rule out violence to get back in office. While we should shudder at the thought, the truth is violence is one thing Americans seem to embrace and enjoy. 

Saturday marks the 54th anniversary of the Kent State massacre when anti-war college protesters became the victims of lethal violence at the hands of the National Guard. Student protesters at UCLA were hit with violence from counter-protesters as local law enforcement looked on late Tuesday night. In 1968 the Beatles sang, “If you want money for people with minds that hate, all I can tell is, brother, you have to wait.” Today Trump promotes violence, and bilks supporters of millions of dollars by selling Bibles, a book he’s never read, and golden sneakers he’d never wear.

Times have changed – well at least good music to accompany our violence has changed - but more to the point, politicians no longer seem to grasp the obvious or care about the outcome of escalating violence and divisiveness if they do. Like Trump, they are more concerned about their personal wealth and power. They treat the constituents they should serve as worshiping fans they can and do grift.  

The lingering Donald Trump Effect on politics is something we’re going to have to deal with long after the Drowsy Don has shuffled off his mortal coil for warmer accommodations that have nothing to do with climate change. While he and old Scratch become cozy, those of us not taking the long dirt nap will have to figure out what went wrong and try to fix it.

My concern is that we no longer know how to do that. The Donald Trump stain is spreading and it threatens to engulf all of politics in both major political parties. That stain is formidable, and increasingly dangerous because Trump still has sway in this country. He leads in most major polls for president though he continues his authoritarian and violent rants and still manages to get endorsements from those who claim they despise him. 

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, one step away from a catatonic state of unregulated drooling, said he’d vote for Trump again — though his loathing of Trump is public and well known. Former attorney general Bill Barr said Trump is unfit for office but believes “progressive politics” and Joe Biden are more dangerous. Barr is voting for Trump because not only is he bereft of soul, sound reasoning and a heart, but he favors stronger executive power than the Constitution allows and reasons that Trump will get it. “You say you’ll change the Constitution, well you know, we’d all love to change your head,” Lennon sang. I told you music was better then.

Other politicians, seeing the Trump Effect, cannot help but emulate him. Some do it on purpose and some do not. But all of them are wolves in sheep’s clothing - or feral dogs wandering the street; slack jaws drooling as they look for prey.

I saw a pack of them when I recently moderated a congressional candidate forum for the Democrats running in Maryland’s Sixth District to replace Rep. David Trone. I also moderated the first forum in which Trone ran for Congress. He was a late entry in the Maryland 8th District race that featured Kathleen Matthews, who was favored to win, and the eventual winner, Jamie Raskin.  Over the years, I’ve moderated dozens of candidate forums and debates. The race with Matthews, Trone and Raskin not only had the distinction of being the most expensive Congressional race in history, but it was filled with a lot of serious-minded people – any of whom could have served with distinction. Trone, however, wasn’t one of them.

At the time he was often referred to as the Democrats’ Donald Trump. (They even share the same initials). Now Trone, a multi-millionaire who offers a Trump-lite version of hucksterism, is trying his hand at running for the U.S. Senate. Good luck with that. Should he secure his party’s nomination, he would likely face off against former Republican governor Larry Hogan, who once said he had no desire to be a senator and didn’t challenge Sen. Chris Van Hollen for re-election. Hogan said he recently had a change of heart and will run to replace Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin, who is retiring after 58 years in public service. Like McConnell and Barr before him, we wait to see if Hogan will also have a change of heart and embrace the Drowsy Don. That’s the Trump Effect.

We need your help to stay independent

That brings us back to the candidate forum I moderated. Ten candidates showed up last weekend at the Seneca Valley High School auditorium in Montgomery County, Maryland in a forum sponsored by the Montgomery County Women’s Democratic Club to vy for the job of replacing Trone in Congress. Two candidates didn’t show up and didn’t say why. I’d say that would automatically disqualify them. If you can’t show up for the interview, you shouldn’t get the job. One didn’t show because she recently gave birth and was at home taking care of her new child. She gets a pass.

The 10 were an eclectic group. Interesting? Yes. Qualified? No. The Democrats are going to be hard-pressed to hold on to this Congressional seat because of the light-weight (with a few exceptions) quality of the candidates and the political makeup of the district in which they are running. I watched as some of the candidates puffed themselves up with pride, padded their resumes, engaged in hyperbole, didn’t understand facts, misstated their opponents’ stances or babbled consistently, and incoherently. Yep. The Trump Effect, right there in the Democratic Party. 

Because of the previous rancor among some of the candidates, I instituted a “No ad hominem attack” rule and limited their amount of time to answer questions to keep it civil. At least most of them could follow those simple instructions. At one point I asked each candidate what separated them from their opponents. One candidate said he was just better than everyone else. Another time a candidate ranted about his yard signs. One continuously mumbled incoherently, another told me Elizabeth Warren was his senator, though he lived in Maryland. Most of them fumbled answers, and when I gave them what should have been an easy layup for a Democrat on the issue of inflation, they all dropped the ball. One of them recommended lowering taxes on the rich while no one discussed record corporate earnings or price gouging as a cause of inflation.

Joe Vogel, considered one of the front runners, was the least impressive. He was so lightweight that a moderate breeze would launch him skyward. His hubris was that of a used car salesman on steroids. In short, he definitely suffered from the Trump Effect. 

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

Of the rest, many didn’t bother to offer a rebuttal. A few answered questions competently. Only Hagerstown Mayor Tekesha Martinez and candidate April McClain-Delaney consistently performed without condescending to the audience or using Trump tropes. Both of them have what it takes.

You’d think the importance of the race would generate a buzz, but only two reporters filed stories on the event – and no one from television news covered it. That too is probably a result of the Trump Effect. Perhaps we in the press were still hungover after celebrating ourselves by schmoozing with celebrities and slurping up to politicians at the White House Correspondents Dinner the night before. The lack of attendees (just shy of 100) is also a byproduct of the Trump Effect. People are worn out. 

Trump counts on that, and we cannot give in to that. The races in Maryland are going to be critical to determine majorities in both the House and the Senate. We should be involved and we need to turn out to vote. The most dangerous Trump Effect is that of political numbness. We cannot afford to be disassociated from the political process this fall.

Look beyond the rancor Trump and other politicians use. It is a ruse to keep you at home while a minority of energized and often radical voters put self-serving Trump-like politicians in office. 

There are no more Bobby Kennedys. Look at his son – not even he is a Kennedy.

Our politicians are people we don’t like and wouldn’t hang out with.

That’s the Trump Effect: Mean-spirited, authoritarian politicians with a smile or scowl on their face appease some voters into casting their ballot while discouraging others from voting.

H.L. Mencken was right: The only way to look at a politician is down.

By Brian Karem

Brian Karem is the former senior White House correspondent for Playboy. He has covered every presidential administration since Ronald Reagan, sued Donald Trump three times successfully to keep his press pass, spent time in jail to protect a confidential source, covered wars in the Middle East and is the author of seven books. His latest is "Free the Press."

MORE FROM Brian Karem