Shortly after Trump’s election victory in 2016, the cover of German newspaper Der Spiegel featured a chilling illustration: a massive and blazing meteor, in the shape of Trump's shrieking head, hurtling furiously towards a small, fragile earth. “The end of the world (as we know it),” it read.
For some people, the world as they knew it did end under his presidency. They include the migrant families separated at the U.S. border, their children traumatized by incarceration or the inability to find their parents again. They include the thousands of Puerto Ricans who lost loved ones or have had to struggle to recover years after Hurricane Maria struck because the federal government failed to react. And they include, of course, the families of thousands upon thousands of Americans who have had to deal with the loss of someone to the COVID-19, pandemic the president never took seriously.
But things could have been much worse.
An ill omen
Imagine what might have happened if Trump had an ideological profile closer to that of a warmongering neoconservative and how he might have leveraged a terrorist attack to expand the country’s military reach. Or if his racism was driven by something even more ideological, aimed at coordinating and enacting, instead of “merely” stoking and benefitting from, racial violence. Or if COVID-19 had been even more infectious and deadly and Trump had responded with the same indifference.
And so the Trump presidency wasn’t the world-ending asteroid it might have been. Although many suffered real and deadly consequences, overall it was closer to how passing comets used to be seen as ill omens, a herald of something much worse that could still be on its way.
A Republican Party whose main drive over the last generation has been to fully reshape the economy to the benefit of a financial and corporate oligarchic minority cannot offer much to attract a mass of electors, and so it has turned to stirring up political grievances and exploiting them so that there is now a fusion of political interests between, on the one hand, sectors of obscene wealth and privilege and, on the other, an angry and threatened base — a “plutocratic populism” as some have called it.
What has been happening in the Republican party and its base as a result is disturbing. And under Trump, we saw at least three tendencies that, under a more capable and focused ideologue, could turn into something truly terrifying.
1. Anxious tribalism and authoritarian longings
Republican elites and close allies have developed a virtuosic ability to nurture, activate, and mobilize a disaffected, anxious, and toxic tribalism in the party base.
A key strategy has been to tap into what sociologist Arlie Hochschild refers to as a "deep story" of frustration, decline, and humiliation, a nebulous sense in neoliberal times that something has arrested people’s life chances no matter how hard they work or how many qualities (white, male, Christian, American born, patriotic, straight) they hold that once came with privilege and success. In the absence of real explanations being offered from the political parties or media, a benighted resentment has set in as voices on the right turn this anger towards immigrants, liberals, or any number of targets seen to be upending the way things are supposed to be.
Another key part of this effort involves performances of veneration for prominent tribalist symbols, particularly when those symbols (and, through them, the power and social order they represent) are perceived to be under attack. In recent years, the symbols have included guns, Confederate statuary and flags, bibles, Christmas, the national anthem, soldiers, police (consider the ominous symbology of the Blue Lives Matter flag), and time-frozen constitutions.
All of these efforts are intended to position the Republican Party not just as the sole, authentic inheritor and propagator of the nation’s founding traditions and essential spirit — America incarnate — but also its protector against political enemies besieging it from outside and within. And the menace of those enemies is perpetual, whether imagined in the form of thuggish BlackLivesMatter and antifa rioters, Islam and its sharia law, immigrants and their gangs, or even the country’s changing demographics. In this context of anxiousness, a longing for authoritarian leaders has been activated in millions of Americans.
2. Callousness, paranoid individualism, and anti-progressivism
Any decent society has to ensure not only one’s own well-being and freedom but also that of others. That duty of recognition and consideration means that individual liberties sometimes have to be circumscribed, like the freedom to burn climate-wrecking fossil fuels, to purchase assault weapons now used to end dozens of lives in recurring instants of lashing nihilism, or to hoard wealth that could provide free healthcare and education, build thriving and liveable communities, or fund a just program to preserve a habitable climate.
But today’s Republican Party fosters a callousness in which no one matters much at all, and any movement to enact legislation that impinges on one’s individual liberties — even in cases like the ones just mentioned — can be interpreted as a sign of creeping tyranny. The anti-mask and anti-lockdown protests in the name of freedom from state oppression show how deep the paranoia about individual liberty has become on the American right. A disturbingly common presence at right-wing demonstrations fomented under this paranoia are the would-be citizen-warriors in their uniforms of wraparound shades, baseball caps, body armour vests, and, of course, assault rifles, the American flag stitched to their gear or flying not too far away.
Related is a strain of anti-progressivism that manifested in the Trump years in a number of ways. One example was the rise in popularity of right-wing or anti-leftist Internet personalities associated sometimes with the “Intellectual Dark Web” (who all seem to have at least one PragerU video). Their function has been to provide pseudo-academic rejoinders against movements for socioeconomic justice and racial equality, feminism, trans rights, climate action, and other efforts to win a more decent society.
It manifested, too, in the tendency to caricature and denigrate progressivist opponents as infantile, metally deficient, or illogical ideologues who needed to be publicly “owned” or “destroyed” (think here of the shorthands that entered into mainstream language, like “libtard,” “SJW,” “(beta)cuck,” “postmodern cultural neo-Marxist,” “snowflake”).
In this context, any important progressive program can be attacked as an assault on cherished liberties or as the naively utopian products of a generation brought up in the coddling safe-space hatcheries of modern post-secondary institutions.
Finally, Trump’s presidency was a watershed moment in the turn to a post-truth political context, one in which reality can be whatever most appeals to people’s emotions and personal beliefs while mainstream reporting can be dismissed as fake news, the sciences treated as merely debatable and contentious opinions, and objective facts dispensed with as liberal hoaxes.
Despite making thousands upon thousands of misleading claims, Trump is still embraced by the Republican base. Part of the reason is a loyal right-wing corporate media complex that has helped shape viewers’ perceptions of reality in ways favourable to Republican elites, with Fox News at the forefront and joined now by BlazeTV, Breitbart, One America News, and Newsmax.
But Trump’s presidency also cultivated an increasingly widespread and unhinged conspiracism on the right. From Pizzagate, to QAnon, to the belief that the 2020 election was rigged, bizarre and extraordinary claims about the depravity of the liberal enemy can be believed without anything close to evidence.
How terrifying could the next Republican presidency be?
There is a special cruelty to Republican presidencies.
Under George W. Bush, it came in the form of the neoconservative projection of imperial power unleashed on the people of the Middle East. Under Trump, it came as a contempt for migrants and people of colour, as an expansion of civilian deaths abroad, and as a vast indifference to citizens facing a pandemic.
What form it might take under the next Republican leader is anyone’s guess, but those tendencies awakened in the American right under Trump do not lead anywhere good, particularly if wielded by a more competent demagogue. If the tribalist order is seen as upended or under threat and needing an authoritarian protector, if other people don’t really matter and taking steps to ensure their well-being and freedom is tyranny, if anything can be true, then there are some terrifying political projects that can be advanced.
The Republican Party — already the home of oligarchy, militarism, and climate change denialism — has become a potential vehicle for full-blown libertarianism, radical religious theonomy, white nationalism, even fascism.
The next few years are a potentially crucial period for the health of American democracy, one in which those unsettling tendencies somehow get addressed and dissipated — or root deeper before ushering something uglier into power.