Can Trumpism Survive Without Trump?

Trumpism is more of a personality cult than a cohesive political ideology. If Trump isn't on the ballot, can Republicans win?
President Donald Trump walks towards Marine One as he departs from the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

President Donald Trump walks towards Marine One as he departs from the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

As the curtain continues to fall on the Trump era in fits and starts, there’s no question that the last four years have been a massive stress test on the American system of government and it revealed a whole host of major vulnerabilities. Centuries of rules and norms usually changed with careful consideration and a complex political calculus in the minds of top officials were no match for a confederacy of arrogant buffoons who couldn’t care less about anything beyond their own momentary gain or self-gratification.

And that has numerous pundits wondering what would happen if an authoritarian with two neurons to rub together found themselves at the helm of the GOP, a party which was ready to overturn an election to either appease their Dear Leader or out of irredeemable disdain for the voices of their fellow Americans. Whereas Donald Trump was stopped only by the COVID-19 pandemic and, well, let’s be honest here, his abject incompetence and glaring sociopathy, even a slightly smarter would-be autocrat could very well use the Trump presidency as a playbook for quickly and efficiently dismantling American democracy.

Of course, we absolutely have to start fixing the flaws we’ve identified and codify basic norms and rules into laws requiring a two-thirds majority to override because any democracy must be on the lookout for encroaching authoritarianism and ready to repel it, as Hungary and Turkey teach us by their negative example. But should we already be hyperventilating about 2024 and the specter of a new, better fascist ready to finish what The Donald has started, the Kylo Ren to his lobotomized Darth Vader? I’m going to go on a limb and say no.

There’s every reason to believe that Trump will continue to cast a long shadow over the GOP, treating it as an extension of his business interests, and either playing kingmaker or trying to run again, sucking out all the oxygen his heir would require. Even then, should he one day name a successor, the smart money is on either Ivanka Trump, his obviously favorite golden child, or Donald Trump Jr., who’s basically his father but able to finish a coherent thought slightly more often than not. Like a parasitic organism, Trump has burrowed deep into his Republican host, and removing him could be politically fatal to the now hapless party.

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Now, it should be noted that John Harris at Politico has a different take, arguing that Trump’s star may shine brightly now, but like any superheated ball of gas, will also burn out very quickly as he’s cast aside for someone more mainstream. However, Harris compares him to Ross Perot, Joseph McCarthy, and George Wallace, very popular figures at one time or another, but all of them fringe players who got nowhere close to the political and media power Trump received and abused every day since his bulk was ferried down his eponymous tower’s golden escalator to declare those of Mexican descent rapists and drug dealers, while generously paying lip service to the idea that some may be kind of okay.

For reasons we’ve discussed in great detail, again and again, the Republican party has chosen him not as just one of their standard-bearers but as their God-King, swiftly erecting an increasingly paranoid and rabid cult of personality around a morally and intellectually bankrupt dullard. In a way, if Trump had the ability to understand that he’s not the only important person on Earth, it would’ve been possible to use his status as White Boomer Messiah to get voters to the polls and develop a dangerous and cutthroat strategy for 2024. But then again, if he had this ability, he wouldn’t have lost his re-election bid and allowed scientists and the CDC to appropriately respond to the very pandemic that brought him down instead of going full Soviet on his team of experts.

It also strains credulity to assume people literally tattooing themselves with The Donald’s face, living and breathing conspiracy theories in which he’s the only thing stopping evil Democrats from selling their children and grandchildren into sex slavery to Satan-worshipping cannibals, are ready to vote for anyone else for president or throw their fervent support behind any Republican who doesn’t get his endorsement, much less badmouths him to appeal to moderates. Having flung hundreds of millions into his coffers, lost family and friends over their support for him, and driven themselves mad from rage and fear, his base will not abandon him in the name of political expediency.

Just like a lot of political consultants and pundits, Harris and those fretting about an American Victor Orban or Recep Erdoğan on the horizon deeply misunderstand just how radically the political landscape on the right has changed. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Tom Cotton (R-AR) may be standing in the wings to drive a stake through the heart of our democracy with a vocabulary that makes Trump’s speeches sound like a collection of miscellaneous grunts, but as long as the shadow of the man they’re trying to replace looms large, they’re out of luck. This is especially true for Cruz, who wasn’t just beaten by Trump in 2016 but humiliated so severely you almost felt a twinge of empathy for him. (Emphasis on almost.)

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Likewise, consider that his base also picked candidates like Roy Moore, a judge repeatedly expelled for refusing to follow the Constitution and with numerous allegations of predatory behavior towards minors, and Corey Stewart, a man still fighting the Civil War for the South. And this is not to mention Marjorie Taylor Greene, a loud and proud supporter of the conspiracy theory that every notable person who disagrees with Republican policies is a Satanic pedophile, and a penchant for disseminating blatantly fake news from her Twitter account, as well as Madison Cawthorn, an alleged Nazi admirer, and fabulist whose first tweet after being projected the winner of his election was “cry more, lib.”

In other words, when the MAGA voters are sending their best and brightest, they’re sending bigots, liars, and conspiracy theorists who hardly fit the bill of would-be brilliant authoritarians with big plans, and are better categorized as amoral grifters happy to use lies and fear to scam and sleaze their way to the top. Someone actually charismatic, clever, and dangerous building a 2024 bid would be quickly extinguished by Trump and his minions because as his comments about President-Elect Joe Biden’s selection of Kamala Harris as his Vice President show, he does not take kindly to the idea of someone outshining him.

And not only does The Donald hate being upstaged by someone he believes should serve his every whim, he’s also sadistic and vindictive. After losing the vote in Georgia, unable to get the Republican governor and secretary of state to throw out tens of thousands of ballots and have himself declared the winner, Trump is busy undermining the party in the critical Senate runoff contest which will decide control of the chamber. His endorsements sound half-hearted, and his insistence that elections are unfair and rigged seemed to have persuaded some Republicans to sit out the vote they now believe was already decided by China and Hugo Chavez’s ghost.

But before you start feeling too relieved and realistically have your hopes up for both 2024 and maybe even 2028, consider 2032 and beyond. Trump will not live forever and his legal problems may very well catch up with him now that he’s about to become a private citizen and lack a fixer at the Department of Justice to smother investigations into his many dirty dealings. His kids can only travel so far on his name and right-wing demagogues who’ll come into their prime by then will swallow them whole during the primaries. And that’s when we must be most careful since the window for the authoritarian of our fears will finally open wide.

Trump’s incompetence in just about everything may have pulled us from the brink by giving Joe Biden the space to win the election. His certain interference with the Republican party may buy us as long as a decade to roll up our sleeves, batten down the hatches, and authoritarian-proof our elections, institutions, and democracy. Those years will go by very quickly and we’ll have to fight the seditious anti-democratic cesspool of conspiracy theories and obstructionism into which the GOP has devolved every step of the way. We cannot afford to waste a single day. The work is only beginning. But if anyone can put up a hell of a fight against aspiring tyrants, it’s civic-minded Americans.

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Opinion // Authoritarianism / Donald Trump / Trumpism