KEN DEWAR • Guest Opinion
Donald Trump’s term in office as president of the United States is coming to an end. With the inauguration of his successor, Joseph R. Biden Jr., on Jan. 20, it would be tempting to breathe a sigh of relief. It would also be foolish.
For one thing, Trump himself is not going away. For the last four years, he has basked in the glory of being the centre of attention for more people than he had ever been before — not just New Yorkers, and not just viewers of the reality TV show The Apprentice, but the entire American nation; and not just Americans, but much of the rest of the world. He is not capable of giving that up.
For another thing, he has given licence to a vast assortment of right-wing extremists: white supremacists, neo-Nazis, armed militia groups, QAnon conspiracists, Proud Boys, and other groups that were barely visible for a long time in mainstream American culture but are now not only visible but, for many, legitimate agents of change. Having temporarily seized the American Capitol on Jan. 6, they are not going away.
One of Trump’s peculiarities, apart from his hair, is that it’s hard to situate him on an ideological spectrum. To the extent that he has a politics, it is centred on himself more than on any set of policies or groups. What he demands of his followers is that they pay obeisance to him. The Republican party had no platform in the 2020 election. Their platform was Trump.
This has been called personalist rule, and in exercising it, Trump has had affinities with numerous authoritarian rulers of the 20th century, stretching back from Vladmir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Viktor Orban in the present, to Muammar Gaddafi, Mobutu Sese Seko and Augusto Pinochet in the recent past, to Francisco Franco, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini before them.
In the view of New York University historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat, none of these men distinguished between their own plans and needs and those of the nations they led. Their talk and their actions arose from private obsessions. They all had anger issues. They all nourished cults of victimhood that turned feelings of resentment and humiliation into adulation for the ruler. The same goes for Donald Trump.
At the same time, he has shown himself to be a racist. In his desire to build a wall on the Mexican border, in his response to the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. in August 2017 (there were “very fine people on both sides”), and in stoking opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement, he has expressed views similar to those of many who stormed the Capitol.
Since then, he has acceded to Biden’s victory in the election but he continues to claim that it was based on fraudulent voting and has refused to attend Biden’s inauguration. In the hours leading up to the attack on the Capitol, he told his supporters: “We will never give up. We will never concede. It will never happen. You don’t concede when there’s theft involved. Our country has had enough. We will not take it anymore.” He hasn’t changed his mind.
Nevertheless, the future of Trumpism is an even more serious threat than the man himself.
The hatred felt by Trump’s followers has deep roots and has been cultivated by Republicans for decades. It finds its targets in government regulation, high taxes (or any taxes), liberalism, feminism, pluralism (especially racial and ethnic), gun control and immigration. It has lent its support to various extreme movements.
Perhaps the best-known of these was birtherism, the contention that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and therefore ineligible to become president, and that his father (and therefore he himself) was secretly a Muslim and therefore, by definition, was out to destroy America. In 2011, about half of Republican voters believed in some form of birtherism.
The most famous believer, of course, was Trump, who used birtherism to symbolize his belief in the necessity of returning America to a time when white people were unquestionably dominant and unthreatened by the prospect of an African American president. That would make America great again.
The prospect of Trump’s defeat, in itself, made that defeat fraudulent to Trumpian believers. Even after Joe Biden’s inauguration, they will continue to believe. In the future, they will either welcome Trump’s return to politics or support his successor — if his successor is also his clone.
Ken Dewar is professor emeritus, department of history, Mount Saint Vincent University.