There’s an instinct, on waking from a nightmare, to shake it off, to give yourself a pinch as the jumbled, discordant terror reassembles itself into the coherence of your room. The fear lingers, but its intensity fades as the real world becomes solid again. You shake your head, and move on.
That is the understandable temptation here, as the endless Trump years draw to a close. The last five years have been filled with hallucinatory impossibility, as time stretched in all directions. At one point Trump had only been President a day; a moment later we forgot everything that came before.
They’ve been filled with massive corruption and tawdry scandals. They’ve echoed with the wails of families cruelly torn apart. They’ve been marked by the grim saga of theocrats and sex pests being elevated to the highest courts. In the last year, they’ve been marked by a stalking death, a plague that has shut down the country and killed hundreds of thousands, disporportionately the poor and people of color, and most of them dead due to Trump’s indifference, laziness, and vanity.
All the while the country raged at racial injustice, openly brutal police forces, outright murders, and the systemic barbarism of white supremacy. Vast swathes of the west burned. Lunatic conspiracies grew and grew and sent people to Congress, a congress that was stormed by violent insurrectionists in thrall to the same lie: that Trump was the advocate of the people, and that anything against him should be met by death.
The pulsating fever of the last four years hit its pitch that terrible day. For months, the psychologically damaged and weak-minded President refused to admit he lost (and probably believed it was stolen, inasmuch as he believes anything he needs to avoid the cruel mirror). Right-wing militias, Q-Anon poisoned petit bourgeois, and every radical with an axe to grind descended on the Capitol to murder lawmakers and intimidate them into refusing to ratify Joe Biden’s victory. It was one of the darker moments in American history.
But, perhaps unsurprisingly, it seemed like the fever suddenly broke. Trump lost his platforms and seems like a broken man. His party, in part at least, has fled him. He’s facing bankruptcy and ruin. His name is all but unmentioned.
Like from a nightmare, the country, and specifically the Republican Party, is trying to awake. They are trying to reshape the room into something that makes sense. They are attempting to move past the Trump years.
This is, of course, absolute balls. Trump is theirs, and more importantly, they are Trumps. Always have been. Now and as long as the conservative movement has any life left in its wolfish desires.
Ben Sasse Sets Up The Next Lie
Ben Sasse, the Senator from Nebraska, has set himself up nicely as the reasonable conservative. He is skilled at balancing a folksy, almost awkward aw-shuck mein with an eloquent breakdown of what ails our politics. He speaks movingly of service, or helping out our neighbors, and of being together as a society.
In short, in every way, he seems like the anti-Trump. And he wants to create a Republican Party that can move past this nightmare.
Writing in The Atlantic after the deadly insurrection at the Capitol, Sasse laid out some stark choices for the party he chose to join.
The violence that Americans witnessed—and that might recur in the coming days—is not a protest gone awry or the work of “a few bad apples.” It is the blossoming of a rotten seed that took root in the Republican Party some time ago and has been nourished by treachery, poor political judgment, and cowardice. When Trump leaves office, my party faces a choice: We can dedicate ourselves to defending the Constitution and perpetuating our best American institutions and traditions, or we can be a party of conspiracy theories, cable-news fantasies, and the ruin that comes with them. We can be the party of Eisenhower, or the party of the conspiracist Alex Jones. We can applaud Officer Goodman or side with the mob he outwitted. We cannot do both.
I think Sasse is sincere here. The article goes pretty far in blaming rot in the party, even if he later balances it out with some both-siders-ism. I think Sasse, a smart guy, recognizes that there is a serious moral decay in his party.
But where this falls apart is the choice of being the “party of Eisenhower” or of ALex Jones, Q, Trump, and the rest of the far-right. Because there is no longer any Republican Party without the far right. Indeed, the entire conservative movement, to which Sasse (who voted with Trump 87% of the time, and only deviated on things like COVID relief) has dedicated himself, makes up the whole of the GOP.
The GOP and The Right
Sasse would disagree that the far-right and the conservative movement are synonymous. He, and most of the respectable press, would separate the party of Reagan from the lunacy of a bunch of anti-Semites who believe that there is a global pedophile ring about to be brought down by Space Force.
But that is simply untrue. It might have been true at some point, but the trajectory of the conservative movement has led to this state. It was always going to end this way. It’s driving force — a rejection of everything past the Jim Crow consensus — would lead to this graveyard. The only thing that wasn’t set in motion was which party it would overtake.
Here in 2020, it is impossible to imagine the GOP as being distinct and separate from the American right in its most ravenous, snarling form. But that wasn’t inevitable. The Republican Party of Eisenhower was of course the conservative one, but that was largely in the idea that the federal government shouldn’t spend money on things or have any dominion over the states.
There were liberals in the Republican Party, in the 1950s sense, who wanted a small government but didn’t like the racism inherent in the compromise (never mind that, in practice, the whole “fiscal conservative/social liberal” thing is nonsense). And the Democrats, of course, were a party consisting of northern machine politicians and the racist terrorists of the post-Reconstruction south. Both parties existed in an increasingly impossible agreement that Jim Crow worked, even if it wasn’t, like, good.
The Civil Rights movement broke that bloody consensus. The Democrats adopted the platform of equality, for partly cynical reasons (including the combination of the Great Migration and machine leaders being able to count). That left apartheid revanchists without a home. They found one in Barry Goldwater, who captured the Republican nomination in 1964, just four years removed from the supposed halcyon days of Eisenhower.
But it isn’t true that the GOP became conservative, per se. It’s that the conservative movement worked to overtake the GOP, purge all liberals, and reshape it in its image.
And it’s worked. As we said when Trump was cruising toward the nomination, he was the culmination of this complete takeover of one of our two major political parties.
It’s the pinnacle of the movement, stripped away to the barest essence of hostile xenophobia, violence, white nationalism, and inchoate anger. It’s what Strom agitated for, and Wallace brought to life, and Goldwater cut deals with, and Nixon exploited and made Republican, and Reagan brought fully to power. It’s the backward rage that every GOP politician either agrees with, channels, or manipulates. Now it’s the day of the locusts. Trump understands this in his bones, because he has the mind of a child, one that revels in simplicity and rage. One that is all emotion at something being taken away. That’s what the movement boils down to: a petulant child standing athwart bedtime, yelling stop.
From Buckley to Trump
The last line there is, of course, a reference to the father of the modern conservative movement, the erudite, witty, urbane, William F. Buckley. It seems absurd to compare him to Trump. But let’s take a look at his most famous line:
“A conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”
There’s a certain thrill to that: the lone man (or woman, but man) standing against the tide, the surge, rebelling against the manufactured consensus. It paints the conservative as the true rebel.
Of course, then, one has to question what history he’s demanding, in a mid-Atlantic snarl, the stop. What’s happening when he laid out the conservative doctrine? At that point, the civil rights movement. More women in the workplace. More sexual freedom. More opportunities for non-whites. The first flickers of the environmental movement. The beginning of a reckoning with our past. The diminished authority of authority, in the classroom or the bully pulpit or the lectern.
That’s what they want to stop, and that has always been the case. They want to stop change, but a very specific type of change. They want to stop the wrong people from enjoying full citizenship. They want to push back against the expansion of rights. They want to thwart the idea that we are all entitled to protection of the law, and not merely subject to its truncheoned whims.
Most of this is rooted in racial hatred. But there are a few other intellectual forces that drive the conservative movement. The most obvious, I think, is that there is no common good. There is no shared heritage. There is only the idea that the strong should take from everyone else.
That’s why the movement became the dominant force when the so-called “Rancher’s Rebellion” joined forces with the forces of apartheid. The “Rebellion” was the idea that people should be able to own federal land…that is, land that we all own and can use. But rich ranchers (portrayed, as always, as rugged individualists) wanted that land. They thought that the earth and its yield should belong to them.
That was tied to the aparthied faction of the party, who didn’t think the government should interfere with how they controlled people’s lives. It was always about power in its purest form: dominance over the land and over the weak.
No one has ever embodied that more than Donald Trump.
How Trump Has Always Been The Conservative Movement
Donald Trump is, of course, not a strong man. He’s a weak and whimpering whiner, a man with depthless insecurities, an empty nobody who is in constant fear of that emptiness. He’s a consistent failure who has been cosseted by a system set up specifically to prop up such men.
But he understands power, in a dim sort of way. He understands that the system is designed to let him exercise that power, that his wealth lets him force people to call him “sir”, an unearned and groveling show of fake respect. He knows that he has always been able to get away with everything he wants. And that’s how he embodies the movement.
There is the flagrant racism, of course. “Make America Great Again” was heard, by those for whom it was meant to be heard, as “Make America YOURS Again.” He took all of Buckley’s textual parsings and made them flesh. He thinks Black people should be grateful to the cops for not always killing them, that Natives should be grateful to have their casinos and not so pushy about treaties, and that Mexicans should die in the desert. In saying that power in America comes from white people, and that any sharing of that power should be met with gratitude, he embodies the overt beliefs and unexamined prejudices and assumptions of so many white people.
There are other ways in which Trump, often inadvertently, captures everything about the conservative movement. There is, of course, the relentless advancement of mediocrities, despite or even because of their sadism, Brett Kavanaugh being most prominent. He loathes smart people who are respected, like Anthony Fauci, because learning anything means admitting he didn’t know something. In his desperate lack of curiosity, he matches stride with the anti-intellectualism that has become a hallmark of the right.
Perhaps most strikingly, though, Donald Trump, more than perhaps anyone else in the country, rejects the idea of the common good. He is incapable of loyalty, of concern for anyone else, or of thinking beyond his most narrow and immediate self-interests. He’d fill the Grand Canyon with a swimming pool if he could see his reflection in it.
The conservative movement despises government because it stops the powerful from doing whatever they want. That’s the heart of the movement. It’s why while there are corrupt Democrats, corruption is the ruling ideology of the GOP: because the country and its institutions exist for the benefit of those who can best take advantage of it. Trump wants to do whatever he wants at all times with no one stopping him. In that, as in so many ways, he is the true heir of Buckley.
The End and the Beginning
Four years ago, right before the beginning of the Trump administration, a phrase that still seems surreal (and has led to surreal moments we won’t ever be able to explain), I wrote that we were crossing into a different land.
The true psychic shock of this transition will, I think, be hard to measure, and hard to predict. But I do think, now that the elegies are over and Donald Trump is sworn in, placing his hand on the Lincoln Bible, that there will be a subtle breaking. Its effects won’t be felt all at once, of course. But our conception of who we are will change.
We’ll have a penny-ante strongman in the White House instead of a President. We’ll have a witless dummy who thinks his smirks are poetry. We’ll have a man whose conception of leadership is finding and punishing enemies. Our country will be different. We’ll be different.
The slow slog away from liberal democracy is suddenly happening very quickly. It’ll be aided, I think, by this psychic shock. Our idea of who we are will change, because we’ll be seeing this monster in our mirrors, and that could sap our resistance. After all, we’ve crossed the border. We are now in a foreign land. It’s time to learn the language.
But while I was sure it was going to be horrifying, for so many so much more than for me, I didn’t see it all coming at all. I didn’t see, of course, the pandemic, and even if I had wouldn’t have imagined that there would be such indifference and boredom and murderous vanity.
I didn’t see Q, either. I wouldn’t have guessed that such a wild conspiracy could have taken on such life as to alter the fate of our democracy.
But maybe I should have. After all, a public health crisis was inevitable. And Trump wouldn’t want to do anything about it. It bored him, and wasn’t about him, and the government should only exist to please those whose hands were on the tiller. In that, as ever, Trump is a true conservative.
It goes much deeper than that, though. A public health crisis is one thing, but America is uniquely ill-equipped to handle it. Uniquely, and deliberately. Health is a common good, and the rich can afford great health care. So everyone else has to pay, especially if they are poor, Black, or Brown (or all of the above). COVID has reaped those populations. Deliberately.
Q was also inevitable, at least in some form. The GOP has spent decades making the government the enemy, both in their rhetoric and by breaking the ability of the government to function. And Trump, always in the need of enemies, painted the government as his biggest enemy, and the impediment to your life getting better, even as he and hs party were the biggest culprits. Of course a conspiracy in which Trump is the hero and everyone else (Jews, BLM, socialists, the CIA, Soros, Italy I guess, etc) is the enemy.
This is what these decades have led to. Hundreds of thousands dead, an economy is shambles even as the rich get much, much, richer, violence in the streets, an environment even more ravaged, murder and mayhem in statehouses, the poor freezing in unfunded shelters, endless lines at food banks, open fascism in FOPs, true believers throughout the legislature, grim terrors on every page.
There’s a reason why thirsty careerists like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley hitched their stars to anti-democratic conspiracies. The GOP has been fighting against democracy since suffrage became universal in 1964. They saw history going against them, and have battled to cut it off at the legs. It’s a straight line to refusing to certify an election they lost.
These forces didn’t start with Trump. He embodied and exaggerated and exacerbated them, and now might start his own party. If he does (and I doubt he has the follow-through) he’ll take the true conservative movement with him: the gun-toting Q-addicts, broken by the internet, filled with racial hatred and self-centered conspiracies, the well-off who hate the idea of anyone else having any, the selfish and greedy and violent. The ones who want to crush anyone who isn’t them.
Men like Ben Sasse think, or want to think, that the conservative movement can be purged of these elements by making the right choice. He thinks they can move past Trump and get back to their roots. But their roots were always going to grow into Trump. He’s the flower, and the harvest, of what Buckley started. Sasse either has to leave it or be a part of it. He has no other real options.
Tomorrow Trump will no longer be President. But the movement that propelled them is entering a new and unpredictable phase. It’s been 60 years in the making. It will have to be fought against for another 60 years. But doing so is the only hope for a democracy where the common good means something again.
Trump is a waking nightmare. There’s no room for sleepwalkers.