For about six months after Trump’s election, I was so angry that I seethed with rage. Now that I have calmed down considerably, I find myself struggling to understand why Trump won and what is continued appeal is for roughly 37% of the American electorate.
We have to understand that Trump is a product of social media. Something about the rise of social media has made people extremely partisan. Some of it has to do, I think, with how easy it is to block or otherwise avoid people who disagree with you. So, both sides simply wallow in an echo chamber of things they agree with, leading to the breakdown of the traditional basic need of democracy to have consensus, compromise and synthesis. Throw in dark money, gerrymandering and Russian meddling through bots and paid trolls and you have us where we are today.
And, yet, we have one significant thing to be thankful for: Trump has no political ideology. He has no strategy. He’s all about the tactical win. He’s all about winning the moment. If Trump had the rock-hard ideology of, say, Pat Buchanan, we would be in serious trouble indeed.
But, as it stands, there is no Trumpism without Trump. Whatever magical mystery power Trump has over a sizable chunk of the electorate is attached to him personally. So, really, the only way to get rid of Trumpism is to completely vanquish Trump personally as a political force. That is quite tricky because the American Republic is on such shaky legs for various reasons that the core problems that allowed the Trump caner to fester will remain for many years to come.
One issue is people like me are too quick to enrage and not engage Trump supporters because, well, we’re at a loss as to where to begin. Where do we begin to engage people who we feel support a racist, misogynist bigoted nativist? I struggle to do that for various reasons. I closest I can come is seeing that the blind rage of people in rural areas about the modern liberal order was so great in 2016 that they were willing to overlook any flaw on Trump’s part because they thought he would, in fact “drain the swamp.”
That’s the thing that I think people like me have the most difficulty understanding: that core group of people who support Trump really do support the authoritarian chaos that he has caused since he came to power. That’s what they wanted. It’s difficult for secular humanists like me understand why “values voters” could possibly support the thrice married Trump. But they do. They do because they know that while he’s using them for his own political needs, he will, in fact give them the reach around that they have longed for so desperately. He gives them a sense of power that they haven’t felt in decades, if ever. The fact that it’s all a gross political ploy doesn’t phase them.
Another thing people like me struggle to understand is that fact that rock hard core group of Trump supporters that aren’t going anywhere really do think a Hillary Clinton administration would have been worse. They actually, to this day, really think that. They may be a lot more quiet than they were election day night, but they still think it.
Which raises an interesting counter-factual. What if Clinton had won? What would the world look like a year after the election? Probably something like this: instead of Trump’s tweets causing chaos from the White House, they would incite the Republican Congress to look for any number of different reasons to impeach Clinton and they probably would have gotten pretty damn close.
But Trump won. So we have to deal with the consequences. One of the crucial unknowns is will things snap back into place once Trump finally leaves the public sphere, or are we doomed. Are we going to suffer a Russian-style autocracy from now on because of the damage that Trump has inflicted on our body politic, or will we go back to some semblance of normalcy once he’s gone?
The answer to this question lies, in great part, to who succeeds Trump. If it’s Mike Pence, probably things will be more likely to snap back into some semblance of being normal. However, if Trump manages to last a full term, or even get re-elected, all bets are off. It is possible, probably probable, that we’ve reached some sort of event horizon whereby the realms of celebrity and politics are so muddle that they are indistinguishable.
It may be that the person who manages to heal the divides caused by Trump — and they are many — won’t be a traditional politician at all, but a liberal celebrity who manages to bridge the gaping wound that Trump has caused in our national psyche. The longer Trump stays president, the more likely it will be, say a Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart who succeeds him. I like to think that the only person who stands up to the middle school bully is the middle school class clown and it would make a lot of sense if someone like them took up the challenge of bringing down Trumpism. Though of late I’ve begun to think that the only person who could handle the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune any Democrat would suffer at the hands of FOX News’ bullshit would be someone tough as nails like Chelsea Handler.
The most ominous aspect of all of this is it’s possible we’re doomed. It really is possible that the United States is now a failed state and the only thing keeping it together is Trump himself. It’s possible that Trumpists are so completely deluded and brainwashed by their bullshit bubble that once he’s no longer in power things will grow dire indeed. And that doesn’t even begin to address the possibility that someone really dangerous — a charismatic Right-wing nutjob with an ideology — may learn from the mistakes of Trump and inflict the final death blow to the American Republic. That we really may fall of the precipitous into a dystopia.
I would like to think I have some hope that that worse case scenario won’t happen, but I don’t. History doesn’t go in a straight line and there are absolutely no assurances that the good guys will win. All we can hope is that some sort of sanity will return to American political discussion sooner rather than later.
Shelton Bumgarner is a writer and photographer living in Richmond, Va. He can be reached at migukin (at) gmail.com.