The following is excerpted from “The Useful Idiot: How Donald Trump Killed the Republican Party with Racism, the Rest of Us with Coronavirus, And Why We Aren’t Done With Him Yet,” by S.V. Dáte.
The president of the United States tried to stage a coup to remain in power.
Yes, seeing that in print is a bit jarring, to say the least. Yet that is, in fact, precisely what happened.
The president of the United States, after losing reelection by 7 million votes, riled up his cult-like followers for months with lies about massive voter fraud, culminating with a “Stop the Steal” rally near the White House urging them to march on the Capitol just as Congress set about to formally certify Joe Biden as the winner.
The plan was as simple as it was outrageous: His violent thugs would intimidate his own vice president into violating the Constitution and rejecting tens of millions of legitimate votes in states Biden had won, preventing him from reaching the required 270 electoral votes and throwing the election to the House of Representatives, where Donald Trump would win under the one-vote-per-state rule.
That Trump had placed the life of endlessly loyal Mike Pence in grave danger, along with hundreds of members of Congress and their staffs, remains an underappreciated element of the day. For weeks, Pence had been telling Trump that he had no role in the Jan. 6 ceremony beyond announcing the certified winner in each state. That he had no authority to declare that Arizona’s or Georgia’s or Pennsylvania’s votes were invalid. And, more to the point, that he had no intention of doing so. Their last such conversation was by phone, just minutes before Trump took the stage at the rally he had been promoting for weeks.
Yet within minutes of starting his remarks shortly before noon, Trump was yet again urging Pence to be strong and courageous and to reject Biden’s states — as if Pence were still mulling that possibility. “Because if Mike Pence does the right thing, we win the election,” Trump told his crowd.
So it was that when Pence, an hour later, released via Twitter the letter he had sent to lawmakers stating his intentions just as he took the dais in the House chamber, Trump’s followers, many of them marching on the Capitol or already there, were enraged and ready to mete out justice as befitting a traitor to their hero.
And as the mayhem and violence of Trump’s supporters bursting through police lines and into the building played out on the television screens at the White House, Trump was still pouring on the gasoline, telling his followers in a tweet that Pence “didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done.” While Trump took it all in with glee, his followers chanted “Hang Mike Pence!” as they roamed through the Capitol searching for him.
Getting lost in the photos and videos of the carnage that afternoon is a clear-eyed reckoning of what, precisely, Trump and his enablers in Congress, along with the Republican Party and the significant segment of voters who backed Trump’s post-election efforts to delegitimize his clear loss, would have brought us had they somehow succeeded.
If Trump had managed to coerce Pence and Congress into giving him another four years, does anyone truly believe that that would have been the end of it? After seeing how easy it was to scare the “pro-democracy establishment” with his terrorist mob, why would he not repeat it in 2024? Or just dispense with elections altogether, given how prone they are to being “rigged”?
Americans need to be honest about what nearly happened and why. Trump has never in his life cared about democracy, as was pretty clear when he first started running for the presidency back in 2015. That so many of our fellow citizens did not seem to care about that, and would to this day prefer a Trump autocracy to a constitutional republic, is more than a little worrisome.
If a small number of people in key positions had not made the decisions they did for the good of the country, we could easily be living with Trump still in the White House as … not as president, because people who lose elections are not called that, but … something else. The American experiment would be over.
He is gone. At least for now.
In the six months since I completed the first edition of this work, Trump took everything he had been doing over the first three and a half years of his presidency and ramped it all the way up. The corruption became more brazen, the irresponsibility even more breathtaking, and the lying simply went off the charts.
The coronavirus pandemic he had botched and then tried to wish away continued apace, while Trump and his staff essentially pretended that it was, in fact, already gone. He resumed staging campaign rallies at a breakneck pace, encouraging his followers to ignore coronavirus protocols by attending.
It was little surprise to anyone when, eventually, Trump himself got sick, likely at an indoor reception he held at the White House for his third Supreme Court justice, Amy Coney Barrett, in late September. As he recovered from the illness at Walter Reed hospital, getting the best, most expensive medical care on the planet, one big question was whether he would learn from the experience and start showing some empathy toward the hundreds of thousands of Americans who had lost a family member to the disease or the many millions who were fearful of contracting it.
In retrospect, of course, that was a silly thing to think. As anyone paying the least bit of attention could have predicted, Trump reacted in precisely the opposite manner. Instead of generating some measure of empathy, his illness brought out his sense of superiority: I got it and recovered from it. Why can’t you?
Concerns about the virus went out the window entirely at his ever-more-frequent campaign events, and his words seemed to goad his supporters into pretending that there really wasn’t any pandemic at all as a way to reaffirm their personal loyalty to him.
Trump’s illness also did nothing to moderate his various antisocial behaviors upon his recovery. He continued acting like a hybrid between a petulant child and a small-time mob boss, with zero evident concern for anyone other than himself.
A perfect example came just two days before the election, when a caravan of Trump supporters, mainly in big pickup trucks and SUVs, accosted a Biden campaign bus on a busy interstate in Texas. They surrounded the coach and an accompanying car and then began slowing down as if to force the vehicles to stop. One of the Trumpkin trucks bumped the trailing car, causing minor damage — but it was just plain luck that that was the extent of it. It was an insanely reckless stunt and easily could have led to the bus flipping over at speed and causing a chain-reaction pileup, killing and maiming many dozens. Trump’s response? To defend his supporters and say that they had done nothing wrong.
Trump’s general life rule of refusing to take responsibility for anything, of course, manifested itself much more loudly and obviously in his complete disengagement from the pandemic following the election. The death toll climbed to and through a quarter million, and then, after Thanksgiving, began skyrocketing to the equivalent of a Sept. 11 massacre a day.
Trump’s response? To whine on Twitter and in the suddenly rare media interview about how the election had been stolen, complete with absurd and thoroughly debunked conspiracy theories to make his point. He didn’t care about the pandemic. Not in the slightest. It had nothing whatsoever to do with him anymore.
Orange Man bad.
How many times did Trump’s various apologists toss that one out as a rebuttal to any and all criticism? You won’t acknowledge his good policies because Orange Man bad.
Well. Yes, actually, the Orange Man was bad. Indeed, not just bad, but truly horrific, on so many levels. This was a president who wanted U.S. troops to shoot border-crossers entering illegally from Mexico. Who, when that order was refused, demanded that their children be kidnapped from them and incarcerated separately to discourage others from coming at all.
This was a president who refused to condemn right-wing domestic terrorists, defending, among others, the Illinois teen accused of murdering two protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, with an assault rifle, while more generally encouraging his supporters to use violence. During one campaign debate with Biden, he famously told the racist, fascist Proud Boys to “stand by” — which, of course, they did, and several months later took part in the attack on the Capitol.
This was a president who kowtowed to dictators and right-wing authoritarians the world over, from Kim Jong Un in North Korea to Recep Erdogan in Turkey to Xi Jinping in China to, his favorite, Vladimir Putin in Russia, all the while picking senseless fights with democratically elected allies. This was a president who started a needless trade war that hurt farmers, manufacturers and consumers alike because he fundamentally misunderstood how international trade works and could not be bothered to learn.
This was a man who was corrupt to his core, and solicited and accepted tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars from both domestic and foreign interests through his golf courses and hotels, primarily the absurdly overpriced one just five blocks from the White House. (This is something that truly did not get the attention it deserved. Our president was essentially taking bribes. Had they given him briefcases filled with cash, that clearly would have been seen as a crime. Yet how was this different?)
This was a man who was endlessly dishonest, every single day, about everything, from the trivial to the gravely serious. This, in and of itself, should have been disqualifying. The president of the United States, after all, works for all Americans, and we have a right not to be lied to all the time.
As for his policies, he never really had any, apart from building a wall and keeping out brown-skinned foreigners. In fact, that is the main reason his enablers loved him so much. He was truly their useful idiot, a rubber stamp for the regulatory rollbacks, the tax cuts, the right-wing judges they had always dreamed of. This is why they were so irritated with the “Never Trump” conservatives. The enablers could not understand why the others wouldn’t just get with the program, keep quiet and grab all the goodies while the grabbing was good.
Well, the reason they didn’t was that the Orange Man was indeed very bad, and for Never Trumpers and millions of less-vocal Americans, that fact was the deal-breaker. It was not possible for the country to be good if we were willing to keep in office such a despicable human being. There was a reason Trump underperformed so many Republican members of Congress in the 2020 election. Plenty of anti-tax, pro-business Republican voters, who continued to vote for GOP lawmakers down-ballot, nevertheless went with Biden because they could not stomach another four years under Trump.
Finally, if the Orange Man’s badness was somehow still in question, there was his behavior after the election. Trump made it clear that if the choice was between him ruling as an authoritarian or losing gracefully for the sake of our democracy, he had zero qualms about going full-on strongman.
He began lying about the election having been “stolen” from him in the wee hours of election night and never let up. He tried to pressure Republican legislators into annulling the results in their states and simply handing over their electoral votes to him. He tried suing in court after court, asking for judges to do that same thing. He urged the U.S. Supreme Court to declare invalid millions of votes in some of the key states Biden had won, giving him the second term that voters nationally had denied him. He even successfully coerced more than 100 Republican members of Congress and nearly two dozen Republican state attorneys general into publicly supporting this scheme.
That, of course, was Trump’s plan from the start, as he essentially told us all through that spring and summer. Mail-in ballots were now suspect, even though Republicans had successfully used them for decades, because Democrats were urging voters to use them during the pandemic. He conditioned his supporters to reject a Biden win, claiming for months that the only way he could lose was if the election were stolen from him.
The end game was always the Supreme Court, where he was counting on the loyalty of “his” three justices — Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Barrett — plus Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, to overturn the will of the people and keep him in the White House.
When that didn’t work, Trump tried extorting Georgia’s top elections official to be declared the winner there, in hopes of raising doubts about other states as well. And when that also failed, he urged his supporters to besiege the Capitol to bully his own vice president and Congress into refusing to certify Biden’s win. His mob happily did so and quickly took up the goal of murdering Pence for failing to carry out The Leader’s wishes. A Capitol Police officer died that day, as did four of Trump’s own followers. Two more officers took their own lives in the days to follow.
Not that Trump cares, but their blood is forever on his hands.
If the Orange Man had been good, he would have won the election and would not have needed to try and steal it, and then — both amazingly yet not at all amazingly — attempt an actual coup.
“The sanctity of elections is a foundational, nonnegotiable principle in a constitutional republic. Trump showed that he absolutely did not accept that principle, and tens of millions of Americans were eager to follow his lead.”
In a later chapter, I analogize Trump’s 2016 victory to a rogue wave — a happenstance confluence of two or more wave trains in the open ocean, producing, just for a moment, a wave twice or three times as tall as normal that breaks and smashes whatever unlucky boat happens to be beneath it.
But once all the water has been pumped out, the rigging sorted and torn sails patched, a smart sailor tries hard to figure out what happened. What worked. What didn’t. How it might have been avoided altogether. And then, when the weather begins to settle, the sailor starts making those repairs immediately.
So it is for America.
It’s been a terrible four years. What must we do to make sure someone this dishonest, this corrupt, this mean, can never get into the White House again?
Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974 brought about a raft of post-Watergate reforms, including in campaign finance disclosure, in intra-agency accountability through independent inspectors general, in more public access to executive branch records. In retrospect, we didn’t push through nearly enough changes 45 years ago, largely because we assumed that post-Nixon, “norms” and “conventions” would take hold again.
And, in fairness, there was a return to normalcy that did hold for decades, starting with Gerald Ford and then the election of Jimmy Carter, whose strongest campaign line was that he would never lie to the American people. They and all who followed, right through Jan. 19, 2017, saw the presidency as so important and their place in history as so significant that they set their own financial interests aside for their time in office. They released years’ worth of tax returns upon gaining the nomination, and then every year thereafter.
Imagine Trump’s delight when he learned that his predecessors were offering up all of this transparency and avoiding conflicts of interest not because any law required it, but merely because it was expected of them and it was the right thing to do. Trump cheerfully flouted all the norms and pushed every single envelope to, and sometimes past, the breaking point. He openly solicited customers for his hotels and golf resorts, and both domestic and foreign interests with business before his administration dutifully paid their tributes — depositing money directly into his pocket as they sought his favor. He never once released a single year of his tax returns. He gave his daughter and son-in-law high-profile jobs.
He did all these things because he could — just as he abused his office by extorting Ukraine for help in his reelection, knowing he would not be prosecuted for it.
Why would others not follow suit? Why wouldn’t the next con artist who happens to get elected do all these things, but do them with a competence and a subtlety that make the consequences orders of magnitude worse for the country?
The days of relying on the Republican Party as a first line of defense against such a person winning the nomination are over. A functioning national party never would have permitted such an obvious fraud from taking part in its presidential primaries, let alone winning. And so Congress will have to step in and impose the laws that make another Trump more difficult.
One easy fix would be to require candidates who open a presidential campaign to file three or five or 10 years of tax returns with the Federal Election Commission. Trump never would have run had he been required to disclose even a few years of his returns because they would have shattered the creation myth that he had spent decades embellishing.
Another simple one would be to move Hatch Act enforcement outside of the purview of the president himself. Trump’s former adviser Kellyanne Conway was found to have repeatedly violated the law that forbids campaigning on taxpayer time or on federal property. The Office of Special Counsel recommended that Trump fire her. Conway literally laughed at that, telling the White House press corps to let her know when the jail sentence would start. Trump, naturally, did not fire her.
If an independent ethics office were in charge of enforcing the sanctions and were permitted to impose four- and five-figure fines, maybe future presidents would be less likely to use the White House and “official” travel for campaign rallies, as Trump frequently did throughout his term, and on a near-daily basis in his final year, with the willing assistance of his top staff.
Finally, and most important, Congress should pass a law that ends the Justice Department’s existing unofficial policy stating that sitting presidents cannot be prosecuted. The idea behind this was well-intentioned: to protect the nation’s top executive and commander-in-chief from getting bogged down in criminal probes, which could well be politically motivated. For normal human beings who are not particularly interested in committing crimes, this protection makes sense.
But for human beings like Trump, the policy has the exact opposite effect: It encourages criminal behavior, based on the quite-reasonable expectation that succeeding presidents are not going to want to put their predecessors in jail. With Trump, in particular, it made his push for a second term an obsession, in no small measure because he understood that his possible crimes before taking office and early in his first term — campaign finance fraud, tax fraud, obstruction of justice — would see their statutes of limitation expire during his second term.
Also, it should not be forgotten that Trump tried to extort Ukraine into helping him win the 2020 election. He abused his power by awarding the G-7 economic summit to his own financially troubled golf resort in Miami — only backing down after relentlessly negative press coverage. He steered both domestic and foreign lobbyists who sought favors from his administration to his hotel just blocks from the White House. Any other federal official doing these things would risk prosecution and a lengthy prison sentence. What is the straight-face rationale for letting a president get away with them?
As we’ll see in greater detail in later chapters, Trump clearly was a black swan event, and it is unlikely that someone this ignorant, this dishonest, this incompetent, and yet this well-known and admired thanks to a long-running television show, will present himself as a candidate in the near future.
Nevertheless, his victory in 2016 and, notwithstanding a truly disastrous four years in office, his decent showing in 2020 prove that as much as the nation needs more institutional safeguards to prevent a Trump clone from wreaking this havoc upon us again, the Republican Party is in even more dire need of immediate reforms to prevent such a person from once more hijacking it.
Those who paid close attention to the aftermath of Trump’s election loss might be forgiven for wondering if the party even wants to avoid being hijacked by a Trump clone, given how slavishly its leaders went along with Trump’s absurd and anti-democratic attempts to claim victory in an election he obviously and resoundingly lost. From Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell’s defense of Trump’s frivolous lawsuits alleging voter fraud to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s quip that he was willing to cooperate with a transition to a second Trump term to most rank-and-file Republican lawmakers parroting his lies, Trump’s hold over the party despite losing an election by 7 million votes was eye-opening.
Beyond being precisely the opposite of the truth, Trump’s repeated mendacity, claiming that he had actually won in a landslide and that his win was being stolen from him, has eroded Americans’ trust in our elections and in our democracy itself. Did Republicans care?
Apart from a few notable exceptions — Utah Sen. Mitt Romney was among the first Republicans to congratulate Biden — no, they did not. Not in the slightest. Indeed, even after the bloody assault on their chambers, eight Republican senators and 139 House members still voted to challenge Biden’s victory. They were more worried about Trump’s criticism and how it might hurt their standing with his supporters than they were worried for our country.
Two days before that final coup attempt, Fox News asked Missouri’s Josh Hawley, one of the Senate ringleaders, if he truly believed that Trump would still be president after Jan. 20. He replied: “That depends on what happens on Wednesday. That’s why we have the debate.”
It was pathetic, suggesting that Republicans had learned absolutely nothing from four years earlier. Not one of Trump’s would-be successors hoping for the nomination in 2024 is going to inherit his hardcore fan base, and their fear of speaking the obvious truth out loud will only serve to encourage Trump’s ideas about running again himself.
Indeed, if this level of mindless devotion continues, there is no point in worrying about a Republican Party anymore because it truly will just be the Party Of, For and By Donald Trump — a genuine personality cult. And while some Republicans have already been talking up the idea of offering “Trumpism” without Trump’s personal shortcomings, the notion is ludicrous on its face.
What, precisely, does “Trumpism” mean, as a political philosophy? Off-the-charts dishonesty and personal corruption? Because that was really the single unique thing about the man. Many Republicans have wanted to get tougher on illegal immigration through the years. Trump was just more of a racist jerk about it and was willing to promise outlandish nonsense like making Mexico pay for a border wall.
Sadly, but unsurprisingly, quite a number of other ambitious Republicans at all levels of government have taken note of the qualities that Trump’s “base” loved, and are doing their best to emulate them. Their willingness to defend Trump’s overtly authoritarian push to overturn the election he so obviously lost is Exhibit A. So the fundamental question is whether the Republican Party even wants to reform itself, or whether it has gone completely over to the idea that winning is everything, even if that means ending American democracy. Because never forget that that’s exactly what was going on.
Trump’s first national security adviser and some of the lawyers ginning up conspiracy theories on his behalf, including one who actually presented at a news conference at the Republican National Committee headquarters, were literally calling for martial law — a discussion that entered the West Wing itself with Trump openly considering the option in late December. As this played out, Republican leaders were silent.
Maybe some months or a year or two after he has left office, a measure of sanity will return to the party’s national leadership, and grown-ups will realize exactly how dangerous Trump truly was and how they can never permit such a person from gaining control of their party again.
One simple fix that would make it harder for a Trump-like figure to roll to a nomination would be to physically slow the primary process down. Republicans intentionally streamlined it for 2016, believing that Romney was hampered in 2012 by the persistence of Rick Santorum well into the springtime of that primary season. But frontloading the primaries and quickly getting to the winner-take-all phase allowed Trump to build an enormous delegate lead despite having won just 30% of the vote by the time his last real threat dropped out. Had he been forced to grind through the calendar, winning delegates in proportion to his vote share, there is a strong chance the non-Trump forces — that is to say, the majority of the party in 2016 — would have coalesced around one person to defeat Trump.
If the fast-track nominating process is not changed, it could happen again, only with a demagogue far more cunning, ruthless and effective than Trump could ever dream of being.
There are other process changes the RNC could implement to avoid another Trump. Adding some type of screening to make sure that candidates participating in debates have actually been Republicans for some period of time before running for president, for example, or requiring the posting of tax returns.
Of course, the RNC has a much more fundamental problem, which will be explored in detail later, but which presents an existential threat to the party and, therefore, to the country. And that is Republican voters.
Trump is a prodigious liar, true, but he is so bad at it that it is obvious he is a prodigious liar. What does it say about someone who, knowing this, voted for him not once, but twice? What does it say about someone who did not vote for him in 2016 but who, after watching a white grievance presidency for a full term in office, nevertheless wound up deciding: Yes, he has done a great job and deserves four more years.
A significant slice of the Republican Party primary voting base is still angry about the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling and the 1964 Civil Rights Act. A significant slice of the Republican Party primary voting base, based on its members’ vocal support of Trump’s efforts to overturn the election he lost, appears quite keen to give away democracy entirely if that seems the best way of hanging on to “their” country.
I honestly don’t know how the party rids itself of these people, but it must. This is not merely an argument over marginal tax rates or the appropriate amount of government regulation. The sanctity of elections is a foundational, nonnegotiable principle in a constitutional republic. Trump showed that he absolutely did not accept that principle, and tens of millions of Americans were eager to follow his lead.
“The fundamental question is whether the Republican Party even wants to reform itself, or whether it has gone completely over to the idea that winning is everything, even if that means ending American democracy.”
Another institution that needs reforming, it seems, is my own.
For far too long, too many political reporters have acted and written like sportswriters. If you’re covering major league baseball, you are nothing if you cannot get quotes from the marquee players and behind-the-scenes scoops about whose star is rising, whose is falling, who’s about to get traded or shipped clear down to the AA farm team. The price of that access is delivering generally positive coverage about the club and its lineup, or at least not harping on flaws unless they become too obvious.
Of course, in the end, sports coverage doesn’t really matter. It’s about entertainers. The well-being of the republic does not hang in the balance. That cannot be said, as we now have been made painfully aware, about political coverage.
When Trump began his rise in the Republican primary field in 2015, many of my younger newsroom colleagues attributed his success to his willingness to level childish insults at the other candidates on the debate stage. He was a counterpuncher, they marveled, unafraid to go after the expected favorites like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio.
But what about the details of his promises to round up undocumented immigrants or wage trade wars or pull out of international treaties? Well, they didn’t know anything about those things, and so they concentrated on the counterpunching.
This is not to blame them entirely. How so many reporters have so little experience learning and writing about the real world through the lens of local and state government, courts, police, schools and so on has been a problem years in the making, exacerbated by the financial crisis of 2009. The layoffs that struck the media industry hit those with a decade or more of experience the hardest, as they were commensurately more expensive to keep on staff. This meant that senior-level writing and editing jobs that typically required many years of experience were suddenly going to journalists in their mid-20s, only a few years out of college.
Add this to Republicans’ decades-old propaganda war against non-sycophantic news media, and the result was absurdly uncritical coverage of a man who had made a career of self-promotion by lying and manipulating the New York City tabloids.
Once in office, Trump was able to abuse the deference afforded a president’s words and actions, even when they were quite clearly not presidential. The worst of this was his endless lying on nearly every topic under the sun. News organizations did not know how to deal with a serially dishonest president. This was the case with many longtime White House reporters but seemed especially true of younger journalists with no experience covering a normal administration or, in some cases, covering anything at all, apart from a political campaign or two.
It took years for many outlets to acknowledge the plain, simple, obvious truth that Trump lied all the time, about everything. This wasn’t a matter of opinion. It was as uncomplicated and clear and indisputable as the color of the tie he was wearing. Yet for three and a half years, it was not presented that way. His dishonesty, his corruption, his childishness were described as his “shambolic leadership style,” or his “unorthodox approach to government,” rather than the insanity they actually represented.
Part of this, yes, was access journalism. Lots of reporters see a one-on-one interview with the president as a career-maker, and to describe Trump and his top staff in plain, unvarnished terms would put such a favor out of reach, particularly with such an openly transactional White House. Beyond the desire to interview Trump was the need for “scoops” — which, far too often, are gossipy, behind-the-scenes tidbits or an early “leak” of information that is going to be announced soon anyway, rather than original reporting that brings out facts that otherwise would never see the light of day. The latter, obviously, is more time-consuming, needing substantial investment up front with the very real risk of not paying off in the end. At a time when so many news outlets are foundering, that type of journalism is the first to get cut.
Finally, among a large number of White House reporters, disproportionately those who had not covered Trump’s campaign or his life in New York City, there was an unshakeable faith in “the system,” in the notion that the presidency was too large and too important for an unserious person to have prevailed — that someone who wins the job by definition must have the leadership skills and the acumen required to perform it.
It took years for them to appreciate that, no, in this instance, what they saw was all there was. Trump truly was as ignorant and petulant as he seemed, in addition to being perpetually dishonest. And in those years before it finally became accepted practice to describe Trump’s lies as “lies” in print and on the air, in that period where they were still being called misstatements or “Trumpian hyperbole” or some such, he was able to spread them far and wide until they took root and created an alternate reality.
This culminated in a phenomenally dishonest reelection campaign, which somehow got increasingly more dishonest as the election drew closer. Trump’s rallies became hour-and-a-half grievance sessions filled with lies about how the Russia investigation was a hoax, how he was unfairly impeached, how his opponents were overhyping the pandemic in order to hurt the economy and thus his reelection campaign, how he was nearly finished building his wall along the Mexican border, how his trade deals were tremendous achievements, and on and on and on and on. It got to be where the only factual statements he would make at his events were the names of the states they were being held in and the names of other Republican candidates for office joining him there.
Because lying, as it turns out, works.
True, it does not work on everyone — polling showed that close to 70% of Americans had little faith that information coming from Trump and his White House was generally accurate. But it worked on enough people. By constant repetition, some of Trump’s most outlandish lies appeared to gain some credibility beyond his 30% hard-core base, particularly on topics that did not affect most people’s daily lives.
His trade deals lie was one example — the claim that he had torn up bad agreements with Canada and Mexico and South Korea and replaced them with new ones that were far more favorable to the United States. Unsurprisingly, none of that was true. The United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement was essentially a renamed NAFTA, which Trump had repeatedly called the worst trade deal ever. His South Korea revisions added limits to pick-up trucks being exported to the United States — which wasn’t really happening anyway.
But because the vast majority of the public doesn’t deal with the intricacies of international trade in their day-to-day lives, most people tended to believe his claim.
Perhaps if members of the news media had been as aggressive about calling out his various and sundry lies in real time through the years as they were about his post-election lies, the illusion of great policy victories would have picked up less traction.
Ultimately, though, the difficult truth here is that most Americans cannot be bothered paying close attention to national politics. Things happening in Washington, D.C., are far removed from their daily concerns, and people also tend to believe what they want to believe. If they were already inclined to support Trump, then it is unlikely that even repeated fact-checks, delivered from the first instance of a given falsehood through to the last, would have made much of a difference.
Journalism, even done well and done consistently, can only get you so far in the protecting democracy game. Self-government is hard, and, as we’ve seen now, terribly fragile.
“News organizations did not know how to deal with a serially dishonest president. It took years for many outlets to acknowledge the plain, simple, obvious truth that Trump lied all the time, about everything.”
There were, of course, bright spots over these four years. Men and women, most of whom went completely under the radar, worked to keep the country true to our history and values, notwithstanding all the efforts by Trump and his loyalists to undermine them.
At diplomatic outposts the world over, the photograph on the wall may have been of Donald Trump, but the message so many foreign service officers shared with the rest of the world was that the United States was still the United States. Same at the CIA, where analysts continued watching and trying to make sense of a complicated planet, even if the guy who received a personalized, highly labor-intensive distillation of their work every morning showed little interest in reading even a word of it. At the Homeland Security and Treasury departments, mid-level officials carried on with their mission of safeguarding the U.S. elections against attempts by Russia and others to help Trump and his allies. (At least once, Trump unknowingly approved financial sanctions against Russians who tried to help Republicans in the 2018 midterm elections when the paperwork was included in a thick stack of documents awaiting his signature.)
The brightest spots along these lines may have been in the first week of June 2020, not long after one of the darkest moments in recent American history — the first day of that month, when tear gas and beatings were used to clear a public park of protesters so that Trump could stage a photo opportunity in front of a church while holding a Bible. Accompanying him on that outing were both the civilian defense secretary and, in full uniform, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Within days, both men publicly explained how their presence during that episode was a grave mistake. Army Gen. Mark Milley offered a full apology in a videotaped commencement address to the National Defense University: “My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.”
This was noticed at the time but underappreciated. Because the unstated message to the White House was clear: Whatever scheme Trump might be cooking up to abuse his powers to win reelection, the United States armed forces would not be playing any sort of role in it.
Americans in the past century and a half have never really had to worry about a military-backed coup. We’ve been fortunate in that regard, to the point where the idea that a president could or would try to use uniformed troops to hang on to power seems utterly outlandish on its face. And yet … knowing what we know of Trump now, yes, he absolutely would have abused his powers as commander in chief even at the price of American democracy itself.
Then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Milley obviously knew that speaking up publicly would anger Trump. They did it anyway. It was a good day for the republic.
Finally, U.S. voters themselves can take a bow for stepping up when the time came for the good of the order. It is not easy to vote out an incumbent, which is why it happens so infrequently. Most Americans do not pay close attention to the news and are prone to give a sitting president the benefit of the doubt — even one such as Trump, who so clearly did not deserve it.
On top of this favorable inertia were the powers of incumbency, which Trump stretched to the breaking point. When CDC guidelines for the coronavirus were mailed to every U.S. household, Trump’s name was featured prominently. When pandemic relief checks were sent to every taxpayer, those also carried Trump’s name. He used his office as campaign headquarters, staged his nominating convention on the White House South Lawn, and in the closing weeks made Air Force One the backdrop for his coronavirus-spreading campaign rallies.
Despite all of this, Trump lost anyway. More than 81 million Americans made it their mission to remove a singularly corrupt, dishonest and unqualified president from office, and on Nov. 3, 2020, they succeeded.
So while it is true that many Democrats are disappointed they did not win more Senate seats and hang on to more House districts, some of that is a direct consequence of the broad coalition behind Biden. It included Democrats ranging from radical progressives to barely partisan moderates, nonpolitical unaligned voters, and, perhaps most impressively, actual Republicans who crossed over because they could not imagine another four years of Trump. To have expected them to also vote against every Republican down the line was too much to ask for, particularly since Biden himself was not asking for that.
It was a coalition of the decent, Americans from all walks who decided that enough was enough and that our country was better than the last four years would suggest. Eighty-one million of us, a record-shattering number and the highest turnout in a century, agreed that Trump’s toxicity was a cause to leave aside all other arguments for the time being and do what had to be done.
We can, and should, be proud of that.
And then, after allowing ourselves to savor for a short while that he is gone, time for some straight talk:
America, we got lucky. On the laundry list of things Trump has been terrible at in his life, transforming our country into a fascist autocracy was only the latest.
After four years of constant chaos, endless lying, the near-daily horrors — like an official policy to rip children from the arms of their parents to discourage illegal border-crossings — we need to keep in mind that it could have been worse. As bad as it was, Trump had zero capacity for strategic thinking, no interest in learning from his mistakes, a nonexistent attention span. So, yes, he absolutely admired and praised murderous dictators and had authoritarian tendencies himself, including, of course, his repeated attempts to steal the election he could not win, capped off with the deadly QAnon Coup attempt of Jan. 6. But he was inept and terrible at implementing his impulses.
He was never even popular, starting and ending his presidency disliked by a majority of Americans and never once cracking that 50% approval mark. What makes this particularly stunning is how easy it would have been for him to accomplish that. By making token efforts to reach out to his skeptics, by behaving like a normal adult for even a short period of time, he could have improved his chances for reelection dramatically. By managing the pandemic even halfway competently, he could have made a second term a near-certainty.
Astonishingly, he never even tried. From the start, he and his White House kept calling his 2016 victory “historic” when the only thing unprecedented about it was that he managed to win the Electoral College despite having lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million. He had gotten spectacularly lucky, with both the help from Russia and the letters from then-FBI Director James Comey sabotaging his Democratic opponent in the final days. Trump, however, appeared never to appreciate this and continued acting as if he could guarantee himself reelection by tending to his base, which seemed to revel in his autocratic leanings.
Which brings us to the really scary part: Trump’s clear preference for unbridled power did not seem to make him an unacceptable choice for vast swaths of America. Despite a completely botched response to the coronavirus pandemic, despite out-in-the-open corruption and exhausting dishonesty, some 45% of Americans still approved of his performance in the Oval Office, and a slightly higher percentage of them actually cast their ballots for him.
That, perhaps, is the most bewildering, and, frankly, the most unnerving piece of data about our country to emerge since the escalator ride.
After five full years of Trump in our lives, with four of those as the country’s chief executive and commander in chief of the armed forces, 74 million Americans decided that, yes, what our country needed was four more years of this.
Trump was a thoroughly unserious person in a serious-as-a-heart-attack job, using his presidency to divert taxpayer, donor and special interest money into his own pockets while failing to perform the most basic duties of the office — taking his intelligence briefings, just as one example — but nearly a half of all the voters in the country still believed he deserved a second term?
This says so, so much about us as a nation, and it’s depressing even to contemplate.
It is true that the vast majority of Americans are not actively engaged in world or national affairs and view their political leaders through the narrowest of prisms: how they, personally, and those close to them are doing financially. And if they feel they are doing pretty well, then the person in charge gets the credit. And that, right there, is a recipe not just for disaster, but the end of the American experiment.
Trump was too lazy, impulsive and ignorant to set himself up as a strongman. But who’s to say that the next fascism-curious nominee who comes along will be that inept? What’s clear from this election is that Trump could very easily have won a second term. It is true that Biden got a record turnout, but it is also true that he wound up needing a massive turnout because of the Republican-friendly structure of the Electoral College. Had 42,918 votes shifted in Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin, the result would have been a 269-269 tie, which would have been broken in Trump’s favor in the U.S. House.
If that does not terrify you, it should. For Trump to have won in 2016 was one thing. A con artist with no knowledge or interest in governing pulled the wool over 63 million pairs of eyes to take power. But to get some 11 million more votes after four full years of showing the country exactly what sort of human being he was? This was no longer a fluke. Lots of people who did not vote for Trump the first time actually liked what they saw and came out to return him to office.
The chaos, the childishness, and worse, the meanness and the cruelty — to tens of millions of voters, this was not a bug, it seems, but a feature. That should scare us. The next would-be dictator almost certainly will not be as indolent and as incompetent as Donald J. Trump. That should scare us even more.
Copyright © by S.V. Dáte. Published by Sounion Books February 2021. Excerpted by permission.