(Bloomberg Opinion) -- “‘All right,’ said the Cat; and this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone.”
— Lewis Carroll, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”
At least 74.6 million voters have rescued America from another four years on the rack with Donald Trump. They’ve spared us more of the gratuitous bile, aimless carnival barking and rapid-fire obscenities — the sheer volume of which hid some, but not all, of its danger.
We needed those voters because Trump spent years running roughshod over institutions that have traditionally helped rein in presidents. Anyone who approached Trump as a rational actor — whether members of the media, the judiciary and law enforcement, or Congress — rather than as a deeply abnormal and chaotic whirlwind got left in his dust.
The news media had trouble making sense of Trump’s capacity to dislocate the public conversation by slinging propaganda willy-nilly. By-the-books prosecutors, notably former Special Counsel Robert Mueller, underestimated Trump’s capacity to corrupt the law enforcement apparatus that surrounded him. The Republican Party didn’t know how to contend with him either, cowed as it was by its torches-and-pitchforks wing and Trump’s unvarnished embrace of racism and populism — so it succumbed.
Congressional Democrats saw Trump for who he was and eventually tried impeachment, but they were unable to remove him from office. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Attorney General William Barr also saw Trump for exactly who he was and used him to further their own agendas. (McConnell got more conservative courts and a deep tax cut; Barr got to help Trump shape an imperial presidency.)
An unfettered Trump wound up providing the country and the history books with a case study in the perils of riotously delinquent leadership.
Trump had no transition team or governing plan in place when he was elected in 2016. He made a parade of promises he largely failed to keep — except for two, that huge tax cut and a more conservative judiciary. He, his children and members of his administration stayed on the grift with their business interests while he sat in the Oval Office. He played his working-class base for fools. He ran up enormous public debts. He undermined America’s standing in the world. He presided over a Republican National Convention in August that had no platform. He presented no economic and policy agenda for a second term. When confronted with the Black Lives Matter movement, he chose to divide rather than unify. He failed to confront Covid-19.
In the end, voters — enough voters, at least — learned from all of this and denied Trump four more years in office. Yet the country is unlikely to fully move past Trump without taking responsibility for tolerating the forces that created him and without fixing the fundamental problems his presidency laid bare and amplified.
Trump gained power by probing and exploiting two of the country’s most glaring wounds: racism and income inequality. He didn’t invent those problems. Racism is a historic scar, rooted in slavery, nativism and oppression. Income inequality has been accelerating for decades. Trump stepped into the fissures created by economic dislocation and simmering racial hostilities and went about shredding long-standing myths about equality and progress in America.
In that context, Trump has provided a service. He’s forced us, in the roughest and most jarring of ways, to look closer at ourselves.
After all, it’s easy to blame Trumpism, a cult of personality opposed to facts and thriving on discord, entirely on Trump. But tens of millions of Americans buy into Trump’s performance art. They largely haven’t cared to know that the indefatigable self-promoter they love is in fact a dishonest, inept businessman and a cruel hustler.
When Trump’s base did recognize who he was, they were content to look away because he spoke to them. He appealed to their fears of economic helplessness and cultural marginalization, often in incendiary or manipulative ways — but, still, he spoke to them. Among many of the more affluent of Trump’s supporters, the raw appeal of a tax cut padding their wallets and smaller government staying out of their way added to his leverage.
And yet conceding Trump’s appeal is a far cry from accepting his methods or coddling the worst and most damaging instincts of his base. That’s a dead end given the challenges facing the country and the solutions needed to overcome them.
I have watched Trump closely for a long time, since 1990, and know that America could have seen him coming. That’s not to say I told you so but rather to ask: How did a country as gifted, prosperous and promising as the U.S. let this rodeo clown travel so far?
The answer: Trump is a mirror. He’s not an anomaly but a reflection of what’s gone wrong in the American experiment and of Americans’ anxiety about how best to repair it. That’s why at least 70.4 million Americans voted for him in this presidential election and why they weren’t disturbed by the issues that drove 74.6 million to vote the other way. That’s why we have an electoral map so starkly divided by geography, demography, income, race and cultural flashpoints.
The political schisms that have divided families and friendships in the Trump era are evidence of this. It’s not just the traditional differences between conservatives and liberals, the rights of individuals versus the needs of the state, that truly animate these ruptures, I suspect. Trump has forced people to take very personal stands on core values and issues — such as inequality and racism— that have been left to the side in homes and on the streets for far too long.
I also think it’s fine that these breakups are taking place. The same soul-defining clashes await both the Democratic and Republican parties in the wake of this election, and that stands to be a healthy and cleansing dynamic, too.
Meanwhile, Trump and Trumpism aren’t going anywhere. The country would be better off if they disappeared posthaste. But Trump is too needy, grasping and avaricious to just fade away gracefully. He may start a media company; he’ll continue to stage rallies; he’ll still use Twitter as a geyser of lies; and he’ll assert himself as a political power broker. And Trumpism is too rooted in the American fabric to vanish without systemic changes and a few more political and policy battles.
Everyone is exhausted, but it’s not time to take a nap just yet.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Timothy L. O'Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.
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