Wednesday, January 06, 2021

Trump Exceptionalism Versus Trump As Truth Serum Revisited: Trump As Infection

 by Michael C. Dorf

In the heat of the 2016 general election for President, I considered two tactics that Democrats might pursue. One--which I labeled "Trump exceptionalism"--would treat Trump as an aberration and repudiation of American values shared by Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. This approach aimed to expand the group of what have come to be known as never-Trump Republicans. It held out the possibility of defeating Trump while it risked strengthening the hand of down-ballot Republicans who could appeal to their traditional base without associating themselves with the racism and other ugliness Trump embodied.

The other approach--which I labeled "Trump as truth serum"--drew on longstanding racist patterns of GOP voter suppression and dog-whistle politics to argue that Trump was simply a cruder version of what Republicans have stood for at least since Nixon's Southern Strategy. Trump as truth serum was the equivalent of a saying I recently read from a fortune cookie: A drunk man's words are a sober man's thoughts. Trump as truth serum held out the hope of using Trump to discredit not only the execrable man himself but the party he was bidding to lead.

My main concern in the 2016 column was tactical: how to portray Trump. But I was also interested in the underlying factual question of whether Trump was the repudiation or the culmination of Republican politics. Obviously, the answer need not be either/or. In some respects Trump marks a break with prior GOP politics, and in other respects he is its continuation.

In the 50+ months since I wrote my initial column, I have come to think that I neglected a third possibility--that Trump is an infection. If, in the fall of 2016, the GOP was X% Trumpy and thus (100-X)% non-Trumpy, after the Trump infection has had over four years to spread, the Republican Party is now (X+𝚫)% Trumpy and (100-X-𝚫)% non-Trumpy. We can debate the exact size of the delta, but it seems to me undeniable that its sign is positive and its magnitude is substantial.

The madness that will unfold in Congress today--in which a majority of Republican House members and a substantial number of Republican Senators will refuse to certify the winner of the Electoral College vote based on baseless and racist allegations of voter fraud--confirms as much. Had Trump lost in 2016 but baselessly claimed then, as he does now, that he really won, it is hard to imagine that the likes of Ted Cruz would have been rallying to defend him, rather than blaming Trump for losing an election that a generic Republican would have won.

While I sincerely hope that Reverend Warnock's victory and Mr. Ossoff's likely victory will cause many Republicans to sour on Trump, we are not there yet. Indeed, showing that she intends her brief political career to end in a blaze of Trumpian shame, Senator Loeffler has yet to concede. Like our nation suffering the worst effects of COVID-19 even as vaccines offer hope at long last, so today we will see a terrible manifestation of the Trumpian disease even as Georgia is on the verge of inoculating the body politic. Indeed, in both contexts, the infection will spread before it comes under control.

My most recent Verdict column, which was published on Monday, discusses the immediate and long-term dangers from the craven efforts of Cruz, Josh Hawley, and the other ambitious sycophants joining in their seditious enterprise today. Here I want to focus on how that effort relates to the spread of the Trump disease. Before doing so, however, I wish to clarify why in the Verdict column and above I refer to the Trump voter fraud lie as racist rather than merely deranged.

Unlike the white supremacists whom Trump retweets and with whom Kelly Loeffler poses for photographs, even now most Republican elected officials eschew express racism. And even Trump himself does not (publicly) say in so many words that he supports white supremacy (although he comes close). When I say that Trump's effort is racist, I mean that it is racist much in the way that Trump's birther lie about Obama was racist without being expressly cloaked in race-specific language. Trump was trying to otherize Obama then, much as he and his allies have been trying to otherize African American and other minority voters in the post-election period.

The best that might be said for the Trump campaign's post-election fraudulent fraud charges is that by singling out major cities for their claims of fraud, they are going after Democrats, not African Americans per se. That might be a plausible defense if the entirety of the charge involved the Trump litigation team. But it isn't. Consider that during the oral argument in a recent Wisconsin Supreme Court case, Justice Jill Karofsky accused Trump's lawyers of racism in raising objections to mailed and dropped-off ballots in Milwaukee and Dane--which are heavily African American--but not to such ballots in whiter parts of the state. The Trump lawyer said the campaign couldn't afford to pay for recounts elsewhere in the state, which was an obvious lie given how much Trump grifted based on his post-election litigation, but a truthful answer might have absolved him and his team of full-on racism. He might have said something like this: Of course we're only challenging ballots in places we lost, which, given racially polarized voting, means places that are disproportionately African American. But our goal in so doing is to harvest as much of an advantage as possible. There's no illicit racial intent.

I think there is likely some truth to that defense, at least with respect to some of Trump's lawyers. But of course the precise litigation strategy in Wisconsin is only a small piece of the overall Trump attack on the election. The broader attack has focused overwhelmingly on "Democrat cities," with Trump and his white supremacist supporters and amplifiers fixating on images of African American poll workers in Philadelphia, Atlanta, Detroit, and Milwaukee--even though Biden under-performed expectations in those and other major cities, winning because of the ground he gained among whiter suburban voters. The fraud claim focused on major cities makes no statistical sense, but it appeals to the prejudices of Trump supporters primed to regard African American votes as illegitimate. Cruz and Hawley are evil but not stupid, so they surely understand the racism at the core of Trump's fraud claims, and they choose to amplify it nonetheless.

And that is how the Trump infection spreads. In my Verdict column, I quote a recent op-ed by Ruth Marcus in which she says that the Hawley gambit is not necessarily bad because it "forces a vote that will have the salutary effect of requiring his Republican colleagues to decide--and to put on the record --whether their loyalty is to President Trump or to the Constitution. Better to know than to guess. Better to inflict some accountability rather than to enable dodging." If I thought there would be accountability, I might agree, but we have learned over the last several years that there is no accountability, except in the sense that no good deed goes unpunished.

What's more, Marcus seems to assume that the votes in the House and the Senate merely reveal what was there all along. They don't. Requiring people to make a choice--if the choice is fateful enough--changes who they are.

A world in which Republican members of Congress must decide whether avoiding a primary challenge is more important to them than avoiding debasing themselves by showing fealty to a corrupt, venal, narcissistic, racist authoritarian is a world in which the Republicans who choose Trump and his base come to see democracy as optional. Today they will excuse Trump's eleventh-hour pressuring of the Georgia Secretary of State to "find" just enough votes to flip the state; in a few years, they will think there's nothing wrong with Congress routinely choosing the President (so long as it's a Republican); after that, they'll excuse the arrest of journalists for reporting what is, they'll assure themselves, fake news.

Human beings are plastic. Who they are and what they are capable of doing is only partly a product of their genetic endowments and their upbringing. Circumstances and dramatic events can also shape or reshape them.

I first met my late great-uncle Eddie when I was a child and he was what I thought was old. He seemed timid and half-broken. He worried about everything. Yet years earlier, as a private in the US Army, Eddie had stormed the beach at Normandy and fought bravely in the Battle of the Bulge, losing a good many of his comrades in arms. I couldn't understand how that brave young man turned into the shell I knew. In retrospect it's obvious: PTSD changed him.

Moral choices also change people.

My late mother-in-law Clara was born and raised until her teen years in what was then Poland and is now Ukraine. When Clara was young, her family had excellent relations with their Christian neighbors. They would pay each other social visits and exchange gifts on one another's respective religious holidays. Then one day shortly after Hitler invaded Poland but before German troops arrived in their village, some neighbors entered Clara's home. Surprised, Clara's mother asked what was going on. The neighbors replied that they were scouting out the house and belongings because the family wouldn't be needing any of it much longer. They were right. Clara fled and survived the war in hiding before emigrating to the U.S. The rest of the family were murdered by the einsatzgruppen.

The neighbors had not been Nazis before the war. Of course that does not absolve them of the immoral choice they made. Others made a different choice, often at great personal risk. But the pressure to choose a path does not merely reveal a person's moral character; it also shapes it.

What was true in the Ardennes for Eddie 75 years ago and for the beginning of the destruction of Eastern European Jewry 80 years ago is true for the attempted destruction of American democracy today. We will not merely find out how many Republicans in Congress are infected with Trumpism. Today's exercise will spread the Trump infection.


Henry Baker said...

Why would Kelly Loeffler concede? What personal or professional price has Stacey Abrams paid for not conceding her 2018 Georgia election loss? Her refusal to concede has made her a star in the Democratic Party, to the extent that, as I understand it, she was seriously considered as Biden’s running mate. She almost achieved an Agnew-esque level rise (private citizen to county Commissioner to governor to Vice President in something like 6 years). As far as I can tell, this was not in spite of her refusal to concede, but in fact mainly because of that refusal.

As to your main thesis, that TrumpIsm is a virus that has captured the GOP. Perhaps, but it seems more likely to me that Trump, through a combination of some degree of natural political talent and good luck, hit upon a strategy that very narrowly won a national election — namely, a form of populism that peeled white working class voters away from the Democratic Party.

Of course, as I said, Trump was very lucky. His antics in the 2016 GOP primary were boorish and crude, but 1) gave him media attention at a stage of the race where such attention is the oxygen that sustains a campaign (while depriving opposing campaigns of the same oxygen) and 2) gave a big chunk of the Republican electorate what they craved —a fighter — after years of perceived noble losers like McCain and Romney. Further, his antics didn’t backfire against Hillary because she is and was almost as unlikeable as Trump, and let herself be drawn into a battle on his terms. (She also ran an atrocious campaign in 2016 while Trump’s people ran an excellent campaign).

In short, mainly through luck, Trump won in 2016. However, the lesson he took away was not that good luck allowed him to win *despite* his bad behavior; he apparently came to believe that his petulance and boorishness is the *reason* he won and therefore never even attempted to govern as someone who had gotten 44% of the vote.

Many Republicans in national office now believe that they can replicate Trump’s coalition, while also being personally likeable. They also probably believe that in 2024 they won’t have the misfortune of running during a once in a century pandemic nor against genuinely popular and likeable Joe Biden. Whether any or all of the above is true remains to be seen, but it is likely the safest bet.

So, viral infection? I don’t think so. More like, a class of politicians seeking to emulate a somewhat successful rival. They haven’t actually changed their ideology, merely their presentation of that ideology.

Michael C. Dorf said...

Nothing you say above contradicts anything I wrote. The fact that people want a disease or want to infect others with it doesn't make it not a disease. Also, so far as I'm aware, Stacey Abrams did not attempt to exercise the powers of the Governor of Georgia, whereas today Kelly Loeffler -- who was never elected to any office -- will vote in the US Senate to disenfranchise voters in her state and others. And Loeffler's reasons are complete horseshit believed by people who also believe that Democrats are lizard-people running child-sex-trafficking rings in secret, whereas Abrams was shining a light on Georgia's well-documented and extensive efforts to disenfranchise African Americans. But troll right along with your claims of equivalence. I'm probably a lizard-person too.

Henry Baker said...

I’m no fan of Kelly Loeffler. As far as I can tell, her entire political career was essentially a mechanism to feed her husband illicit stock advice. I don’t believe that your estimation of the cynicism behind her career even matches mine. But I also don’t believe that Stacey Abrams’ actions were somehow guided by a beautiful or noble purpose.

Stacey Abrams decided that a farcical refusal to acknowledge the result of an election would be more advantageous to her than a gracious concession speech. She appears to have been correct in this calculation. Kelly Loeffler now must make the same calculation. She will likely do whichever choice she believes is most helpful to her future political career.

In 1960, in an election in which he might very well have been defrauded, Richard Nixon decided (rightly, as it turns out) that a gracious concession was the correct answer.

Ironically, it at least appears to me at this juncture that Trump may have fatally wounded any future political ambitions by his post-election antics. 3 years is a long time in politics, so who knows. Maybe he’ll come back and win in 2024 after all. But I highly doubt it. He had a small chance of that in November. Now, he seems to be toxic to his own party.

I guess at bottom though, the Republican Party (like the Democratic Party) is evolving. Trump’s personal behavior is only vaguely connected to the future of the GOP. But the Republican Party going forward will continue to become more populist — more economically liberal, and more nationalist in outlook. Either that, or it will go extinct. It really has no choice. To me, a Republican who adopts populist nationalism isn’t infected by a virus, but merely adopting a survival strategy.

I’m not sure how that makes you a lizard person, or me a troll. I meant all of the above as friendly disagreement, and apologize if I caused offense.

Unknown said...

Hard disagree on Wisconsin. After they beat Justice Louis Butler in the late 2000s on an explicitly racist campaign, there is no argument that the Wisconsin republican party is anything other than a white supremacist organization.

Steve Davis said...

I think two things can be true. Trump is to some degree the culmination of the Republican Party's decision to court, and ultimately get taken over by, the South, the part of the country that is least rational and most racist and most xenophobic. The Republican party has become the QAnon party. A large segment of its supporters is completely nuts. That's how we got Trump.

But I also think of Trump as being like the Mule in Asimov's Foundation series. He's unique. He's the X factor that no one predicted or could have predicted. And when he's gone, which he will be soon, I don't know what will remain in his place. I don't see another Trump out there. I don't know if it's possible to replace him. He's a weird, singular figure. That's my hope -- that without Trump Trumpism cannot survive.

But I've been consistently wrong in all my predictions about Trump, so there's that.

kotodama said...

Steve Davis put it well. By the same token, I think Prof. D. is being way too charitable and diplomatic when discussing all the sinister doings of the Rs and their flunkies. But, that's a credit to him. If it were me I wouldn't be able to help myself.

Also, I think some potentially viable Trump replacements will materialize, but probably from a very unexpected place. In other words, I doubt it will involve a transformation of an existing R who's already a known quantity. Some folks out there are speculating about Kanye, for example. Now that would truly be the anti-Obama! There are also rumors of an Ivanka primary challenge to Rubio in 2022. So we'll see.

Joe said...

"He's the X factor that no one predicted or could have predicted."

I don't think this is true.

What exactly is shocking about him?

People who were prescient was talking about him winning the office years ago. The next level is often shocking (same sex marriage, e.g., seemed to be nationalized rather fast) but taking him as a whole, what is so surprising about him?

Reagan decades ago showed the value of someone who had great skills as a performer. Trump thrived in the 21st Century mode here, reality television, after years of selling himself in other ways.

His message is not novel. His overall brand of authoritarianism isn't either. Many have wrote about this. See, e.g., Ruth Ben-Ghiat's book on strongman. The support of evangelicals for Trump has been discussed by many too, including a dissenting evangelical, the history professor John Fea.

Trump is a dangerous figure that comes on the scene over the years repeatedly. We saw it in the U.S. in the 1930s and the Republican Party was ripe for it. 2016 was a prime time too with Hillary Clinton running, just as Biden -- who is overall a median Democratic figure but over the years repeatedly failed in presidential runs -- fits the times now as compared to past elections (2016 arguably was different, but personal reasons make it but a "what if").

We want to think of him winning as "luck" or something. It isn't. It is a result of troubling aspects in our system combined with more mundane things (a media star winning is not surprising or necessarily bad if they have other talents). As protestors invaded the U.S. Capitol, maybe we can be a bit more honest about ourselves.

Scott said...
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Scott said...

The world's progressive people have a moral and political duty to support Donald Trump. "Workers" in the USA, for the most part, add little or no value to commodities. Fot this and other reasons, there is no positive revolutionary potential in the United States. The best thing American leftists can do to hasten the dialectically inevitable triumph of the global working class is to sabotage U.S. imperialism. General Kim Jong Un said "it is impossible to build socialism while U.S. imperialism exists." The assclown Donald Trump and all that he represents pose an existential threat to U.S. imperialism, as evidenced by a recent anti-Trump letter signed by all living former U.S. Secretaries of Defense, including notorious warmongers Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. Accordingly, we must all embrace the line that Donald Trump is a unique genius and champion of American workers, while the CCP virus was surely created by Tony Fauci amd Jeffrey Epstein in the basement of Comet Pizza.

Michael A Livingston said...

I’m a big uncomfortable with the term “infection” here—too much like the 30s—but otherwise an interesting analysis. You might find interesting Kathleen Belew, Bring the War Home, on the original of the hard right among returning veterans. I think the woman killed at the Capitol was a former Air Force officer, or member anyway.