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.