Minimizing the Legacy of Donald J Trump
When Elizabeth Warren was campaigning with Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire last Monday, she expressed a wish that so many of us now share, when she promised Donald Trump that “on November 8th, we nasty women are gonna march our nasty feet to cast our nasty votes to get you out of our lives forever.”1 Getting Donald Trump out of our lives forever is a noble endeavor. It is one that many of us would give our right arm to see happen; but sadly, getting Donald Trump out of our lives is likely to be far more difficult an operation than simply voting him down as president in November.
Because he and his campaign will leave a legacy that will last well beyond this election unless it is explicitly addressed and politically refuted. Indeed, losing the election on November is likely, at least in the short term, to embed in the body of American politics the very things that have alienated so many right-thinking Americans from his candidacy and program. Donald J. Trump has stained American democracy in 2016, and that stain is likely to persist until and unless it is well and truly washed out.
The individual bits of the legacy are presumably well known. There is, first and foremost, the sordid nature of so much that we have been obliged to contemplate as voters because of his reputation, past practices and current accusers. The painful details of sexual harassment, and sexual violence, have rarely been off the front page of US (and it should be said, many leading overseas) newspapers, or far from the headlines on one news broadcast after another. And because they have not, many of us have found ourselves needing a mental shower to clean away the grotesqueness of the things he has been accused of doing, and of the matters he has relitigated against the Clintons as part of his defense. Presidential election campaigns, at their best, are crusades of hope. This one, by contrast, has far too often been a ride through the sewer.2
Then there has been the bigotry – the bigotry in the language and policy proposals of Trump the candidate, and the bigotry and animosity he has released into the public square from sections of the crowds who have rallied to his cause. Part of that bigotry has been sexist. Part has been racist.3 All has been ugly; and all has re-energized that hidden section of the American right which to this day has not come to terms with the profound social revolutions now underway in the wider American society: revolutions in the roles and power of women, revolutions in the rising power of minority populations, and revolutions in the range of accepted modes of sexuality and living. The bigotry has often been repackaged as a challenge to political correctness, but the political correctness on which we now insist is itself the product of (and an index of) the success of past movements of social reform. By challenging political correctness, and by talking up old sexist and ethnic stereotypes the Trump campaign has not only sought to put a misogynistic narcissist4 in the White House. It has also threatened to turn the clock back, undermining by executive action some of the greatest gains of a half-century era of expanding civil rights.
And then there is the denigration of his political opponent5 and his undermining of the legitimacy both of her candidacy and of any electoral victory that she inflicts upon him. There is nothing new, of course, in the leadership of the Republican Party seeking to de-legitimize Democratic presidents. Even in modern times, the practice goes back to at least the impeachment crisis of the first Clinton presidency, and was very evidence in the determination of Mitch McConnell to make the first black president a one-term phenomenon. But Donald Trump has taken this de-legitimation thing to a whole new level by making two claims that other Republican presidential nominees have not. One is that his opponent has no right to be in the race because she is a criminal – a strategy of de-legitimation he first tried on Barack Obama via his birther comments. The second is that, win or lose, the whole electoral system is rigged – and rigged against him. On this argument, if he loses it will be only because the election was stolen from him….
…and more dangerous still, stolen from his supporters. The biggest danger that this form of argument leaves us with is the problem of the dog whistle: the danger that – having told his supporters over-and-over again that Hilary Clinton is a crook and that the Washington elites are conspiring against him to deny him power – that one/more of his followers will interpret that as a call to political violence. Conspiracy theories abound on the Alternative Right, often given extra credence and publicity on the Breitbart News outlet headed by Donald Trump’s current campaign chairman, among the most potent of which is the claim that the Democrats are secretly planning to abolish the Second Amendment and take away the private ownership of guns.6 All you need to do to trigger street protests and marches is to repeat the claims of elite manipulation of the results. All you need to do to mobilize the anger of the more extreme libertarians in the gun community is to repeat the claim that the Second Amendment is under assault;7 and all you need to do to discredit Hillary Clinton as a legitimate president is to regularly repeat old accusations of foul play by both Clintons that have been around on the Alt-Right since the 1990s. Donald Trump has regularly made all three claims, and because he has, the real and present danger is clear:8 unless Donald Trump, if defeated on November 8, concedes defeat with a graciousness9 he has yet to show in this campaign, then our post-election politics may become (at least temporarily) even more sordid and depressing than they have been hitherto.10
How long and how depressing will partly turn on how quickly the Trump support-bubble can be burst, and how quickly it bursts under its own contradictions; and on this latter at least, we need to be careful.
The Trump campaign has regularly been written off as a failure, with people waiting to see it implode and vanish at every stage of its development; and it hasn’t imploded yet. But this time it might, not least because of the damage being done to the Trump brand by the regular exposure of potential customers to the character and bluster of the man himself.11 Maybe people will choose not to use Trump hotels. Maybe Donald Trump’s millions will be quickly shown to be imaginary; and maybe one or more of the accusations of sexual misconduct leveled against him will give him and his accusers their day in court. Maybe, but maybe not: and if not, what Donald Trump’s campaign has done is to leave him – if he does indeed lose on November 8 – well-positioned to present himself as the cheated champion of the American dispossessed. Until his bubble is burst, that is, this election campaign may simply be the first round in an ongoing saga of Trump demagoguery.12
So his bubble needs bursting – not by him, but by us. It needs bursting by a systemic attack on poverty in general, led by the Democratic Party, an attack designed to separate Donald Trump from his base by programs that address white working class poverty just as strongly as they address poverty in minority communities.13 And it needs bursting by the making of a complete break with the style and content of his campaign, a break that will need to be led almost exclusively by the Republicans. The Democrats need to return to a politics based on class inequality14 rather than racial inequality, and the Republicans need to break decisively with the soft bigotry of their 40-year long “southern strategy.”15 Donald Trump may be the immediate problem, but he is also a response to problems of greater longevity and depth; and if we do not want to see him in our lives again (or some younger version of the same phenomenon) it is to the addressing of those underlying problems that we all need urgently to turn once this election is finally over.
2 For a more positive spin, see Matthew Arnold, “Donald Trump’s Campaign Has Been Vile and Offensive – And We Should Thank Him for That,” The Nation, October 26, 2016: available at https://www.thenation.com/article/donald-trumps-campaign-has-been-vile-and-offensive-and-we-should-thank-him-for-that/
3 Kali Holloway, “’The Blacks’ and ‘The Latinos’: Trump’s Blatant Racism is Visible for All to See,” posted on Alternet.org, October 24, 2016: available at http://www.alternet.org/election-2016/blacks-and-latinos-trumps-blatant-racism-visible-all-see
4 Michael Barbaro, “What Drives Donald Trump? Fear of Losing Status, Tapes Show,” The New York Times, October 25, 2016: available at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/26/us/politics/donald-trump-interviews.html?_r=0
5 Adele M. Stan, “Hatred of Hillary is Trump’s Rallying Cry at Campaign Events North and South,” posted on Alternet.org, October 25, 2016: available at http://www.alternet.org/election-2016/trump-rallies-south-and-rust-belt
6 Jim Tankersley, “Trump’s Advisers see another conspiracy – far from the campaign trail,” posted on The Washington Post, October 24, 2016: available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/10/24/trumps-advisers-see-another-conspiracy-far-from-the-campaign-trail/
7 Heather Digby-Parton, “Where Will Donald Trump’s Violent and Dangerous Rhetoric Lead After November 8,” posted on Alternet.org, October 25, 2016: available at http://www.salon.com/2016/10/25/where-will-donald-trumps-violent-and-dangerous-rhetoric-lead-after-nov-8/
8 Bill Berkowitz, “When the Election is Over, It Will Not Be Done,” posted on Alternet.org, October 22, 2016: available at http://www.truth-out.org/buzzflash/commentary/when-the-election-is-over-it-will-not-be-done
9 See Michael E. O’Hanlon, “Losing with Dignity,” posted on Brookings, October 21, 2016: available at https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2016/10/21/losing-with-dignity/
11 See Jason Linkins, “Trump’s Got A New Hotel Venture, But You Didn’t Hear About It From Him,” posted on The Huffington Post, October 25, 2016: available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/trump-scion-hotel_us_580f6e1fe4b000d0b1589d66
12 James Nevius, “Could a third party with actual power be Donald Trump’s next political move?’ posted on The Guardian, October 25, 2016: available at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/oct/25/third-party-politics-donald-trump
15 Michael Gerson, “Where the new right went wrong,” posted on The Washington Post, October 24, 2016: available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/where-the-new-right-went-wrong/2016/10/24/154baa7c-9a1e-11e6-9980-50913d68eacb_story.html?utm_term=.d48c8ab3c511
David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.
He writes here in a personal capacity.