DARKNESS LOST IN the United States presidential election on Tuesday, November 3, 2020. Light won by a wide margin: 81 million popular votes for the Biden-Harris ticket versus 74 million for Trump-Pence and 306 Electoral College votes versus 232. However, Trump did not concede.
The defeated worked all legal and illegal angles to prevent President-elect Biden to succeed him. Trump’s “big lie” – the election was “rigged” yet I really won “in a landslide” – successfully reversed the 2020 election results in the minds of his followers to deadly and devastating effect. Incited by Trump’s dark-words narrative, his supporters stormed the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, in his name and with his flags to “STOP the STEAL” (Figure 1).
What Trump did between November 4, 2020, and January 6, 2021, was exactly what he said he would do. Four years earlier, in late October 2016, he “promised and pledged” to “all of the people of the United States” he would “totally accept the results of this great and historic presidential election – if I win.” In other words: Trump was set from the beginning to totally reject the voters’ verdict if he lost (see chapter 1).
Trump’s efforts to manipulate the 2020 election culminated in the concoction of ever wilder schemes to overturn its outcome. His transgressions earned Trump two impeachments from the US House of Representatives. One in 2019 for soliciting foreign interference in favor of his re-election bid, and a second one for his incitement of the January 6 insurrection.
Trump’s willingness to employ mob violence to derail the certification of a democratic election brought American democracy to the brink of collapse. Even then, the US Senate could not muster a two-thirds majority for a guilty verdict. It has acquitted Trump twice.
TRUMP’S FOUR YEARS in office are in the past now but the assault on American democracy by Trump and Trumpism is not over. A one-term president has vacated the White House, yet he maintains the fable of a landslide re-election. Trumpism and Trumpists keep this big lie alive proclaiming, “We Will Never Ever Ever Concede” (Bannon).
Two thirds of Republican voters believe Joseph Biden was illegitimately elected. Only 7 out of 50 Republican senators found Trump guilty of incitement. Mitch McConnell said Trump was “practically and morally responsible for provoking” a brutal domestic terrorist attack on the US Capitol, but he voted “not guilty.”
All Democrats can agree with McConnell’s words about the national “disgrace” of January 6:
American citizens attacked their own government. They used terrorism to try to stop a specific piece of democratic business they did not like. Fellow Americans beat and bloodied our own police. They stormed the Senate floor. They tried to hunt down the Speaker of the House. They built a gallows and chanted about murdering the Vice President. They did this because they had been fed wild falsehoods by the most powerful man on Earth – because he was angry he’d lost an election.1
This much is clear. Everybody knows that Trump broke all norms of democratic behavior. He trampled its explicit as well as tacit rules and gained momentum for doing so. He has gotten away with leaving the legislative branch of the American government under assault and unprotected. Trump has set a precedent for better or for worse.
The Democratic Party must sway workers, rural Americans, white men, and non-college educated voters, but the Republican Party must fight an existential battle for its identity. Radical Trumpism (T-Plus) targeted the traditional understanding of Republican conservatism from the start. McConnell’s recent break with Trump and the angry Trumpian shouts, “Destroy the GOP! Destroy the GOP!” (during the second Million MAGA March in December 2020), have put this struggle on the Republican agenda.
America’s future is wobbling atop a cluster of unsolved problems. Can Democrats and Republicans overcome the zero-sum behavior of dark party politics and find common cause in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic? How does one defend factual truth against rampant conspiracy theories and post-truth narratives on social media? American democracy and its institutions need protection against populist assaults and authoritarian propaganda, yet Trump and Trumpism use populism and authoritarianism to derail democracy.
Who or what will be more consequential, Trump or Trumpism? Nobody knows yet. But one thing is evident: Trumpism was conceived to survive Trump and it has all it needs in terms of manpower and money to prosper.
In 2016, the ideologues of T-Plus considered Trump “the principal vehicle of Trumpism,” i.e. a great carrier for Trumpism, but nothing more (see chapter 3). Yet in 2020, the erstwhile “vehicle” had gained the tremendous traction of 74 million votes. Will that power remain with Trump or fuel Trumpism? Will it transform the Republican Party further in Trump’s image or run out of steam and dissipate?
FOUR YEARS AGO, when I wrote Dark Words and Deadly Winds, I did not know how close Americans would come to wake up to tweets from its first dictator. I feared this was where Trump and the country was heading.
Make no mistake now. Yes, Trump is out of office and may not return, but Trumpism is not yet made small again. T-Plus is alive in coalitions of much too many Americans of high and low socio-economic status. They will seek a comeback via Trumpism.
Revisiting the chapters from 2017, I found my essay depressingly accurate. Trump and radical Trumpism expressed themselves rather bluntly and I took their dark words seriously. The eight whirlwinds in the dark Trumpian force field – technology, free speech, capitalism, demography, party politics, geopolitics, political culture, and philosophy – did not lose but gain strength. And finally, unlike most other approaches in the sprawling library of Trump books and articles, I aimed to capture the context that enabled Trump and Trumpism, present a comprehensive, panoramic picture of its, and our, stormy landscape.
- “Read McConnell’s remarks on the Senate floor following Trump’s acquittal.” CNN, 13 February 2021.