Two fervent Donald Trump supporters die and go to heaven. Soon after their arrival they meet God. “Please can you tell us,” they ask him, “did President Trump really win the presidential election or did he lose it because of fraud?”
“I can definitively tell you that Joe Biden won the presidency fairly by 306 to 232 votes in the electoral college and there was absolutely no fraud,” responds the Almighty. The Trump supporters look at him suspiciously for a moment before one turns to the other and whispers: “I can see that the conspiracy goes even higher than we thought.”
The moral of the story is that there will always be a pro-Trump core of Americans who will be convinced, whatever the lack of evidence, that their man should have stayed in the White House. Some commentators gloomily predict that Trumpism will outlast Trump, citing the 74 million who voted for him and the majority of Republicans who believe in his nonsense claims about winning the election.
On the other hand, many hope that Trump was an aberration in American history, a grotesque political accident not likely to recur – and that the defeat of his type of politics will be final.
Over the past four years I have felt that Trump’s opponents have misunderstood his strengths and weaknesses, underestimating and overestimating them at the same time. Above all else, he is an obsessive self-publicist – a common enough trait among politicians – but one of extraordinary capabilities when it comes to dominating the news agenda by skilfully using Twitter and sympathetic television networks like Fox News.
This is a difficult to do, let alone go on doing it for years as he poured out tweets precisely geared to provoking attention-grabbing headlines in newspapers and on newscasts. Outrageous lies and personal scandals did him little damage and attracted soaring television ratings. This will be a hard – and probably an impossible – act to follow by those Republican leaders manoeuvring to inherit Trump’s support.
Many fear that Trump is not permanently out of business and over the next four years, he will be lurking in Mar-a-Lago, his Palm Beach estate, like some American version of General Charles de Gaulle waiting in Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, for a return to power. Yet this is close to impossible once he is out of the White House and no longer has the magic of executive power to attract his devotees. Without Twitter and instant access to Fox News as a megaphone for his views, he will become ever more isolated.
Significant also is the fact that he is no longer permanently entertaining, something that guaranteed him a constant presence – even on television stations that detested him. This has long enabled him to dominate the news agenda in the US and in the rest of the world to a degree that has come to feel normal to both friends and enemies. But since the election, his entertainment value has ebbed and he sounds more and more deranged as he rants on about how he was robbed of office.
The problem for Trumpism is that it does not stand for much without Trump himself and his instinctive understanding, honed by his long years as a star of reality TV, about how to dominate in an age awash with information. Trumpism has never been an ideology like European fascism in the 1920s and 1930s, but is an incoherent body of fears, hatreds and dreams. More than most such movements, Trumpism needs a leader.
How far will Joe Biden be able to repair the damage inflicted by Trump on America? The simple fact of the country not being run by an unhinged crackpot obviously enhances its government’s competence at home and influence abroad. Political establishments everywhere are almost sobbing with relief.
However, the very fact that America could produce such a leader, who should so mismanage the Covid-19 crisis as to leave 400,000 Americans dead, is not something that is going to be forgotten in the world’s collective memory.
All great powers depend to a degree on bluff and exaggerated assumptions of their superiority. That bluff has been called and America is permanently weakened. It should always have been evident that the US was deeply divided, primarily by race and the legacy of slavery and the Civil War. Once this was passed off as irrelevant history, but no longer. In future, there will always be an expectation after the invasion of the Capitol on 6 January that what happened once could happen again.
Members of the far-right mob who are facing long prison sentences are sensibly claiming that they acted only on the instructions of President Trump as they understood them. It will not be easy for him to wholly disavow them.
For all his radical rhetoric, Trump did little beyond advancing the traditional Republican programme of cutting taxes and reducing regulation. For his masses of “left-behind” followers, he did nothing beyond words and promises.
There was a phoniness at the heart of the whole Trump project and there is something satisfactory in the way that it is his bellicose demagoguery on the day of the Capitol invasion, which he probably did not expect to be taken seriously, that may now destroy him.