Trump is the embodiment of American excess: pure anti-intellectualism, self-congratulation and wealth. His obsessive need to see more of himself in the world has committed him to imprinting his name on casinos, skyscrapers and golden toilets in a cartoonish, Nietzschean excess. As one of the most iconic characters on reality TV, Trump was able to brand himself as authoritative and brutish—a winner. Yet, the traits Trump displays are traits most people would want to hide. He is a self-obsessed huckster who brags about wealth he doesn’t actually have, a pervert who sneaks backstage at beauty pageants to watch the competitors undressing, the founder of a scam university that tricked 6,000 students into paying up to $35,000 for unaccredited “education.” Yet all these horrible things actually helped Trump ascend to the White House. At this point in history, the negation of all values is a political advantage and an infantile mindset has come to characterize the American conservative consciousness.
Trump’s career began in the 1970s, with the purchase and revamping of the Grand Hyatt hotel in New York. By 1982, his wealth had increased to an estimated net worth of $200 million and his cultural presence and political prospects among east coast society were growing. In 1998, political lobbyist and professional dipshit Roger Stone spotted Trump’s political potential and convinced the then 52-year-old to seek the nomination of the Reform Party, under whose aegis he ran against George W. Bush for the presidency. Trump declared that, “If I couldn’t win, if I felt I couldn’t win, I wouldn’t run” and promptly dropped out of the race in 2000, after polls predicted a landslide. So what changed in the intervening two decades to make it possible for a third-party dropout to become the Republican president of the United States?
The important factor here clearly isn’t Trump himself, since he lacks all capacity for self-criticism and personal growth. But, over the past twenty years, the cultural landscape has shifted to such an extent that it is now possible for a Trump-like character to position himself at the center of power. One major cause of this shift is an increasing sense of cultural displacement and political disenfranchisement among middle-class Americans. This has multiple causes. First, the share of wealth owned by the elite has skyrocketed, creating a historic separation of the ruling from the middle classes. Second, the woke brigade has imposed political correctness on the United States like a kind of national superego and this ideology now has more moral clout than Christianity. Third, recent presidential elections have been dominated by the Bush and Clinton families, signaling to the electorate that politics is controlled by elites, more concerned with maintaining the privileges of the political establishment than fighting for the economic welfare of middle-class Americans. Accordingly, public trust in government has declined and more and more people believe that the state is failing to uphold the ideals that underpin American democracy. It was easy for an opportunist like Trump to exploit this growing resentment against the establishment, as we saw in 2016.
What Does Trump Represent?
Politicians are not the architects of the future, helping to usher in a better society. They are the ultimate opportunists, with a keen sense of which groups feel most underrepresented and can therefore be exploited for their political purposes. You can learn a lot about a culture by observing how politicians attempt to appeal to voters. In 2016, Trump was well aware of rising resentment at the status quo and anger at both career politicians and woke culture. His campaign attacked the cultural left, focusing not on policy but on slogans—drain the swamp, lock her up—and he promised to return America to traditional, common sense values.
Surprisingly, the fact that he was a morally vacuous billionaire did not invalidate Trump’s claim to be an outsider who could take on the establishment elites. His character flaws actually seemed to strengthen his claim to office. His brash personality, his wealth, his racist and sexist behavior were all ideally suited to pissing off the so-called libtards. While any one of the serious allegations against him would have sunk the career prospects of most of his predecessors, as long as he was seen to be sticking a finger up at the woke coastal elites, his constituents applauded his flaws. Trump represented the antithesis of political correctness: the id of woke America.
Trump has been the most narcissistic candidate in presidential history but, in pitting himself against the woke, he managed to place himself at the center of the country’s most controversial cultural revolution. He was the focus of every important political conversation and everything he did maintained his relevance. On his Twitter feed, the president of the most powerful country in the world spent the early hours of each morning posting obscenities for the sole purpose of offending his enemies. And he was very good at evoking fierce emotional responses and creating mayhem. There is no question that his presidency has made the cultural divide worse. We need to put the Trump years behind us as quickly as possible.
America Without Trump
Those last four years have seemed like a lifetime. We have been entirely fixated on Trump and Trumpism and it is unclear where our cultural institutions will focus their attention once he has been removed from office. There are many different ways in which the media, for instance, could redirect their energy. If they fail to register what an outlier Trump was, they may continue to interpret his presidency as a symptom of America’s deep-seated racism. On the other hand, Trump may serve as a wake-up call. We now know that this sort of thing can happen and that a dispossessed majority may pose a threat to democracy.
It is going to be hard to wean ourselves off the spectacle of the Trump White House, however. Nothing about a Biden/Harris White House excites public interest—so we will find ourselves with a lot of spare time, which would otherwise have been spent worrying about what the leader of the free world is getting up to. Although he was the president, Donald Trump never seemed like a political figure. The coverage of his White House seemed more like a spectacular, addictive sitcom.
Trump is great for media ratings. Election month saw a 41% increase in primetime viewership at Fox News, a 29% bump at MSNBC and a 180% increase at CNN. The greatest episodes of the 2020 Trump sitcom included saber-rattling tweets, misinformation about Covid and the declaration that Trump was the real victor in a supposedly rigged election—that he actually lost. The news media are about to lose their main character and will have to assume their self-appointed roles as political watchdogs again, rather than mere entertainers. In voting Trump out, we have voted to Make Politics Boring Again.
What We Should Have Learned
As we sober up from the 2016–2020 presidential bender, dignity requires that we decide what to remember and what to forget. Every further second spent thinking about him is a personal victory for Trump. In order to beat him in a way that he can understand, we have to ignore him and treat him as irrelevant. However, we also have a duty to take him seriously as both a political and a cultural phenomenon. His opponents’ failure to take him seriously is what led him to victory in the first place.
Trump has been successful in one thing: his name will go down in history—as an example of what not to allow in office. Trump is proof that we can lose our grip on democracy. Our proneness to both celebrity-worship and outrage has rendered America’s founding institutions vulnerable. The left helped pave the way for this by trying to impose ideological conformity on America and the political establishment exacerbated matters by allowing themselves to become completely out of touch with voters. The Trump years have been like an absurdist play. At first, we didn’t take the lunatic king seriously and then we watched as he romped around the stage, causing havoc.
As the metric against which all future presidents will be measured, future politicians may appeal to voters by telling them how unlike Trump they are. Although he will continue to have residual effects on politics whatever we do, we need to decide whether we want Trump to remain culturally essential. That is, should we require our leaders to acknowledge the disgrace that Trump has brought on the country? After all, Trump’s victory cannot be regarded as a one-off, a single misstep. It needs to be taken seriously as a historic denigration of the office of the presidency.
The recent Capitol Hill riots have shown us where distrust in public institutions can lead. We have seen rioters sitting in the Vice President’s seat in the Senate. This is unbelievably shameful. President Trump has refused to concede the election or ratify Biden as president elect. And his message clearly has not fallen on deaf ears. Trump received 47% of the vote in 2020 and has managed to convince at least some of his supporters that, once he has been removed from office, their government will be illegitimate.
Imagine you have grown up in a red state, in which you have been taught about the dangers of government overreach. After months of rioting in the summer and calls to defund the police, you have begun to believe that major American institutions are under genuine threat. The Covid-19 restrictions have left you bored and restless. Then your president claims that the 2020 election was stolen and calls on his subordinates to overturn the results. You have two weeks to act before an illegitimate president takes office and, as a firm believer in the Second Amendment, are being called to defend the Constitution.
And the Constitution needs to be defended, now more than ever. Never before has an American president presented such a blatant threat to democracy. Capitol Hill was last breached in 1814, by the British. Our grandchildren will be taught about the events of January 2021 in school and will ask what we did to defend our institutions. According to former Secretary of Defense, William J. Perry, President Trump has violated his oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States. To restore the integrity of the American nation, Democrats and Republicans have a responsibility to unite and impeach the president. This will achieve two things: it will force us to officially acknowledge that it is possible to elect a tyrant to the Oval Office; and it will help identify those who are willing to support Trump despite all that he has done. Our politicians are the representatives of the American people and the American people must hold them accountable. We have failed to do so for too long and are now suffering for it. If we do not act to stop Trump now, we will have proven ourselves unworthy of our democracy.