Fintan O’Toole: Trump has unfinished business. A republic he wants to destroy still stands
2020 in review: Donald Trump will continue to unleash racism, nativism and a fear of government
The big question to be answered about Donald Trump is why he did not do two things that might have seemed obvious: infrastructure and war. File photograph: Getty
“In my beginning”, wrote TS Eliot in Four Quartets, “is my end.” This, at least, can be said of Donald Trump: he will leave the White House as he entered it, strangely unaltered by four years as president.
His hairstyle has been toned down. His demeanour – malign, self-obsessed, reckless of truth and decency, revelling in the harm he has done and can still do to the norms and institutions of democracy – has not.
This continuity is ominous. Trump was able to upend American politics before he was in office. There is every reason to think he will still be able to do so after he is replaced by Joe Biden on January 20th.
It is useful to go back to the period in 2016 when Trump was where his successor is now: the victor in the election but still not president. For it was in this interregnum that Trump took a single action that was scarcely noticed at the time but that, more than any other, defined his presidency.
That action had both the political destructiveness and the personal brutality that would become familiar as the primary weapons in Trump’s armoury. It consisted merely in ordering a load of ring-binders full of carefully compiled documents to be dumped.
It was the day after Trump’s victory party, held of course in the garish Trump Tower in Manhattan. Chris Christie, who was still governor of New Jersey, a successful Republican in a heavily Democratic state, was the man with the 30 bulging binders.
In them was the transition plan, the crucial details of how a Trump administration was going to work, including shortlists of pre-vetted candidates for all the top jobs in the administration, as well as timetables for action on key policies and the drafts of the necessary executive orders.
It had taken a team of 140 people assembled under Christie’s chairmanship nearly six months to create the plan.
Fired with immediate effect
When Christie arrived at Trump Tower, he was met by Trump’s then consigliere, Steve Bannon. Bannon told Christie that he was being fired with immediate effect “and we do not want you to be in the building anymore”. His painstaking work was literally trashed: “All thirty binders”, as Christie recalled in a self-pitying memoir, “were tossed in a Trump Tower dumpster, never to be seen again”.
With Trump, the personal and political could never be separated and both were equally at work here. The personal was silverback gorilla stuff, humiliating Christie was a sadistic pleasure and a declaration to established Republicans that Trump was the boss of them all now.
The political message was one that took longer to sink in. A transition plan implied some kind of basic institutional continuity, some respect for the norms of governance.
At the beginning, as at the end, the idea of an orderly transition of power was anathema to Trump.
Why? Because a timetable for action and a commitment to appoint, to the thousands of positions filled by the incoming president, people with expertise and experience, would constrain him. He was not going to be constrained.
Too many people did not get this. It is hard, after such a relentless barrage of outrage and weirdness over the last four years, to remember what the broad consensus about Trump was at the beginning of 2016.
It was that he wouldn’t be nearly as bad as he looked. To adapt the old saw about campaigning in poetry but governing in prose, he had campaigned in Gothic horror but he would surely govern in the realistic novel.
Great building projects and military engagements validate the idea of government itself. Trump’s overwhelming instinct was to destroy that idea
The sheer weight of the office would alter him. The “adults in the room” would keep him under control. He might be let out now and then to howl at the moon, but inside the White House he would be broken in as a house-trained conservative. The institutional superego would cage his rampant Id.
At worst, Trump would do nothing. He’d sit around eating cheeseburgers and making calls to Fox News, while the serious people got on with serious things.
All of this was to grossly underestimate Trump. He may have done plenty of the cheeseburgers and Fox News stuff. But he also kept his eye on the great strategic prize: the creation in the US of a vast and impassioned base for anti-democratic politics.
The big question to be answered about Trump is why he did not do two things that might have seemed obvious: infrastructure and war.
One of the things that was genuinely appealing about Trump in 2015 was that he said something that everyone knows but that American politicians avoid acknowledging because it is too downbeat.
This truth is that the infrastructure of the richest country in the world – the roads, railways, bridges, dams, tunnels – is woefully substandard. Trump said this and promised to fix it. Polls showed that two-thirds of voters approved.
Did not start a war
But he didn’t fix it. He presented a plan in 2018 for a relatively tiny $200 billion investment (supposedly to be supplemented by $1.5 trillion of private money). It went essentially nowhere.
The other thing he didn’t do is war. For all his belligerence and violently nationalist and xenophobic rhetoric, Trump didn’t start a new war or escalate an existing one, which makes him unusual among modern presidents.
Arguably, these two things – building infrastructure and starting a military conflict – might just have got Trump re-elected. So why did he not do either of them?
His personal laziness is certainly one explanation: galvanising and directing such huge efforts is hard work.
But there is a deeper reason. Great building projects and military engagements validate the idea of government itself. Trump’s overwhelming instinct was to destroy that idea.
It is not just that Trump really was not interested in governing. It is that he was deeply interested in misgovernment.
He left important leadership positions in government departments unfilled on a permanent basis, or filled them with scandalously unqualified cronies. He appointed people to head agencies to which they had been publicly hostile.
Beneath the psychodrama of Trump’s hourly outbursts, there was a duller but often more meaningful agenda: taking a blowtorch to regulation, especially, but by no means exclusively, in relation to the environment.
This right-wing anarchism extended, of course, to global governance: the trashing of international agreements, withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, sucking up to the leaders of mafia states, and open contempt for female leaders like Angela Merkel and Theresa May.
With this discrediting of democratic governance, it is not just that we cannot disentangle the personal motives from the political ones. It is that the replacement of political institutions by personal rule was precisely the point.
Trump’s aim, in the presidency as in his previous life, was always simple: to be able to do whatever the hell he wanted. That required the transformation of elective office into the relationship of a capricious ruler to his sycophantic courtiers.
In this nexus, the madder the better. Power is proven, not when the sycophants have to obey reasonable commands, but when they have to follow and justify the craziest orders.
Wild swings of position
There is no fun in getting your minions to agree that black is black. The sadist’s pleasure lies in getting them to attest that black is white. The “alternative facts” that Trump’s enabler Kellyanne Conway laid down at the very beginning of his administration are not just about permission to lie. They’re about the erotic gratification of making other people lie absurdly, foolishly, repeatedly.
Trump’s wild swings of position were all about this delight in the command performance of utter obedience.
To take just the most outlandish example, Kim Jong-un could be transformed from the Little Rocket Man on whom Trump would unleash “fire and fury like the world has never seen” to “Chairman Kim” with whom, in his own words, he “fell in love”.
Instead of waving Trump off, those who want to rebuild American democracy will have to put a stake through his heart
His followers, like old Stalinists desperately tacking to the shifting winds of the Moscow line, agreed that Trump’s opposites were equally brilliant.
The price of this form of power is the undermining of any form of democratic deliberation. Democracy is not just about voting – it is a system for the rational articulation of ideas about the public good. Trump set out to lay waste to that whole system, from the bottom up, poisoning the groundwaters of respect for evidence, argument and rationality that keeps it alive.
The power of his instinct was that he knew how to tap into a hatred of government that has been barely below the surface of American culture since before the foundation of the US.
Votes for autocracy
That instinct proved sufficiently well attuned that he got nearly 75 million votes in November, even while his malign incompetence was killing his own people. He got those votes, moreover, having made it abundantly clear that he would never accept the result of the election unless he won. They were votes for open autocracy.
This is his legacy: he has successfully led a vast number of voters along the path from hatred of government to contempt for rational deliberation to the inevitable endpoint: disdain for the electoral process itself.
In this end is his new beginning. Stripped of direct power, he will face enormous legal and financial jeopardy. He will have every reason to keep drawing on his greatest asset: his ability to unleash the demons that have always haunted the American experiment – racism, nativism, fear of “the government”.
Trump has unfinished business. A republic he wants to destroy still stands. It is, for him, not goodbye but hasta la vista. Instead of waving him off, those who want to rebuild American democracy will have to put a stake through his heart.