Former US President Donald Trump attends a rally in Perry, Georgia, US on September 25, 2021 [Reuters/Dustin Chambers]
The fear and rage that gripped the US capital under the presidency of Donald Trump have left the country in peril, its democracy ill, and its immunity weak.
Trump may have been excised from office in November but Trumpism has not been eradicated. After months of post-elections recovery, it is back with a vengeance, slowly metastasising throughout the country’s body and soul.
Less than a year after winning “the battle for the soul of America”, President Joe Biden is slipping in the polls while his predecessor’s numbers are, well, rising. In fact, according to a recent poll, Trump is already ahead of Biden, albeit by a small margin of 48 to 46 points.
These numbers may flip again in favour of the Democrats if they are able to pass the New Deal-like infrastructure and reconciliation bills in Congress before the end of the year, which will inject trillions of dollars into the US economy.
But even the effect of such legislation may prove transitory, depending on a number of economic and political factors, and on the Republican opposition to the socialist “nanny-state” policies on the federal and state level.
Meanwhile, 14 Republican-controlled states under Trumpian influence passed 24 new laws that assert their control over the running of elections and make it easier to overturn elections results.
Trump continues to reject the last election results and is yet to officially declare his candidacy, but everything he says or does is campaigning. He is holding rallies across the country and on October 9, he will hold one in the state of Iowa, where all presidential bids start.
Back in July, journalist Michael Wolff, who wrote three damning books about Trump, concluded after a bizarre and unexpected dinner invitation by the former president, that his run in 2024 is a certainty.
But for now, the brand mogul cherishes stoking the media speculations and public anticipation, which helps heal his bruised ego and keeps the donation money flowing. His Political Action Committees, PACs, have raked in more than $82m during the first half of this year.
But what will he run on? What will be his message, his mantra?
My guess is that he will start by doubling down on his “rigged election” false claim, and will ask his followers to “Reverse the Steal” in order to “Make American Honest Again”.
He has got to go with the big lie all the way to the polls – or not go at all. Anything less outrageous, less audacious, less offensive will not work. Besides, he clearly cannot help it, anyway.
The man, whom US media has called the “liar in chief” who “steals credit […] invents history and spins conspiracy theories”, will do what it takes to win. So smug, he will portend to teach America a lesson in honesty and truth – his alternative truth.
Trump’s penchant for deception is well illustrated in author Bob Woodward’s trilogy, Fear, Rage, and Peril, the last co-written with fellow journalist Robert Costa. In the three books published over the past three years, the Washington Post newspaper veteran journalist goes to a great length to show how even Trump’s closest advisors and allies think he is “a (expletive) liar”.
Trump’s own personal lawyer, John Dowd thought he is such a pathological liar that he cannot even be trusted to testify to former Special Counsel Robert Mueller during his investigation into Russian meddling in the US elections without perjuring himself.
But it is not only lying; politicians are known to lie. The man portrayed rather convincingly in the trilogy, is incredibly devious, utterly incompetent, and terribly dangerous.
Woodward interviewed hundreds of people associated with the Trump administration, leading members of his cabinet and his party, as well as leaders of Congress and the military. According to him, many of them thought Trump is, simply put, unfit to be president of the United States.
They called him crazy, paranoid, suffering from a narcissistic personality disorder. His close ally and Attorney General, William Barr rebuked him, saying suburban voters “think you are a f***ing a**hole”.
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the military, General Mark Milley, thought Trump was so erratic and dangerous during his last months in office, that he may take decisions that could lead, albeit unintentionally, to confrontations with the likes of China or Iran with the potential use of nuclear weapons.
Trump directs his venom against friends and foes alike. Over the past few years, he has never hesitated to humiliate Republican leaders, even war heroes, regardless of political repercussions. Even today, as he plans a rerun for the White House, Trump continues to degrade influential party leaders including his own former Vice President Mike Pence, and the Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.
All of this begs the question: if Trump is so offensive, so incompetent and so dangerous to the country, why does he continue to maintain such a strong grip over the Republican party even after leaving office? And, why are Republicans running for Congress in 2022 either seeking his endorsement or trying to escape his wrath? Why is he likely to be the party’s official candidate in 2024?
To be sure, a lot depends on next year’s midterm elections.
A victory on November 8, 2022, that allows for a Republican majority in either or both Houses of Congress, will render Biden a sitting duck president and boost Trump’s chances come November 5, 2024.
Come to think of it, a Republican defeat could also propel Trump to the top of the 2024 list as the most likely saviour of the party’s influence against visibly ageing Biden or against his vice president, the lightweight Kamala Harris.
Trump may have been a terrible president but he has proven himself a talented populist. His uncanny fearmongering is the main source of his influence and the driver behind his popularity, especially among the Republican base. Funnily enough, Trump allegedly did not even know what “populist” meant when he first began to think about running for office, as one hilarious anecdote at the beginning of Woodward’s first book illustrates.
The fact that Trump received 75 million votes after four disastrous years that included mismanaging the pandemic and leading to an economic crash, and social unrest, and that he continues to be so popular with the party base, despite damning media reports, is a testimony to his ability to rally support, albeit by dubious means.
Paradoxical as it may be, this ostentatious bling-bling billionaire has convinced the majority of his party base and much of the country’s white working class that he is their best if not their only ally against the snobbish, selfish elites who manage America’s decline.
In fact, he has garnered the support of the majority of white Americans, against the federal bureaucracy or as he has called it, “the Deep State”, which stands accused of assaulting their rights, freedoms, culture and, well, privileges.
Trump has mastered the politics of fear and fury as Woodward’s books show. In the epilogue to Peril, the third book in the trilogy which was published in September, the author recounts an earlier conversation with Trump, the bombastic and confident outsider as well as the petty and cruel insider, who is tantalised by the prospect of power and is eager to use fear to get his way.
“Real power is, I don’t even want to use the word ‘fear’,” Trump says, and he adds, “I bring rage out, I do bring rage out, I always have.”
But Woodward is so focused on demonising Trump that he fails to see or highlight the cynicism of his influential detractors. He goes to a great length exposing the former president but says little about Washington’s elites that enabled him.
But Trump’s populism would not have been as effective if it were not for the cynicism of his detractors. The ruling elites who pretend to be “holier than thou”, while robbing the country blind; who preach political correctness but lack political decency; who hold onto power even if it means presiding over the US’s decline.
In that vein, Woodward’s trilogy constitutes selectively edited accounts of those complicit with Trump, who talked only after they were fired by Trump, or after Trump was fired by the American people. They are taken at their word and excused about the rest.
When Woodward recounts Trump’s various exchanges with Gary Cohn, the former Goldman Sachs executive-turned-White House-economic adviser, the former president is portrayed as an idiotic protectionist who roots for US manufacturing, while the laissez-faire, free-trade investment banker is seen as a brilliant man.
But is it really OK, for example, that the US imports such a shocking amount of the antibiotics and other basic medicines it needs from China? No less during pandemic times?
Woodward seems to have never met a Wall Street executive or an Ivy League school graduate he did not like. Same for the generals, the congressional leaders, and the establishment figures: they are either right or excused for their wrongness. Bottom line, Trump is evil but the establishment is good, even if run by a corrupt self-serving elite, be it, Democrat or Republican.
When Trump demands justification for any of the hundreds of military bases around the globe or demands immediate troops withdrawal from any part of the world, he is portrayed as a fool, ignorant of national security interests and processes.
Any shrinking of US overseas military commitments is so preposterous in the eyes of Woodward and his beloved generals that it does not even merit comment.
And that is why as long as it is business as usual in Washington, as long as the ruling elites continue to be satisfied with managing US decline, Trumpism will persist and metastasise and there is no stopping Trump and co laughing their way to Washington, again.
In sum, Trump will certainly run. And if he wins, as he may well do – my fingers trembling as I type – his victory will spell the death of American democracy with grave consequences the world over.
Marwan Bishara is an author who writes extensively on global politics and is widely regarded as a leading authority on US foreign policy, the Middle East and international strategic affairs. He was previously a professor of International Relations at the American University of Paris.