NEW YORK – Anyone who was surprised by the mayhem in Washington, DC has not been paying attention for the last four years. The grotesque scenes around the Capitol on January 6 were indeed shocking: wild-eyed thugs with neo-Nazi flags and Trump banners smashing their way into the House of Representatives and the Senate, while mobs roared “USA” and “Stop the Steal” and others took selfies to show their moment of glory to their grandchildren one day.
But the most disgusting spectacle of all was that of Trump himself inciting his frenzied followers to march on the Capitol to overturn the election and fight the “evil” enemies who had supposedly robbed him of his victory.
It was shocking, but not surprising. Anyone could have seen this coming from that moment in 2016, during the second presidential debate, when Trump was asked whether he would accept the result of the coming election. He replied that this would depend on the result. In other words, he would accept only his own victory. Any other outcome would be illegitimate. It was clear then that he would not abide by the basic rules of liberal democracy.
That was not the only evidence: the free press were “enemies of the people,” Hillary Clinton, his political opponent, should be “locked up,” immigrants were rapists and drug dealers, and so on. As president, Trump condoned, and even encouraged, violent extremists who declared war on blacks and Jews (“Jews will not replace us!” they chanted in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017).
Nonetheless, Republican Party leaders – including those who distanced themselves from the president at the very last minute – supported him, flattered his colossal ego, and protected him against all efforts to temper his outlandish, and possibly illegal, behavior. They didn’t do so for love of Trump. But as long as he gave them what they wanted – deregulation, lower taxes for the very rich, and the swift appointment of far-right judges – he could do as he pleased.
Some Republicans would admit that Trump was, well, not a “conventional politician.” That is certainly true. Trump is more like a cult leader, a charismatic agitator who promised his followers salvation from the wicked world of violent and decadent cities, liberal elites, blacks, gays, immigrants, and other polluting aliens in the body politic. Many people voted for Trump because they believed in him more as a messiah than as a politician.
The big question now is whether a cult can last once the leader is out of power. Can Trumpism survive for long without Trump? He still owns much of the Republican Party. And he will try to preserve his influence through social media. He might even build his own little media empire. But will this be enough? Will it last?
Trumpism may survive under a different leader. This is what a politician like Senator Ted Cruz of Texas is hoping. His attempt to pander to Trump’s voter base by sabotaging President-elect Joe Biden’s victory is a play for a future presidential run. But Cruz lacks the vulgar charisma of Trump. He is a highly-educated cynic, a ruthless political operator, but not someone who can easily inspire the masses.
The future of Trumpism also hinges on a long-debated philosophical question. Which is the greater driver of history: great leaders or socioeconomic conditions? Like Hitler, Trump is often seen, especially by people on the left, as a symptom, rather than the cause, of a social pathology.
There is something to be said for this view. Trump has shrewdly exploited problems and resentments that were there long before he entered politics: the widening gulf between rich and poor, fear of immigrants, loathing of Islam, the increasing dominance of big cities and finance over impoverished de-industrialized and rural areas, hatred of racial minorities, and so on.
These issues have been used, with more or less success, by other contemporary demagogues as well. But, to succeed, such political operators still need to project a certain magnetism, a quality that more conventional politicians often underestimate at their peril.
Looks and demeanor play an important part in this. It is no mere coincidence that quite a few populist leaders sport such weird hairdos – former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s painted implants, Trump’s platinum comb-over, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s carefully calculated blond mess. The hair, like Hitler’s moustache, is part of their “brand.” A born demagogue knows how to stand out.
More than most of his colleagues in the demagogue business, Trump is a creature of show business. His great success was not in real estate; he was in fact a terrible businessman, blundering from one failure to another. What made him was a television show. That is what boosted his brand, which he has used with a truly mammoth talent for self-promotion. Cruz, Josh Hawley, Tom Cotton, or Marco Rubio – all Republican senators with ambitions to follow in Trump’s footsteps – don’t even come close.
The rage, resentments, and economic problems that Trump exploited won’t go away, of course. And he has made the social and political ills of America far worse. The symptoms will remain, but perhaps without a man with the malevolent genius to inflame them.
And Trump’s followers will lose their messiah. Without Trump’s bizarre but effective grip on the party, Republicans may well face a period of vicious infighting, which could conceivably tear their party apart. If so, they richly deserve it.
Ian Buruma is the author, most recently, of The Churchill Complex: The Curse of Being Special, From Winston and FDR to Trump and Brexit.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021.
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