Every time I mention Donald Trump in a column, a certain segment of readers demands to know why we’re still talking about a president who is no longer in office. They tend to be conservatives who may have supported him but now, clearly, are tired of defending him.
Under normal circumstances, they would have a point: How often do we talk about former presidents once they leave office? But as with everything Trump, these circumstances aren’t normal.
Since descending his golden escalator into the presidency, Trump has become the embodiment of a level of socio-political dysfunction today unseen in our lifetimes. “Embodiment” is the right word. Trump didn’t single-handedly create this moment in which wide swaths of the nation reject medical science and an entire political party rejects democracy. The anti-vax movement had been quietly simmering like a latent virus for generations, waiting for the opportunity to go mainstream. The GOP’s transformation from the party of patriotism to the party that tries to overturn valid elections began more than a decade ago, when Barack Obama’s rise foretold a demographic future that would be unkind to a party made up mostly of white people.
Trump didn’t start all of this, but he uncorked it with the mere fact of his election in 2016, after a campaign that, in a healthier society, would have buried him. In many ways, his campaign was a primal scream for those who have felt for decades that they’re being dragged into a modernity they don’t like.
Trump gave people permission to be publicly racist, misogynist, anti-science. He dehumanized political opponents in the most personal terms and lied with unprecedented shamelessness. He embraced counterfactual claims and wacky conspiracy theories like some street-corner loon, allowing them to infect national policy regarding climate, immigration and elections. Even taking into account his Electoral College asterisk, it shouldn’t have been possible for this bombastic pretend-populist to ascend to the White House.
So why should we still care? He’s gone, right?
Even in social-media exile, Trump continues to garner attention with threats of running again in 2024 — while raising gobs of money in his usual, scammy ways. After what happened in 2016, no one should discount him. His base is a minority, but a fervent one, without any regard for the usual rules of political engagement.
But there’s a more pressing reason why the national conversation cannot just move on from Trump: Regardless of whether he actually returns to political power, the movement he started continues to warp our politics in dangerous ways.
Two weeks ago, in Arizona, the father of a boy who’d been told to quarantine from school because of coronavirus contact confronted the principal with a fistful of zip ties, threatening a “citizen’s arrest.” Last week, in Tennessee, a student was mocked and heckled by anti-mask parents at a school board meeting as he described the coronavirus death of his grandmother. These and similar stories out of red-state America lately have no direct involvement from Trump, but they display the brand of politics he pioneered: belligerent, cruel, contemptuous of facts, proud to reject the norms of society.
As political movements go, this isn’t conservatism or even populism. It’s just people being jerks.
I remember pre-Trump America as well as you do, and I’m having trouble imagining these jerks being so public about their jerk-ism back then. A core aspect of Trump’s appeal was to brand basic civility as “political correctness,” thus allowing it to be loudly dismissed. Here we see the results.
Trump’s poison continues to linger not just among the MAGA base, but also among putatively serious congressional Republicans. The latest example can be seen in their rising calls for President Joe Biden’s removal over his bumbling withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“Bumbling” is, again, the right word. But there’s some kind of cognitive dissonance going on when otherwise rational people can equate Biden’s troubled but normal presidency with the dangerously abnormal one that preceded him. It indicates either a deeper cynicism than we’ve yet seen in modern politics, or an actual lack of connection to reality.
Let’s review: The same folks currently calling for Biden’s head stood by a president who tried to overturn an election that he lost, resulting in a violent assault on the U.S. Capitol. Who embraced an immigration policy that deliberately, maliciously traumatized children and babies in order to punish their parents. Who cost untold throngs of American lives with his inept and dishonest handling of the pandemic.
And now they want to remove Trump’s successor because his withdrawal from a war that most of America wanted to withdraw from didn’t go as smoothly as it should have?
Especially interesting is this notion from the right that Biden is mentally unstable. Trump grotesquely impersonated a handicapped reporter, suggested that neo-Nazis are “fine people,” undermined public faith in democracy with wacky election conspiracy theories, and compulsively lied about issues as silly as crowd size and as serious as coronavirus numbers — and the MAGA crowd was just fine with all that. But when Biden trips over his own words, they want to invoke the 25th Amendment? Where do you even start?
By any objective measure, we are a dumber, meaner, more divided, more dysfunctional country than we were even a decade ago. Whether Trump is the cause of that condition or a symptom of it, he remains sadly relevant.
Kevin McDermott is a columnist and member of the Post-Dispatch Editorial Board.
On Twitter: @kevinmcdermott