Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
Donald Trump Was a Right-Wing Republican
The more you study his incendiary four years, the more you can see why so many voters stuck by him. Imagine this...
Let’s imagine, for a moment, you have an opportunity to make great change in this country. You are a left-of-center person who really cares about politics and policy. Maybe you conceive of yourself as a progressive or a moderate with liberal views on many issues. Maybe you are a proud Democrat. Maybe you call yourself a leftist or a democratic socialist.
You voted for Joe Biden. You were desperate to see Donald Trump defeated and you celebrated on that warm Saturday in November when the news networks called the election. You’re hopeful, but despair for the immediate future of the country. Trump just did so much damage.
Let’s pretend it’s possible to quickly undo all of it. In the near future, you’ll get the opportunity to vote for another Democratic president. Somehow, the memory of Trump has been wiped away. This president, for reasons unclear—remember, this is all theoretical—will be able to take office with a Democrat-controlled Senate. He will, let’s imagine, come from an unconventional industry—he will have never held previous elected office. He’ll have a checkered personal life, filled with accusations of lurid affairs and other problematic behavior. His previous business ventures are shady. He espouses conspiracy theories, and once accused one of his opponents of having a father who helped kill John F. Kennedy. He will tweet in strange and incendiary ways. He mocks and demeans the press, particularly when they publish articles he doesn’t like. Many dismiss him as a vulgarian and con-man. He does not necessarily understand or have any regard for constitutional norms. Policy briefings bore him.
“I wouldn’t vote him!” you cry. But this entertainer storms your Democratic primary and wins it. You voted for the other men and women, the senators and the governors, and they were all crushed. This ludicrous, boorish entertainer beat them all. He becomes the Democratic nominee. The delegates don’t stop him. Up against him is a very conventional and conservative Republican. He is well-mannered and Ivy League-educated, with a lifetime of experience in various Republican administrations. He used to be a senator from a very large state. He believes in limited government, restricting abortion access, and building up America’s military might so democracy can be spread abroad via gunpoint. His hair, though, is properly coifed, and he pledges to abide by the Constitution always. The Democrat, he says, is unfit for office, and you quietly agree. You didn’t vote for him in the primary, after all.
But the vulgarian supports a woman’s right to choose. He supports same-sex marriage. “This Republican guy, he hates the gays, just hates them, wants them all deported. He wants them all locked up!” the Democrat roars at one of his large, frothing arena rallies, which seem very unhinged to you. (The Republican meekly replies he doesn’t hate gays and doesn’t want them deported at all; he merely supports “traditional” marriage.) The Democrat used to be a TV personality and participated in the WWE so he has a knack for riling people up in raucous and upsetting ways. You’d rather vote third party in this election, really, maybe Green or Libertarian, but then you hear the Democrat say something else at one of his rallies and you have to pay attention: “I will only appoint left-wing Supreme Court judges! Only the most progressive, wonderful left-wing, judges!” And he releases a list of the judges. They have impeccable credentials. They all promise to safeguard Roe v. Wade. They believe in an activist federal government that should set out to help vulnerable people. The list was produced, you find out, in consultation with leading progressive think tanks.
Of course, there is a vacancy on the Supreme Court. The winner of the presidential election will appoint the judge to fill the slot. The Senate hangs in the balance. This Democrat, unlike the handsome, prim Republican—you might as well imagine it’s Mitt Romney—has been compared to Mussolini, Castro and even Hitler, with his mass rallies and promises to subvert constitutional guardrails to “get shit done” like “universal, stupendous healthcare, so everyone gets it totally free.” Autocrats can come from the left, of course, and many of the leading pundits warn that this Democrat, like that strongman from Louisiana, Huey Long, could topple American democracy if he gets a chance. They warn that only a vote for this Republican with extensive experience in governing can save us. All autocrats make bold promises before they attempt a takeover.
The Republican consistently leads in the polls heading into Election Day. You are deeply conflicted. The Democratic candidate is probably a lying huckster, but he’s promised to follow through on almost all the issues you care about. The Republican is someone you’d rather invite to a dinner party and clearly has a greater understanding of policy nuance. He is no authoritarian. His personal life is not at all problematic. But God, you mutter, what type of justice is he going to appoint to the Supreme Court next year? And what if he gets the opportunity to appoint more judges? All of his picks, the Republican says, will “abide by the Constitution” and have inarguable conservative bona fides. They will “believe in the sanctity of life and religious freedom.”
You quietly vote Democrat.
Over four years, you find yourself, at various moments, regretting your choice. The Democrat is an oaf and a buffoon. He golfs too much. He makes a mockery of strategic alliances abroad. He can say, with little prompting, pretty vile stuff. Controversies don’t abate. A Republican-controlled House impeaches him for trying to get a foreign power to dig up dirt on a rival, but the Democrat-controlled Senate exonerates him. And his Twitter account—don’t even get you started on that.
But the years somehow pass. You surface to read the news from time to time. Of course, in his first year, he did follow through on his pledge to appoint a “very progressive” Supreme Court judge. A year later, another judge retires, and with the Democratic Senate, he selects a second liberal justice, a populist like Elizabeth Warren. The votes, you realized, could exist to overturn terrible precedents, like Citizens United.
Finally, in the year of his re-election, the norm-defying Democrat gets the chance to nominate a third Supreme Court justice after a longtime, venerated conservative suddenly dies. The battle is pitched. Republicans demand the Democrat wait until after the election to fill the vacancy, since the death happened in September and most polls show the Republican candidate on track to crush the Democrat and flip the Senate to Republican control. Respect the will of the voters, Republicans bellow. The Democratic president, who cares so little for tradition and precedent, decides he will get his third liberal justice any way he can, demanding the Senate rush through the confirmation in just a month. There will hardly be any time for questioning or vetting. Republicans cry foul. But the Democrat’s pick, you have to admit, is pretty great: a stalwart feminist who is not even 50. Soon, the Supreme Court could have a 6-3 liberal majority. It would be like the Warren Court of the 20th century, or even more ambitious, with the power to finally make America a fairer and more equitable place to live. Citizens United would be dead. The Voting Rights Act would be restored in full.
“Confirm that judge!” you yell.
Pundits still wonder how people at all could support this president. Don’t they care about the Constitution? He was impeached! As Election Day approaches, you are again conflicted. The president is slovenly and uncouth and has often behaved like a dictator, though your rights remain intact. He probably cost Democrats the House in the midterms, when Republicans rode a “red wave” to victory, with many suburban voters turned off by the president’s behavior.
He was too unfocused to achieve real lasting policy changes, like the creation of a single-payer or nationalized healthcare system, but he was able to raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy (“we will tax the hell out of these sick, greedy people, we’ll soak ‘em dry!”) when Democrats had full control of Congress. He was probably incapable of reading a single law brief, but he farmed out judicial appointments to the Democratic Senate majority leader, who stacked the federal courts with young, left-leaning judges. Various federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency were beefed up (“I love big, beautiful trees!”) and vigorous oversight increased. He never unwound the military-industrial complex as promised, but at least he brought troops home from Afghanistan. And you supported his position on Israel, especially when he refused to move the embassy under conservative pressure and vowed, with a radical break from tradition, to condition military aid to their right-wing government.
On Election Day, you vote for him. He wasn’t your ideal Democrat. He made a mockery of the presidency, in many ways. But he delivered. He did what all those senators and governors he defeated four years ago probably would’ve done.
Counterfactuals are fun, yet never neat. Reality must be contorted in so many peculiar ways. Obviously, there was no Democratic president like that, and maybe never will be. Democratic voters, we imagine, wouldn’t choose such a person. And my Democratic strongman didn’t traffic in the same kind of bigotry.
But you may have seen what I was trying to do here, especially for our liberal hearts and minds. So many people on the left can’t fathom how 73 million people voted for Donald Trump. Don’t they see what a monster he is? Yes, there are, among those millions, delusional and self-sabotaging fools. Every electorate has them. Some certainly fell prey to propaganda from Fox News, Newsmax, and others. The MAGA die-hards are what they are, and maybe don’t deserve earnest analysis. Still, that probably leaves tens of millions who had their own, more ordinary reasons for picking Trump again.
Trump, of course, was worse than the average Republican in some obvious ways. Cruz or Rubio may not have made the “very fine” people remark about the Charlottesville white supremacists or fumed about African nations as “shithole countries.” They would not have encouraged QAnon. They would not tweet in such deranged ways. They would have managed the COVID-19 pandemic better, even if certain governors screwed up as well. They would be a little less mean to the press, while elevating lies from Fox. The gravitas of the presidency, with its rituals of reassurance, would have been maintained.
Democrats have fumed about the cowardice of the many Republican elected officials who failed, over the course of four years, to challenge Trump, those governors and senators and members of the House who bent to his will, again and again. Even Jeff Flake, resistance hero, voted with Trump most of the time. Why? Why did men like Lindsey Graham, who once said the GOP had been “conned” by Trump, evolve into such sycophants?
The answer was always more banal than incipient fascism or brainwashing or Russian subterfuge.
Trump, beyond the bluster and rage and idiocy, was a good Republican.
I think about this more as his presidency, gratefully, comes to a close. He has not marshaled the military to illegally and dangerously cling to the presidency. He has not staged an elaborate putsch. He has denied reality and allowed mediocre lawyers to file hopeless lawsuits, which will do their own damage in undermining voters’ limited faith in American democracy, but this is not Adolf Hitler plotting in the twilight of the Weimar Republic. It is short-term desperation. It is brand-maintenance. (Trump will die claiming he won the election, and maybe get a TV network or another presidential run out of it.) For rank-and-file Republicans, it may be a little unseemly, but that’s the price that was paid for dominance.
Trump appointed three Supreme Court justices in four years. The two men and one woman he nominated could have very well be in the same two men and one woman President Ted Cruz or Marcio Rubio or Jeb Bush picked to sit on the Court. This was not an autocratic attempt; it was lazily reading off names from a sheaf of paper sent to him by the Federalist Society. Trump probably can’t spell the name Gorsuch. And ultimately, as the smoke clears, that is what he was for much of the Republican Party: a useful idiot for their revanchist policy. He was a check on Democratic governance, a guarantee that for four crucial years, Republicans would call all the shots that mattered.
Democrats got their impeachment. Republicans got their judges. Trump confirmed at least 200 federal judges in four years. He confirmed 53 appellate picks, compared to Barack Obama’s 55 in double the amount of time. Most of these judges are very young and very right-wing. Since federal judges have lifetime appointments, they will be making decisions impacting the lives of ordinary people deep into the future. President Cruz could’ve done the same with Mitch McConnell. Graham, who had his own presidential aspirations crushed by Trump, understood this quickly. Even Romney, now a Utah senator, knows the score. He happily voted for Amy Coney Barrett. If the Trump presidency is merely judged by its outcomes, from the perspective of any hardline conservative, it was a resounding success.
Consider the federal agencies. Trump fulfilled a longtime Republican dream by putting energy lobbyists in charge of environmental policy, assaulting the EPA in a remarkable and disturbing fashion. He radically weakened federal clean water rules. He loosened regulations on toxic air pollution. He opened national parks for mining and drilling. He did all this while ripping America out of the Paris Climate Accords and denying the existence of climate change.
None of this was out of step with the modern Republican Party. Neither was creating an anti-worker Labor Department or an Education Department aligned entirely against ordinary public schools or rubberstamping tax cuts on large corporations. Some Republicans supported immigration reform, but many, like Cruz, wanted to crack down on immigration and speed up deportations. The Texas senator, at least, could have dreamed up the Muslim ban. On foreign policy and trade, Trump scrambled GOP orthodoxy, veering in a more populist direction, but these were deviations the party elite could accept. No ordinary voter was crying out in defense of NAFTA or NATO. And the Iraq War, thanks to George W. Bush, had been a millstone around the party’s neck, and politicians were eager to ditch such unpopular baggage. Trump’s mocking of the Bush family’s support of the war just before the South Carolina Republican primary did not damage him; he ended up taking every delegate from the state. The neoconservative wing of the Republican Party, so ascendant under Bush, appears to be fading, with some future GOP presidential contenders trying to chart a more non-interventionist course.
All of this allowed Republicans to mostly ignore Trump’s self-dealing, ignorance, and racism. Who cares if Trump is violating the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution if he’s picking all the judges we like? As venal a position as it may be to take, it’s also a coldly rational one. Trump was not the president a senator like Lindsey Graham wanted, but it was the president he got. Why not make the four years useful to conservative elites? It certainly was. President Joe Biden can’t boot Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett off the Supreme Court. He probably won’t have the votes to expand the Court, not that he has the gumption to do it anyway.
If you, the Democratic voter, had the power to make most of your policy dreams real and the price to pay was your own version of Trump, would you do it?