The outcome of the 2016 presidential election was such a shocking event that for people of a certain cast of mind, Donald Trump is less a politician than a force of history.
To this class of observer, Trump is something like the world spirit made flesh, where the “world spirit” is a global tide of reactionary populism. He may not have ushered in the furious effort to defend existing hierarchies of status and personhood, but he seems to represent its essential qualities, from the farcical incompetence that often undermines its grand intentions to the unrelenting, sometimes violent intensity that has sustained a forward march through failure back toward power.
The upshot of this idea of Trump as a kind of incarnation is that resistance is futile. You can defeat him at the ballot box, you can put him at the mercy of the criminal-legal system, you can even disqualify him under the Constitution, but the spirit endures. Trump or not, goes the argument, we live in an age of grass-roots reaction. Trump is just an avatar. His followers — the forgotten, if not exactly silent, remnant of the nation’s old majority — will find another something.
It is hard not to be at least a little persuaded by this assessment of the state of things, even more so if you’re inclined to the fatalism that pervades much of American life at this particular time.
But let’s step back for a moment. Before we embrace this almost baroque conception of the former president, let’s take a full picture of the past eight years in American politics. Let’s grab a loupe and look at the details. What do we see? Not inexorable forces at work, but chance events and contingent choices.
In other words, it is true that Trump was produced by (and took advantage of) a particular set of social forces within the Republican Party and outside it. It is true that those forces exist with or without Trump. But Trump, himself, was not inevitable.
If Republican elites had coalesced around a single candidate in the early days of the 2016 presidential race, they might have derailed Trump before he had a chance to pick up steam. If Republicans had chosen, in the aftermath of the “Access Hollywood” videotape, to fully reject his presence in American politics, he might have flopped and floundered in the November election. If Hillary Clinton had won just a few more votes in a few more states — a combined 77,744 in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — Trump would have never won the White House.
It’s not that the reactionary populism that fueled Trump’s campaign would have completely dissipated. But the character of its politics might have been very different without Trump in the nation’s highest office to lead and give shape to the movement. As it stands, he had that power and stature, and there is now a reason the most MAGA-minded Republican politicians — or those with aspirations to lead Trump’s Republican Party — work tirelessly to mimic and recapitulate the former president’s cruelty, corruption and contempt for constitutional government.
We saw this with Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who went so far as to mimic Trump’s movements and posture, and we’re seeing it with Representative Elise Stefanik, an eager and unapologetic demagogue last seen, in a recent interview, defending Jan. 6 insurrectionists and refusing to commit to certifying a Trump election loss.
If nothing else, it is difficult to imagine another Republican politician who would have inspired the same cult of personality as the one that has enveloped Trump during his years on the national stage. It’s no accident that to ensure loyalty or force compliance, followers of the former president have resorted to intimidation and death threats.
If Trump is in a dynamic relationship with the social forces that produced him — if he is both product and producer — then it stands to reason that his absence from the scene, even now, would have some effect on the way those forces express themselves.
Trump still leads the field for the Republican presidential nomination. But imagine if he loses. Imagine that he is, somehow, rejected by a majority of Republican voters. Does the character of American-style reactionary populism remain the same, or does it — along with the politicians who wield it — adjust to fit the new political environment? Will the next crop of Republican politicians have the force of personality to mold their supporters into a weapon to use against the constitutional order, or will they — with Trump’s persistent failure in mind — accept the basics of democratic society?
One of the arguments against the effort to disqualify Trump from the presidency under Section 3 of the 14th Amendment is that it won’t save American democracy to remove him from the ballot. That’s true enough — the problems with American democracy run deeper than one man — but it’s also beside the point.
If the character of a political movement is forged through contingency — the circumstances of its birth, the context of its growth, the personalities of its leadership — then it matters who sits at the top.
The point, then, is that it would be better to face the challenges to American democracy without a constitutional arsonist at the helm of one of our two major political parties. A world in which Trump cannot hold office is not necessarily a normal one, but it is one where the danger is a little less acute.
Trump, of course, will not be removed from the ballot. No Supreme Court, and certainly not ours, would allow this effort to get that far. The only way to move past Trump will be, once again, to beat him at the ballot box.
Nonetheless, it is still worth the effort to say what is true: that our constitutional system, however flawed, is worth defending; that Trump is a clear and present threat to that system; and that we should use every legitimate tool at our disposal to keep him away from — and out of — power.