The Trump legacy: a reminder from history, and a mammoth task for Biden

The case for impeaching Trump seems overwhelming: but is it wise? The risk is that it inflames division and creates a future for Trumpsim.

Watching a documentary about the rise of Nazism on the weekend before Biden’s inauguration, I am struck by historical echoes.

I don’t buy the idea that Hitler “magically” cast a spell over the German people. In another time he might have been a failed artist ranting on a street corner, ignored by passers-by. The point is that his words struck a chord. They gave form to a range of not-quite-articulated grievances.

In another blog post I tried out the idea of “quasi-religious” support for Brexit, suggesting that some of the Brexiteer myths got support because they focussed people’s anxieties. An obvious example is immigration. “Immigrants taking out job” and “immigrants scrounging our benefits” don’t work together: an immigrant can’t be both taking our jobs and our benefits. They don’t make economic sense either — as the evidence is that the economic activity of immigrants boosts the economy. But the myth of “immigrants taking our jobs/benefits” might well resonate for people living with lack, who don’t hear their experience reflected in the words of political leaders. The problem is that the words are not on the lips of political leaders because things are more complex than that — which is heard as “politicians don’t care”. I’m mentioning Brexit, but one of the Hitler echoes is that there never was a “Jewish problem”, but it was a shorthand for issues that were more complex. Using that shorthand might have had an emotional appeal, but it did no more than enable immense suffering.

One of the points that documentary makes very powerfully is the sense of national shame associated with losing the First World War. At the time of the Versailles conference, Pope Benedict XV gave a prescient warning that “the peace conditions and the humiliation of the Germans would likely result in another war as soon as Germany would be militarily in a position to start one”.

The historical echo is that humiliating Trump also humiliates the followers who have put their trust in him. It risks making them angry and entrenching them in their position.

Things might have looked very different in Germany if there had been space for leadership that enabled people to see that the Jews were not to blame for the things laid at their door. Things might have been different in the UK-heading-to-referendum if our political leadership had been able to articulate the reality that immigrants are not to blame for the things laid at their door. Right now, the USA needs leadership from the administration that enables people to see that Trump’s enemies are not to blame for the ills laid at their door. A warning is that it was very difficult for British politicians to challenge the attacks on immigration. A glimmer of hope is that “Trump’s enemies” are not (for now) a group that’s so well defined that it is easy to attack.

Hints of fascist leadership

Borrowing an idea from Christina Wieland’s book The fascist state of mind and the manufacturing of masculinity, I want to suggest that a key element in the emergence of fascist leadership is a sense of union between follower and leader. It was “mein Führer”. This is more than the normal attitude of people to their country’s leader.

The fascist leader gets power not from being particularly wise, but from having the ability to say things that collect people’s hard-to-articulate emotions and give them shape. Trump’s followers say “he tells it like it is” not because he is right, but because his words give form to what they are feeling.

A wise leader would help people engage with the complexity of today’s world. Crucially this includes the decline of the USA relative to China and India. The cry of “Make America Great Again” is about escaping to an imagined “safe” time in the past, where a wise leader would enable the USA to navigate its changing place in the world, and do that in a way that helps those losing out from the change. At the time of Trump’s election people commented that the “Make America Great Again” caps being worn by his supporters had “made in China” signs inside — that was a stark reminder that his slogan was ignoring the reality of a changed world.

On 6 January 2021, comments from protestors at The Capitol included:
“This nation wasn’t founded on civility. This nation was founded on revolutionary activity. We became civil after the government realised that they got overwhelmed.”, “I feel very privileged that I was a part of yesterday. I fight for freedom and democracy.”, “We had the greatest president of our lifetime sacrificing his golden years to make this country what it should be and what it always has been.” and “I firmly believe this is our 1776. Two things are going to happen: either another revolution or a civil war.” A discarded banner inside the Capitol said “treason” as commentators started to use the same word for Trump’s incitement of his supporters. These people are buying the narrative of a “stolen election” not because there is actual evidence that it was stolen, but because that is what they want to be true.

Since then some have spoken of Trump’s “God-like” status for some of the Proud Boys. His own message telling his supporters to go home on 6 January, is very personal — it’s to supporters feeling themselves to be in a personal relationship to him, horribly reminscent of Wieland’s description of fascist leadership, from “I know your pain” to “we love you”:

“I know your pain, I know your hurt. We had an election that was stolen from us. It was a landslide election and everyone knows it, especially the other side. But you have to go home now. We have to have peace. We have to have law and order. We have to respect our great people in law and order. We don’t want anybody hurt. It’s a very tough period of time. There’s never been a time like this where such a thing happened, where they could take it away from all of us, from me, from you, from our country. This was a fraudulent election, but we can’t play into the hands of these people. We have to have peace. So, go home. We love you. You’re very special. You’ve seen what happens. You see the way others are treated that are so bad and so evil. I know how you feel. but go home, and go home in peace.”

The full text of his “Save America Rally” in the Eclipse that has sparked the impeachment for “incitement to insurrection” is shot through with the same highly personal rhetoric. Whether the US Senate will choose to convict Trump remains to be seen. The more disturbing one is how far the personalised language also mobilises his supporters.

The message is getting through: a Yougov poll after January 6 2021 found 45% of Republicans supporting the rioters.

Not inflaming Trump’s base

An obvious answer is indeed for Trump to be impeached and convicted. Democrats are clearly willing to do this. Some Republicans in the House of Representatives also voted to impeach, and there may (or may not) be enough willing to do this in the Senate to reach the required 2/3 majority.

This meets the understandable anger of people horrified by four years of Trump and even more horrified by his behaviour since defeat. But it also inflames the anger of his supporters. If they really believe that the election was stolen, then this would prove that the “political establishment” was out to get him. That’s a narrative he’s been trading on since his 2016 campaign. One of the jaw-drop moments in the 2020 presidential debates had him (as the elected President) dismiss Joe Biden as a “politician” — as if he wasn’t. It’s remarkably reminiscent of Brexit supporters in the UK who read the Supreme Court’s decision that the Johnson government had illegally prorogued parliament not as evidence of illegal action by the government, but of obstruction by the “remainer establishment”.

Trump standing again in 2024 is indeed a dreadful prospect. It takes a while for a new administration’s economic policies to take effect. Economic improvements early in his term were the fruits of Obama’s policies — but I assume he’d claim the credit for those, and blame Biden for the consequences of Trump-era policies he inherits. I assume he’d also blame Biden for the economic consequences of Covid19 — rather than admit that those have been made worse by his own failings. The risk is that he, or another person with a similar approach could come back in 2024.

Stabbed in the back (or not)

The First World War came to an end surprisingly quickly. After years of little movement, the 1918 “spring offensive” saw the Germans advancing rapidly. Kaiser Wilhelm II declared a national holiday on 24 March to celebrate the progress. Many assumed victory was now in sight. But they had over-stretched their supply lines and were vulnerable to counter-attack. When that counter-attack came the Germans rapidly realised that victory was most improbable. On 29 September Generals Ludendorf and Hindenburg told the Kaiser that the Western front could not be held and said it was time to sue for peace.

Told like that, the story is unsurprising. The success of the “spring offensive” had changed everything. But to some the sudden shift of narrative from imminent success to imminent defeat was hard to understand. Rumours that the valiant German nation had been “stabbed in the back” gained traction.

In my mind there is a parallel between this “unthinkable” defeat and Trump’s “unthinkable” defeat in November, in that the “unthinkable” nature of the defeat means someone must have stolen it. Fortunately Trump’s accusations over this are vague, so there isn’t a small and well-defined group for his supporters to scapegoat.

Just after the First World War, the “stabbed in the back” theory was not widely supported. But it was just enough to focus a range of the disaffected. If that figure of 45% of Republicans supporting the rioters from January 6 reflects ongoing support, then Trump’s “stolen election” narrative will be dangerous, not because it contains any truth, but because some will resonate with the lie that “someone” has stolen the future that will “make America great again” — and is to blame for America’s apparent failure to turn the clock back.

What should Biden do?

The world needs Biden to establish himself as a very different leader, able to tell the American people of the real problems they face from America’s changing place in the world and the effects of Covid19, able to hear (and be seen to hear) the pain that is there, and help people navigate the changing reality. That requires a leader of enormous depth and sincerity. Nelson Mandela leaps to mind as an example. Hopefully Biden is up to it.

Trump will doubtless carp from the sidelines. He’s been brilliantly successful in raising money to fight the cases rejected by the courts to challenge the 2020 election — and the small print on his appeals means he can apply unused money to his campaign.

There seem to be rather a lot of court cases in the wings, at state and federal levels.

Trump’s claims to have paid very little tax because he’s so “smart” might well be his Achilles’ heel. We all pay tax. Most of us don’t like paying tax but also recognise that it is needed. If this adds up to enough to bring a trial on tax offences then that is politically neutral. Right now I’d encourage the justice department to prioritise allegations of this sort, that are politically neutral. They matter — as it matters that everyone pays their taxes — but they are also things that have the least risk of inflaming his supporters.

Offences like “incitement to insurrection” are more difficult because his supporters will see them as “defending democracy”. The Democrats in Congress might want to censure Trump and stop him standing again. But some of these things might be right for a Presidential pardon — if Biden can be very clear that he is doing this for the unity of the country, not because the offenses don’t matter.

At best, this models the opposite of Trump — a wise leader seeking to be “President for all Americans”. There’s a parallel with Al Gore conceding in 2000. His concession speech included:

“Now the U.S. Supreme Court has spoken. Let there be no doubt, while I strongly disagree with the court’s decision, I accept it. I accept the finality of this outcome which will be ratified next Monday in the Electoral College. And tonight, for the sake of our unity of the people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession.

“I also accept my responsibility, which I will discharge unconditionally, to honor the new president-elect and do everything possible to help him bring Americans together in fulfillment of the great vision that our Declaration of Independence defines and that our Constitution affirms and defends.”
Showing the dignity and wisdom Trump lacked would be a powerful gesture of healing.

There are two subtleties here:

  1. Someone can’t be tried for an offence for which they have been pardoned, which also means they can’t refuse to give evidence that might incriminate them. But they can be charged with perjury if they lie under oath. Trump’s supporters might struggle to go on supporting him if truths start to come out from his own lips.
  2. Presidential pardons apply to federal but not to state offences, so he is not off the hook. Pardoned for overtly-political things, there might well be things to make his supporters blush. When the infamous “Access hollywood tapes” were released in 2016, media attention was deflected by Wikileaks releasing information hacked from John Podesta’s email and (apparently) amplified by Russian twitter activity. Out of office, things might look different.

Conclusion

Biden will need exceptional leadership skills to navigate Trump’s departure in a way that doesn’t set the USA up for a revival of Trumpim. He might just have those skills.

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