Cincinnatus of Trump Tower

The 45th president can ask a high price for immunity and exile to Manhattan.

This article is a revised, updated version of The great American backlash [first posted on November 3rd]

If you were Donald Trump, here’s the upside. More Americans voted for you than for any presidential candidate in history, except one. Who happened to be Joe Biden, now leading by a slim but (as I write) growing margin in Pennsylvania.

Incumbents tend to lose their shine after a first term - irrespective of their habit, in the US, of winning second terms. Many of them are returned with a reduced absolute tally of popular votes, when their influence in the first term was constrained by gridlock in the two houses of Congress.

Not Trump. In absolute numbers, his support went up. Not just because of the high turnout on November 3rd, but for reasons that point to a lasting legacy for Trumpism. More white women voted for Trump. More minorities, too: Latinos in significant numbers, more Black males, more LGBTQ+ people.

The appeal and traditional affinities of the Grand Old Party are transformed by Trump’s base among the working class and the rural poor. A property tycoon born into privilege has cast himself, to stunning effect, as an underdog in the Oval office. Or while taking time out at his Mar-a-Lago golf resort at Palm Beach, Florida. Even when followed at every step by an aide carrying a briefcase with the nuclear codes.

In a post-election debate, hosted online by the John Adams Institute in Amsterdam, historian Maarten van Rossem argued that to see the bigger picture we should start from a small one. Trump was a “pretty good” television presenter, he said. That the most public of sinners can exert such appeal to the marginalised, and to those at the margins of the margins, is a powerful statement about Establishment politics.

Trump’s belligerence feeds a sense of insecurity and indignation, but what sounds like a bid to stay in power may turn out to be an exit strategy

Trump’s share of the vote is a riposte to America’s moralists, too. When the final count is in, the tally will reveal exactly how many more Americans chose to ignore his well-rehearsed flaws: misogynist, philanderer, predator, racist, white supremacist. These labels didn't really stick. Or they just didn't matter.

Van Rossem, who prefers Biden, was pessimistic about Americans' capacity to learn from this result. To grasp the case for reform of their electoral system, he cautioned, all those who yearn for a more representative, less polarising politics must first surrender their keenly prized belief that US democracy is a supreme example to the world. An informed scepticism is the first condition for progress.

If recognising Trump's legacy matters, the scale of his probable defeat is not less impressive. Only once in the past 40 years has a president been denied a second term: he was George H.W. Bush, in 1993. “The electoral college’s bias towards rural voters saved (Trump) from a crushing defeat,” noted the Economist.

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The next sacrifice

As Trump deploys his sound and fury to dispute the count, the legal case for challenging the results in key swing states is said to be shaky, probably groundless. His belligerence may serve a different purpose: to feed and prolong Americans' insecurity and resentment. What sounds like a bid to stay in power may in fact be an exit strategy.

On a dusty 12,000km summer road trip between 10 places called Hope - Hope, Kansas; Hope, Arkansas; in Maine, Texas, North Carolina (you get the picture) - Karlijn van Howelingen reported for Het Parool from a country on edge: Het land staat op scherp. Americans have been waiting with bated breath (or its Dutch equivalent in their hearts - houden hun hart vast), she wrote.

Recently, I posted here on potential scenarios mapped by the Transition Integrity Group, an exercise in June 2020 by more than one hundred lawyers, journalists, politicians and Washington insiders They predicted violence if the early result was contested, as seems likely. Only a decisive victory either way might have secured a swift concession by the loser.

On the scarcely populated road from Kansas to New Mexico, a hinterland - het Amerikaanse platteland, Howelingen saw Trump flags flying proudly over the endless void - vlaggen fier boven eindeloze leegte. In Michigan, where Governor Gretchen imposed strict lockdowns to stall the coronavirus, numerous yard signs protested: Mijn gouverneur is een idioot. 

Michigan is a useful litmus test of a polarised America. In April, armed protesters against the coronavirus lockdown invaded the state senate at Lansing (see picture). Last month, 13 were charged including a smaller group who plotted to kidnap Gretchen or open fire on her holiday home. The governor has spoken of spending the summer in safe houses under FBI protection.

What happens in the United States is now more relevant than ever - zijn dientengevolge relevanter dan ooit, claimed Maurits Chabot, Iñaki Oñorbe Genovesi and Peter Wierenga in an election day piece for De Volkskrant. Even without a presidential election, comparable threats are not confined to the US. They happen in the Netherlands too - as I posted here

Precise grounds for foreigners’ trepidation at the spectacle of American decline are hard to find. What exactly could happen to the rest of the world? British novelist Hari Kunzru, now a Brooklyn resident, rose to the task with this catalogue of dystopia in Interview magazine:   

‘The US becomes an autocracy, and devolves into a weak and fractious patchwork of jurisdictions run by more or less rapacious oligarchs who conduct a losing war with China, first cold then hot. Human rights become a quaint idea. The environment collapses, and the resulting massive migrations of people lead to vicious authoritarian regimes taking control in richer countries. Genocidal wars are fought over water. The Tibetan plateau is a global flashpoint. New pathogens emerge out of the melting permafrost, killing millions. Life becomes hellish for all but the very wealthy. For the masses, the future looks like an insect world of starvation or highly-surveilled shock work; for the few, a melancholy decadence conducted behind high walls’ - Hari Kunzru 

Kunzru’s doomsday scenario echoes generalised fears of a constitutional unravelling, a sense among many liberal commentators that the US is moving - not quite sleepwalking, perhaps, but drifting with insufficient vigilance - towards authoritarianism. 

On her US road trip, Howelingen logged the supporting evidence. She met Americans with weapons at the ready - wapens die paraat lagen. Residents in many towns called Hope told her that a civil war is not unthinkable - de burgeroorlog die hij niet ondenkbaar achtte. For Kunzru, this road leads to fascism by stealth. 

A Ronald McDonald theory of government

Dutch website indignatie.nl picked holes in this line of argument. Fascism by stealth - van sluipend fascisme - is a theory in which authoritarians exploit a violent mood of antagonism and fear to wrest control, argued its unidentified editors under the byline: door de redactie. But civil war is a lot of work. Far too much work, the piece asserts, for Trump. 

[Disclaimer: at this point, I confess to one of the pitfalls inherent in my quest for spicy - pittig - opinions. This article turns out to be an uncredited translation of a piece from the Atlantic by staff writer Graeme Wood, under the headline ‘He Won’t Concede, but He’ll Pack His Bags’: Hij zal niet toegeven, maar hij zal zijn koffers pakken. I walked into this. My apologies. But the ideas are compelling, and a useful reference for commentary in NL.]

When Trump asked John Kasich to stand as his running mate in 2016, he offered to delegate all domestic and foreign policy to his deputy

So back to the original, now with the tastiest Dutch phrases. Wood begins by recalling a 2016 report in the New York Times magazine: a scoop by Robert Draper, claiming that Trump had asked John Kasich, governor of Ohio, to stand as his running mate for the Republican nomination. A centrist, Kasich declined Trump’s offer but subsequently confirmed the story.

Trump's offer was to put Kasich “in charge of domestic and foreign policy”. The governor had asked what this would leave for the president to do? “Make America Great Again,” replied Trump. This didn’t sound to Wood like the aspirations of a would-be tyrant. Did Trump enter the White House with a fanatical intent to gather power, or was he actually a man too lazy to reach for the remote control - een man die te lui is om naar de afstandsbediening te reiken?

Far from the angry rhetoric about draining the swamp or dismantling the system, perhaps this kind of arrangement is precisely what Trump expected to find when he took office. This would explain much of the last four years in the Trump White House, suggests Wood: the ridiculously absent government - de belachelijke afwezige regering verklaren, riddled with vacancies and full of holes like Swiss cheese - met Zwitserse kaas vol vacante posities.

This is a “Ronald McDonald” school of government, an attitude premised on a belief that the president can sit idly watching the news on cable television, while his deputy does all the work. The deep state - de diepe staat - run by an entrenched bureaucracy was not his villain - niet zijn schurk, writes Wood. It was his fantasy: Het was zijn fantasie.

And fantasy it remained, perhaps to this day.

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Fascinating, not shiny

Trump’s feet were barely under his desk in the Oval Office when the backlash began. Within a year, he had to endure the confessions from former loyalists in the Russia investigation. Many pundits forecast a one-term presidency. Some speculated that Trump had no aspirations for a second. As it turned out, the Ronald McDonald option wasn’t an option.

The legal action heated up - from Stormy Daniels to the Ukraine - including this year a symbolic defeat, when a Manhattan court ordered the release of Trump’s tax returns. Acolytes turned witnesses to the prosecution. Investigations mushroomed. And with them, the prospect of Trump’s departure after one term without permanent blemish - zonder blijvende smet became impossible - onmogelijk.

The American promise of radical equality combined with freedom will continue to fascinate the rest of the world

In De Volkskrant, Maurits Chabot, Iñaki Oñorbe Genovesi and Peter Wierenga argued that, regardless of the election result, the US has lost its allure as a prototype for democracy. Red or Blue, the shine is gone - Rood of Blauw, de glans is eraf.

Their article on election day surveyed Dutch commentators and intellectuals, many of whom held different and revisionist views. Economist Helen Mees, for example, staked her hopes for closer transatlantic ties on Biden, who last year told the Munich security conference - de veiligheidsconferentie: “We’ll be back”. 

Given its uninterrupted dominance in global culture, the story of American decline is, in part, hypothetical - het verval van Amerika ten dele een hypothese blijft, cautioned Arnon Grunberg, a Dutch writer living in New York. Among the doom-mongers, he detected an element of snobbery. 

For historian Geerten Waling, author of a forthcoming book, America, That's Us, the pre-eminence of its constitutional model survives intact. However flawed, its promise of radical equality combined with freedom - de Amerikaanse belofte van radicale gelijkheid in combinatie met vrijheid, will continue to fascinate the rest of the world. 

On climate, international cooperation and negotiating China’s superpower, the consensus view was that Europe needs the United States. But Waling's argument for the spectacle of American democracy can be turned around. The same analysis works in reverse, as reason for despair.

Trump’s authentic, self-made talent is for seizing attention. Consider a short catalogue of his stunts: the photo opp (with bible outside the Washington DC church at the site of a Black Lives Matter protest), the balcony speech (claiming triumph over Covid-19), the dubious camaraderie with QAnon conspiracists (“They like me”) and the alt-right Proud Boys (“Proud Boys, stand down”). 

The energy that Trump channels into these scenes is, chiefly, to create spectacle. His barrage of tweets against political enemies and legal challengers has proved far more effective than detractors anticipated. It’s not just a matter of style. The affection for fascism is more than aesthetic - zijn genegenheid voor het fascisme meer is dan esthetisch, wrote Wood.

Cincinnatus of Trump Tower

If Trump planned to delegate the hard work of statecraft to a deputy, the reality of his first term is that he was forced instead to fight for himself.

Trump’s signature defence has been to create a scene in which he can cast himself as the underdog. This is the tactic of a self-declared outsider, which still makes sense when the time comes to leave. The longer the dispute over Biden's victory, the more opportunity to broker the terms of his departure.

For Wood, stirring anger among Trump’s base is a form of insurance against loss - verzekering tegen verlies. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance is hard at work on the case for post-presidential prosecutions. The sound and the fury of a protracted post-election wrangle, echoed by a significant minority in the Trump base who believe their hero was robbed of victory by rigged postal votes, make it more difficult to convict neatly - veel moeilijker netjes te veroordelen.

In my last post on the US presidential contest, I quoted a long essay by NRC editor Bas Heijne. Win or lose, he argued, Trump’s opponents have not defined a viable alternative vision. The solidarity in anti-Trump protests against inequality, racism or neo-liberalism does not translate into a concrete programme. Sacrifices are asked for things that seem abstract and far away - er worden offers gevraagd voor zaken die abstract en ver weg lijken, wrote Heijne. 

By refusing to concede, Trump poses a very specific challenge to democrats of all colours. What price democracy? That question is about sacrifice: what exactly do his opponents protesters propose? Wood posits a scenario that can be read as an answer to Heijne’s doubts: a formula for Trump’s exit which demands an immediate sacrifice from his opponents.

In his elegant denouement, Trump could retire during the pre-inauguration “interregnum” to his New York tower, leaving Mike Pence to run the country and on one of his last days before Biden moves into the White House, confer immunity on Trump.

Immunity entails waiving some residual belief in constitutional process, or even in natural justice. Are such beliefs still intact? Is the sacrifice too great for the Democrats, or for Trump’s critics among Republicans? Wood suggests not. He draws an analogy with Cincinnatus, the Roman emperor who opposed democracy but voluntarily ceded power to return to his farm on the right bank of the Tiber - als Cincinnatus op zijn boerderij op de rechteroever van de Tiber

Cincinnatus chose exile to a simple life in the Quinctian Meadows. Fashions have changed, up to a point: Trump Tower is furnished to resemble the most decadent phase of the Roman Empire, de meest decadente fase van het Romeinse rijk. No coincidence, perhaps. In any event, Trump would expect nothing less.

In 2021, the price of exile would be a gilded post-presidency, een verguld post-presidentschap. If America's political Establishment will make the sacrifice, Wood speculates, then the 45th president will cut a deal.

The view from the Trump organisation is of a new vista of opportunity: the chance of a retirement with profits to make the Clinton family blush - op winst die de familie Clinton zou doen blozen.