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25 November 2020

Leader: The last days of Trump

As the president concedes power, the problems that fuelled his political rise will continue to haunt the republic.

By New Statesman

More than three weeks since losing the US presidential election on 3 November, Donald Trump appears to have conceded defeat, instructing his White House to cooperate with the General Services Administration, which oversees the transition of presidential power.  

Mr Trump’s defiance – his allegations of voter fraud and legal efforts to overturn the result – has set a dangerous precedent. Yet even stalwarts of the Republican Party have now turned on the refusenik-in-chief: the former neoconservative national security adviser John Bolton recently described him as “the political equivalent of a street rioter”.

Such a stand-off with the electorate is true to type: as president, Mr Trump seldom acknowledged the limits on executive power, even if his administration enjoyed limited political success in office.

[see also: Can Joe Biden’s transition team become a progressive administration?]

He did reshape the judiciary, filling three seats on the Supreme Court and stacking district courts with conservative judges. But a balance-sheet of Mr Trump’s four years in power would show few legislative achievements of which to boast. Unlike his Republican predecessors – Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush – Mr Trump’s tenure will leave no enduring economic or political legacy; he has coarsened the political discourse, and four years of foul tweets and venomous speeches will be all that is left of his impermanent presidency. Dark omens about a fascist seizure of power in 2016 have ended in electoral defeat and interminable rounds of golf. As the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat noted in 2018: “Trump is more farce than tragedy.” So it remains.

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But faith in Mr Trump’s power and strategic wisdom dies hard, especially on the left. His refusal to accept defeat was interpreted by many liberals as an attempted coup d’état and evidence of his authoritarian designs on the republic.

The authoritarian resources at Mr Trump’s disposal – even if he knew how or cared to use them – are meagre. The media stands almost entirely against him, and the legal means for reversing the election are near impossible. The prospect of a coup, either by force or fraud, was always remote.

[see also: What US democracy can learn from ancient Greek philosophy]

Mr Trump defended white supremacists, empowered conspiracy theorists, indulged foreign autocrats, forced apart immigrant families and celebrated police violence. Liberals are right to condemn these sinister and grotesque acts. But as Thomas Meaney writes in this week’s issue, fears of a coup signalled a “fresh haemorrhaging of political realism” among American progressives.

Since 2016, liberals have adopted a strategy of delegitimisation, condemning Mr Trump, and his supporters, for degrading political life. A grass-roots campaign of Democrats, Independents and Never-Trump conservatives, which describes itself as the “Resistance”, has also protested Mr Trump at every turn: over his treatment of women, the separation of immigrant families and his hostility towards Black Lives Matter.

Through mass activism, the Resistance has limited the president’s worst excesses, and during the election campaign it effectively mobilised large numbers of people to vote for Joe Biden.

But far from recognising Mr Trump as a product of what came before, the Resistance has made him into an aberration, someone whose rise and fall says nothing about the conditions that made his presidency possible. “Resistance” has substituted for liberal self-criticism, and represents a shrunken politics, one based on sloganeering – “Never Trump” – and false historical comparisons, rather than on transformative ambition. No amount of alarmism can make up for the narrow stock of ideas with which the liberal left now hopes to restore the United States.

Those who warned about the coming of fascism may see in Biden a Democratic president who will redeem the original sin of Mr Trump’s victory in 2016. But while Mr Trump’s presidency may be over, the underlying problems that caused his political rise remain. Unless the Resistance can offer a transformative project, rather than a purely defensive one, the spectre of Trumpism will continue to haunt the republic. 

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This article appears in the 25 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Trump