the national interest

The End of an Error

This country was always better than Donald Trump.

Art: Barbara Kruger for New York Magazine
Art: Barbara Kruger for New York Magazine

Donald Trump destroyed many things in his single term as president. The quickest one Joe Biden can repair may be the measure of self-respect Trump robbed through four years of national humiliation.

Of all the endless lies made by and for Trump, the most insidiously effective is the one his daughter Ivanka uttered at his nominating convention, when she described him as “the people’s president.” One would think that a precondition for being a “people’s president” — and not just a duly-elected holder of the office — would be gaining the support of a plurality of the electorate. But after four years of relentless pseudo-populist propaganda, this absurd claim came naturally.

Trump has been fanatical on the subject of portraying his shocking election in the cloak of an imagined popular mandate. It is why he instructed his press secretary to tell farcical lies about his inaugural crowds, why he has circulated misleading maps showing the vast land areas occupied by his supporters, and why he has depicted his enemies as an elite and alien force. They needed to depict Trump as the true representative of the volk.

In a strange way, liberals needed to believe this, too. The shock of Trump’s election provoked a crisis of self-confidence for his opponents. Humans have an innate need to believe events with profound importance must have profound causes. Trump’s success must reveal some vast and terrible secret. They — Trump’s America — must be, if not more numerous, then at least more authentic, bound together by a secret bond inaccessible to the rest of us. Trump benefitted from polling errors both in 2016 and 2020 that imbued him with a mystical aura, a wizard possessing a secret connection to the heartland that was invisible to the elite.

The simple truth is that was all a mistake — a ghastly, deadly mistake, the toll of which will linger for decades. The precise causes have all been exhumed: bad decisions by Hillary Clinton, an easily manipulated press corps, the FBI, the GRU, the Electoral College sorting out the votes just so.

America, by and large, never wanted Trump to be president. The public opposed his presidency from the moment he took office, and he trailed Joe Biden in polls continuously. The first chance the country got to correct the mistake, we fired him unceremoniously. He suffered the rare ignominy of becoming an incumbent president denied a second term, a category that over the last century includes Hoover, Carter, Bush and now Trump. Of this sad group, only Trump had the benefit of a growing economy.

And while Trump kept his reelection close in the Electoral College, the nation as a whole registered clear opposition. Biden’s margin in the popular vote – the most precise measure of a “people’s president” – is likely to swell to an Obama-like margin. Progressives have chosen to torment themselves with the fact that Trump’s supporters continue to exist, rather than allow themselves to absorb the extent of his repudiation.

None of this is to say that the Trump experience was a mere aberration or without meaning. Even those who did not suffer directly from his presidency have come away shaken and disillusioned. Not only was one of the worst human beings in this country entrusted with massive power, but he put his twisted psyche on constant display.

Trump’s overt grossness is what made his rise, and his ability to hold on to 40 percent of the country, so unnerving. We have a model in our heads for a slick, appealing demagogue: dashing aviator Charles Lindbergh in The Plot Against America, or butter-smooth Bob Roberts, or (for the theologically inclined) Satan. Donald Trump isn’t selling reaction beneath a superficially appealing package. The surface itself is hideous. Trump looks and acts like a compilation of movie villains: a theatrically pudgy, whiny, evasive, lazy, egotistical, cowardly, image-obsessed bully.

You could loathe a Reagan or a George W. Bush while still understanding why the Gary Cooper homage struck Americans as a familiar archetype of masculine leadership. Trump, on the other hand, resembles the scheming banker or railroad baron who the hero would punch out in the final scene. It was utterly in character that his election night White House speech complaining about his impending defeat including numerous mentions that he was forced to cancel a fun victory party, as if his personal social inconvenience should outweigh the voters’ right to have their ballots counted.

Just how a man like this managed to eke out a narrow victory in 2016 has been a source of torment for his critics. It is easy to understand if you begin with the fact that most Americans — and especially the most persuadable Americans — spend little or no time following political news. Many of them have stressful lives that do not leave much room for it. Deciding which candidate to cast their vote for is like trying to follow the plot of a television series they have never seen and have only heard discussed in snippets over the water cooler.

And if you put yourself in the position of a person who has just a passing knowledge of the figures involved, it is easy to see why Hillary Clinton’s perceived sins loomed as large as Donald Trump’s. Both Clintons have been the subject of years worth of critical coverage, including scandals both real and imagined. Donald Trump starred in a television show as an executive who could do no wrong. A person following the 2016 campaign via snippets of cable-news chatter and the headlines streaming across their Facebook page could very well have chosen him as the lesser evil — without being evil themselves.

For the political elite, Trump was a moral X-ray. Some (mostly, but not exclusively, on the left) responded to the crisis with noble opposition. Others (mostly, but not exclusively, on the right) with opportunistic sycophancy, or by retreating into myopic factional micro-obsessions. Trump has a magnetic attraction for the cruel, the venal, and the stupid. Trump, in a way no other American president has done, revealed basic things about peoples’ characters.

The reactionary core Trump has mobilized will not go away. The war against democracy and refusal to concede the legitimacy of majority governance will only grow more rabid. Defeating Trump will not banish the forces in American life he represents.

But the character of the American people as a whole has proved worthy. On Election Night 2016, in the immediate shock of Trump’s victory, I wrote about how we needed to stay and fight for American democracy and how that fight has always been part of America’s heritage.

Biden’s spiel about the soul of America may be corny and oversimplistic, but at the end of the day, it is true. We are better than Trump, better than what he has done to this country, and we can make it a better place still. Trump will be remembered by future generations as, at best, a clown and, at worst, a criminal.

The disgrace of this presidency will cling to his enablers forever. The rest of us can exult. America is far from perfect, but it is also far better than Donald Trump. Our problems may not be solved, but our nightmare has ended.

The End of an Error