Wow. It came (and went) at last! The 2020 Presidential Election and the ouster of Donald Trump. Like most people in United States, here in Canada, and everywhere else in the world, I was pretty much in a state of full-body tension waiting to see how it all turned out. The polls were favorable going in, but we all knew from experience to take that with a grain of salt.
Naturally, I was happy and relieved by the outcome. After four years of wondering when the madness and sheer chaos of the Trump administration would end, the people spoke and the results were crushing to Trump and his cadre. And while this is far from over (they still have lawsuits to file and votes they’re trying to suppress), it’s good to know that people all over the world can enjoy some peace and calm for a little while at least.
A friend of mine (and fellow writer) once remarked that as a Canadian, I could offer a characteristically sober and cool-headed perspective on American politics. I certainly enjoyed being thought of that way. However, I can tell you that that’s not been my attitude in the past few years. Considering that Canada, much like the rest of the world, is directly affected by what goes on down south, I’m naturally concerned about US politics.
As former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau (father to Justin Trudeau, our current PM) once said:
“Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”
And, like most Canadians, I have many friends, colleagues, and even family members in the US, which makes me feel emotionally involved when things are really hitting the fan down there. So like most people, I’ve been asking myself the same question for about a decade now.
How Did it Come to This?
It’s a fair question, isn’t it? It also cuts across party lines and ideologies. How did the state of US politics get to the point where almost half the country thought that Donald Trump – a notorious real-estate developer and reality TV star – was the man to lead their country? By all accounts, he was a fraudster, a liar, a grifter, a sex offender, and actively colluding with Russia to steal the election.
His campaign launched on the promise of deporting 11 million people, building a wall to keep immigrants out, banning Muslims from entering the country, tear up trade treaties, repealing the Affordable Care Act (ACA), withdrawing from Climate Change agreements, neutering the EPA, imposing protectionist policies, bringing back coal and manufacturing jobs, and using the Justice Dept. to persecute his enemies.
While some people found these pitches to be “folksy,” “refreshing,” or just liked the idea of jobs coming back, it wasn’t hard to see that these promises were the boasts of a simple-minded man telling people what they wanted to hear. And it did nothing to hide the fact that he encouraged violence among his supporters, intimated Hillary Clinton should be killed, nor to drown out the chorus of “Jew-S-A,” “lock her up!”, or “I will assassinate Hillary if she wins!”
The man represented the utter worst in people and taught them that anything said by the media about him was a lie. How could anyone be fooled by this huckster or think his brand of racist, bigoted, mob-mentality and violence was somehow a good thing? How did they not see the parallels between him and some of the worst monsters in history?
The Mind of the Trump Supporter
Luckily, I had the benefit of being able to speak to multiple individuals on the other side of the aisle for the past few years and was able to get their perspective on things before, during, and after the election. They also stuck around to make their opinions known throughout his administration as more and more evidence of criminal behavior was revealed and more people spoke out about his abuses and incompetence.
From them, I learned that (for starters) everything said about Trump by the mainstream media was part of a false narrative created by “the swamp” since he was challenging them. This excuse, simplified into the slogan “fake news,” was always the go-to EVERY SINGLE TIME new crimes and abuses came to light. But it didn’t seem to matter to them that much, in the end. Whether it was true or not, anything Trump did, they found acceptable.
Whether it was the Trump Tower meeting, the Trump Jr. email chain, Jr. calls with Assange, his defenses of Putin, the back-channel meetings with Russians, his associates long history of collusion with Putin’s friends, firing Comey, the Mueller Report, extorting Zelensky, befriending dictators, abandoning NATO and US allies…
Whether it was “Grab them by the pussy!”, the 26 women accusing him of sexual assault (one of whom was 13 at the time!), his support of Moore (another pedophile), his charity scams, his many bankruptcies, his lawsuits for fraud, his friendship with Epstein, his adulteries, his depriving 20 million Americans of health care, his giving the super-rich tax breaks, or his vilification of immigrants and refugees, there was always an excuse.
- “We don’t care, we want an outsider!”
- “I’m sick of both parties!”
- “Russia isn’t our enemy, so it’s not treason!”
- “Muslims aren’t a race, so he’s not racist!”
- “Women often lie about rape.”
- “It’s not hatred to want to protect your people!”
- “I’m just glad someone’s doing something about the border!”
- “There’s always been bounties on US troops, so so what?”
- “They’re ILLEGALS!”
- “The cages were build by Obama!”
- “It’s normal for millionaires to go bankrupt a few times!”
- “He’s bringing back jobs!”
- “Hey, the US has done bad stuff too. We’re no angels!”
- “Better Putin than Hillary!”
- “He’s protecting us against globalism and the new world order (NWO)!”
- “What about (insert half-assed story about Obama or the Clintons)?”
So to recap, Trump supporters didn’t care if he was a misogynist, a stupid bigot, an adulterer, a sex offender, a Russian puppet, a fraud, a failure, a thief, a narcissist, or a serial liar. While they’d initially say it was all lies or deflect with the “whataboutism,” they would inevitable admit that they didn’t care. Everything, even treason, dead children, letting Russia pay for the death of US troops, and Russia running the US, was acceptable to them.
The power of populist candidates, people who give someone else to blame and promise to right all wrongs, have historically been very powerful throughout history – especially where unemployment, confusion, and social chaos reign. But this made no sense to me. It was one thing for people to blindly believe Trump would defend America (or their version of it), but this level of denial and compromise was inexplicable.
What the hell could possibly explain this? What could explain right-wingers who called Obama a “traitor” suddenly championing collusion with an enemy nation? What could explain nearly half of the US thinking a hostile dictator was their friend and their fellow Americans the enemy? What could explain people thinking that everything – including facts – were rightly sacrificed for the sake of loyalty to one man?
In short, when did it get to the point where loyalty to a president somehow supersedes loyalty to the country, democracy, and the truth itself? According to friends and colleagues, it all depends on how far back you want to look. I guess you could say that the situation is like that line from Syriana:
“You dig a six-foot hole and you’ll find three bodies. Dig twelve and maybe you’ll find forty.”
That may be true. But for me, the problems really began around 2008. It was at this point that the Republicans and the political right ceased being cynical, lying opportunists (you know, politicians!) and began their famous descent into chaos, madness, ultra-nationalism, and “alternative facts” – in other words, Trump!
Defeat and Regroup
As you may recall, 2008 was a great year for liberals, progressives, reformists, and forward-thinkers in America. The GOP was effectively routed from Capitol Hill and eight years of campaigning on religion, homophobia, Islamophobia, elitism, and lies was at an end. Bush had been bleeding support for years, and was finally leaving office.
In 2008, Obama swept into office on a tidal wave of support and optimism. Combined with their victories in the 2006 mid-terms, the Democrats were effectively in control of both elected branches of government (the Supreme Court was still stacked in the Republican’s favor). The GOP, meanwhile, was facing an image crisis and a crisis in leadership.
Initially, they tried to reboot their image by embracing Michael Steele as RNC chairman and his message of new ideas and taking the party “to the streets.” It certainly looked like a cynical ploy, with the GOP thinking that putting a Black man in charge would draw more support from certain (ahem!) voting demographics. Their logic seemed to be, “it worked for the Democrats!”
Unfortunately, Bush left America with two unresolved wars, an ongoing “war on terror,” the worst economic crisis since 1929, and serious damage to their reputation. A lot of people were losing their jobs, were fearing for the future, and were looking for someone to blame. It was here the GOP found new life by embracing fringe movements that were emerging all over the country.
To these people, the GOP laid the blame for all the current woes at Obama’s feet. It was an old tune. High spending, high taxes, socialist reforms, unions, economic regulations, the EPA – this was what was killing American jobs! Blame the government, which just happens to be currently occupied by a Black Democrat! And it certainly worked. All across the country, fringe movements claiming to “libertarian” were demanding that someone put an end to it all!
It didn’t take long to reveal that these were largely “astroturf” organizations, which refers to movements that claim to be grass-roots, but are actually directed from above. This was terribly evident about the Tea Party Movement, the largest Obama-era opposition group, which was largely funded by Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a conservative political group run by David and Charles Koch (aka. the Koch brothers).
There was also the Birther Movement, a holdover from the pre-election days that sprang up amid Sarah Palin’s demands that the Republican Party “go negative” against the Obama campaign. After being treated to the lie that Obama was Kenyan by birth (and therefore illegitimate), their refrain after the election became “I want my country back.”
In addition, the Tea Party was clearly taking its marching orders from conservative politicians and political commentators. This included FoxNews, the long-standing mouthpiece for the GOP and under the direction of Roger Ailes (who died shortly after being revealed to be a notorious sex offender), and corporate interests like Citizens for a Sound Economy (also run by the Koch Brothers).
There was also Glenn Beck, a rising media star whose brand was built on conspiracy theories and comparing Obama’s policies to Nazism at the drop of a hat! Several Republican politicians moved quickly to embrace these fringe movements and spokespeople, like Ron Paul, Michelle Bachmann, Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, and Sarah Palin (who was looking for a new purpose after her failed VP run).
Normally, these movements would give any sensible politician pause because of their militant, anti-government rhetoric (which overflowed into acts of violence), their racially-charged views, and their tenuous relationship with the facts. But it didn’t matter much, because the GOP seemed to think they could ride this beast back to power. By 2010, it was clear who was in control of the Republican Party.
The best illustration was Rush Limbaugh saying it was him, not Steele. Steele replied by calling Limbaugh out as an armchair quarterback, but then apologize to him publicly (for fear of alienating the base). Limbaugh proudly played the apology on-air, relishing in the fact that an RNC Chairman was bending the knee to him.
At first, the new strategy seemed to be working. In the 2010 mid-terms, the GOP regained control of the Senate and House, Reince Priebus replaced Steele, and John Boehner and Mitch McConnell became Speaker of the House and Senate Majority Leader, respectively. Before the election was over, the two men summed up the Republican-led Congress’ new agenda:
“We’re going to do everything — and I mean everything we can do — to kill [Obamacare], stop it, slow it down, whatever we can.” (Boehner, Oct. 2010)
“The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” (McConnel, 2010).
The only problem was, the nation was still dealing with the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, an ongoing war in Afghanistan, 8% unemployment, and a massive deficit. At a time when cooperation was needed more than ever, the GOP had committed to an anti-government agenda and blamed Obama for all the delays, gridlock, and shutdowns that followed.
Not only did this put them in bed with a cabal of conspiracy theorists, white nationalists, survivalists, bigots, and racists, it also meant that they needed to treat Obama and the Democrats as the enemy to maintain the illusion of righteous struggle. The resistance reached the level of extreme petulance and comparisons to Hitler and Stalin were also very common. As always, the GOP used immigration and Islamophobia to scare people.
You may recall the controversy surrounding the “ground zero Mosque” or Obama bowing to the Saudi king. But it was even worse where health care and social assistance were involved. The GOP could not budge on either, which meant entertaining notions of letting the sick die and the poor starve to death, because helping them in any way was “socialism.”
Between the party and conservative media (FoxNews being the main purveyor), the political right was also committed to attacking Obama’s every move and utterance. Memories of “he does nothing but apologize for America,” the “coffee cup salute,” and the “tan suit” incident come to mind. Much like 1994 to 1998, the sole purpose of the GOP appeared to be undermining a Democratic president. Only this time, there was an added edge that couldn’t be ignored and stunk of obvious racism.
These problems also spilled over into the party itself and led to in-fighting among Republicans. By 2012, when it came time to nominate a candidate for the federal election, they would constantly accuse each other of being RINOs (Republican-in-name-only). Eventually, Mitt Romney received the GOP nomination, but the harm was done and Romney (unsurprisingly) lost.
Among both Democrats and Republicans, Romney was viewed as the kind of politician who “will say anything to win.” During the Republican primaries, he declared that he was in favor of repealing Roe v. Wade, repealing Obamacare, rescinding gay marriage, and a host of other issues. During the election, he flipped on all these issues and it cost him.
Like McCain in 2008, Romney had a serious branding problem, where he couldn’t appear too moderate for fear of alienating his base, and couldn’t appear too far right for fear of alienating moderates. The result of this was that he came off as totally inconsistent. His candidacy also illustrated the problem of the Republican Party, which would haunt them again by 2016.
This piece is part of a series. Stay tuned for the next installment!