Well good god, it’s really happening isn’t it? The US presidential inauguration always has a momentous air about it — the handover from one elected monarch to another — but this time it’s the shift from one whole order of reality to another. Or back to another.
For four years the US and much of the world has endured and enjoyed a presidency that was all foreground, always in your face, an exhausting but enervating parade of chaos, given a keen edge by the fact that its perpetrator could have launched a new, all-involving war — nuclear or otherwise — something out of the reach of Rodrigo Duterte or Viktor Orban.
And many thought there’d be four more of it as well, as we cruised towards an election with the Democrats determined to elevate anyone to the nomination — the late Phil Spector, a ficus plant — other than Bernie Sanders, take another loss and wait for ’24.
The Democratic centre was “lucky” in that COVID-19 came along and put a hole in the burgeoning regional economies that were giving Trump reason to claim success — and lucky also that a million or so progressive activists had decided to commit to a “popular front” strategy, get behind “Sleepy” Joe Biden, knowing that it might well become a farce, and that if it did succeed, progressives and the left would get a raw deal in any case.
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Trump managed to turn out the vote again in 2020; many of the Obama counties he won in 2016 he kept. But the progressives in 2020 got out the vote that Hillary couldn’t, and, er, swamped him.
If there was one galvanising event that created that popular front on the left, it was Trump’s reaction to the 2017 Charlottesville rally; that quintessentially American event, a fascist torchlight parade, using tiki torch barbecue crap from Home Depot for its aim at occult political effect. Storm of Steel meets Everybody Loves Raymond, making what might be the essence of the US: lethal kitsch.
Charlottesville was Trump’s moment to separate his purported post-party populism from conventional political forces. He failed to do so, whether because of his own residual racism — scion of a German slumlord family from New York — or because he was still under the sway of Steve Bannon and other ethnonationalists. Or both.
A more knowing populist would have either denounced, or more likely ridiculed, the Charlottesville mob, with their Europeanified obsessions, seeing black activism as a puppet show of the “international Jew”, blah blah.
Trump’s equivocation about “good people on both sides” turned him from possible maverick to conventional reactionary, deciding on “nothing to the right” of him.
Had he pursued a true post left-right populism, he would have demobilised and decomposed the left, leaving them to bitter internal stoushes about Bernie getting cheated again, third party challenges, etc. Charlottesville, and much that it stands for, put paid to that.
The Capitol incursion and Trump’s encouragement of it was a product of his obsessive focus on gaming the election results, but also the last stage by which bigly sections of his inchoate, post-social movement had become fused to conventional, hard right narratives and mythworlds, canonised by the gnostic, occult, revelatory Q.
The capacity to carve out a distinct gonzo populism, the freewheeling sort of thing he had run in the campaign, but in government, was most likely always beyond Trump.
That would have taken a keen eye for the sort of old politics to avoid, to find moments which confounded the categories, and left progressives flummoxed.
Instead, ironically, the president whose late consigliere turned out to be the founder of the MyPillow fortune, bore the impression of the last person who sat on him, again and again.
He could have committed to a massive regional manufacturing rebuilding program — iPhone factories in Ohio or something like — but a Republican Senate forestalled the possibility and he let them.
He talked isolationism, then let someone hire John Bolton for him. He swung from conventional anti-black racism to laws that started undoing the US’ race-gulag legacy, but only because Kim Kardashian came into the room.
Everything he said about what was happening in US politics sounded like he had just seen it announced on television, which he had. He proved Jerzy Kosinski half-prophetic in the novel Being There: that the US would eventually elect as president a man who was no more than a TV feedback loop, projector and projection of a nation’s fantasies of itself.
What Kosinski missed was what TV would become — not the endless Warholesque medium-cool soporific of the ’70s, but the angry, ecstatic carnivale in which public ego and id were to be dissolved, and from which Trump would emerge, cast in gold as a man of the people.
All he had to do for those people was get some factories back, in volume enough for full-time employment to kick back in in a visible way.
There’s no doubt that some of his policies did create economic uptick in places Democrats wouldn’t have got to — one reason why Trump’s black male vote went to close to 20% was, to put it crudely, he got janitors back to work — and he talked a big game about infrastructure and big projects.
The great symbolic failure was a purported $10 billion deal with Foxconn to bring a huge manufacturing hub to Wisconsin, with $3 billion of tax breaks thrown in. That sort of project would have taken enormous focus to stay on track. But like a Trumpian anti-miracle “it just drifted away”, generating fewer than 500 jobs.
Had he been able to deliver on that, Trump would have done a 2016 redux: lost the popular vote, won the electoral college in the rust-belt. Instead, as traditional Republicans cut regulations, cut regional services, cut taxes to pay for them, boosted military spending, Trump, having demobilised his own base, remobilised progressives, with the hard right politics being used by Republicans to fill the gap in their own support.
The result is more or less alchemical — in a puff of sulphur, the minority QAnon movement became a mass force, offering the redemption of America in fantasy that was now agreed to be beyond the reach of the real.
But that wasn’t enough for the people he needed for the next stage of the rust-belt revolution, which would have seen the Republicans break, then own, the old Democratic “blue wall”.
All of it really happened. But it is remembered like — unique American phrase — a fever dream, all an era’s obsessions crowded together.
It will take months, years to untangle them, while at the same time contending with whatever they produce last.
As Donald John Trump winds up his era with the most sustained administrative work he has done to date — hand-signing 100 pardons — it’s worth remembering something about every outburst of American right-wing populism.
From Reagan to Fox News to Dubya to the Tea Party to Trump, the last one has always been more rational than what comes next.
After a brief respite, get ready for that feeling again: good god, is this really happening?