Some of us Saw this Coming — But we were Assured Donald Trump was No Big Deal

tags: authoritarianism, Donald Trump

Jim Sleeper is the author of Liberal Racism (1997) and The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York (1990).

If nothing else, Wednesday's insurgency-cum-riot on Capitol Hill should serve to sideline a few insouciant, above-it-all pundits who quietly enjoyed Donald Trump's upstaging of liberals, even as they assured us that ultimately we had little to fear from him.

"He Won't Concede, but He'll Pack His Bags" was the headline on Atlantic writer Graeme Wood's pre-election column of Oct. 15, which informed us that although Trump "has signaled that he's willing to plunge America into chaos in an effort to remain in the White House … we should remember that Trump had a vision of the presidency that began with extreme laziness, and that the end of his presidency could go roughly the same way. … [A]ll evidence suggests that he would run from the responsibility … of overseeing the violent fracture of America."  

Well, maybe. Early on Thursday morning, perhaps feeling utterly cornered at last, Trump promised an orderly transition. Maybe New York Times columnist Ross Douthat was right to assure us, on Oct. 10, that "There Will Be No Trump Coup." Douthat offered a "final pre-election case for understanding the president as a noisy weakling, not a budding autocrat. Across the last four years, the Trump administration has indeed displayed hallmarks of authoritarianism. … But it's also important to recognize all the elements of authoritarianism he lacks. He lacks popularity and political skill, unlike most of the global strongmen who are supposed to be his peers. … Our weak, ranting, infected-by-Covid chief executive is not plotting a coup, because a term like 'plotting' implies capabilities that he conspicuously lacks."

Well, maybe. But Douthat — whom I've characterized as a casualty of Ideological Displacement Syndrome — also worried that with "liberalism poised to retake presidential power," it had become "a more dominant force in our society, with a zealous progressive vanguard and a monopoly in the commanding heights of culture." The liberals' return to power, he warned, "won't be the salvation of American pluralism; it will be the unification of cultural and political power under a single banner."

Again, maybe. But begging Douthat and Wood's pardon, what I think we've witnessed on Capitol Hill is pretty much what I predicted in March of 2016, as Trump was rampaging through that year's Republican presidential primaries, demolishing both that party's and the Democratic Party's establishments:

Armed, racist American goons and drooling fools who are circling liberal democracy's proverbial town meetings in our nightmares … weren't born to do what they're doing now, nor were they all disposed to do it back on the playground. The quiet little stabs of heartbreak and self-doubt that accumulated in tiny increments in their young lives as their parents lost jobs, pensions, homes, mutual respect, and public moral standing have  blossomed into open resentment seeking the right target.

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