Donald Trump has set the bar for himself so low that on Tuesday night he pranced over it by reading a pedestrian speech to Congress that (1) made the usual promises, (2) as usual skipped the specifics about how he’d fulfill them, and (3) was disrupted the usual number of times by the usual partisan applause. Someone I know who heard it on the radio was deeply troubled because Trump sounded normal, and because his opponents’ desperate hope to get rid of him hinges in part on Trump’s many supporters eventually concluding that he isn’t.
This strategy might work better if Trump’s supporters could somehow succumb to the illusion that the whole country were discovering this together. During Watergate many Americans were Nixon loyalists and a hell of a lot weren’t, but nobody knew for sure what role Nixon played in the cover-up. Story by story, witness by witness, tape by tape, we all found out. This time around Trump’s opponents have made it blatantly clear that they were on to him all along, and are more than a little disgusted that his defenders remain in deep denial.
Either out of deepest conviction or because we, the opposition, need something to hang our hats on, we’ve gone pretty much all in on the proposition that democracy in America is hanging by a thread and Trump and his henchmen are clicking their scissors. For instance, the Southern Poverty Law Center just sent me its quarterly Intelligence Report, subtitled “The Year in Hate and Extremism.” The cover features the massive head of a screaming Donald Trump. “After half a century,” the cover reads, “the radical right enters the mainstream.”
This cover isn’t saying it could happen here. It’s saying it just has, and it expects us to agree. Trump functions here not as the basis of an argument, but as a meme. His cranium is the message and the message is fascism.
A new fund-raising letter from Common Cause is almost as bleak. “If the past is any guide,” it says, “the Trump Administration could present some of the greatest challenges to our republic in recent history—including abuses of power, compromised government ethics, new barriers to participation in our democracy, and an all-out assault on our civil and voting rights.” It doesn’t say what past it’s thinking of, so our imaginations are free to wander back to Germany in the 1930s.
Fear-mongering doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be afraid of—the SPLC monitors hate groups, and its numbers show they’re on the rise. But I worry about progressive rejectionists reducing Trump and his government to a single orthodoxy. Back in the days when Barack Obama was president, objecting to any phase of his presidency meant falling in with repellent Americans who disbelieved in his citizenship, disbelieved in his health plan, disbelieved in science, and disbelieved in human rights and dignity. They didn’t have much choice in what they disbelieved—that was the party line. I don’t want those people to look at us now and see an opposition just as rigid and doctrinaire.
The argument against Trump that even many Trump voters can’t reject starts with his chaotic psychology. Go on to play the tyranny card if you will, but you won’t win the argument against Trump voters while your tyrant still looks to them like your bogeyman.