A personal reflection on the mark Donald Trump, his election, and his tenure as president, left on politics.
By Robert Tolan
Trump’s mark on American politics has been overblown and misrepresented by a media whose business model has depended on vilifying the man who gave a voice to millions of citizens. Trump’s most important contribution to society has been to reveal the media’s focus on their agenda, not the news. He has shown how biased the talking heads and writing hands in what were once institutions wholly committed to the facts, not their opinions, really are. His contributions have not been to sully American political conversation nor to leave the world bereft of leadership nor even to make a divided America even more divided. Trump is a symptom, not a cause, of what is wrong with the United States – an obsession with illusion. It is a curious thing a narcissist has become a mirror for all of its flaws.
The first American newsperson to take an editorial line was Walter Cronkite and in so doing spelt the death knell for American involvement in Vietnam but also initiated the rot that eats at the heart of American journalism. Egotism. In that moment, American journalists, once servants for the truth, were lured by celebrity at the expense of irreparably damaging news journalism. Cronkite may have acted admirably but by abandoning a commitment to solely reporting the news and forging a new path of opinion ambiguously mixed with fact, he created the modern media. The modern media is a tool for vested interests, not the pursuit of truth and so Cronkite’s actions lowered American political discourse from debates between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal to Chris Matthews of MSNBC calling the Republican party the ‘Grand Wizard Crowd’ and Fox News hosts referring to blue-collar Democrats as the ‘Cosmopolitan Elite’. Were it not for Rupert Murdoch’s acquisition of Fox News and his enforcement, along with Roger Ailes, of a combative, anti-Democrat editorial line or MSNBC or CNN adopting a holier than thou attitude, America may not have been struck with a case of Trump.
Trump is a symptom, not a cause, of what is wrong with the United States – an obsession with illusion.
An American President has said ‘I think we agree, the past is not over’, ‘It depends on how you define alone…’, ‘Facts are stupid things’, and ‘Boy, they were big on crematoriums, weren’t they?’. The first, a George W. Bush ‘Bushism’, the second, one of Bill Clinton’s most impressive points at his grand jury testimony, the third, Ronald Reagan, and the final, George H. W Bush on Auschwitz. American Presidents, at least in modern times, say really unbelievable things. If Twitter had been around in 1776, quotes from the Founding Fathers would likely be included. Trump has not lowered the bar to the extent some media outlets allege, it is merely that their coverage and his use of Twitter has amplified the often ignored reality the President is human. At one point during this election, Joe Biden thought he was running against George W. Bush. Indeed, Joe Biden’s gaffes deserve a book of their own. A media strangely committed to killing the cash cow that is Trump has sacrificed their obligation to report Joe Biden’s myriad of off-colour comments in order to plunge the knife into a monster, Trump, that they helped create. Without the transformation of news reporting from a polished product into what became known as reality television, Trump may not have gotten his big break on ‘The Apprentice’.
The issue with Americans is they are too much like Flann O’Brien, ‘completely half afraid to think’. Ailes et al capitalised on an America fighting against what was then an incipient cancel culture and so CNN increased the cancelling in response. The feedback loop was formed. There are now no new ideas, only attempts at intellectualism in the guise of New York Times op-eds and think tanks doing a great deal of thinking but no doing. Politics does not exist in and of itself. It arises from the amalgam of social, cultural and economic issues that present themselves to society. Out of this debate and therefore politics occurs. In this sense, there is no longer politics in America, hence Trump could not leave a mark on it, though there is the illusion of something approaching politics, another facet of the feedback loop. Such a loop arises from a lack of free speech and so can only be broken with free speech. Without it, there is no debate, only pathetic, in the traditional sense, attempts at it. James Baldwin observed, ‘… nothing can be changed until it is faced’, and so it is impossible to confront a topic without the ability to think and speak freely about it. Trump arose from that part of the American spirit most epitomised by Middle America doing their best to speak freely. They did. The consequences have been minimal. For now. Mistaken as the cause, not the effect, Trump will continue to be misconstrued as the source of the chaos we will see over the next two and possibly three election cycles.
Trump arose from that part of the American spirit most epitomised by Middle America doing their best to speak freely. They did.
No President has been more polarizing, adored and vilified, feared and mocked and full of contradictions. There is no purer embodiment of the two-party system. Trump will be perceived as the cause of a movement brewing in the Republican party that will disrupt it even beyond the boundaries set by the Tea Party and may even cause the Grand Ole Party to split. He has also made the hard left of the Democrat party even more radical during his time in office. Failure to win the Senate means Biden’s hands will largely be tied. The radicals, modern Jacobites, will either take control of or split the Democratic party. Assign a low probability to the former as corporate interests will not allow it. The two-party system will break in this decade. Trump will be seen as the cause.
Indeed, Trump’s biggest mark on politics may be what happens after the Presidency. There is no doubt he broke the law at some point during his tenure. His meddling in Robert Muller’s investigations was a federal crime. He may have colluded with a Russian group to win the election. He appears to have committed numerous white-collar crimes in his life before politics that are now under state investigation. Given his personality and moral code, it is hard to believe he did not engage in the corruption Irish politics was embattled with: kickbacks and ‘jobs for the lads’. Though Biden has been quite ambiguous as to whether he would support federal charges against Trump, he has no control over state investigations so it is conceivable Trump will face at least one trial in the near future. Remember, he settled a case concerning Trump University in the incipient stages of his Presidential run. He is no stranger to the courts and they may well lock him up.
If Trump ends up behind bars, he will be the first President to see the other side of the law in history with the obvious consequences for the reputation of an already damaged institution. By extension, Trump in prison would be a fitting end to a political career borne of something more akin to reality television than politics - modern democracy. It is inconceivable Trump would use this time to write his own manifesto to come up with a better political system, one that does not leave a country so bitterly divided so frequently, but it is critical to the saga of “Trump inspires people to come up with a new form of democracy or even a new political system”. If not, it is hard to think of how western ideals could be a meaningful part of the next two centuries which will be dominated by China and India. If so, Trump through a series of curious events could become a key part of the next great political thinker’s story.