With Biden safely ensconced in the Oval Office, the most vocal concern of the political classes is redirect the passions of the dispossessed electorate that Trump seized from the GoP in 2016. This is not principally a political concern, as factors have aligned to undermine the Republican strategy of minority rule. Trump did not certify the census, and with control of the both houses of Congress and the White House, Democrats can act rapidly to impose standards on election and apportionment procedures in the States. Power will tip to the Democratic Party, and the Republicans will confront the necessity of re-inventing themselves.
What are the forces that will define that re-branding? Politically, we focus on the ethno-nationalist minority of the party. As forgotten citizens, they – like seniors – have both motivation and time to organize politically, which brings them disproportionate power in the primary process. But they do not share the motivations that seal the loyalty of most Republican voters. For most Republican voters, the principal drivers are financial entitlement and resistance to reproductive self-determination. The latter is going to be resistant to reform, but the former is far more dangerous. They have money.
While most retrospectives on Trump’s presidency focus on his abusive manipulation of his adoring codependents, I think that we need to remember why Trump sought power in the first place. Trump’s twisted amplification of ethno-nationalism was almost a parody, but he was born into financial entitlement. That concerns provides a fairly coherent explanation for his policies while in office.
Remember that Trump did not enter the race intending to win. He wanted to build his brand. What was the nature of that brand? Trump leases his name to real estate developers around the world. Unfortunately, the brand was not compelling. Investigations of his business dealings in the Arab world showed that they were largely money laundering operations for organizations such as Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. This was also true of many of the investments made by Russians in the US property market.
But it was the only game he had. Remember his nominating convention, with “TRUMP” in 90,000 point font over the stage. This was not vanity. It was a branding.
Trump’s Administration was full of people like him. Mnuchin, Tillerson, Zinke, DeVos, and Ross were all of this mold. Others, such as Ben Carson, played the sport of presidential politics largely for the speaker’s fees. Among them were those who had come under scrutiny by the Obama Administration for consumer fraud or violation of foreign trade restrictions (Tillerson in Russia).
Trump and Tillerson were unique, however, in the global scope of their entanglements. The State Department hosted investigators sent out to scrutinize their activities, and attracted nationals seeking to curry favor by reporting on a man who had made himself Obama’s enemy. At home, the Department of Justice was the principal danger, with numerous investigations in Federal Districts underway. Treasury, auditing Trump’s tax returns, was another threat. All of these institutions were eviscerated or suborned for corruption.
And finally, there was the rest of corporate America, who considered Trump a buffoon. What we saw in Trump’s Administration was lifted directly from Vladimir Putin’s playbook in the aftermath of Boris Yeltsin’s abdication. Yeltsin was abused by the post-Soviet oligarchs, but Putin used his control over the levers of justice to slowly strangle them, eventually becoming de facto owner of Russia. This was Trump’s aim as well.
He almost succeeded. The financial markets soared, and the Wall Street Journal joined FOX News in giving Trump credit. What the market manipulators didn’t count on, though, was the method seized upon by Putin. There is no honor among thieves, and behind every wealthy man are ten underlings that would be happy to take his place. Trump cultivated them, and was perfectly satisfied that the Senate refused to take action on his appointees to vacant Cabinet positions. As for those beyond his reach: Trump’s attack on Jeff Bezos was a fascinating set-piece of global character assassination, and I assume that his Saudi Arabian allies participated with the aim of securing the arms they needed for their war in Yemen.
I am working on a craft project that will eventually manifest as a “Memorial to the Abuse of Privilege.” The foundation evokes the 400,000 COVID deaths in the last year of Trump’s term. The narrowness of the Biden victory should give us pause. It was not superior campaigning or a compelling vision of the future that propelled Biden to victory. Trump’s botched COVID response carried heavy financial consequences. The Lincoln Project sprang up to lead the opposition to his second term. I believe that without COVID, Trump would still be president, and American democracy would have died.
But talk to a Trump voter and QAnon conspiracist and you might be shocked. They want to go back to work because if we don’t, small business will die in America. They are not classically ethno-nationalist; they believe that the aggrieved ethnic and racial minorities have forgotten indentured servitude and corporate towns and the labor abuses of industrialization and violent suppression of unions and fighting in foreign wars and the deflationary gold standard and corporate welfare and globalization and think “Well, if you deserve restitution and opportunities, what about us?”
In other words, they recognize that the enemy are those that abuse privilege. They bet on Obama, and felt betrayed by his lax treatment of Wall Street raiders in 2009. If the Democrats choose to expose and fight global corruption, they’d win them back, and the Republican Party would have to drag its libertarian corporate pay masters back into a sustainable social contract.