The end of Donald Trump’s first term as President is drawing near.
I don’t want to speculate on how I think Nov. 3 is going to go down. The polls tell a pretty clear story — significantly clearer, I should stress, than they did four years ago — but this election is, by all accounts and for a huge variety of reasons, totally different from any before.
And yet, even four years later, 2016 is still on everyone’s mind. Whether you’re looking for a repeat of the Clinton campaign’s collapse, or you want your country to reject Trump as soundly as I do, you probably can’t stop thinking about this time four years ago any better than I can.
So I want to talk about it. I think it’s important to situate the 2016 election in the broader context of American political history, because whether or not you’re comfortable with it (I’m certainly not), it’s part of that history. I want to look with clear eyes at what that moment represents, and I want to figure out why it was so shocking to so many people.
Any good analysis of Trump must begin at the latest with Bush. Specifically, with the 2003 reports that revealed for the first time the horrific torture methods employed by American forces against prisoners held at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
In the eyes of anyone with a conscience, what was done to the prisoners at Abu Ghraib was unacceptable. It was the first moment many Americans — especially those who had bought the lies about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction — were confronted with the grim reality of the Iraq War. George Bush’s approval rating — which had been sky-high following his careful use of 9/11 to concoct a common enemy for the American people — began to waver.
But the Bush administration officials — Condoleezza Rice, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld — responsible for okaying torture informed the public that they’d misunderstood. The evil they’d seen photo evidence of was in fact not torture, but “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
Of course, this was bullshit, but enough of the electorate bought it. Bush was comfortably re-elected in 2004 after a cursory apology, the scandal largely forgotten by all but the most bleeding-heart liberals.
“Enhanced interrogation techniques” is a euphemism. It’s a perfect example of how the American right wing has, since Reagan, used euphemisms to disguise cruelty under nonsense phrases, shift public discourse, and couch unacceptable actions in a kind of abstract political mystique. It’s much harder to say “it’s wrong to interrogate terrorists” than “it’s wrong to torture prisoners.”
The response to these euphemisms of what I’ll call “the democracy caucus” — liberals, leftists, and engaged independents and moderates who agree that the purpose of politics should be to build a society that works for everyone — has always been befuddlement.
How is it, we wonder, that the Republican base always seems to accept this kind of transparent obfuscation? We gasp when otherwise respectable people parrot lines about “the nuclear family” and “the sanctity of marriage.” Don’t they realize these are just excuses to criminalize gender and sexual diversity and penalize single parents and their children?
Many of us wonder in private what kind of fool you have to be to fall for euphemisms, and we come to the uncomfortable conclusion that some fairly high percentage of the electorate must just be fools. What other explanation could there be for how the Republican base so consistently votes for cruelty with a pretty name?
I think we’ve attributed to stupidity what we should have to malice. This is how to understand the effect of Donald Trump.
Trump doesn’t mince words like the Republicans of yesteryear. He doesn’t say “enhanced interrogation techniques,” he says “take out their families.” He doesn’t say “unrestricted immigration is a strain on the economy,” he calls Mexicans “rapists” and demands “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” He doesn’t just call Black Democrats “corrupt,” he calls them “low IQ.”
Sure, this repels some moderate conservatives. Maybe they’re concerned about optics, not so much put off by his policies (which, while certainly egregious, aren’t terribly departed from Bush’s) as alienated by his abandonment of the euphemism.
Or maybe they’re actually serious about what the euphemisms say, like Congressman Justin Amash and many other libertarians, and were cast adrift into the sea of political independence when it became obvious that the Trump wing of the party wasn’t for real about “free speech” (they mean “free speech for the right wing”) or “fiscal conservatism” (read: “eliminating healthcare and environmental protections”).
But the shocking thing about Trump’s election was the realization that the Republican base was on board with the end of the euphemism. He got elected, didn’t he? That Trump wing turned out to cover the vast majority of the party, and despite how narrow his electoral victory was, 62 million Americans still voted for him.
Plenty of us in the democracy caucus had been (justifiably) scared about Trump, but there was still this sense that each new low would be the end of his campaign, that every euphemism dropped would also leave behind potential voters.
That didn’t happen.
Even the Access Hollywood tape barely took two weeks to blow over, with all the high-profile Republicans who disavowed him over it quickly falling back in line.
There were only two possibilities left.
First, perhaps Trump voters weren’t properly hearing his words, or chose to ignore them.
Impossible. Fuck all the “take him seriously, not literally” takes. We’ve all seen how Trump’s base reacts to his violent rhetoric, not with cowardly “he never said that”s like Republican officials, but with screams and applause.
The other explanation was as terrifying as it was true.
The euphemisms were never for them. They were for us.
We’d been the fools all along. We fell for the long con that our fellow Americans were being tricked by the euphemisms, that they would never have supported Bush’s policies if they knew what they really entailed, that the cruel indifference to human suffering that post-Nixon Republicans have always displayed was contained to the party elite and never the millions putting them in office. It wasn’t that our Republican friends didn’t understand the destructive effect of their voting records. The destruction was the point the whole time.
Trump wasn’t the cause of Trumpism. He was a symptom of a disease we voted Jimmy Carter out of office for understanding, a cancer we tut-tutted at for generations until it was here to stay, spread stage four across the scowling faces of millions of rally-goers, tiki torch marchers, and riot cops. It was metastatic in the White House now, and half the country was laughing at us for ever assuming that their hearts were in the right place, for giving them the benefit of the doubt when they knew full well that they didn’t deserve it.
On the eve of the 2020 election, I urge you to think about the lessons of the last one. Take Trump both seriously and literally. If and when he’s voted out, if and when the Republican Party tries to pretend he never happened and resuscitate the euphemisms, don’t let them. Too much is riding on that line.