With his poll numbers sagging in a campaign season circumscribed by the coronavirus, it’s easy to forget how intoxicating Donald Trump’s political rise was to certain people. In 2015 and 2016, Trump broke many of the unwritten rules about where and how a candidate campaigns, and what a candidate can say and do. Normal candidates and the bulk of the media, even the conservative media, treated his campaign as a joke every step of the way.
As he continued to rise, he exposed the weakness of the norms that had built up around American presidential campaigns over decades. He proved that you could succeed while insulting the media and all the recent nominees and presidents of the party you were running to lead, attacking veterans and the war-wounded, and questioning a federal judge’s decision based on his ethnicity. He proved that you didn’t need a stump speech that had been worked on by 30 consultants; you could just riff and test slogans and catchphrases live on CNN. He defied the laws of political physics and paid no price for it. Depending on if you were a supporter or an opponent, he inspired excitement or dread that anything might happen next.
It’s no wonder than that Trump consistently attracted coalitions of people who felt excluded by the political status quo. Some of those people were just oddballs and cranks. Some of them were extremists or haters. They produced elaborate theories about why Trump’s movement was larger than one man, why it was a hinge moment in history. For those driven mad by America’s foreign policy and spying, Trump was an implacable foe of “the blob” and the Deep State. For people looking for a sign from heaven, Trump was a potential new Constantine. For others he was an escape from hundreds of years of misbegotten liberal theories of politics. For racists, he was a harbinger of white-identitarianism on the march worth a Sieg Heil or two.
These were the esoteric cases for Trumpism, and they’ve run aground on the beach of Trump’s actual presidency.
As he approaches the end of his first and maybe only term, Trump has changed very little about America’s foreign policy. He’s shifted some troops and materiel from NATO and domestic attitudes toward China have grown more hawkish on his watch. But the latter development was mostly a result of Chinese malfeasance and may have happened without him.
The racists no longer care about Trump. They wanted his campaign to be the beginning of larger and larger escalations of white hostility. But the demographic trajectory of the country is unchanged from before. Trump lost interest in a big beautiful wall, and his erstwhile white-nationalist fans now despise Trump. The religious dreamers have to contend with a Trumpified Supreme Court whose idea of textual interpretation holds out the Lyndon Baines Johnson administration as the champion of transgender rights in employment. They hoped Trump would be a tool of God who made the whole nation Christian; instead, he may very well make the Republican Party more secular.
In retrospect, it seems ridiculous that anyone put their faith in a president as weak as Trump, who can’t even turn infrastructure week into infrastructure projects, to alter the course of history. And many of those who did have recognized as much, and moved on to other pursuits or grudges. But for those leftover, esoteric Trumpism has degenerated from the speculative and crankish to the outright quackery of the QAnon conspiracy theory, which in an odd way tackles the problem of Trump’s weakness head-on. The basic theory is that down is up, stupid is smart, and weakness is strength. The president may look like someone who doesn’t control his mouth or the White House, but QAnon have an answer for that: He’s actually deliberate, purposeful, even masterful in exposing and stopping the corrupt ring of pedophiles, Deep Staters, and other malefactors that controls the world.
I don’t want to make light of this, exactly. Though conspiracy theories are often pursued by their enthusiasts as a harmless distraction and escape from real life, they can be dangerous, occasionally addling minds in a way that leads a man to, say, take a rifle into a pizza shop. But there’s something sad about QAnon followers, too: Those who have clung to a stubborn faith in Trump look set to soon find that he has abandoned them in a world he hardly changed — a world said faith has led them to believe is run with impunity by an omnipotent, ultra-competent cabal of kiddie-diddlers.
Then again, that’s the pattern of cults, isn’t it? A revelation of truth from on high will set you free; a Gnostic secret, known only to adepts, will make the world into a prison.
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