Normal presidents start to think about their legacy long before the final weeks of their time inside the West Wing. But if there’s anything we have learned from the lab rat experiment of the last four years, it’s that Donald Trump is entirely abnormal.
Whether he knows it or not – and all the evidence suggests he knows nothing worth knowing – Trump’s legacy is the toxic politics of lies: a permanent campaign of fabrications and falsehoods.
No matter that he clearly lost the 2020 election by landslide margins in the electoral college and the popular vote. What matters is the never-ending sense of grievance that someone or something, somewhere – liberals, minorities, judges, reporters – have conspired to wrong Trump and oppress his long-suffering fans.
This is the narrative of the fascist story forever: you are not to blame for your suffering because it was contrived by others – immigrants and outsiders, wielding wealth and power in the shadows.
Trump did not invent this story and likely has no idea where it came from, other than his own obvious genius. He did not invent the notion that brazen lies can buy you a delusional base. He wasn’t the first to put the bull in the bully pulpit of the presidency.
But he was the first to run a White House like a Joe McCarthy witch hunt, unleashing social media to cower an entire party into a posture of pure cowardice.
Trump’s Republicans will be with us long after the soon-to-be-ex-president succumbs to the overdue tax bills of the IRS, the calling-in of his massive property debts, and the long-brewing fraud cases of New York state’s prosecutors.
These Trumpist Republicans are his legacy, as much as a supreme court stacked against the popular vote, science and all good sense.
They are people like Elise Stefanik in upstate New York. Stefanik is a Harvard graduate whose career began alongside Republican moderates such as Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor, and Josh Bolten, Bush’s second term chief of staff. But now she’s a full Trumpista, mimicking his campaign style of insults and defending him through his impeachment for corruptly twisting national security to dig up dirt on Joe Biden.
They are people like Tom Cotton, the Arkansas senator and 2024 presidential hopeful. Cotton is already campaigning against immigrants and says he’ll oppose Biden’s nominee for homeland security because he was part of a giant conspiracy of Democratic donors to sell green cards to the Chinese. In fact the conspiracy involved just three cases, and is the same cash-for-citizenship program that triggered investigations into Trump’s son-in-law and confidant Jared Kushner. But why spoil the soundbite?
They are people like Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor, who spent most of the 2020 campaign sounding like a Trump clone but has now disappeared from public view, even as he continues to stop local officials from enforcing mask-wearing to slow the spread of the pandemic.
Trump’s Republicans will be with us long after the soon-to-be-ex-president succumbs to the overdue tax bills, the massive property debts, and the long-brewing fraud cases
This political plague of extreme lies did not start four years ago.
George W Bush and Karl Rove won the 2004 election by suggesting that Democrats would open the nation’s doors to Islamist terrorists. That was before the second term was demolished by their own nativists who sunk their plans for immigration reform. Those anti-immigrant forces found a natural home in the so-called Tea party that denied Barack Obama’s citizenship, and later populated Trump’s White House and justice department.
The good news is that we already have a vaccine. It’s the best way to protect yourself from demagogues, deception and delusions. It separates fact from fiction. It recalls recent history to place the present in some kind of meaningful context.
It’s called the news media, and you can help. You can be an informed citizen by reading established news media first, not your social feed or email. You can share stories from the truth-tellers who have no problem calling out the liars.
You can even pay for the truth that journalists deliver every day, no matter how much sewage pours through social media feeds and email inboxes. It doesn’t cost much when you think about how much we’ve paid during these last four years of chaos and corruption.
We can’t stop the Trumpistas from Trumping. We can’t stop the rest of them from pretending like they were never big Trump fans in the first place.
But we can stop them running away from the facts or their record. We can remind them how they failed to stop Trump’s corruption and this murderous pandemic.
We can stop them skewing the political spectrum so far that the Biden team tacks to center ground that is already six steps to the right.
We can hold the new White House to its promises at the same time as holding the old Republican party to what used to be its principles.
But this work comes at a price. Back in the late 19th century, the French writer Gustave Le Bon wrote that “the crowd” has never rewarded the truth.
“They turn aside from evidence that is not to their taste, preferring to deify error, if error seduce them,” he wrote. “Whoever can supply them with illusions is easily their master; whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim.”
You can reward the truth if you want to. It’s one of the best ways to demolish the legacy of the last four years.