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Trump’s demise is only the end of the beginning | Column
Columnist Mac Stipanovich asks: “What will happen when Trump is not on the ballot but his toxic presence still looms large?”
President Donald Trump, followed by Vice President Mike Pence, left, walks into the briefing room at the White House on Tuesday.
President Donald Trump, followed by Vice President Mike Pence, left, walks into the briefing room at the White House on Tuesday. [ SUSAN WALSH | AP ]
Published Nov. 25, 2020

The death throes of the Trump presidency are an unprecedented exception to the cooperative transfer of presidential power that has been the rule since John Adams peacefully passed the baton to his political bête noire, Thomas Jefferson, in 1801. On one level, the spectacle has been an entertaining farce, from Donald Trump claiming the electoral votes of Massachusetts by tweet like Columbus claiming the New World by planting a flag on a random beach in the Bahamas to the black hair dye running down Rudy Giuliani’s face as he lied with abandon on national television.

More seriously, Trump is again demonstrating his utter contempt for American governing norms by committing outrage after outrage as he stresses the guardrails of representative democracy to their design limits by trying to cling to power in defiance of the unambiguous verdict of the voters. Fortunately, he has been thwarted by the magnitude of his defeat, by the courage of judges and election officials all across the country, and by his incompetence and that of his henchmen.

And for those who waited, worked and prayed for this moment for four long years with the eager anticipation of Christian evangelicals awaiting the Second Coming, watching a defeated Donald Trump writhing in extremis is deeply satisfying, is it not?

The events since Nov. 3 remind me of the country colloquialism to which my father sometimes resorted to describe the extraordinary: “I’ve been to three World Fairs and a goat-roping contest, but I ain’t never seen nothing like this.” What we have seen is a resounding personal repudiation of Donald Trump. He hit the heretofore unachieved presidential trifecta of election with a minority of the popular vote, impeachment and reelection rejection, and this by one of the largest popular vote margins suffered by an incumbent in the country’s history.

The Republican Party, however, fared much better than its standard bearer. The predicted blue wave did not materialize. Democrats lost seats in the the House of Representatives, failed to achieve anticipated gains in the Senate, and did not flip a single Republican-controlled state legislature with congressional reapportionment on the horizon. While these outcomes are undeniable disappointments for Democrats, there is ample solace for them in Joe Biden putting Trump down.

Down, but not out, which is, counterintuitively, more of a problem for Republicans than for Democrats. Trump certainly stokes enthusiasm and drives turnout among his supporters when he is on the ballot, but he also stokes enthusiasm and drives turnout among the greater number of voters who loathe him and all of his works. What will happen when Trump is not on the ballot but his toxic presence still looms large? The beat down of the GOP in 2018 might be an omen.

The fact is that as long as Trump has the GOP by the throat, as long as it is a personality cult rather than a functioning political party, it will fail to realize the promise of the expanded electoral coalition hinted at by the exit polling in the recent election. But there are reasons for hope.

Without the communications advantages and vast power of the Oval Office to sustain and protect him, the passage of time and tribulations like his financial woes, pending civil litigation, potential criminal prosecutions and the ever-wilder manifestations of his malignant narcissism may eventually dull Trump’s luster with those who are not brain-dead cultists, and thus loosen his grip on the GOP. But even without Trump, the road leading from the moral wasteland that is today’s GOP back to principled center-right conservativism would be long and difficult, perhaps too long and too difficult to be traveled by a party broken to the bit of authoritarian obedience and unaccustomed to critical thinking.

A daunting future challenge should not, however, diminish the importance of present progress. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, while the victory on the Glorious Third of November may not be the beginning of the end of the struggle to defeat right-wing populism, white nationalism and personalismo in American politics, it is perhaps the end of the beginning. For that the nation can be thankful.

Mac Stipanovich was chief of staff to former Florida Gov. Bob Martinez and a longtime Republican strategist who is currently registered No Party Affiliation.