The Ghost of Grover Cleveland

During Trump’s impeachment last year—can you believe that was less than a year ago?—I never seriously thought he’d be convicted. The GOP’s venality and cowardice  are far too strong. But it did occur to me that if he were, he might become the first US president ever removed who went on to run again…..in that case, just months later. (Trump was already the first POTUS to be impeached in his first term. Barring an impeached president from holding future office is a separate Congressional vote.)

That didn’t happen, of course. Susan Collins, Lamar Alexander, and other Senate Republicans assured us that Donald had learned his lesson and would be an upstanding citizen ever after.

(Pause for laughter.)

Instead, Trump was evicted from office in an even more resounding way, by the will of the people at the polls, which was what a parade of those Republican senators speciously informed us would be the better form of judgment, while abdicating their own responsibility as a co-equal branch to hold a criminal president accountable. Now of course those same senators are tacitly—and in some cases, actively—trying to help Donald Trump overturn the will of the people, but never mind. Joe Biden is a communist, everybody!

So the spectacle of an ousted POTUS standing for office again just nine months later didn’t come to pass, though the spectacle of an impeached POTUS who managed to dodge conviction did—another first. (In 1868, after avoiding removal by a single vote, Andrew Johnson sought his party’s nomination again but didn’t get it.)

But now we are faced with a less baroque but still quite rare possibility: a defeated President, deposed after one term, who might run again and successfully retake the office. It’s only happened once before, when President Grover Cleveland lost his re-election bid to Benjamin Harrison in 1888, then came back to beat him in a rematch in 1892. (Fwiw, Grover won the popular vote in all three of those elections.)

The notion of Trump pulling off a similar comeback is the stuff of nightmares. But how likely is it?

So let us look at the odds of that scenario so we can calculate how much pharmaceutical grade ketamine we will need to get through the period between now and January 2025.

ONLY THE SHADOW KNOWS

Let’s take the two opposite extremes.

At one end, we have Donald Trump continuing to control the Republican Party like a high-priced dominatrix, tormenting the Biden administration from exile, maintaining an only slightly diminished profile in the media (with its obvious addiction to covering this trainwreck), and preparing himself for his revenge in 2024. 

I realize that that is both terrifying and depressing, and I hope it’s not the case. But there is reason to give this scenario serious credence.

Trump has all but formally announced that he will run again; by some accounts, he will make that announcement live, during Biden’s inaugural address, a high watermark both for counterprogramming and for pettiness. Even if that presidential run is just a feint, the whole point of a feint is to convince people to behave as if it is true until disproved, which might not be until the Republican convention in the summer of ‘24. That means that Trump will be able to keep a chokehold on his party, freeze the field of other potential Republican contenders, dictate GOP policy as the de facto leader of the opposition, remain in the spotlight he craves, and most importantly for him, raise money hand over fist from his cult of reliable suckers until they are bled dry.

He will most certainly try to do all that. Is there even one thing in Trump’s long, pathetic life history that makes you think he won’t?

In tandem with that tease, as many have speculated, Trump might also start his own media empire, or—being both lazy and incompetent—just become a ubiquitous, well-compensated presence on existing right wing platforms, from Fox to OANN to Breitbart. After all, as Yale history professor Beverly Gage writes, “When he no longer has access to the White House, he will still have his base, tens of millions of Americans whose identities and aspirations are wrapped up in the amorphous but energetic politics of Trumpism.” And for that reason, the Republican Party is likely to continue bend to his every whim. To grasp the depths of the GOP leadership’s servility, one has but to witness their craven obsequiousness even in this lame duck period, when they know he will soon be out of power, to the point of sitting on their collective hands while he tries to mount a coup.  

Speaking of servility, let’s listen to Lindsey Graham, who referenced Grover Cleveland by name in speaking to The Atlantic’s Peter Nicholas, predicting “that Trump will indeed run again—and that doing so is ‘the best thing for the party, frankly.’”

“Right now, assuming for the moment that Biden wins, it’s Trump’s nomination if he wants it,” Graham told me. (Like many other Republicans, Graham has not yet acknowledged that Biden has won the election.) “He has a lot of sway over the Republican Party. If he objects to anything Biden [does], it would be hard to get Republicans on board. If he blessed some kind of deal, it would be easier to get something done. In many ways, he’ll be a shadow president.”

Caveat: we must take Lindsey’s words with a Jimmy Buffett-sized shaker of salt. Once an otherwise reasonable Republican (if that’s not an oxymoron), Graham has since become one of Trump’s most nauseatingly reliable lapdogs, and these days never says a word that is not designed to flatter his master. So here he is almost certainly speaking to an audience of one, as opposed to offering an honest assessment.

But from Donald’s point of view, there is no down side to that plan, and no upside to a quiet life playing golf and cheating on Melania at Ma-a-Lago. Nicholas again:

For Trump, the party is a bankable asset under any scenario. Foreign governments considering his company’s projects might be more receptive knowing a once-and-perhaps-future president is on the other side of the deal. Audiences may be more apt to tune in if Trump starts a conservative news venture. Candidates looking for fundraising help will be courting Trump, enabling him to stockpile chits. So will members of Congress hoping to make inroads with his base.

A Republican consultant named Patrick Griffin put it even more bluntly, speaking to the right wing Washington Times:

Donald Trump is not exactly going to follow Jimmy Carter, who is out building homes with Habitat for Humanity after leaving the White House. This is going to be the worst leader in exile the world has ever seen.

IRRELEVANCE CALLING

OK, so we’ll need, like, a Burning Man-level supply of ketamine.

But then there is the scenario at the opposite end of the spectrum, which most informed observers actually think is more probable: that Donald Trump, like most defeated presidents, quickly fades into irrelevance.

After all, America hates a loser.

Steve Coll in The New Yorker:

The President may imagine that he can remain the sole and powerful master of his following after January—and, perhaps, to strengthen his grip, he will even announce a preemptive campaign for the White House in 2024, as he has mused privately about doing. Yet he cannot deny a reality: generally, ex-Presidents lose power very quickly…..

Trump had no inkling what it was like to be President before he won the office, in 2016. Come February, he may be stunned again, this time by the speed at which former loyalists distance themselves.

Coll allows that “Trump may again prove to be a mold-breaker.” He does, after all, have, a lifelong record of cheating karma. But it may not be enough.

(E)lectoral politics is a ruthless zero-sum game. Trump failed decisively to be reëlected, becoming the first sitting President to meet that fate in nearly three decades. As Trump himself might put it: when you’re a loser, people can treat you like a dog.

I’d be lying if I said that prospect didn’t make me feel good. After four years of this shitshow, I think we’re all entitled to a little schadenfreude.

In addition to all the garden variety reasons for ex-presidential irrelevance, Trump also has issues unique to him that promise to bedevil his post-White House days.

Federal pardon or no, once he leaves office he is going to be hit with a tsunami of legal problems and criminal prosecution, almost surely including felony charges for everything from bank fraud to money laundering to tax evasion. Come 2024 he may well be in prison, or at least under indictment. (Not that that would stop him from running, or his supporters from voting for him.) There is even a movement, however remote, to charge him for crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Even if he avoids the orange jumpsuit, he is already saddled with nearly half a billion in personal debt that is about to come due (to whom? Hmm, good question), and will soon have legal bills might bankrupt him.

Of course, Trump being Trump, he will only use such legal and financial woes as fuel for his candidacy, given that his political career has always been built upon personal grievance, in a feedback loop with the grievance of his supporters. But there is a limited appeal to that model, and the last four years have largely exhausted it.

Trump depends mightily on those hardcore followers, and the willingness of MAGA Nation to go along even with a coup stunned even Republican muckity mucks. A prime example is smartypants New York Times columnist Ross Douhat, who recently expressed shock that members of the Leopards Eating People’s Faces Party support leopards eating people’s faces.

Doubt it? Have a listen to right wing talk radio, if you dare. It will scare the shit out of you to think that this is the poison that is being pumped non-stop into the minds of gullible Americans.

But 74 million votes and a roughly 40% favorability rating in the polls, scary as they are, will not necessarily translate into an equal number of disciples once he’s out of power. Many of the people in that count aren’t diehard redhatters but casual conservatives who won’t pay to see a show that they used watch for free, especially once it’s canceled. We may find that the numbers of red-hatters who are willing to maintain that kind of passionate allegiance as Trump is evicted into the wilderness is far smaller.

Yascha Mounk in The Atlantic:

Trump certainly could stage a spectacular comeback. Maybe Americans will keep staring at his Twitter feed in horror or fascination for the next four years. Maybe primary voters will resoundingly anoint Trump as the Republican candidate in 2024. Maybe Trump will even make a triumphant return to the White House.

But what is possible need not be likely. And the odds that Americans will grow bored with the ever more histrionic antics of the sore loser they just kicked out of office are pretty good.

Of course, there is a whole world of possibility between the two extremes of shadow prez and just plain pale shadow. But on balance, the chances tilt much more toward the latter. In the New York Times, Steve Inskeep writes that history may ultimately view Trump as a nothing more than a footnote to Obama, which would be fitting for a human ball of envy and rage whose entire presidential life, beginning with the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner, seems to have been nothing more than an attempt to spite the man from Honolulu.

DONALD WHO?

Already we see it happening. Once the threat abated that Trump might succeed with his attempted coup—that fraught period of about 20 days between the election and the GSA’s ascertainment of Biden’s victory—there has been an almost palpable sense that the bulk of the nation has moved on. Even now, coverage of his futile but continuing attempts to overturn the election—Rudy’s hair dye, Drunk Girl’s testimony before the Michigan legislature, even Trump’s outrageous call to pressure Georgia Governor Brian Kemp—has felt like a sideshow at best. The country is more interested in Biden’s plan to fight the coronavirus as we move into the grim winter months, more interested in the future than the past, more interested in regaining our sanity than in being subjected to Trumpian madness 24/7.

The Atlantic’s David Graham:

The past few weeks have offered a preview of what Donald Trump’s post-presidency might look like: The president fulminates at length, playing pundit, but is a practical nonfactor in policy discussions. He can still command the affection of millions—and raise millions of dollars from them—but the balance of the country has already moved on and tuned out. Trump’s ability to command the news cycle has been eclipsed by the virus he couldn’t be bothered to stop and the rival candidate he couldn’t beat.

Trump won’t go away entirely, and he certainly won’t get quiet, but fewer Americans will listen to or care about what he has to say. They’ve voted with their ballots, and now they’ll vote with their attention.

There is hard evidence that this disengagement from Trump is underway. Heather Cox Richardson notes that last week alone Congress finalized a version of the defense authorization bill that refused to reduce the number of troops in Germany and South Korea as Trump wanted, ignored his demands to punish tech companies like Twitter, and shrugged off his threat to veto the renaming of military bases currently named after Confederate generals.

HCR also notes that “Trump’s hand-picked Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel has invited about a dozen potential 2024 candidates to a meeting in January, signaling that she is not wedded to another Trump candidacy.” It’s true that McDaniel’s mere retention of the RNC chair reflects Trump’s continuing strength in controlling the party, and maybe her openness to challengers is just a ploy. But maybe not.

Trump may soon be a marginal figure in American culture: a pathetic, unhinged old man rambling around his Florida mansion in the grip of increasing cognitive decline, in between trips to the courthouse, beset with financial woes, ranting at an ever-diminishing following and leaving the rest of the country scratching its collective head at how this guy was ever president in the first place. 

So a shadow president? Whatever. A shadow has very little practical power, I’ve noticed. Trump tweeting non-stop bullshit from Mar-a-Lago while eating cheeseburgers and watching TV will not put any more kidnapped children in cages. So, as a grown-ass man, I ain’t afraid of no shadows.

The thing I am rightly afraid of—let’s call it on guard—is the extent to which we will still have to deal with Trumpism even when Trump himself has faded from the scene, and someday shuffled off this mortal coil, presumably to his Dantean reward.

In that sense, the ghost of Grover Cleveland worries me a lot less than the ghost of Joe Tailgunner Joe.

JOE WELCH GETS HIS ANSWER

In Washington Post, Beverly Gage, the aforementioned Yale history professor, compares Trumpism to McCarthyism:

Though we now think of McCarthy as one of the most hated men in American politics, even in 1954 he retained a passionate base of support, with about a third of the public backing his anti-communist campaign.

Once the Senate voted against him, the tale of how he had been victimized by a corrupt and self-interested Washington establishment helped fuel the far right’s grievance politics—and spark what would become the modern conservative movement. Far from bringing an end to McCarthyism, the 1954 Senate vote mainly pushed it out of Washington, and a new generation of right-wing activists took up his cause.

Gage calls this a “counternarrative that began to build among McCarthy’s grass-roots supporters during those years, in which the sheer volume of criticism aimed at the senator became proof that he was right all along: that the country was, indeed, run by a menacing but elusive liberal-communist conspiracy aimed at taking down right-thinking, God-fearing Americans…. (T)his tale—of a courageous warrior taken down by illegitimate foes—helped fuel a wave of institution-building on the right.”

Sound familiar?

And the connection is not merely a matter of resemblance but of direct lineage:

As recently as 2003, Ann Coulter published a book called Treason, arguing that McCarthy was right and his critics were not only wrong but, as the title suggests, traitorous. Trump himself was schooled at the knee of Roy Cohn, McCarthy’s infamous committee counsel, who long insisted that his good friend Joe had been the victim of an outrageous elite conspiracy.

McCarthy-like, Trump will soon depart office howling to his fans about conspiracies and an election that was stolen from him (read: them), “encouraging his base to see themselves as noble warriors against an illegitimate political order.” And in that effort, Gage notes, Don has an advantage that Joe never did, as he “continue(s) to sell the tale of his martyrdom through Twitter and cable news and talk radio and conspiracy sites—forms of direct public communication that McCarthy would have envied.” Even when Trump is gone there will remain “this vast swath of citizens who love and admire him will still be here, better organized than they were four years ago, now with a martyr’s tale for inspiration.”

While the Trump presidency will soon be over, the history of Trumpism is just beginning.

The McCarthy analogy is apt, but not the only one. The New Yorker’s Steve Coll compares Trump to George Wallace, the racist former Alabama governor and champion of segregation who won five states and 14 per cent of the national popular vote as an independent candidate in 1968.

By the time of Wallace’s death, in 1998, his influence over the electorate and the two major parties had dissipated to the vanishing point. Yet, as Dan T. Carter, Wallace’s authoritative biographer, writes, this was partly because, as Nixon and successive Republicans co-opted and mainstreamed aspects of Wallace’s strategy, “The politics of rage that George Wallace made his own had moved from the fringes of our society to center stage.” Carter concluded that Wallace “was the most influential loser in twentieth-century American politics.”

In Wallace’s time, it was common to dismiss his candidacy for the Presidency as a last gasp from the dying Jim Crow South. We can now see it as a warning flare—and as a reminder that it was not only Donald Trump who conceived of Trumpism.

This assessment helps us understand that, contrary to the self-comforting myths of Never Trump Republicans (sympathetic and grateful to them though I am), the rise of Trump was not a hostile takeover of the GOP, only the logical conclusion of where the party had long been heading. There really is no such thing as Trumpism: only a new incarnation of McCarthyism, which itself is only another manifestation of the very heart of right wing reactionaryism in toto.

Trump did not invent the Know Nothing, anti-Reason, paranoid reactionaryism that now bears his name any more than McCarthy did—far from it. Trump was just a con man who fit perfectly into an existing mold, an empty vessel for his apostles’ dark urges. So even if and when the man himself fades into irrelevance, Trumpism by any name will remain alive and well, merely the latest manifestation of a sickness as old as this nation, as old as humanity: the Erich Fromm-style appeal of authoritarianism, and the innate human susceptibility to the grift.

And that is what we have to worry about.

QUEEN’S GAMBIT

Whether Trump is the nominee or not, the 2024 election promises to be just as ugly as this past one.

Imagine four years from now, when even in the best case scenario, we will still be recovering from the ravages of COVID and its attendant economic destruction—ills that the GOP foisted on us with its monstrous incompetence and malevolence. With an infuriating level of obstructionism and hypocrisy, the Republicans will have spent all four of those years hammering the Biden administration mercilessly, blithely ignoring their own responsibility for the mess they bequeathed to it. Millions of Americans will buy that con. Millions did even last month at the polls, and continue to do so even now, while we are still in the middle of their horrific mismanagement.

It’s easy to picture a Republican demagogue, whether Trump or some even craftier successor, ginning up that juvenile public outrage and riding it to victory. In that case, I will publish a post called “The Ghost of Jimmy Carter.”

Speaking to the Washington Times, a Florida-based Trump supporter and GOP consultant named Brett Doster—who claims “Trump would destroy anyone in a GOP nomination contest in ‘24”—offered a vision of how that might work:

If Biden is tested by Russia and China, and if the economy free-falls, Trump can take the nomination without ever leaving Mar-a-Lago, and he’ll be invited back to Washington—not for the Oval Office but for a throne.”

He didn’t mean it in a cautionary way either; more of an optimistic, even prematurely jubilant one. To say nothing of Republicans’ general comfort level with autocracy.

For his part, Biden seems stunningly serene and self-assured, no doubt based on his long service in the Senate and confidence he can get things done. I hope he’s right.

But imagine if Biden—who will be 82 in 2024—retires after one term and hands the torch off to Kamala. Many of us would be delighted with that, and welcome the changing to the guard, even as we applaud Joe for the public service he has already done. (For my money he has already secured his place in history just by beating Trump.)

But can you imagine the obstacles of racism and misogyny Kamala will be up against, atop the usual vitriol aimed at a white or male (or white male) Democrat? Indeed, that venom is already in play even now.

And that is the more civilized scenario. Trump’s “shadow presidency” could easily turn into a violent insurgency, as we have already seen in various acts over the past four years, from the murder of Heather Heyer to the attempted pipe bombing by Cesar Sayoc, the killings in Kenosha, the foiled kidnapping and murder of Gretchen Whitmer, the death threats against Georgia election officials, and most recently, the mob threatening Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson in her own home.

We might count ourselves lucky if Mitch McConnell’s obstructionism is all we have to deal with, as it’s clear that it would not take much to nudge MAGA Nation into a full-blown intifada.

I am not trying to be a buzzkill here, nor Schleprock, nor Eeyore, nor Debbie Downer, nor any other wet blanket of your choice. I am merely laying out the battlespace we’re facing and must prepare for.

The mad king is dead, or soon will be. But his loathsome movement lives on, and must be reckoned with.

*********

Photo: Grover Cleveland, 22nd and 24th President of the United States, 1885-89 and 1893-97

2 thoughts on “The Ghost of Grover Cleveland

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