Mueller can’t save us.
Trump is backed into a corner, to be sure. But Trump and his movement still has plenty of strength. In fact, the growing legal pressure on Trump legally and via Congress should cause us alarm.
Trump’s movement is poised to break decisively from both legal norms and the Republican establishment and as such will feel unfettered to become more populist, more anti-democratic, both to protect itself and to satisfy a base that actually desires as much. Even without Trump at the head (but I expect it likely he will stay right where he is), Trumpism is here and ready to argue itself into further abandonments of democracy. If Trump is impeached, he will be a martyr to the movement that we will not have yet seen the end of.
Let’s look at the midterms to illustrate this.
The two wings of the GOP began a trial separation in November.
The midterms prove that Trumpism is viable on a national level. In some ways, even more so than in 2016. It is now a movement in its own right, boasting an army of victorious spokespeople. And it’s not just some nods to Trumpism that won on November 6th, but the whole package, unfiltered, with little deference paid to the party of Reagan or even Bush. Losses in the suburbs, amounting to a loss in the House, reveals how real this split is. Trumpism is now making its own way in the world. White evangelicalism, one of the most prominent of the children caught in the separation, is showing little sign of hesitancy — ready to follow its populist parent wherever it goes.
My home state of Tennessee illustrates the cleavage to a harrowing degree. A once-popular conservative Senator and recent Trump-critic was replaced by a committed Trump loyalist. Her migrant fear-mongering won handily against a popular, moderate, former governor who even sided with Trump on Kavanaugh. It is not insignificant that Blackburn is a woman. Tennessee boasts more than a few religious constituencies that at least entertain suspicion of women in leadership. Her victory is evidence for how quickly the allure of scapegoating can erase other values.
The split was a longtime coming. The GOP has kept economic/social conservatism and white identity politics in a sometimes blissful, sometimes strained, marriage since around 1969. These two lovebirds have hit an insurmountable fork in the road, however. White anxiousness, rediscovering independence in Trump, has decided it will no longer hide behind its more attractive partner. Party leadership have been desperate to hold the relationship together. But the split is real and significant. Even if the marriage survives, there is no going back to the old days.
A full divorce is unlikely, in fact. There will at least be the occasional drunken rendezvous for tax cuts. Laissez-faire economics will always maintain occasional allure for many Trumpists. The reason for this being that, to put it way too mildly, American economic conservatism has never offered much interest in understanding, much less dismantling, systemic racism. For those offended by the idea that widespread racism still exists, even those rust-belt dwellers who are otherwise understandably ambivalent about trickle-down economics, this is a plus.
The demographic distinctions here are also easily overstated. While the rift amounts to some shift in people (losses in suburbs, gains in rural areas), much of the Trump constituency reflects a change in priorities rather than constituency. As myself the creation of Southern evangelicalism I am both alarmed, but not surprised, that cultural anxieties are continuing to win out over Reaganomics and moral conservatism (the latter reduced to a matter of strategy rather than conviction). These impulses were always present together. But when forced to choose, one was the clear winner. I had a strong suspicion that Trump was going to win in 2016 because I knew that even if white evangelicals found him crass and unreliable, many did not fundamentally disagree with his views on race or immigration, and his stoking resentment against mainstream institutions.
But the midterms proved that Trump and his loyalists are mostly unwilling, and the Republican leadership largely unable, to reach a successful mediation between the two themes. They must cut their losses in the suburbs for the foreseeable future.
Is this a comforting signal of Trump’s demise? Likely not.
Pure demographics suggest that pure Trumpism can’t work like this much longer. Close races in the South, gubernatorial losses in the Midwest, suggest as much. Even if it can survive in 2020 despite suburban bleeding (something I still count as more likely than not), the Republican party won’t long be able to win nationally without a more diverse core demographic.
So here is what should concern us: If unadulterated Trumpism is going to survive (in 2020 and certainly beyond) it can only do so by becoming more anti-democratic. There is no other way for it to survive. It must protect itself by disenfranchising threats to its power, especially the most vulnerable populations. More deportations. Reduced legal immigration. More voter suppression. The administration must also insulate against ethical and criminal investigations. Overall, the Trump contingent will have to find ways to hold on to its power without a majority of the people…. or, heaven forbid, without elections.
Do not scoff. We should hope that such things are unthinkable. But we must be sober enough to recognize that Trump has little respect for the Constitution or due process, neither do many of his most committed populist supporters and strategists. The success of the ‘nation,’ whatever they mean by that, is more important than the law. For all the talk about law and order, the administration has made a mockery of our already chaotic immigration laws. The only path for Trump is to intensify. If you can’t keep the House, go for the kids. Put them in cages and fire the tear gas. Or else Trumpism dies. It doesn’t plan to die any time soon.
Similarly, it is true that the Mueller investigation seems to be coming close to putting Trump into legal jeopardy. I’m not quite as exuberant as some Trump opponents are, however. I’m still skeptical there will be a smocking gun. But if there is enough to suggest that Trump would have legal trouble when he is a citizen again…
Even in this dark time, and my pessimism about my own people — the evangelicals — I actually believe that people of faith could be our saving grace. While we should look for such leadership among the less powerful leaders of more diverse communities, and from those less embedded in American political establishment (Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and other communities), I fear that it will also require some significant conversion among white evangelicals. I at least hope for as much.
The choice for people of faith is terrifyingly stark. White evangelicalism’s embedding in white identity politics has long ensured that it is toothless against American racism and other human rights abuses. People of Christian faith must consciously choose Christ alone. If the blood of black, brown, and immigrant human beings, the screams and pleas of our own brothers and sisters in Christ in Ferguson and at the border, hasn’t been enough to shake us out of complacency, maybe the collapse of democratic norms will be. But I’m skeptical. American history shows us that when choices have had to be made between democratic values/human rights and making poor people of color the scapegoat, the white majority has consistently chosen the latter — led by many people of faith. They have everything to gain by it.
Pessimistic I may be, I am also a theologian and occasional minister. My job is to hope. Even at this late hour, the cross of redemption is there.