Of all the grand divides in this country that were clarified by the 2016 election, few have been more underappreciated than the central fissure in contemporary political punditry. There are those whose assumptions about the rules governing American politics have been fundamentally shaken by the events of the past decade and Donald Trump’s rise, in particular—and those whose assumptions, inexplicably, have remained mostly the same.
If there is a tape of Trump saying the N-word and that tape is released to the public, three things will happen. Democrats and others who already consider Trump a racist will become more incensed, probably to an extent that will help the Democratic Party in November’s midterms. Some of the few Americans still somehow ambivalent about Trump will be nudged away from him. And the vast majority of Republican voters, comfortable as they already are with the racial animus embedded in this administration’s policies and rhetoric, will shrug and avail themselves of excuses that will be readily provided by conservative media. The tape is old, and there’s no proof he’s used the word since. He’s changed. The tape is a distraction pushed by desperate Democrats looking to deflect attention from the Real Issues. The tape was selectively edited. The tape is fake. Something, something, Robert Byrd. On Fox’s servers at this very moment, there are at least a half-dozen compilations of rappers and other prominent black people using the N-word ready for launch, like a nuclear arsenal, as soon as the word is given.
Some have speculated over the past few days that the impact of the tape might be more significant than cynics expect. For many Americans, the argument goes, racism is effectively reducible to whether or not someone uses racial slurs or otherwise treats the minorities they encounter in their personal lives badly in some obvious way. There might then exist some constituency of Americans unconvinced by allegations of racism on the basis of, say, the administration’s immigration policies who might be moved if Trump was caught dead to rights using the N-word. This line of thinking is plausible but elides the extent to which racism, bigotry, or ugliness generally speaking, even properly understood as ugliness, can easily be explained away—how it was possible, for instance, for Republicans to dismiss the president describing his fondness for assaulting women as normal chatter and call the 16 women who have accused him of sexual assault and misconduct liars and puppets of a grand conspiracy.
Trump’s ability to dodge these kinds of scandals shouldn’t be understood as evidence that he’s politically invulnerable. He is not. A real economic countermessage and a few strategic tweaks here and there and he would have been beaten in 2016. If Democrats learn from the mistakes they made during that campaign, they will beat him in 2020—maybe even with the aid of a tape or some other controversy that really might put a dent in the armor. But the idea that Trump is surely just a particular political scandal away from doom is the desperate dream of a dying political order.
It is not 2004 anymore. Reams of dusty accumulated wisdom on the kinds of gaffes that are or are not fatal, the kinds of candidates who can or cannot win, the kinds of places where certain campaigns should or should not be run, and the kinds of policies that can or cannot be proposed have been upended over the past decade. On Monday, Gallup released polling that showed, for the first time in their surveys on the question, that a majority of Democrats do not hold a positive view of capitalism. Two years ago, pro-capitalism Democrats comprised 56 percent of the party. That number is now 47 percent, a shift driven in large part by changing attitudes among young people set to become, this year, the largest generation of eligible voters in the electorate. Leftward policies once widely considered politically unfeasible—from single-payer health care to marijuana legalization—have become broadly popular over the past few years.
Clearly, the left will flourish on the reshaped political scene in the years to come. But so too will new, wildly reactionary voices on a right that will remain primarily driven by racial anxiety long after Trump is gone. His departure, however it happens, will be the end of his presidency, not all that his rise has brought to light. This political situation will not be resolved by deus ex machina. We are not an N-word tape, a pee tape, or an indictment from Robert Mueller from a return to so-called normalcy; what we considered normalcy will never return. We have pitched, bitter fights ahead of us over what kind of country we ought to be. The two major camps of opinion on this question are largely irreconcilable. Trump’s vision is the right’s vision. They are fully committed to his success and to seeing that vision realized at all costs. “Nothing matters” because everything is at stake.