Politics

Trump Is No Longer the Problem. His Army of Followers Is.

From the people who go to MAGA rallies all the way up to Lindsey Graham and Mitch McConnell, the Republican Party’s embrace of a coup attempt is the biggest threat we face.

Mitch McConnell, a "Stop the Steal" protester, and Lindsey Graham.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Drew Angerer/Getty Images and Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images.

After four interminable years of feeling like turkeys who’d been stuffed full with Donald Trump—his voice in our ears, his tweets waking us, his erratic moods and feuds dominating all that passed as political news—we find ourselves now in this strange interregnum. Having spent years training ourselves to ignore that which threatened to consume us, we are faced with the fact that even his vanquished ghost will not leave. Yes, Donald Trump has lost the election (hasty reframe: Joe Biden has won the election!) No, there is nothing Rudy Giuliani can do to change that outcome in the courts (hasty reframe: The courts have batted down almost every single lawsuit Rudy has filed!). And yes, in a few short weeks we will mercifully never, ever, need to have this man occupy all of this space in our brains again.

But for now, how much space in our brains should he continue to take up? How do we deal with an artlessly attempted coup that is formidable yet somehow not literal? Can we ignore him into oblivion—a move that hasn’t worked yet over the course of five years? How are we back to the same debate about whether this is a catastrophe for democracy or a nothing? And does the power to make that decision rest with us in the first place?

After all, this long national nightmare is meant to be over. Right? Right? So why is it still playing, in its endless variations, on a loop? For starters, we have spent the past four years in an abusive relationship with this man, and that doesn’t simply end. One hesitates to proffer the analogy, but as his niece, Mary Trump, has observed, the most dangerous time in any abusive relationship comes when the victim attempts to leave. One of the reasons it is not quite possible to exhale, more than two weeks after the election has ended, is because Donald Trump refuses to concede. That’s his problem. But in the meantime, do we really have to watch him rage and tweet, bouncing off the walls of the White House in a fury, and expending whatever capital that remains to him playing with the troops, and firing everyone who brings a lick of stability to the current, rather perilous situation, and working fiendishly to disadvantage Biden’s transition team? Having lost in the courts, his new work evidently lies in emboldening obscure local election boards to nullify their voting tallies, calling them on the phone to exert pressure, inviting them to the White House. That means that even postelection we are still stress monkeys. He still has eight weeks remaining in which to break things and burn things down.

But even if we stipulate that Trump is a distraction from moving on, there is another reason we cannot be free of this persistent anxiety: Ugliness and lawlessness and norms violations did not end with the election, and they are not limited to Trump’s tweets or telephone calls. The disease has spread. And even as we should be moving on, acts of transparent racism, defiance of norms of governance, and clownish court performances by Trump surrogates all signal that, for the army of Trump enthusiasts, enablers, and imitators, law continues to be an afterthought—a sand trap limited to suckers, losers, and Democrats. The Republican Party is still insisting that it is a law unto itself. That part isn’t over, or even slowing. It is simply instantiated into more overt forms. Yes, yes we should ignore Trump, and Trump himself is ever-more ignorable. But his enablers and imitators are not slouching away quietly.

Why is Lindsey Graham calling elections officials to demand that lawful votes be suppressed in Georgia? Why is Emily Murphy at the General Services Administration unilaterally refusing to put an effective transition in place? Why is Mitch McConnell continuing to confirm judges and other unpopular nominees? In so doing, Senate Republicans are breaking a 123-year tradition that judges are not approved during a lame-duck session to vote in favor of nominees put forward by a departing president whose party lost the White House. Trump’s youngest judicial nominee, a 33-year-old rated unqualified by the American Bar Association, scored a lifetime appointment this week. She has taken part in two one-day trials, as an intern, and never tried a case.

These are not acts of conscience. This isn’t the final bout of looting by a bunch of losers trying to steal the good silver on the way out; this is about breaking down democracy, ensuring that the dead hand of the GOP continues to rule and stymie long after Biden is sworn in.

And so here we are, talking down to the worriers while we comfort ourselves that the Trump campaign’s win rate is 2–31 and that an increasingly absurd Trump is doing and saying increasingly absurd things while his assorted flying monkeys throw feces in the gears of government. We tell ourselves that it’s OK to exhale because, after all, Kamala Harris receives security briefings as a result of her Senate seat, and after all, in secret, some of the president’s COVID-19 task force and other staffers are offering inchoate help to the transition team. But even that is not, in fact, a transition. It is a workaround for unyielding obstruction, and while the Biden team every day manages to do a creditable job of steadying and focusing, it hardly signals that the lawlessness will end on Jan. 20, any more than it ended on Nov. 7, when the election was called for Biden. Indeed, if one were inclined to worry, this current manifestation of legal nihilism, maximalism and nullification are far more dangerous than the version we learned to live with for the past four years, because this new one is now operating separate and apart from Trump. We don’t have to wait to see what happens when Josh Hawley or Tom Cotton runs as a “competent” authoritarian in 2024. Even without a formal figurehead, competent authoritarianism is seeping up from below. It’s coming from Trump supporters who deny the legitimacy of the election, state officials who are pushing false claims, lawyers making laughable arguments. Trump is almost immaterial to them. The real problem is the emboldened Trumpists who refuse to give over, and Ben Sasse and Mitt Romney notwithstanding, that behavior goes from the people who attend the MAGA rallies all the way up to the top of the GOP.

Illiberal efforts to subvert democracy will not depart when Trump leaves the White House (kicking and screaming, probably), because it is now being carried on by a broad winking, smirking Republican leadership who don’t actually believe he will be president after January, yet still continue to conduct themselves as though that doesn’t matter, as if there is some material dispute of fact that should forestall a transfer of power even though there plainly is not. As Adam Serwer points out, the makeup dripping down Rudy Giuliani’s face and the inaudible Benny Hill music in the background isn’t proof of harmless comedy; it’s cover for something truly dangerous.

Trump is one issue, and he is the issue we have all spent a great deal of our time wrestling with for a long four years. But what is happening in these uncertain weeks is another thing altogether, and there’s no way to simply vote this part out. We can ignore the death rattle of this presidency yes, but the instinct to subvert elections, norms, and the law itself to serve Republican interests is hardly in retreat. It appears, to be honest, to be ascendant. Which is why Biden’s promises to “heal” the nation sound more like appeasement than they probably ought to.

Is it rational to be afraid of what is happening now, despite the fact that efforts to set aside the election results have shifted from laughable to merely pathetic? Is it rational to spend a few more weeks huddled in fear of not just the abuser that is Donald Trump, but the abusers around him—of Bill Barr and Lindsey Graham and Alex Azar? Is it rational to worry whether any one of these lingering yes men may still attempt something that will break through? The rule of law appears to be only as robust as the most racist Michigan election official, and his own sense of invincibility. That the danger is asymmetrical doesn’t render it without force.

We keep thinking about the rule of law and democratic norms as a kind of freestanding iron girdle that will hold together of its own accord. Win lawsuit after lawsuit and democracy itself is left standing. But democracy, like law, isn’t self-executing. And GOP leadership well knows this is not about state litigation. They are exultantly pressing forward with a fiction. We can nod and smile and tap our feet to the funny stylings of Rudy Giuliani and Jenna Ellis, telling ourselves that this present storm will tire and eventually wear itself out. But we are witnessing genuinely unprecedented levels of denialism and coercion at the highest and lowest echelons of the GOP. We can each fumble our way to the appropriate level of alarm over all that. But one truth is not in dispute: Trump was always just a symptom, and even when he does leave, the essential truths of GOP bad faith, lawlessness, and illiberalism will not only survive him but thrive.