Trump Has Left the Building, but the Foundations Are Still in Place


Then-President Donald Trump speaks behind a table full of McDonald’s hamburgers in the Diplomatic Room of the White House on March 4, 2019, in Washington, D.C. (Oliver Contreras-Pool / Getty Images)

After a series of far-fetched legal attempts to overturn the election, capped by a shocking assault on the Capitol, it appears the Trump period has ended. On the day of the Capitol attack, Trump addressed his supporters, claiming, “You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong.… If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” Two days later, in the midst of a furious and widespread backlash, Trump was forced to walk back his belligerent attitude, giving an anodyne speech where he called for peace, asserting that “those who engaged in the acts of violence and destruction…do not represent our country,” and all but conceding that a transition of power would take place. It now has.

It has been an ignominious close to a historical moment that will be measured by its impact for years to come. Already long before the 2016 election, many saw Trump’s rise as a turning point of American politics toward authoritarianism, or even fascism. For some, the Trump presidency was an “aspirational autocracy,” while for others, it was an example of tyranny. Many debated the applicability of the fascist label. Yet, for others still, these concerns overlooked the persistent illiberal and antidemocratic tendencies that ran like a thread through all of American history. According to these more skeptical arguments, focusing on Trump’s would-be authoritarianism both mythologized the pre-Trump years and obscured just how ineffective and weak his time in office had been.

Even as these most recent events confirm a political defeat for Trump and the restoration of a shaky centrist-progressive coalition, the United States continues to experience a slow-burning legitimacy crisis that shows no signs of abating. While the 2016 election did not create an immediate political crisis of the state, it exacerbated antidemocratic and authoritarian tendencies that were already ingrained in American society and political institutions.

These tendencies were decades in the making. The American security state, already nurtured on decades of anti-leftist funding and training, had taken on a new gloss with the War on Terror. The lasting fallout from the Great Recession of 2008 played a major role in the 2016 crisis of the political establishment and Trump’s unexpected rise to the top of the Republican Party. This year alone, the mismanagement of Covid-19 has led to the deaths of over 400,000 people, exposing essential workers and the vulnerable to a deadly disease and fraying the country’s already tattered social institutions, at the same time as structural racial violence brought millions of people to the streets in the midst of this pandemic.

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