Can We Quit Trump?
How powerful is a defeated ex-president?
A quick word about disappointment, before we dive into the news of the day.
For a lot of us, the last five years have been a march of disillusionment, as we’ve watched people we once admired — many of them our colleagues and friends — make their peace with Trumpism, or worse, cast their lot with the transformation of the conservative movement into a carnival of buncombe (to borrow Mencken’s phrase).
That movement and the GOP are now unrecognizable to many of us, and so we find ourselves in a political wilderness of sorts. But we’re not alone.
We’re coming up on the two-year anniversary of the founding of the Bulwark, which was hastily pulled together after the untimely murder of the Weekly Standard. Honestly, we didn’t know what to expect then, or whether there was an audience for non-tribalist, non-Trumpian center-right commentary.
It’s an understatement to say that what has happened since has exceeded our wildest expectations. I know I’m not alone in saying that this has been the most satisfying work of our careers.
So what happens next? In 34 days, Donald Trump will leave the White House, likely for the last time. But obviously that doesn’t mean that there are 34 days until we are done with either Donald Trump or Trumpism. And it certainly doesn’t mean that we are done with the struggle against the toxic stew that gave us the MAGAverse.
Let me make a promise and a plea. The promise: those of us at The Bulwark will continue the work we’ve begun.
The plea: we very much want you to join us at Bulwark+ if you haven’t done so already.
As an added inducement (if you need one): Bulwark + members are invited to join us tonight for our Year End livestream, in which we urge 2020 not to let the door hit its butt on the way out.
Welcome to the Countdown Journal. There are 20 days until January 6, when Congress certifies the Electoral College votes, and 34 days until the Inauguration of Joe Biden.
Here’s the question we are all wrestling with: can we quit Donald Trump?
Is he really forever? Or is he going to fade away like a bad case of dysentery?
More specifically: Will the media be able to quit its obsession with him? Will the GOP move on?
Probably not. The smart default position is still that Trump will retain his grip on the Republican party and haunt our dreams for the next decade.
But if we’re wrong about this it’s because we may be underestimating the gap between president and not president.
We’ve lived so long with Trump Dominant that maybe we are missing the obvious fact here: that the post-presidential Trump will be a significantly diminished figure. He won’t fade away, of course, but he won’t be able to stay at the center of our politics for the simple reason that he won’t play any actual role.
Trump will be powerful only because he is perceived as powerful, but his actual power will be reduced to zilch.
Perhaps most important: this most transactional of presidents will no longer have anything to give except his fear or favor. And the tweets.
We may be tempted to attribute magical qualities to those rage tweets, but we may find out that they don’t substitute for actually being able to do something.
There won’t be rides on Air Force One; no cushy jobs and honorifics; no White House parties; no more favors; no leverage on actual legislation.
There won’t be any policy wins to help the right rationalize its support. The grift will continue, but without taxpayer largesse. There will be no more judges, no executive orders, no cuts in regulations, no tax cuts. There is never going to be a fucking wall.
For the last four years, Vichy Republicans have rationalized their support by insisting that we ignore the tweets and focus on the policies and “accomplishments”.
But in his post-presidency there will no wins, just the rage, narcissism, and tweets, boiled down to their Trumpian essence.
And that’s all there will be, except for the possible indictments, trials, and bankruptcies.
That’s why stoking outrage is so crucial for his post presidency. The stab-in-the-back stolen election lie is the wind beneath his wings; grievance is his only real asset.
That may be enough to keep his base riled up. But there is also the possibility that rather than consolidate his control of the GOP, he will marginalize himself by continuing to embrace the most deranged elements of his own MAGAverse. His base of operations may drift from Fox News to OAN and his appeal from populism to raw crackpottery.
One thing seems certain. As he broods in exile, the defeated ex-president is about to embark on the Worst Former Presidency Ever.
Stripped of the trappings of the presidency he will be reduced to Trump himself, a tawdry, garish, bitter, cruel, and vulgar fraud.
This time, that might actually matter.
Quitting Trump? The Wapo’s Margaret Sullivan is telling the media it is time for a cold-turkey breakup with Trump.
The media should — for once — decline to take the bait.
Don’t allow him to become a self-styled president in exile, the golf-cart version of Napoleon on Elba.
Do not set up a Mar-a-Lago bureau.
Don’t have entire reporting beats dedicated to what he and his family members are up to.
And for God’s sake, stop writing about his unhinged tweets.
Matt K. Lewis is also urging the press to resist the temptation to treat Trump like ‘shadow president.”
Even as Trump has sought to undermine the media as “fake news” and “enemies of the people,” we have laughed all the way to the bank. This was true almost from the beginning. “It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS,” admitted Les Moonves, the network’s CEO, during the 2016 presidential campaign. “Sorry. It's a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”
Trump continues his campaign bring Fox News back into line:
Don’t lose sight of this.
ICYMI: Make sure you read this Texas Monthly piece about a Texas wedding photographer.
The wedding photographer had already spent an hour or two inside with the unmasked wedding party when one of the bridesmaids approached her. The woman thanked her for still showing up, considering “everything that’s going on with the groom.”
When the photographer asked what she meant by that, the bridesmaid said the groom had tested positive for COVID-19 the day before. “She was looking for me to be like, ‘Oh, that’s crazy,’ like I was going to agree with her that it was fine,” the photographer recalls. “So I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ And she was like, ‘Oh no no no, don’t freak out. He doesn’t have symptoms. He’s fine.’”
The photographer, who has asthma and three kids, left with her assistant before the night was over. Her exit was tense. The wedding planner said it was the most unprofessional thing she’d ever seen. Bridesmaids accused her of heartlessly ruining an innocent woman’s wedding day. She recalls one bridesmaid telling her, “I’m a teacher, I have fourteen students. If I’m willing to risk it, why aren’t you?” Another said everyone was going to get COVID eventually, so what was the big deal? The friend of the bride who’d spilled the beans cried about being the “worst bridesmaid ever.”
1. Inside the Epically Murky ‘Epoch Times’ Ad Campaign
Make sure you read this epically important piece by Tim Miller in today’s Bulwark:
The QAnons aren’t organized enough to have their own house organ, which pretends for all the world to be a normal news outlet.
And the Falun Gongs do….
So in summary here is what we know:
A foreign cult that thinks Donald Trump is on a messianic mission has a “news site” that has spent at least $2 million on YouTube ads since 2018, mostly in 2020.
This “news site” has called for a violent insurrection to keep Trump in power.
We have evidence that there are additional ads running on top of the $2 million that has been reported, but the extent of this buy is unknown.
This “news” organization has a history of using sockpuppets to avoid reporting the full extent of their ad spending.
Anecdata suggests that Epoch Times ads may be running at an unusually high volume as there are myriad complaints of this nature on Twitter and in the comments section of the YouTube videos.
The group behind the ads has seemingly unlimited resources and was the second-largest pro-Trump advertiser on Facebook before such ads were banned.
They believe the stakes are a literal apocalyptic battle between good and evil.
2. Uninstalling Stephen Miller
Sam Peak and Jonathan Haggerty in today’s Bulwark: How one man’s mastery of the dark bureaucratic arts made life a living hell for immigrants and refugees.
Stephen Miller didn’t simply leave a mess for America to clean up—he installed his ideology within a system now accustomed to buckling to his will. Uninstalling Stephen Miller will be an endeavor that takes several years, at minimum. Despite—or perhaps because—of Trump and Miller’s efforts, American support for immigration has soared to historic highs.
Miller’s agenda, implemented through bureaucratic force of will, may take longer to end than the four years he spent enacting it. Although Miller himself will leave, the culture he helped create will likely stay for a while. And while Trump’s rhetoric has backfired with the general public, GOP primary voters still prioritize immigration as an issue much more than immigration supporters. For the former, it’s their most salient issue. This dynamic means that it will be an uphill battle for the incoming administration to restore sanity to the system.
Today’s Republican Party needs a Little White Schoolhouse cleaning
Ripon, Wisconsin takes pride in being the birthplace of the Republican party. Here’s an editorial from its hometown paper, the Ripon Commonwealth Press:
Politically secure Republicans such as Cheney and Sens. Mitt Romney, Lisa Murkowski, Ben Sasse and others occasionally have put principle over party, refusing to follow their colleagues as they march in lockstep with a man whose actions for four years have been unseemly, incendiary, divisive and racist.
But they and Republicans who still believe in the Constitution need a safe harbor where their allegiance to country won’t be gauged by their willingness to accept ludicrous voter suppression attempts masquerading as responsible governance.
Perhaps the Little White Schoolhouse should have a combination lock placed on its door.
The combination could only be handed over to a responsible organization — be it a remorseful Republican Party, Lincoln Project conservatives or a group of recovering partisans whose north star, like the 54 founding members of the Grand Old Party, is a free, principled people rather than an unquestioning, sycophantic march behind an ego-driven grifter with no compunction over leading his party and his country over a cliff.