Opinion | The End of the Trump Era Will Be Unsatisfying

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By Ross Douthat

Opinion Columnist

Since the 2022 midterm elections, the end of the Trump era in American politics has become, at least, a 50-50 proposition. While Ron DeSantis surges in multiple national polls, the former president has busied himself shilling $99 digital trading cards to his most devoted fans. The promised battle royale, in which Trump emerges from Mar-a-Lago to smite his challenger and reclaim his throne, may yet be in the offing. But it’s also possible that Trump 2024 will end up where many people expected Trump 2016 to go, diminishing into an act of self-indulgence that holds on to his true loyalists but can’t win primary-season majorities.

If that’s how Trump goes out, doing a slow fade while DeSantis claims his mantle, the people who have opposed Trump most fiercely, both the Resistance liberals and the Never Trump Republicans, will probably find the ending deeply unsatisfying.

There will be no perp walk where Trump exits the White House in handcuffs (though he could still face indictment; that hope lives), no revelations of Putinist treason forcing the Trumps into a Middle Eastern exile, no Aaron Sorkin-scripted denunciation driving him, in shame, from the public square.

Nor will there be a dramatic repudiation of the Trumpist style. If DeSantis defeats Trump, it will be as an imitator of his pugilism and populism, as a politician who promises to fight Trump’s battles with more effectiveness and guile.

Nor, finally, will there be any accountability for Trump’s soft enablers within the Republican Party. There was a certain political accountability when the “Stop the Steal” devotees lost so many winnable elections last month. But the men and women who held their noses and went along with Trump at every stage except the very worst will continue to lead the Republican Party if he fades away; there will be no Liz Cheney presidential campaign to deliver them all a coup de grâce.

These realities are already yielding some righteous anger, a spirit evident in the headline of a recent essay by Bill Lueders at The Bulwark: “You’re Only Leaving Trump Now?” Never forget, Lueders urges, that if Republicans abandon Trump it won’t be because of his long list of offenses against decency and constitutional government; it will be only because, at last, they’re sure he cannot win.

As an original Never Trumper, I don’t begrudge anyone this reaction. If Trump fades, it will be a victory for places like The Bulwark, but people naturally want something more than a quiet, limited victory after a long existential-seeming campaign. They want vindication. They want to feel as if everyone finally agrees: Never again.

But an unsatisfying absence of repudiation or vindication is a normal feature of democratic life. The act of winning an election creates an alchemy of loyalty — vox populi, vox Dei — that in most circumstances only losing can de-catalyze. The time it takes for parties to repudiate their most dismaying leaders can extend for decades or centuries (as in the case of the Democratic Party’s slow divorce from Andrew Jackson). And voters don’t usually impose permanent penalties on parties, preferring to take each election as it comes.

The Democratic Party’s Southern wing was a literal party of insurrection in the 1860s and the Northern wing was tainted by the attachment, but they simply reunited as a normal opposition party after the Civil War. The next Republican president elected after Richard Nixon’s resignation, Ronald Reagan, paid no price for having been one of Nixon’s stalwart defenders throughout most of the Watergate affair. The public voted in droves against the perceived dangerous radicalism of Barry Goldwater and George McGovern, then turned around and voted for the parties that nominated them a few years later.

Or, to pick an international example, in the brief window when Russia was a semi-functional democracy, its leading opposition party was, of course, the successor to the Communist Party, whose dictatorial rule had recently been overthrown.

In current politics, it isn’t just anti-Trumpers who find themselves frustrated by voters’ refusal to look backward. Consider the hope among conservatives that Democratic overreach on Covid restrictions, especially school closures, would play a decisive role in the 2022 elections. It did play a crucial role in the 2021 elections, when those policies were still in place or up for debate. But once they were lifted, the public largely moved on, leaving conservative activists depressed because there was no lasting punishment.

This desire for vindication is completely understandable. How else can you ensure that serious mistakes won’t be repeated, or that an awful demagogue won’t just slip into sheep’s clothing and return?

The answer, however (and this is tough medicine), is that the way to avert that kind of repetition is to make certain you have a strategy for winning the next election, and the ones after that — on the public’s terms rather than your own.

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