Last week was a stark reminder that even out of office, Donald Trump continues to warp and twist the country he once presumed to lead. From his indictment in New York, to an historic election in Wisconsin, to the shameful ouster of two Democratic representatives by the GOP majority in Tennessee’s legislature, and finally to dueling rulings on a critical abortion drug, mifepristone, almost everything about American politics right now is about the man and his poisonous legacy.
Believe me, I wish it wasn’t. I would dearly love to just forget about him, and put the years from 2015-2021 into the trash where they belong. I’m heartily sick of the guy, and I really, really hoped that I’d never have to write another column about him. But here we are, with Trump back in the news, preparing for yet another scorched earth presidential campaign. Great, awful.
But more than that, all of the genies he let out of their respective bottles during his campaigns and his years in office? They are still out there. Whatever may happen to the man himself, it’s clear that all of the precedents he set, all of the norms he broke, and all of the institutions he tarnished, will be like cancers on our body politic for a long time to come.
Trumpism isn’t a coherent philosophy or even a set of consistent ideas; it’s more a way of behaving. Trump took all of the worst impulses that already existed on the American right and amped them up to 11, like election denial, hatred of government and institutions, xenophobic religious nationalism, a petty, vengeful authoritarianism, dehumanization of opponents, the belief that their goals were more important than democracy, and more. Trump took all this and added in being loud, stubborn, defiant, selfish, and immune to any kind of reflection or criticism.
In short, Trumpism is the ability to bulldoze American democracy to make your enemies suffer and not feel bad about it.
That gives us a frame for understanding this past week. Trump himself was arrested and arraigned on Tuesday in a New York courtroom, facing charges related to hush money payments made to porn star Stormy Daniels right before the 2016 election. Whether this goes to trial or even if he’s convicted matters a lot less than you might think, because Trumpism primes its supporters to believe that all institutions are rotten and hopelessly partisan. This will just be more fuel for the fire.
That’s why his standing among Republicans hasn’t gone down. If anything, it’s gone up, and he’s been busy raising money off of the outrage. There is no little voice of conscience in any of them saying, well, maybe this is kind of bad?
Then, on Thursday, the Republican-controlled legislature of Tennessee expelled two Black state representatives, both Democrats, who had stood with gun control protestors on the floor of the House. It was an act of petty vengeance, a nakedly partisan and authoritarian move that made a laughingstock of democracy. The saddest part was that they were protesting the mass shooting of children in a Tennessee school, calling for gun control, which is something these Republicans have steadfastly refused to do anything about (except blaming trans people because the shooter was said to be trans – another act of petty vengeance). Democracy has once again been upended because the goal of allowing people to have whatever guns they want is more important than the lives of children.
And then, late in the week, we got a pair of dueling court rulings on mifepristone, a drug that is used in chemical abortions. Mifepristone is taken in combination with misoprostol to end a pregnancy up to 10 weeks in, and is now used in about half of all abortions in the United States. One ruling, in Washington State, forbade regulators to alter access to the drug. But, more consequentially, a Trump-appointed judge in Texas issued a preliminary injunction suspending the FDA’s approval of mifepristone in 2000, claiming that the agency ignored the drug’s supposed dangers.
This, unsurprisingly, is absolute garbage, since 30 years of research has found that mifepristone is safe. This case sets a horrendous precedent, in which a judge can revoke approval of any drug because of politics and religion. It takes a wrecking ball to science, government regulation in general, and reproductive rights, and if the Supreme Court sides with it, will have disastrous consequences for health and safety for decades to come.
Trumpism will destroy anything in service of the goal, consequences be damned.
The bright spot this week came in Wisconsin, however, when a liberal candidate defeated a hard-right conservative for a seat on that state’s Supreme Court. This election pulled out all the stops on abortion, trans rights, race, democracy, crime, and more, but in what is supposed to be a closely decided state voters elected liberal Janet Protasiewicz by a stunning 10 percentage points. This is an echo of the 2022 midterms, where Democrats did much better than expected against hard-right candidates.
The conservative base can’t get enough of Trumpism, but it seems that voters have had enough. Wouldn’t it be something if the final legacy of Trump is that voters finally, decisively vote to change this country for the better?