If you wonder why Donald Trump and his spawns continue to resonate in the first quarter of the 21st century, the answer may lie in the dwindling middle in American politics. The so-called “middle ground” has been overrated for a long time. We all know that, in fact, the middle is a place reserved for those who won’t or can’t decide. Being “on the fence” is choosing not to be on the field of play. The recent political past which has been dominated by each party’s “wings” is largely in response to a lot of us being forced to take a stand.
Since the Reagan landslides in the 1980s, the Republicans have been able to win the popular vote in only one of the next 8 election cycles. George W. Bush managed a slim victory over Democratic contender John Kerry by 15 Electoral College votes and by an underwhelming 50.7% of the popular vote. Most “wartime presidents” benefit from the dual advantages of incumbency and national solidarity during wartime. Bush defeated Kerry but was scuttled by his own ineptitude and false bravado — — his second term turned out worse than his first and far worse than that of his wartime peers whose enemies were real and powerful. His lackluster performance in the 2004 election was a sign that even his party knew he was in over his head.
It was not by accident, then, that Trump during his bid for a second term grabbed onto the mounting crisis presented by COVID declared himself a wartime president as a boost to his natural advantage as an incumbent:
“Every generation of Americans has been called to make shared sacrifices for the good of the nation,” he told reporters, offering examples like teenagers volunteering to fight in the war and workers sleeping on factory floors.
“To this day, nobody has ever seen like it, what they were able to do during World War II,” he continued. “Now it’s our time. We must sacrifice together, because we are all in this together, and we will come through together. It’s the invisible enemy. That’s always the toughest enemy, the invisible enemy.”
— Donald Trump, as quoted in Politico, 3/18/2020
By March of 2020, Trump had already given the foe a huge advantage by his early mismanagement of the virus. His twin impeachments didn’t help, as well. Clearly, the president had determined that despite the threat COVID was presenting, he could use what would be a devastating disease that would kill more than 600,000 Americans by year’s end as a prop for reelection. His twisted mind would see a pandemic as an opportunity. Cadet Bonespurs was finally off to war and looking for ways to make the virus his aide-de-camp.
The now infamous Republican base has embraced the thuggish ways of their leader which was proven unpopular in Trump’s vote totals in the bid for a second term. The twin advantage of incumbency and a “war” was wasted as Trump could muster only 232 electoral votes and 46.8% of the popular vote. His opponent had garnered a historic total vote in an election that set records for voter participation. The “fence” was bare as Americans chose sides.
There were few voters who were undecided — -in a quandary as to whom to elect. As racists, white supremacists, and the ugly underbelly of the newly minted alt-right came out from the shadows to support Trump openly, the soft middle that controlled the fates of many close elections, decided. Many were Republicans who had lost hold of the conservative wing to charlatan Trump. Others were the always sought-after independent voters whose decisions in tight races often mattered disproportionately to their numbers. Small enclaves in suburban and rural areas made races electorally closer and often decided the race. In cases where strong third-party candidacies diverted the “undecideds” and independents, as Ross Perot (1992) and Ralph Nader (2000) demonstrated, the presidency could be won with less than a majority vote.
In 2020, Trump had devised a dangerous third alternative-he was able to distill from all voter segments the most detestable and violent core. He called them his base, but in reality, they are the leftovers and left-behinds of the past two hundred years of America’s political evolution. As a group, they are united by the knowledge that while they would never appeal to a majority of voters, they could intimidate enough to impart their will on the rest of us. In a political dance fraught with vulgar rituals, it was hard to decide just who was courting whom.
How else do we explain Republican congressmen lying about the January 6 insurrection, or ignoring Trump’s obvious lawlessness and mental illness? How else do we explain the denial of science and repudiation of women, blacks, and the poor? Disparaging masks wearing, vaccines, women, and doctors who knew about such things, quietly, they all got their shots… they publically proclaim their own love and respect for the women in their lives… they all take advantage of the social safety net when it applies to themselves… they all conspire to protect the wealth of the richest among us at the expense of the poor and middle class.
Those in the Republican Party who remain “loyal” to the party’s “Trump wannabes” and the twice-impeached lout himself are afraid of this base. For them, they have become the essential core of their party. The senators, congressmen and women, the local politicians have appropriated the Republican brand and have given it over to — -deplorables, out of fear. In so doing have created a phony ideology that they hide behind and offer it as an excuse.
Camus described them perfectly as he explained the lie that underscores all cowardice:
“Those who lack the courage will always find a philosophy to justify it.”
- Albert Camus
Overmatched by fear and a lack of common decency, they instead hide behind the philosophies of conservatives of the past as cover for their abandonment of personal responsibility. Einstein provided a corollary to Camus, which places them in the uncomfortable position of being accountable for all that has transpired under the Trump regime and beyond:
“The world is a dangerous place to live, not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.”
― Albert Einstein
The lessons of the past are not lost on the rest of us. We are either at a tipping or turning point in our democracy. It will either survive this and reanimate itself or begin a slow decline. There is no middle ground, no more time to decide where to stand. Cowardice in the end makes our choices for us.