As difficult as it may be while staring down a 2020 reelection campaign, it is worth taking some time to mull over this inevitability: Donald Trump is only a rickety trial run for the next far more dangerous Fascist 2.0 candidate that will come after him.
Donald Trump is not a genius. Donald Trump is not “playing three dimensional chess.” Donald Trump, through a confluence of historic trends, bizarre personality tics, and good timing, slid into the presidency by virtue of being the most anti-establishment candidate in a year of extremely high anti-establishment sentiment. Had a few things broken differently, Bernie Sanders could be president, for the same reason. People wanted the most different thing. That justified impulse for change may be channeled to good or to bad ends. But it exists. And now that every political force in America knows that it exists, you can bet your ass that it will be ruthlessly exploited.
Strip away all of the grandiose narcissism and signs of incipient dementia, and Trump ran on a fairly straightforward platform: racism plus pseudo-populism. His formula was white grievance plus class grievance. That added up to enough grievance for him to win. Ironically, a vote for Trump was a vote to perfectly reverse legitimate and illegitimate grievances. White grievance is pure racism—the same basic racism that has been festering since slavery days, and through the Civil War, and through Reconstruction, and through the civil rights movement. It flares up with any perceived shift of racial power, or demographic change. White politicians have been leaning into this racism for votes for many, many years. And when it comes to the racism, Trump has done his part. He has actively and enthusiastically pursued racist policies. To that extent, his voters have gotten what they asked for.
But the class grievance—the legitimate grievance, the frustrations born from 40 years of rising inequality and declining economic mobility and the fantastic enrichment of a tiny class of elites as the American dream itself fades away—that was all a charade. “Drain the swamp” was a funny joke. Trump never meant that part. It was obvious that he was lying about that part—obvious, especially, to New Yorkers, who have been watching his schtick for decades. Sadly, there are enough non-New Yorkers in America who bought it to put him in office. As soon as he got there, he promptly installed as many bottom-feeding monsters into the swamp as possible. He pursued tax warfare on behalf of the rich, as Republicans always do, and made inequality worse—even for most of the white racists who voted for him. Touche, motherfuckers.
But Donald Trump should not be viewed as a suis generis phenomenon. For right wing zealots, he will serve as more of a proof of concept. The concept is the formula that won him the presidency. That formula—racism plus class grievance—got him elected even with all of his own myriad personality flaws and base stupidity. I guarantee you that even as we speak, political operatives much smarter than Donald Trump are thinking about how to tweak his winning formula for a new era of elected fascism. Rather than a bumbling, swollen, cartoonish New York billionaire TV addict, imagine the basic formula wrapped in a more sophisticated package. Rather than Donald Trump Part II, which could leave a weary populace tired of having a buffoon leading our country, imagine a George Wallace or Huey Long for the 21st century. Imagine a savvy candidate, better packaged, who combines racism with actual populism. Imagine a smarter, slimmer, more attractive version of Donald Trump, who keeps the same doomsaying rhetoric of the decline of white America and adds to it a dash of economic policy that actually helps the working class—at least enough to dazzle a larger slice of the electorate than Trump attracted? A racist, populist Republican candidate—one who could start entertaining feuds like Trump, but who was also smart enough to read an entire book—could attract the same base as Trump, and could potentially add to it by wooing an even larger pool of disillusioned working people whose disgust with the failure of Clinton and Obama to fix the nation’s most fundamental problems has dissolved their bonds to the Democratic Party.
Trump 2.0 is a scary prospect. In this refined formulation, you could have a president with a larger share of the electorate backing him, who is involved in fewer meaningless distractions, who is more skilled at operating the levers of government, and who consequently wields even more power than Trump does. That power will be applied to executing the racist promises that will be key to getting them elected. For immigrants and aspiring immigrants, for black Americans, and for other minorities, the situation could be very, very perilous. It is bad enough having a bloviating, incompetent racist buffoon leading the country. Having a sophisticated, determined, and skilled racist leading the country is even more terrifying.
The traditional formula of the Republican Party has been to use conservative social issues as a lure to attract votes for the purpose of serving the interests of the rich. The next demagogue, having witnessed all political conventional wisdom melt down in the past four years, could put forward a new formula: conservative social issues plus an economic platform that serves the non-rich. (It is not even necessary for this person to pursue policies of economic equality to the point that they truly hurt the interests of the rich; it would be enough to tilt the balance back just a little bit, a justified investment by the rich in their own long-term survival.) They could, in essence, do what Trump promised but never actually intended to do. The outcome would still be more conservative judges and anti-immigration policies and racist crime policies, but served with some more spending on broad-based social services to make it all go down more smoothly. As compared with the “Justice for All” approach of the left, this candidate will embrace an approach of “Justice for Most of You, achieved by Viciously Crushing a Scapegoated Minority.” This candidate’s campaign will be a bet on the darker side of America’s nature. It will be a bet that most Americans will be willing to sell out a few in order to mitigate the toll that a generation of class war has wrought on them. And I’m not so sure America’s soul is strong enough to make that a bad bet.
Watch out. The next Trump will come in a nicer package.