Donald Trump is a cancer on this country.
Not only because of the way that he has behaved in it and at its helm, but because of the way that he has fundamentally changed it.
On Thursday night, the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection held the first of what will be a series of public hearings. The hearing was methodical and, at times, sensational. It underscored and buttressed the alarming, central thesis: Trump, as president of the United States, took aim at the democratic process of the United States by inciting a riot at the Capitol, among other things.
Throw any adjective at it — brazen, shocking, outrageous, unprecedented — they are all insufficient to capture the enormity of what he did. A president with an autocratic fetish — one who assumed office with a welcome assist from the autocratic ruler of Russia — nearly hobbled the government of the most powerful country on the planet.
Yet, with all of this, a poll published in February by the Pew Research Center found that fewer Americans believed that Trump bore responsibility for the Jan. 6 riot than they did in its immediate aftermath. Nearly six in 10 Republicans believed that he bore no responsibility at all for the rioting, compared to 46 percent the year before, and in June 2021, 66 percent of Republicans said that Trump “definitely” or “probably” won the 2020 election.
The committee’s hearing may put a dent in those numbers, but if history is our guide, his cult will remain unflappable and intact.
This is the legacy of Trump: the alteration of our political reality.
As was made clear during Thursday’s hearing, multiple people told Trump that he had lost the election and that there was no widespread fraud. It appears that he wasn’t laboring under a delusion when he attempted to steal the election; he was raging his own lie about that election.
Lying was a life skill for Donald Trump. But, before entering politics, he mostly used it as a tool to inflate his assets and his ego and to sell gold-plated aspiration to new-money social climbers. His entire brand was packaging garish people’s interpretations of glamour.
In that world, he regularly skirted the rules. But when he entered politics, he found rules that were in some cases even more fungible than those covering finance. Many of the constraints on the president were customs and traditions. There were rules that no one had ever pushed to enforce, because previous presidents conformed to them.
In some ways, the only thing constraining Trump as president was the unwillingness of other officials — many of whom he could appoint or replace at will — to break the rules.
He was like a pirate landing among an Indigenous population. Instead of appreciating the elegance of the culture and history of its rites, he focused on its weaknesses, scheming ways to exploit it, and if need be, destroy it.
Donald Trump didn’t create the modern American right, but he arrived in a moment when it was thirsty for unapologetic white nationalism, when it was terrified of white replacement and when it had flung open its arms in its willingness to embrace fiction.
He quickly understood that these impulses, which establishment Republicans had told their base to suppress and only whisper, were the things the base wanted to hear shouted, things the base wanted to cheer.
Now, millions of Americans have fallen for a lie and follow a liar.
This means that our politics still exist in Trump’s shadow. Republican politicians, afraid to buck him and afraid of the mob he controls, toe the line for him and parrot his lies. The conservative media echo chamber, hermetically sealed and resistant to reality, ensures that Trump propaganda is repeated until it is accepted without examination.
The Democrats also exist in Trump’s shadow. A large part of the reason Joe Biden was selected as the Democratic nominee was not because he had the most exciting set of policies, but because Democrats desperately wanted to beat Trump, and saw Biden as the safest bet to do so.
Now that he has been elected, many factions of his winning coalition feel like constituencies held hostage. Any critique of Biden, even mild and legitimate, must be tempered so as not to give ammunition to the Mar-a-Lago Menace who looks poised to attempt another run for the White House.
If he does, this country could well tear itself apart. And I make that statement with absolutely no hyperbolic intent. Indeed, it is not clear to me that this country can survive him calling the shots from the sidelines now.
The political system has proved too compromised by Trump’s own influence to hold Trump accountable in a way that ends this nightmare. Now, the legal system is all we have left, and Trump has been harder to pinch than flesh slathered in tanning oil.
We must now wait to see if the committee has the goods not to change the minds of voters, which feels increasingly like a lost cause, but to change the minds — or quicken the spirits — of prosecutors at the Department of Justice.
Trump has changed America, but we can still prevent him from destroying it.