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If Donald Trump did not exist would it have been necessary to invent him?

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Commenter Carriere hypothesizes:

I think Trump may approach something like a unique figure in our politics. He is so polarizing, and once you decide you approve of him you’ve already had to forgive so much you’re psychologically locked into your position. No other politician has seen anything like the steady disapproval ratings of Trump. What made the last four years so frustrating was that nothing mattered, nothing could change public opinion. Maybe if we saw a deep and prolonged economic crisis it would matter, but the Covid experience argues strongly against that.

That Trump’s support is basically unaffected by either his actions or the events that follow, causally or not, from those actions is clearly true. The critical question is: To what extent is this a function of Trump himself, and to what extent is Trump merely a convenient vessel into which the cult around him pours its, um, “anxiety?”

In other words, do we understand the Trump cult more as a structural or a charismatic phenomenon? Obviously it has elements of both, but the crucial question of the moment is the relative importance of each to the existence of what is without question a political cult.

The key evidence for the answer will come in the form of what happens now (“Now” is assuming that Trump has lost the election. If he somehow pulls this out you can and will blame this post for jinxing things).

If Trump runs in 2024 and wins the nomination — the former seems much more in question to me than the latter; if he runs he will win it — that development will provide no real evidence either way. But what if he doesn’t run? Will the political cult focused on him largely dissipate, or will it find another object to latch itself onto? If the latter happens, that of course strongly suggests that Trump’s rise was more a symptom of the social forces that led to it, rather than itself a cause of those forces — that Trumpism will have turned out to be more structural than personality-driven. (A synthetic position would be that Trump is a charismatic leader whose charismatic qualities have ended up amplifying structural forces that will survive him).

A related point is that, despite everything that happened over the past four years, the 2020 presidential election ended up looking almost exactly like the 2016 election. The Democratic candidate’s national margin went from two to around five percent, largely because of higher margins in states that were blue in both elections. That national trend was enough to bump three rust belt states from barely going for Trump to barely going for Biden.

Arizona, which went for Trump by 3.5% and seems likely to go to Biden by less than one percent, comes close to falling within the national pattern. (North Carolina went for Trump by 3.6% and may come very close to flipping). The only real outlier here may be Georgia, which Trump won by five percent in 2016 but could well lose this time around by a handful of votes. And the available evidence suggests the movement in places like Arizona, North Carolina, and Georgia is almost completely driven by the changing demographics in those states, not by any change in the attitude of Trump’s supporters, who are if anything even more committed to him now than they were in 2016.

Is the latter fact a function of Trump himself or of the trajectory of American history and culture? We’re going to find out soon — or not soon — enough.

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