What Trump Has Done to America

Three ways the outgoing president’s postelection fight changed the political landscape

Donald Trump
Tom Brenner / Reuters

About the author: Jonathan Rauch is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth.

The Supreme Court slammed the door on President Donald Trump’s preposterous lawsuits. State legislators ignored his pressure to countermand the voters. The Electoral College cast a majority of its votes for President-elect Joe Biden. Trump’s efforts to usurp the presidency have failed. That is cause for relief.

But not too much relief. No one who understands the law believed that Trump and his supporters and enablers stood more than a minuscule chance of overturning the election. In the course of failing to usurp the presidency, however, Trump succeeded at usurping the Republican Party. On that front, his accomplishments since November 3 have been impressive. With his legal challenges safely out of the way, now is a good moment to take stock.

Trump has consolidated antidemocratic forces’ control of the Republican Party

Many Republicans still believe in democratic norms such as the rule of law, the centrality of truth, the peaceful transfer of power, and the legitimacy of the opposition party. But Trump is not among those Republicans, and he has won astonishing acquiescence and support from his party as he has set about trashing democratic norms and principles. In The Atlantic three years ago, Benjamin Wittes and I warned that the Republican Party, as an institution, had become a danger to the rule of law and the integrity of our democracy. Thereafter, Trump only escalated his assaults on democratic norms.

Now, however, he has pushed even deeper into illiberal territory, spuriously attacking the legitimacy of the election. In doing so, he has won the support of many of the party’s federal officeholders (including a majority of House Republicans) and the silence of the large majority of the rest. Just a handful of Republican senators, Mitt Romney most impressively, have found the backbone to call him out.

America’s constitutional order, the political scientist Gregory Weiner argues, depends on a style of politics that the conservative political philosopher Michael Oakeshott called “nomocratic.” Nomocratic regimes hold themselves accountable to public processes (such as voting) whose outcome no one can be sure of in advance. They commit themselves to the rule of law and democratic decision making, even if the other side wins. Teleocratic politics, by contrast, is accountable to particular outcomes. Legitimacy comes not from following the agreed-upon rules but from obtaining the desired result. In other words, the election is valid—provided our side wins.

Trump has placed himself explicitly in the teleocratic camp. Teleocracy is incompatible with democracy and the rule of law; Trump’s position would once have horrified Republicans. Now, by acquiescing to Trump, they have made it their de facto creed. By contrast, although prominent Democrats questioned the legitimacy of Trump’s election in 2016 and George W. Bush’s in 2000, Democratic leaders generally adhere to nomocratic tenets, and none has come remotely as unmoored from them as Trump has.

The country now has not just two political parties but two political regimes, one nomocratic and the other teleocratic, cohabiting but incompatible. The closest modern parallel might be the South in the days of Jim Crow. Ostensibly, the South was part of American democracy, but in reality it was a separate polity—undemocratic because so many voices and voters were excluded, teleocratic because its permissible outcomes were bounded by white supremacy.

That arrangement, of course, proved not only unfair but unsustainable. Trump’s reorientation of the GOP as the party whose guiding principle is “Heads we win, tails you lose” is likewise unfair and unsustainable. With so few national Republicans willing to renounce Trump’s electoral Calvinball, it is hard to avoid concluding, as the political historian Geoffrey Kabaservice told The Atlantic’s Ronald Brownstein, that the Republican Party, “without acknowledging or realizing it, has become an antidemocratic force.”

Trump has consolidated his role as the Republican Party’s godfather

Plenty of Republicans, both in politics and on the street, view Trump and his policies with distaste. But, as the saying goes, when you have them by the—well, let’s say by certain soft parts of their anatomy—their hearts and minds will follow.

Trump’s leverage is in the Republican primaries. In most congressional districts, a single tweet from the president can make life difficult for a Republican who annoys him. A Trump denunciation can bring forth one or more primary challengers. An endorsement can make the difference between winning and losing, or between winning comfortably and squeaking through. Trump’s demands and proclamations influence who runs for office, how they run, and how they behave in office.

Just how much influence Trump will wield as a private citizen remains to be seen, but even in the aftermath of his loss, Republicans remain frightened of him. The support of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy for Trump’s efforts to overturn the election and the long silence of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in the face of Trump’s depredations speak loudly. It seems fair to assume that most Republican candidates for office in 2022, and probably also in 2024, will hesitate to cross him, and many will feel the need to seek his endorsement and otherwise kiss his ring. Meanwhile, Trump’s talk of a 2024 presidential bid will stymie the emergence of presidential contenders. And so the party’s evolution past Trumpism will be at least impeded, and possibly blocked altogether.

Trump has made Russian-style disinformation a central feature of U.S. politics

Propaganda experts have identified a powerful technique they call the “fire hose of falsehood.” Perfected by the Russians, this information-warfare method, according to researchers at the Rand Corporation, is marked by “high numbers of channels and messages and a shameless willingness to disseminate partial truths or outright fictions.” By pumping out every manner of lie, half-truth, and conspiracy theory through every available channel, a propagandist can cause bewilderment and cynicism as the public concludes that anything might or might not be true and that no one can be trusted. This bewilderment and cynicism, in turn, make the public more receptive to demagogues, dictators, and kleptocrats.

Even that old KGB hand Vladimir Putin has cause to admire Trump’s achievement. Until Trump, no American politician had ever imagined running a fire-hose-of-falsehood campaign against the American public, much less had figured out how to do it. Trump saw the possibilities and capitalized on them. He opened the disinformation spigot on the first day of his presidency, with a blatant lie about the size of his inauguration crowd, and then spewed falsehoods at a rate that defied fact-checking—in October, more than 50 falsehoods a day.

But even that flood paled in comparison with the postelection tsunami. Trump spread disinformation through social media, conventional conservative media, the presidential bully pulpit, Republican partisans, and even the courts. Having weaponized lawsuits for advantage in his business career, he grasped how to use court filings as a disinformation channel, winning attention for his lies even if he lost the cases. He succeeded in getting politicians, media outlets, and millions of ordinary people to repeat and amplify his claims; no matter if the claims were absurd or mutually contradictory, as long as they spread. In American politics, so audacious and cynical a disinformation campaign is a radical innovation.

Yet it worked. Trump convinced a solid majority of Republicans that Biden did not rightfully win the election; just as worrisome, he convinced many other Americans that the true outcome of the election was in doubt, because, after all, where there is so much smoke, there must be fire. His success will induce other politicians to use similar methods. Trump’s development of an American model for mass disinformation may prove to be his most important and pernicious legacy.

That is a pretty remarkable list of accomplishments, even if it does not include stealing the election. But the benefits accrue to Trump, not the Republican Party. Until his election in 2016, Trump was not in any meaningful sense a Republican, and his takeover of the party was hostile both institutionally and ideologically. As president, he has obliterated anything resembling a coherent conservative agenda, and he repositioned the party as a personality cult whose only real principle is to empower him. So thoroughly did he personalize the party that it did not even bother with a platform this year.

By making himself synonymous with the party, by blocking the emergence of rivals, by putting the party on the wrong side of democracy, and by replacing ideas with disinformation, Trump is not leading the Republican Party so much as holding it hostage. He and his supporters can block but not build. They are spoilers who can foment chaos, encourage radicalism, divide the polity, and stymie rivals, but they cannot construct a coherent agenda or forge the post-Trump future.

The lame-duck period has given Republican leaders an opportunity to loose themselves from Trump’s grip. At the cost of angering their supporters, but with the next election still safely two years away, they could accept Biden’s win, denounce Trump’s usurpations, and begin the process of disentangling themselves from the president. Instead, by following Trump’s lead, they have worked themselves deeper into his coils. And, of course, Trump will use them and then throw them away.

So Trump, in the end, lost to the Democrats but put the Republicans to rout. He will not retain the presidency, but he has positioned himself to make life painful for American democracy, President Biden, and the Republican Party. Not a coup d’état, but not bad for a few weeks’ work.