Trump and His Heirs Dream of Endless Victory

By falsely insisting that he won, the defeated president leaves a blueprint for the GOP’s future.

Donald Trump leaving a rally
Leah Millis / Reuters

About the author: Anne Applebaum is a staff writer at The Atlantic, a fellow at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University, and the author of Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism.

If you can spare an hour, do listen to the full tape of the conversation between the president of the United States, Donald Trump, and Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger. Whichever adjective you use to describe Trump—delusional, demented, narcissistic—this recording shows that he is unwell. His grip on reality is loose. He is by turns insulting (“They’re going around playing you and laughing at you behind your back, Brad. Whether you know it or not, they’re laughing at you”) and wheedling (“So what are we going to do here, folks? I only need 11,000 votes. Fellas, I need 11,000 votes. Give me a break”) and threatening (“You know what they did and you’re not reporting it. That’s a criminal offense”).

He has weirdly specific, made-up numbers. He cites stories of “fraud” that have been thoroughly debunked. He never explains why the people who allegedly stole the presidential election didn’t steal the two Senate seats in Georgia while they were at it. He is unable to face the fact that he has comprehensively lost. He is grasping at conspiracy theories that offer him a false vision of the future—and yet he sounds completely convinced that they are true.

Since Trump won the Republican nomination in 2016, Americans have heard a lot of discussion about what exactly Trumpism is. Is it the anti-foreign-wars, anti-immigration, anti–Wall Street economic populism Trump campaigned on? Is it the nativist “national conservatism” some enthusiasts invented, post hoc, to rationalize his election? Does it imply a “draining of the swamp,” a move to rid the capital of lobbyists and sycophants? Had it been any of these things, Trumpism might have presented a problem for small-government libertarian Republicans, with their tight network of funders and their close ties to business. It might have been anathema to Democrats and progressives. It would not, however, necessarily have presented a problem for democracy, the American political system, or the rule of law.

As it turned out, Trumpism has nothing to do with economics, nothing to do with foreign policy, nothing to do with lobbyists or the business of government at all. The true nature of Trump’s “ideology” lies elsewhere: in the construction of alternative realities that make him an eternal winner, even in situations where, objectively speaking, he has lost. His slogan isn’t “America First,” in other words, but “Trump first, always and above all else.”

The appeal of this ideology is not economic or material, but rather psychological. Millions seem to be convinced that when Trump wins, they win too. He pumped money into the economy, created the biggest deficit in American history, burdened industry with tariffs, and goosed the stock market while small businesses went bankrupt—and millions of Americans believe this was brilliant economic policy. He staged a flashy meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, signed nothing, and achieved no arms control—and millions of Americans believe this was a diplomatic success. He botched the coronavirus response to such an extraordinary degree that the United States of America, a biomedical superpower, has had one of the highest death rates in the world—and yet millions of Americans still believe him when he says the virus is going to just disappear.

As the rest of the public is now learning, this form of Trumpism does indeed represent a life-and-death challenge for democracy and the rule of law, for it allows true believers to ignore uncomfortable facts, including the fact of a lost election. Look at the behavior, over the past few days, of the most ardent Trumpists: White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows; the Republican lawyers Cleta Mitchell and Kurt Hilbert; Senators Marsha Blackburn, Ron Johnson, John Kennedy, Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, and others; Representative Louie Gohmert; and Arizona GOP Chair Kelli Ward. These are people who have consciously, deliberately abandoned our political system of nearly two and a half centuries in order to declare that Congress, not the Electoral College and not the voters, has the right to choose the president; that conspiracy theories invented and promoted by the president deserve to be heard and repeated; that rules can be changed at the last minute to accommodate the whims of the White House.

Trumpism’s GOP opponents, by contrast, are distinguished not by any particular economic creed, but by their commitment to abiding by actual electoral results. Among these Republicans are Georgia’s secretary of state and his general counsel, Ryan Germany, both of whom gently but firmly pushed back against the president on that phone call (“Mr. President,” Raffensperger said, “the challenge that you have is the data you have is wrong”); a whole host of election officials in other disputed states; some members of Congress and the Senate, including Mitt Romney, Ben Sasse, Pat Toomey, Lisa Murkowski, and Liz Cheney; and former House Speaker Paul Ryan. All 10 living secretaries of defense, including Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and James Mattis, have also called for an orderly transition of power—a statement they wouldn’t have made if they didn’t believe it was necessary. All of these people remain loyal not just to the constitutional system that has been in place since 1789, but also to a fact-based version of reality, rather than a Trumpist version of reality. Indeed, by leaking the tape of the phone call, Raffensperger or a member of his entourage was signaling loyalty to that old system. In other times and places, when the war ends or the revolution starts, this is the sort of thing people do to demonstrate which side they are on.

Once Trump himself is gone, what happens to Trumpism? This week we may be getting a glimpse of that too. At least two of the Trumpist standard-bearers, Hawley and Cruz, have a firm grasp on the constitutional implications of what they are doing. Both, as it happens, are card-carrying members of the American elite. Hawley is a graduate of Yale Law School, a former clerk for the chief justice, and a former attorney general of Missouri; Cruz is a graduate of Harvard Law School, and a former solicitor general of Texas. Trumpism has no real problem with elite education—Trump himself prefers people who have been to good universities—but mentioning Hawley’s and Cruz’s credentials is important because they establish that both men are well read in constitutional law, and that both therefore realize they are acting in support of an unconstitutional, extremist coup d’état.

But both have also learned the lesson of the past four years: A large part of what used to be the Republican electorate will not punish them for this behavior. And if it won’t punish them for their behavior, then we have to conclude that it too is no longer interested in preserving American democracy. This same large part of what used to be the Republican electorate, whatever it used to believe or claim to believe, is now just as addicted, instead, to the false creed of “winning” as the president himself is. Whether in a battle with Joe Biden or the coronavirus, what matters to them is claiming victory. “Owning the libs”—feeling cheerful because you beat your opponent—now matters more to them than economic progress, decent health care, or American democracy. The slogan “Make America great again” and the right to wear it on a jaunty hat matter more than actually making America great.

Trump identified this part of the electorate, encouraged it, and grew it, with the help of Fox News and a host of other conspiratorial alternative-reality media sites. Now Cruz, Hawley, and probably others—including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence—hope to make use of it too. Why is Pompeo ignoring the president’s assault on the election, and instead tweeting a list of his supposed achievements? Why has Pence gone silent in the face of the most extreme challenge to the American political system in generations? The winner of the race to succeed Trump within the Republican Party, assuming it does not turn out to be Trump himself, will not be the politician who produces the most populist economic policies, who promotes the interests of the white working class, or who brings home the troops. The winner will not be someone who rescues our weakened democracy, who restores faith in government, or who builds respect for the courts and Congress.

All of these are side issues, irrelevant to the more important contest, for the winner will be the one who can best sustain the fantasy of endless victory. That—not democracy, not prosperity, not freedom, and not equality—is what Trumpist voters want. The race is on.