The Anti-Trump Hangover Is Here

When you’re used to fighting enemies, how do you go back to having mere opponents?

A newspaper bearing Donald Trump's image is picked up off the floor.
Carolyn Drake / Magnum

For political junkies, the post-election crash hits like a hangover. Here in Britain, we had two elections and two referenda—on Scottish independence, then Brexit—over four consecutive years. The summer of 2017, after the last of those votes returned a hung parliament, felt like one long exhale. I remember noticing how many people were changing jobs, leaving their relationships, or otherwise making big life decisions. You can only live on adrenaline for so long, and the comedown that follows is brutal.

The United States is now facing that comedown. The forces that drove this election result are still not clear—there is no way to glibly summarize the splits by race, gender, or income—but one fact is obvious: Turnout was huge. More people voted for Donald Trump than live in Britain. And he still lost. (As it happens, the People’s Republic of Trumplandia would be among the 20 most populous countries in the world, ahead of South Africa, France, and Kenya.)

That extraordinary figure proved that the Trump presidency, a television-ratings juggernaut, also produced real political engagement. Love him or loathe him … well, you had to love him or loathe him. The most marginalized political opinion in the U.S. is having no strong feelings about Trump.

So what now? Let me speak from experience. First comes exhaustion. At a drive-in rally in Michigan, days before polls opened, Barack Obama promised that a Joe Biden–Kamala Harris administration would mean that “you’re not going to have to think about them every day.” The Trump era produced more than 150 books before it was even finished, and yet, looking back over the past four years, what stands out is … nothing. It’s like staring into a blizzard. (The most popular subgenre of Trump-related books was “Chaos Chronicles,” insider accounts of deranged schemes, like putting alligators on the southern border, and lurid tales of palace intrigue.) With so much talking, it was almost impossible to focus on what the administration was doing.

The Trump presidency also telescoped time. At once, it has lasted both a million years and the microsecond it takes to breathe in before screaming on a roller coaster. At the start of Terry Pratchett’s novel Reaper Man, he imagines the world from the perspective of mayflies, which live only a day, and pine trees, which endure for a thousand years. “We had proper sun in the good old hours. It were all yellow. None of this red stuff,” one mayfly says to another. Meanwhile, the pine trees stare out over the landscape, as winter after winter flickers across their vision, solemnly telling each other, “I remember when all this wasn’t fields.” To follow Trump was to be a mayfly and a pine tree at once. So much was happening. Was anything actually happening?

In this dizzying whirl, there was only one constant: Trump himself, exerting a gravitational pull on our attention spans. Whatever he does next will probably be an attempt to recapture the sensation of the whole world looking at him, hanging on his every word. A future of phoning into Fox News and speculating about a run in 2024 surely beckons. But without the bully pulpit of the presidency, Trump is much diminished. The most likely outcome is that he will be indulged but not taken seriously, like a crazy uncle at Thanksgiving. He can still do great harm from outside the White House, but it is harm of a different kind. (It is not backed up by nuclear weapons, for a start.)

Trump had fans, but he also had what the sociologist Jonathan Gray—talking about internet communities—called “anti-fans.” Anti-fans are not the same as uninterested bystanders. They are as passionate in their hate as fans are in their love, and they derive a sense of identity from belonging to groups dedicated to the objects of their mutual loathing. Among Trump’s most loyal supporters, grief has already turned to fury with the voting system and the “biased mainstream media.” After all, when you see your opponents as anything from communists to child abusers, it is hard to accept defeat. But we should also talk about the other side of the coin: When the exhaustion clears, some liberals will miss Trump. Or rather, they will miss the moral clarity that opposing him brought.

Historians have often noted that authoritarians attract supporters by offering easy answers. These are the enemies; these are the true citizens; this is how we become great again. What is less often noticed is how someone like Trump makes politics simple for his opposition: In his comic-book badness, so free from redeeming features, he was the perfect liberal foil. Any return to something approaching normality will be a loss for those anti-fans. No more existential struggle between good and evil, back to arguing about whether a single-payer health-insurance option will ever be feasible. Back to politics as grubby deals and squalid compromise.

The coming days will bring postmortems about the future of Trumpism without Trump. But we should also pay attention to the future of anti-Trumpism, an undeniable political force now searching for an outlet, when its unifying hate figure recedes from the limelight. By fighting the election on character rather than policy, Biden drew on a grand coalition of elite support: Democrats and independents were bolstered by former Trump-administration officials and Republican grandees such as Colin Powell. That coalition self-destructed the minute the election result was declared. A group that could agree on the need to defeat Trump has little else in common.

Still, a force as powerful as Trumpism doesn’t just vanish—and neither does the political logic underlying anti-Trumpism, even if the constituent elements drift apart. In Britain, the 2016 EU referendum polarized the country around a new axis. Voters coalesced around political identities that cut across traditional party lines. (To indulge in stereotypes, Remainers were for quinoa, recycling, and tearing down statues of slave traders. Leavers were for Remembrance poppies, the Union Jack, and bringing back the death penalty.) Although Britain has now legally left the European Union, those fault lines have not disappeared. When a political affiliation merges with an identity, it becomes deeply emotional. The knot is hard to untangle.

For more than a thousand days, Donald Trump held the world’s attention. He demanded that everyone have an opinion on him. He inspired fear and fervor in millions. It was exhausting, but it was also addictive. And it’s difficult to imagine Americans—even those who are happiest to see him defeated—going cold turkey on the high-volume, emotional, Manichaean style of politics he represents. When you’re used to fighting enemies, how do you go back to having mere opponents?