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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Is Trump an agent or an accident of history?

Former President Donald Trump campaigns in Durham, N.H., on Dec 16, 2023. Was there a more normal, conventional, stable timeline for 21st century American politics that Trump somehow wrenched us off? Or is he just an American expression of the trends that have revived nationalism all over the world?, Ross Douthat writes. (Doug Mills/The New York Times).

By Ross Douthat

In Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels, a “psychohistorian” in a far-flung galactic empire figures out a way to predict the future so exactly that he can anticipate both the empire’s fall and the way that civilization can be painstakingly rebuilt. This enables him to plan a project — the “foundation” of the title — that will long outlast his death, complete with periodic messages to his heirs that always show foreknowledge of their challenges and crises.

Until one day the foreknowledge fails, because an inherently unpredictable figure has come upon the scene — the Mule, a Napoleon of galactic politics, whose advent was hard for even a psychohistorian to see coming because he’s literally a mutant, graced by some genetic twist with the power of telepathy.

Donald Trump is not a mutant telepath. (Or so I assume — fact-checkers are still at work.) But the debates about how to deal with his challenge to the American political system turn, in part, on how much you think that he resembles Asimov’s Mule.

Was there a more normal, conventional, stable-seeming timeline for 21st century American politics that Trump, with his unique blend of tabloid celebrity, reality-TV charisma, personal shamelessness and demagogic intuition, somehow wrenched us off?

Or is Trump just an American expression of the trends that have revived nationalism all over the world, precisely the sort of figure a “psychohistory” of our era would have anticipated? In which case, are attempts to find some elite removal mechanism likely to just heighten the contradictions that yielded Trumpism in the first place, widening the gyre and bringing the rough beast slouching in much faster?

I have basically changed sides in this debate. Into the early part of Trump’s presidency I was an apologist for elite machinations: I wanted party unity against his primary candidacy, a convention rebellion against his nomination, even a 25th Amendment option when he appeared initially overmastered by the office of the presidency.

Past a certain point, though, I became convinced that these efforts were not only vain but counterproductive. In part, this reflected strategic considerations: The plausible moment for unified intraparty resistance had passed, and the united front of elite institutions had failed spectacularly to prevent Trump from capturing the White House. In part, it reflected my sense that “Resistance” politics were driving liberal institutions deep into their own kind of paranoia and conspiracism.

But above all, my shift reflected a reading of our times as increasingly and ineradicably populist, permanently Trumpy in some sense, with inescapable conflicts between insider and outsider factions, institutionalists and rebels — conflicts that seemed likely to worsen the more that insider power plays cement the populist belief that the outsiders would never be allowed to truly govern.

This shift doesn’t mean, however, that I am immune to the arguments that still treat Trump as unique, even Mule-ish, with a capacity for chaos unequaled by any other populist. You can see this distinctiveness in the failures of various Republican candidates who have tried to ape his style. And you can reasonably doubt that a different populist would have gone all the way to the disgrace of Jan. 6, 2021 — or inspired as many followers.

So, as much as I find the legal case for the 14th Amendment disqualification entirely unpersuasive, I can almost make myself see the return-to-normalcy future that some of its advocates seem to be imagining.

Start with a 7-2 decision, maybe written by Brett Kavanaugh, disqualifying Trump. Then comes a lot of ranting and rage that mostly works itself out online. Then a sense of relief among Republican officeholders who move on to a Nikki Haley vs. Ron DeSantis primary. Then various Trump-backed spoiler-ish and third-party options emerge but fizzle out. Then, quite possibly, you have a DeSantis or Haley presidency — in which partisan loyalty binds Republicans to their new leader, and an aging Trump eventually fades away.

I will concede to partisans of disqualification that such a scenario is theoretically possible. I certainly would find some versions of it eminently desirable. (My fears about a Haley presidency I will save for a future column.)

But what I would ask them in turn is whether, having lived through the past eight years of not just American but global politics, they actually find it likely that normalcy will be restored through this kind of expedient — a judicial fiat that millions of Americans will immediately regard as the most illegitimate governmental action of their lifetimes?

What odds would they give that future historians, reflecting on our republic’s storms the way we now reflect on ancient Rome, will memorialize such an action as the moment when the seas began to calm?

As opposed to what seems so much more likely — that it would eventually produce some further populist escalation, ever-deepening division, not peace but the sword.

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