How Donald Trump canceled the Republican party

<span>Photograph: Patrick Semansky/AP</span>
Photograph: Patrick Semansky/AP

The Republican convention that nominates Donald Trump for a second term will be the greatest event in the political history of cancel culture. What Trump is cancelling is nothing less than the Republican party as it has existed before him. He ran in 2016 in the primaries on cancelling the GOP and in 2020 he ratifies his triumph. After the election, political scientists and historians will study his obliteration of the Republican party as his greatest and most enduring political achievement.

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The Republican party has been on a long journey away from being the party of Abraham Lincoln, accelerating since Barry Goldwater and rightwing cadres captured it in 1964 in reaction to the civil rights movement. After Richard Nixon embraced the southern strategy and won the nomination in 1968 with the help of Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, the Dixiecrat segregationist presidential candidate in 1948, the party increasingly radicalized in every election cycle and became gradually unmoored. In 1980, Ronald Reagan opened his general election campaign at the Neshoba County Fair, the place where three civil rights workers had been murdered in 1964. Surrounded by Confederate flags, he hailed “states’ rights”. As brazen an appeal as it was, Reagan felt he had to resort to the old code words.

Central to Trump’s unique selling proposition is that he dispenses with the dog whistles. His vulgarity gives a vicarious thrill to those who revel in his taunting of perceived enemies or scapegoats. He made them feel dominant at no social price, until his catastrophic mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic and economic crisis. Flouting a mask is the magical act of defiance to signal that nothing has really changed and that in any case, Trump bears no responsibility.

But there has also been a political cost to Trump’s louche comic lounge act that still transfixes a diehard audience lingering like late-night gamblers for the last show. Trump is the only president since the advent of modern polling never to reach 50% approval. Despite decisively losing the popular vote in 2016, he said he “won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally”. This time, fearing an even more overwhelming popular rejection, he says the outcome will be “rigged” and he has pre-emptively tried to cancel the US Postal Service, to undermine voting by mail.

From Reagan onward, even as the fringe moved to the center and took it over, the party did not anticipate that it was slouching toward Trump. Conservatives have consistently failed to grasp the unintended consequences of conservatism. Even when Reagan fostered the evangelical right, George HW Bush appointed Clarence Thomas to the supreme court, George W Bush invaded Iraq and neglected oversight of financial markets that collapsed, and John McCain named Sarah Palin as his running mate, Republicans believed they were expanding the attraction of the conservative project. When Newt Gingrich, Roger Ailes and Rush Limbaugh methodically degraded language, it seemed a propaganda technique to herd supporters. When the dark money of the Koch family and the wealthy reactionaries of the cloaked Donors Trust bankrolled the lumpen dress-up Tea Party to do their bidding on deregulation of finance and industry, the munificently funded conservative candidates did their bidding as retainers of privilege.

In the wasteland, only cockroaches and Mitch McConnell may survive

At the presidential level there still remained residual elements contrary to what metastasized into Trumpism. Reagan represented free trade and western firmness against Russia. George HW Bush was a paragon of public service. George W Bush was an advocate for immigrants. John McCain was the embodiment of patriotic sacrifice.

After Trump, all that has been cancelled. Since he first rode down the escalator at Trump Tower in 2015, to declare his candidacy against Mexican “rapists”, there has always been a new escalator downward. After overcoming his initial hesitation, the House Republican leader, Kevin McCarthy, welcomed the election of a QAnon conspiracy-spouting candidate from Georgia, Marjorie Taylor Greene. Then McCarthy condemned QAnon and stated that Greene wasn’t part of a movement she continued to defend.

Trump hailed her as a “future Republican star”. For months, he has been tweeting messages to encourage the racist, antisemitic cult. “There’s a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to take this global cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles out, and I think we have the president to do it,” Greene proclaimed. “I’ve heard these are people that love our country,” Trump said. In the wasteland, only cockroaches and Mitch McConnell may survive.

Stuart Stevens, a prominent Republican political consultant, eyes startled wide open, has entitled his exposé of the party It Was All A Lie. He describes the conservative Trump apologists, the adults in the room, as latter-day versions of Franz von Papen, the German chancellor who enabled the rise of Hitler in the complacent belief that he could be controlled and the conservatives would maintain power.

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On 4 July, at the mammoth stage set of Mount Rushmore, Trump mugged for his photo op by posing his face next in line to the carving of Abraham Lincoln. He had earlier told the South Dakota governor, Kristi Noem, “‘Did you know it’s my dream to have my face on Mount Rushmore?’” “And I started laughing,” she recounted. “And he wasn’t laughing, so he was totally serious.” (Trump tweeted that it was “fake news” that he had ordered an aide to inquire about immortalizing his face on the mountain.)

Ostensibly, Trump came to deliver his ideological message. He denounced “cancel culture”, which he said was “the very definition of totalitarianism, and it is completely alien to our culture and to our values, and it has absolutely no place in the United States of America”. He attributed it to “a new far-left fascism”. And he spelled out its punitive nature: “If you do not speak its language, perform its rituals, recite its mantras and follow its commandments, then you will be censored, banished, blacklisted, persecuted and punished.” Thus, he offered a concise description of his own cancel culture’s methods.

Trump’s cancel culture deals in aggressions, not micro-aggressions. The only safe space is where Trump is worshipped. Before, during and after the death of McCain, Trump unleashed tirades of insult. He finally complained that the McCain family never thanked him for approving the senator’s funeral arrangements, even though it was Congress that gave approval. For years, Trump has disparaged the Bush family. At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, when George W Bush called for setting aside partisanship and embracing national unity, Trump tweeted, “but where was he during Impeachment calling for putting partisanship aside”.

Trump’s cancel culture deals in aggressions, not micro-aggressions. The only safe space is where Trump is worshipped

Trump has invoked Reagan only as a stepping stone of his own monumental pedestal. At a rally in 2019, Trump mused: “I was watching the other night the great Lou Dobbs [of Fox News], and he said, ‘When Trump took over, President Trump,’ he used to say, ‘Trump is a great president.’ Then he said, ‘Trump is the greatest president since Ronald Reagan.’ Then he said, ‘No, no, Trump is an even better president than Ronald Reagan.’ And now he’s got me down as the greatest president in the history of our country, including George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Thank you. We love you too.”

When Trump sought to profit for his 2020 campaign by selling a gold-colored Trump-Reagan commemorative coin set, the Reagan Foundation sent him a curt letter, telling him to cease and desist. Trump has constantly retailed a false story about Reagan supposedly remarking after meeting him, “For the life of me, and I’ll never know how to explain it, when I met that young man, I felt like I was the one shaking hands with the president.” The chief administrative officer of the Reagan Foundation felt compelled to note that Reagan “did not ever say that about Donald Trump”.

A man dressed as Abraham Lincoln holds up a sign as Donald Trump&#x002019;s motorcade passes in Washington in June.
A man dressed as Abraham Lincoln holds up a sign as Donald Trump’s motorcade passes in Washington in June. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Trump’s petty, vindictive and exploitative abuse of the Bush presidents, McCain and Reagan pales in comparison to his raging obsessions about Lincoln. He has boasted his poll numbers are better than Lincoln’s ever were (true), claimed he is more a victim than the assassinated martyr (untrue), and declared he has done more for Black Americans than Lincoln (untrue).

Related: Trump aims barb at Reagan Foundation in fundraising coin kerfuffle

Trump, the would-be Great Emancipator and upholder of Confederate monuments, has lately ruminated about giving an address at Gettysburg. There are many such monuments there to the thousands of poor white southerners who gave their lives for the Slave Power and to overthrow the democracy of the United States. Perhaps, contemplating his last campaign, Trump could trudge across the rutted field of Pickett’s Charge. He might ask what his bikers and self-styled militia would be willing to do for him. What Lincoln consecrated, Trump would desecrate. But he would undoubtedly speak longer.

Trump’s compulsive need to elevate himself as greater than the greatest president does not stand alone among strange statements about Lincoln from members of his inner circle. Some fancy that they too resemble Lincoln, alongside Trump. Some insist they are bravely fighting the civil war, on behalf of Trump. Some depict Trump as the reincarnation of Lincoln, to justify his dishonesty. Some summon Lincoln to claim God is on their side. The disconnect of these incoherent and eccentric gestures from any reality past or present is a telltale sign of terminal party identity. Each weird distortion marks the progress of Trump’s cancel culture, the eclipse of history bred by one-man misrule that is a half-cocked aspiration to an authoritarian system that might be codified by the likes of William Barr.

Stephen Bannon, Trump’s now-indicted former campaign manager and senior adviser, appeared in a 2019 documentary about his post-White House crusade to organize an international neo-fascist alliance. The film opens with Bannon cradling a volume of Carl Sandburg’s biography of Lincoln. Bannon says portentously that it’s 1862. Then he reads Lincoln’s words: “They wish to get rid of me and I am sometimes half-disposed to gratify them. We are now on the brink of destruction. It appears to me the Almighty is against us and I can hardly see a ray of hope.” Lincoln’s “fiery trial” to preserve the union is reduced to Bannon’s dark apocalyptic mutterings against the forces conspiring against him and Trump: the “Deep State”, rootless cosmopolitans, globalists and liberal elites. We’re a long way from, as Lincoln said, “the last best hope of earth”.

Betsy DeVos's definition of freedom as 'what we ought', that is, what she determines, is more Orwellian than Lincolnian

Ivanka Trump has turned to Lincoln for the occasional non-sequitur defense of her father. Her vacant voice and immobile expression augment the surprise effect of her inapt citations. After Attorney General Barr issued a deceptive characterization of the Mueller Report to mislead the public about its actual content, Ivanka rushed to support Barr’s falsehood. She tweeted a quote: “Truth is generally the best vindication against slander – Abraham Lincoln.” The difference between Barr and Lincoln was that Barr covered up the truth.

During the impeachment inquiry into Trump’s withholding of nearly $400m in military aid to Ukraine, to coerce its government to launch an investigation that would smear Joe Biden with fabricated accusations of corruption, Ivanka leaped to protect her father. She claimed the incontrovertible facts were nothing but a partisan attack contrived to malign him, originating from a whistleblower within the intelligence community who was “not particularly relevant”.

“Basically since the election,” she said, “this has been the experience that our administration and our family has been having. Rather than wait, under a year, until the people can decide for themselves based on his record and based on his accomplishments, this new effort has commenced.” Once again, she reached for Lincoln as her father’s model. “This has been the experience of most,” she observed with the sagacious tone of a student of history. “Abraham Lincoln was famously, even within his own cabinet, surrounded by people who were former political adversaries.” Ivanka’s smug confusion was complete. She had mistaken the whistleblower whose memo triggered the impeachment process with Lincoln’s “team of rivals”.

On 23 January, Betsy DeVos, Trump’s secretary of education, a billionaire heiress and funder of rightwing causes, spoke at the Museum of the Bible in Washington to a group from the Colorado Christian University, to claim Lincoln as the imaginary leader for the anti-abortion movement.

“He too contended with the ‘pro-choice’ arguments of his day,” she said. “They suggested that a state’s ‘choice’ to be slave or to be free had no moral question in it.” According to DeVos, women asserting their reproductive rights are engaged in a “vast moral evil”, equivalent to slavery.

“Lincoln was right about slavery ‘choice’ then, and he would be right about the life ‘choice’ today,” she said. “Freedom is not about doing what we want. Freedom is about having the right to do what we ought.”

DeVos’s mangling of Lincoln, who was an early advocate of women’s rights and suffrage but never said a word about abortion, is intended to legitimate the anti-abortion agenda of granting personhood rights to fetuses, which she and other zealots equate to enslaved African Americans. Her definition of freedom as “what we ought”, that is, what she determines, is more Orwellian than Lincolnian. Historically, claiming that law should be rooted in theological dogma is in the tradition of the southern theologians Lincoln condemned, who justified slavery by biblical references and divine sanction.

Mike Pence, Trump’s vice-president, a former rightwing radio host, travelled in January to Ripon, Wisconsin, site of the founding of the Republican party in 1854, garrulously to praise Trump as the true heir to Lincoln in “the advancement of our highest ideals”. Once again, Pence explained, we are at a “crossroads of freedom”. Trump, the Lincoln manqué, is all that stands between America and the threat of Joe Biden and “socialism and decline”. Months before the murder of George Floyd and the wave of Black Lives Matter demonstrations that swept across the country, Pence charged, “Joe Biden believes America is, in his words, systemically racist. And despite historically low crime rates prior to this pandemic, Joe Biden believes that law enforcement in America has a, quote, ‘implicit bias’ against minorities.” In conclusion, the evangelical Pence declared, “The Bible says, ‘Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom’, and “with President Donald Trump in the White House for four more years, we’ll make America great again, again.”

In the long-ago days when there was only one “again”, during the 2016 campaign, Pence defended Trump’s shout-out to Vladimir Putin to hack and release Clinton campaign emails: “Russia if you’re listening …”

“You know,” Pence explained, “Abraham Lincoln said, give the people the facts, and the republic will be saved. I mean, I think that’s the point that [Trump is] making. He’s not encouraging some foreign power to compromise the security of this country.” Bowdlerizing a dubiously sourced Lincoln quote, Pence portrayed Trump as the simple protector of facts and denied he was “encouraging” Russian intervention. Pence’s statement was a cover-up in real time. We now know from the Senate intelligence committee report that Roger Stone, Trump’s longtime political operative and dirty trickster, was directly in touch with Trump on the theft of the Clinton emails by Russian intelligence and their release by WikiLeaks. To quote Marx – Groucho – “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?” If Trump has a faithful servant, it is Mike Pence.

Mike Pompeo, Trump’s secretary of state and yet another evangelical crusader, has raised Lincoln to justify his own brand of dogma. In a speech entitled “Being a Christian Leader”, to the American Association of Christian Counselors at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel at Nashville on 11 October, he explained how God directs him to be humble, forgiving and thrifty.

“I know some people in the media will break out the pitchforks when they hear that I ask God for direction in my work,” he said. “But you should know, as much as I’d like to claim originality, it is not a new idea. I love this quote from President Lincoln. He said … quote, ‘I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go.’”

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Unfortunately, in their Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, the historians Don and Virginia Fehrenbacher rate the words Pompeo spoke with a grade D: in other words, bogus. Lincoln is in fact recorded to have referred to “knees” only three times, all involving jokes. The Fehrenbachers also give a D to another well-used “Lincoln” quotation: “You can fool all the people some of the time; you can fool some of the people all the time; but you can’t fool all the people all the time.”

Stephen Miller, Trump’s senior adviser, originator of the Muslim ban and separating migrant children from their families, author of the cancel culture speech at Mount Rushmore, is impatient for the apocalypse. Observing the protests at Portland before the federal courthouse that were met with a show of armed force, Miller went on Tucker Carlson Tonight to explain why this was Fort Sumter.

“The Democratic party for a long time historically has been the party of secession,” he said. “What you’re seeing today is the Democratic party returning to its roots.”

In his compact and inverted analogy, the protest against police violence was a battle in a new civil war and the ragtag shifting bands of protesters including the “Wall of Moms” were the restoration of the pro-secession Southern Democratic party, which would of course transform Trump into Lincoln. The identity of the enemy may change – Muslims, Mexicans or Moms – but Miller is prepared to draw the sword for whatever clash of civilization may come. He’s just not prepared for a virus.

During his 2016 campaign, Trump plagiarized not only Reagan’s slogan, “Make America Great Again”, but also Nixon’s appeal to “the silent majority”. He also boasted: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” Trump’s attorney, asked about “the Fifth Avenue example” by the judge presiding in the case of the Manhattan district attorney seeking Trump’s tax returns, argued that Trump would have legal immunity if he killed somebody.

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Since March, more than 170,000 Americans – the New York Times estimates more than 200,000 – have died of coronavirus. On 20 June, Trump kicked off his campaign with a rally at Tulsa. Campaign workers tore stickers off the seats that encouraged social distancing. In the sparse but closely packed crowd sat Herman Cain, proudly grinning, not wearing a mask. For a brief moment in 2012 the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza and fast-talking Tea Party advocate had been the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination. Disillusioned after he quit the race when accused of sexual harassment, he called for a third party. Then came Trump.

For 2020, the man who said his Secret Service code name as president would be “Cornbread” became chairman of Black Voices For Trump. A month later, he was dead of coronavirus. Cain would miss his speaking slot at the Republican convention. He had joined what the ancient Greeks called “the silent majority”. Yet 20 days after Cain’s death, on 19 August, his Twitter account posted Trump’s latest ad: “Boy, it sure looks like Joe Biden is losing his mental faculties.” In death, nobody, not even Mike Pence, could claim greater devotion to the party of Trump.