WASHINGTON—He haunts them still.
These words — which echo the famous ones about Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s lingering effect on Canadian politics long after he left office — aptly describe former president Donald Trump’s ongoing hold on the U.S.
Hearings into his supporters’ Jan. 6 efforts to keep him in office are underway on prime-time TV, every midterm primary election result is interpreted as a referendum on his enduring influence, he continues to pack venues for his rallies and to lap the field in polling for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
Maybe haunt is the wrong word. Midway through 2022, Trump dominates U.S. politics. Still.
He is not just the leader, but the embodiment of an angry brand of right-wing politics that exists in its own media and ideological world. Wrestling with it is the defining national issue of this era of American politics. And it may soon be a defining issue for Canadians, too.
Sometimes it can seem that is changing.
Late last month, at an airport just outside of Atlanta, Trump’s former vice-president, Mike Pence, spoke at a rally in support of Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp. This was a direct repudiation of the former president: Trump had made defeating Kemp one of his main missions this year, and Trump appeared on a “telephone rally” opposing Kemp on the same night.
In Atlanta, Pence seemed to hint it was time to stop dwelling on Trump’s grievances and break with the past: “When you say yes to Gov. Brian Kemp tomorrow, you will send a deafening message all across America that the Republican party is the party of the future.”
Two nights later, after Kemp decisively won the nomination, there were no “Make America Great Again” hats at his victory party in downtown Atlanta. Add that to a victory last year by Glenn Youngkin in the governor’s race in Virginia that was touted as a template for a post-Trump Republican party. And a straw poll in Colorado this week, in which some conservative activists voted for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as their preferred 2024 nominee. And periodic donor-class pleas such as the one from former Nevada Trump rainmaker Perry DiLoreto who said, “I wish Trump would sit down and keep quiet. I think the country’s had enough of him.” Add it up and it’s possible to start convincing yourself maybe Trump is a spent force.
Especially now, as the public hearings into Jan. 6 insurrection rehash the bloody and chaotic conclusion of his term in office . And while prosecutors in Georgia and in the federal Justice Department appear to be readying criminal charges.
Could an exorcism be at hand?
Eh, maybe not.
It’s certainly possible to imagine a situation in which Trump finds himself charged criminally — a report from five legal scholars at the Brookings Institution this week pointed to a variety of federal and state charges that the publicly available evidence suggests Trump could credibly be charged with.
Yet that’s no sure thing. Perhaps not even a likely thing. No former president has ever been charged with crimes committed while he was in office. Even if Trump were charged, it is hard to see how it would stem his influence politically.
Trump and his supporters have long built a persecution complex into the very identity of his political movement, demonizing the press, the institutions of American government, his political opponents — even the significant number of his closest political allies who eventually call him out for bad behaviour — as part of an evil conspiracy against him. Allegations of sexually abusive behaviour backed up by a recording of him speaking about his own tendency toward it were waved away, a credible investigation that found troubling wrongdoing in his 2016 campaign’s relations with Russia was dismissed as a hoax, two impeachments — one of which involved extorting the president of Ukraine who has since become a worldwide war hero, the other following an attempt to overthrow U.S. democracy that everyone witnessed live on television — were seen as only further evidence he’s a persecuted hero.
While Trump was in office, polls showed almost half of Americans believed the press made up stories about him. As of this year, a solid majority of Republicans appeared to firmly believe he actually won the 2020 election.
A while back, in Bedford Country, PA, John Elliott told me he thought all politicians had similar dirty laundry to Trump, and the difference was media coverage. “The four years he was in office, he was nothing but lambasted the whole time … and he just blows it off. I give him credit for that.”
They, a majority of Republican voters, believe he has done no wrong. And make no mistake, they still back him.
Just look at the polling for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination: while much is made of DeSantis’ strength, Trump shows more support than DeSantis and every other potential candidate combined. If he isn’t in jail or laid low by unforeseen health problems, Trump is likely to walk away with the 2024 nomination.
Moreover, DeSantis’ perceived strength is actually indicative of Trump’s strength: like almost all of the other alternatives popular among Republicans, he is a creature of Trump’s movement. The anti-woke, Fauci-fighting, hot-button-pushing, enemy-hunting, name-calling template that has made DeSantis prominent was the one laid out by Trump.
In Rome, Georgia last month, where Trump’s brand is strong enough that his endorsement is a prominent feature of candidate’s lawn signs, a grey-haired Kemp voter who didn’t want to tell me her name said she still thought of the Georgia governor and Trump as being on the same team — her team — and that the “personal” spat between them was being overhyped by the media. “Gov. Kemp is doing a good job for us. Just like President Trump did a good job for us.”
Even if Trump himself is sidelined soon, the party he led will keep following in his footsteps.
Canada isn’t immune to the effects of this phenomenon.
Many Canadians might be concerned about the effects of our largest trading partner and closest ally returning Trump or someone like him to power. But more than that, Canadians have begun to see the rise of a right-wing populist movement cut from the same — in Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party’s antics in the most recent federal election, for example, and in the convoy protests that shut down Ottawa for weeks this past winter. And in the dominant candidacy of Pierre Poilievre in the Conservative leadership race.
The pollster Frank Graves of EKOS Research has long warned the “ordered populist outlook” (that is, authoritarianism) that lies beneath Trump’s support is strong enough in Canada that exploiting it is likely the Conservative party’s best electoral strategy. That’s what Poilievre appears to be doing now.
“Support for Mr. Poilievre is heavily concentrated amongst voters who express this ordered populist outlook, the connection is very strong,” said Graves. His candidacy, from chumming around with Jordan Peterson to catering to the anti-vaccine mandate crowd to demonizing elites, is custom-tailored to mimic the U.S. movement, Graves said, and he’s using it to run away with the nomination.
“I think he’s playing the textbook to this northern Trumpist crowd.” Graves thinks he stands a fair chance of winning the next Canadian election.
But for Canadians not inclined to vote that way, and aghast at Trump’s continued strength in the U.S., the question might not be if Trump retains his hold, but why? Why, after all of it, do so many Americans still support him with an almost religious fervour?
I’ve asked that question over the past few years of people in states across the country, and the answers can be varied and complicated.
From Trump supporters, you hear complaints about race issues and education that sometimes amount to white resentment. You hear complaints about gender issues. About cancel culture. And about big shifts in the economy — especially the move away from the carbon fuels and to free trade that they blame for crushing many traditional job categories.
“People I know who live around here are coal people, energy people,” a guy named Paul told me on a patio in Johnstown, PA, just before the last election. “Biden gets back in, they’re going to destroy the energy industry.”
Paul said part of what he and his friends liked about Trump was that he was so chaotic, divisive, and outrageous. “He’s not a politician. And I think that’s more in line with a lot of American people.”
Last year, a woman in Virginia who supported Trump and Youngkin for governor summed up that Democrats — and what she saw as the special interests behind Critical Race Theory and gender education in schools, and COVID mandates — were tearing apart her community, one she thought she used to feel more at home in. “Those loud, outspoken people are the ones who get what they want. We don’t want to hear about it anymore. Just shut up! Just shut them up, that’s how I feel, you know?”
Maybe the most indicative answer I’ve heard came from a man from Georgia named Greg Mintz, who told me, “I know the world’s progressing and I’m with progress. But some of the changes I hear from the Democratic side — I don’t want my daughter to grow up in a world that looks so different from the world that I grew up in.”
You boil it all down and it is a lot of people feeling like the world is changing in ways that leave them out, or make them feel like the power they used to have is diminished. They’re angry about it.
Donald Trump channels that anger and promises revenge.
Trump is often accused by traditional business Republicans of not being a “real conservative” given his anti-free trading economic populism. But William F. Buckley famously said, “A conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling stop.”
Trump, whose very “Make America Great Again” slogan is about returning to an idealized past, is that: He’s yelling “stop.” And threatening a significant “or else.”
Recently, Trump has been obsessing over the recent past — the election he feels was stolen from him. But it’s an extension of a larger theme in which he’s claimed his supporters are having their economic and cultural power stolen from them.
Those who want the party to move beyond Trump, like Pence in that speech, may want to talk about being the party of the future. But they are boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past — and taking their country with them. Haunted by a former president who will not let go of imagined former glories. And his loyal supporters, who do not want him to.
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