June 3, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Asking the American people to pay attention to Donald Trump again is inviting political backlash
The Republicans seriously underestimate the national mood.
The former president deleted his web page Wednesday. The reason, according to the Times, was humiliation. After being banned from Twitter and Facebook, a spokesman said Donald Trump would return with “his own platform” that would be the “the hottest ticket in social media” and that would “completely redefine the game.”
Turns out it was a blog. It got less attention, according to a Post analysis, “than the pet-adoption service Petfinder and the recipe site Delish. The blog’s prospects hadn’t improved since, even though Trump had taken to writing on it more.” The Times said the former president became “frustrated after hearing from friends that the site was getting little traffic and making him look small and irrelevant.” After less than a month online (29 days), “From the Desk of Donald J. Trump” has vanished from the internet.
What can we glean from this? For one thing, Trump seems to need the public square more than the public square needs Trump. Matter of fact, as the philosopher Karl Popper once predicted, the public square is in better health now that it has become intolerant of the highest-profile representative of intolerance. Some warned “de-platforming” a former president would make him stronger. It would seem to prove accusations of being a victim of mainstream censorship. But that’s being disproved in real-time. His puny blog isn’t why he “looks small and irrelevant.” Politics is why.
To pay attention to Donald Trump again, to the degree we were all paying attention to him, is to recognize his political legitimacy, which most normal people most of the time, if current polling is any indication, are just not willing to do.
More specifically, legitimacy is why. Trump doesn’t have any, not anymore, and he didn’t have much to begin with. He lost the popular vote in 2016. During his entire tenure, his job approval rating never crested 50 percent. (I’m talking about the polling aggregate.) On Jan. 5, 2021, he stood at 42.6 percent approval. By the time he left office, which was after the sacking and looting of the United States Capitol, an insurrection in his name, he stood at 38.6 percent. (Both per FiveThirtyEight.) NBC News ran a poll in late April. It found he had an approval rating of 32 percent. This man may have a grip on the base of the GOP, but he no longer has a grip on the popular imagination.
The Washington press corps brayed and mewled over four years about Trump going to war with it, but make no mistake. There was no better way to sell its wares than for a sitting president to make everyone aware of them. Normal people don’t work that way, though. Normal people don’t pay attention to things they don’t want to pay attention to. (Reporters and producers, however, do.) Once Trump made it clear he stood against democracy itself, a popular view that galvanized at some point between Election Day and Insurrection Day and Inauguration Day, normal people no longer wanted to pay attention. When you stand against democracy, what more do you need to know?
That’s my take. To pay attention to Donald Trump again, to the degree we were all paying attention to him, is to recognize his political legitimacy, which most normal people most of the time, if current polling is any indication, are just not willing to do—not after burning up every habit and norm, not after being impeached twice, not after betraying the country. Some of the Republicans are now saying Trump would be the next presidential nominee, easy-peasy. That’s plausible. Winning, however, is something else. They appear to seriously underestimate what it would take for most normal people. They appear to seriously underestimate, moreover, the potential for backlash that comes after asking normal people to pay attention to Trump again.
My friend and mentor1 Walter Shapiro is a confessed optimist. In his latest for Roll Call, the dean of American politics said despite everything, he has faith in the people to choose democracy over tyranny. “I cling to the stubborn belief that American democracy will be saved by an outpouring of voters,2 in 2022 and beyond, who understand that the nation’s freedoms are on the ballot,” Mr. Shapiro wrote.
It was this part of his column, however, that really struck me: “In an ideal world, Never Trump Republicans will vote Democratic in the short run because preserving democracy is infinitely more important than honest differences over taxes, government regulation and foreign policy. In an ideal world, GOP efforts to restrict the franchise will inspire record turnout from Black and other minority voters.”
In this, I confess to have faith, too, in the American people. Most of them most of the time are now intolerant of the highest-profile representative of intolerance. Most of them most of the time are not going to change their minds about him. This, to me, is the anchor of a paradigm shift, the thing around which future politics will revolve. To pay attention is to recognize as good something unthinkable to most normal people. The more the Republicans lean into Trump, the more they lean into the whirlwind.
In fact, Mr. Shapiro never mentored me, but I do very much look up to him.
Like me, Mr. Shapiro is well aware of efforts to establish apartheid societies in southern states like Texas, Georgia and Florida. These are attempts to rig the system. But even system riggers would face difficulty in dealing with an “outpouring of voters, in 2022 and beyond, who understand that the nation’s freedoms are on the ballot.” This is how Eric Levitz recently characterized the conundrum in Texas for New York magazine’s Intelligencer:
The primary threat to Republican power in the Lone Star State is the leftward drift of highly educated suburbanites, who are exceptionally difficult to disenfranchise through voting restrictions due to their social power and economic security (there aren’t many lawyers who lack photo ID, or middle managers who will struggle to find transportation to a polling place). Of course, simply invalidating adverse election results is one solution to the party’s suburban challenge. But it’s a pretty elaborate and dicey approach to the problem. And if it doesn’t succeed, then pursuing blatantly anti-democratic measures, in tacit support of Trump’s insurrectionary cause, will only reinforce college-educated moderates’ alienation from red America. As one Republican operative said of Georgia’s voter-restriction bill in a February interview with the Washington Post, “There’s still an appetite from a lot of Republicans to do stuff like this, but it’s not bright. It just gives Democrats a baseball bat with which to beat us.”
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.