In 2016, Donald Trump pulled off an extraordinary political feat only he could have achieved. As the army of highly compensated professional political consultants in Washington, D.C., watched aghast, Trump single-handedly wrested the Republican nomination from the grip of a GOP establishment that had long enjoyed complete control of national and state party hierarchies, fundraising structures, and think tanks that determine policy priorities. As Trump’s rogue campaign trounced establishment candidates in state after state in the GOP primaries—despite the unified opposition of Conservatism, Inc.—he not only defeated that establishment’s lockstep institutional opposition, he defeated their agenda in a way that permanently shifted the debate on the Right and throughout the country.
On his signature issues of immigration, trade, and foreign policy, Trump blew up the two-party orthodoxy that had reigned in Washington for decades. Despite a lack of any discernible popular support, the GOP and Democratic establishments had settled into a broad, corporate-backed consensus in favor of virtually unrestricted immigration, “trade agreements” that subsidized the mass movement of U.S. manufacturing overseas and the mass importation of cheap foreign goods (often the products of slave labor), and interventionist adventurism abroad. Any dissent from this consensus was marginalized swiftly and aggressively by the establishment enforcers of both major parties, with heretics labeled as extremists, lunatics, or both.
Exposing the Rot
Within a matter of months, Donald Trump demonstrated that this seemingly unassailable establishment consensus was, in reality, a paper tiger. Outside of the Washington Beltway, the agenda of open borders, “free trade” with an increasingly dominant and aggressive Communist China, and endless wars abroad, enjoys virtually no popular support. While the D.C.-centric constituencies promoting these policies—deep state bureaucrats, special interest lobbyists, and defense contractors—profited enormously from this general agreement among the ruling class that brooked no dissent, the interests of average Americans oppressed and abused by the elite agenda went almost entirely unrepresented in Washington. Trump’s meteoric rise demonstrated that all that was lacking was a champion independent enough of the major party structures to buck the false consensus.
In the process, Trump both changed the terms of our political debate for good and revealed the profound corruption of major American institutions for the first time to a large portion of the nation’s populace. In a remarkably short time, Trump moved the Republican Party base from relatively passive if unenthusiastic supporters of “free trade,” large-scale immigration, and Bush-era “wars against terrorism” to an America First agenda of economic nationalism, building the Wall, and ending foreign adventurism and nation-building abroad.
Conservative talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Fox News anchors such as Sean Hannity went from bland support for Bush-era bromides to full-throated America First advocacy, forgetting their marginalization of America First founding father Pat Buchanan during the Bush years. Through his effective social media messaging (and his unerring, go-for-the-jugular instinct for highlighting his establishment opponents’ weakness and hypocrisy), Trump altered the national political debate permanently and profoundly, and reconnected countless millions of forgotten and unrepresented voters with a political system that they had largely abandoned.
Perhaps most importantly, Trump exposed the rot of America’s most revered and powerful institutions so thoroughly and dramatically that any remaining pretense of integrity and competence they retained became utterly implausible. The relentless promotion of anti-Trump narratives, however fraudulent or absurd, permanently broke the mainstream corporate media, demolishing their credibility in the eyes of all objective observers. The vaunted and powerful “intelligence community” was exposed as a thoroughly politicized bureaucracy, capable of massive fraud, propaganda, and media manipulation to advance the purely political end of deposing a president who threatened their preferred narrative and policies. Although it has long been apparent to many that the education establishment, both at the university and public school levels, is a breeding ground for political correctness and the suppression of speech under the guises of “diversity” and “inclusivity,” the Trump presidency divulged a level of ideological zealotry in the endless promotion of racial grievance and identity politics on the part of educators that was hitherto unimagined.
Familiar with big business corruption in the wake of a financial meltdown that had devastating consequences for average Americans but virtually none for the corporate criminals responsible, millions of citizens learned during the Trump years precisely how corporations adeptly used “woke” advocacy to divert attention from their exploitative and unjust practices to accumulate more wealth and power. Big Tech behemoths on whose social media applications and websites Americans had become reliant for the exercise of their political speech, demonstrated under Trump that they would stop at nothing in using those platforms to promote their causes and candidates and to suppress the speech of those departing from the preferred narrative.
Indeed, if general awareness of institutional corruption is the prerequisite of reform, Trump is primarily responsible for raising the consciousness of ordinary Americans regarding pervasive institutional corruption and lighting the fuse of an America First revolution to take back the country from an elite leadership class that had betrayed their interests for decades.
Implementation Failures and Betrayals
But in terms of implementing the populist, nationalist agenda Trump brought to victory against all odds, his administration was a dismal failure in most respects.
On issue after issue, Trump was continually confounded and outmaneuvered by opponents of his agenda, even when the GOP retained a majority in both the House and Senate during the administration’s first two years. Democrats, of course, used the fraudulent Russia collusion hoax to cast doubt on the legitimacy of his victory and embroil the administration in endless investigations to the detriment of the White House’s focus on agenda items, but they couldn’t have done it without the collaboration of Republicans who also despised Trump’s nationalist-populist agenda and seized every opportunity to undermine it. Those Republican opponents of America First were not only in congressional leadership (personified by House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell), they were in every executive agency (even among the political appointees) and within the White House itself.
If personnel is policy, Trump made the fundamental and unforgivable error of farming out the staffing of his administration to people and entities (Chris Christie, Mike Pence, the Heritage Foundation) in fundamental disagreement with his agenda on every one of his key issues. Predictably, this led to his being undermined and slow-rolled at every turn by people who regarded his electoral victory as yet another opportunity to push the same old failed pro-corporate, neocon agenda. Whether because his talents and interest extended only to rallies of supporters and social media messaging or because of some misguided attempt at a “team of rivals” approach to governance in which one’s enemies are kept close and under control, Trump was constantly surrounded by people looking for ways not to carry out the agenda he had been elected to implement.
On issue after issue, they succeeded.
His experience in business may have led Trump to believe that, as the country’s new CEO, his underlings, dependent on his support and patronage no matter their ideology, would do his bidding. Anyone with the least familiarity with how things work in Washington immediately grasps just how absurdly naïve that view is. Deep state bureaucrats ensconced in the various federal agencies have long made a profession of putting up administrative and procedural barriers to any reforms being pushed by the White House, and they know how to operate the bureaucracy. They are prepared to wait it out as long as necessary until the storm passes, knowing that they are playing a long game.
Trump evinced his naïveté early on in the administration when he answered questions about the relatively slow pace of political appointments to the executive branch compared with Obama by saying “You know, we have so many people in government . . . I look at some of the jobs and it’s people over people over people. I say, ‘What do all these people do?’ You don’t need all those jobs.” Savvy advocates of critical reform of federal agencies, realizing that any attempt to tame those agencies would be dependent on absolutely flooding the departments with political appointments in order to exert control, were shocked at the approach, convinced that it meant unconditional surrender before the battle was even engaged.
Finally, the elevation of his unelected and unconfirmed daughter and son-in-law to positions of unrivaled power and influence in the White House sealed the ultimate fate of the MAGA agenda, ensuring that enemies of Trump’s signature policies had a beachhead of anti-America First, New York Democrats inside the very gate of the palace.
There were many early indications that Trump was being played by his opponents and intraparty rivals and that he lacked the requisite shrewdness—and frankly, interest—to do anything about it. McConnell and Ryan convinced the president (though their planted surrogate Marc Short, a NeverTrumper and Koch Brothers’ stooge that Pence managed to install as Trump’s director of legislative affairs) that, for arcane reasons of congressional procedure, he had to lead his legislative agenda with a repeal of Obamacare. Predictably, with no agreement among Republican members about a plan to replace Obama’s signature achievement, it was an utter debacle, despite three attempts by Ryan to push it through by any means necessary. Thus Trump used up precious political capital on a losing issue for Republicans (and one which he barely emphasized during the campaign), while GOP leadership in Congress came up with every reason under the sun to insist that funding the Wall was neither feasible nor politically possible.
In truth, they had no intention of ever building a Wall and risking the wrath of the GOP donor class, but fortunately for them, it took little effort to deceive Trump. By the time Democrats took back the House majority in the midterms, Trump’s battle to implement his biggest campaign promise was already lost.
The Pence Charade and Other Acts of Sabotage
The example of Mike Pence is instructive. Chosen to shore up the confidence of the all-important socially conservative, evangelical base unpersuaded of Trump’s sincerity (even though Trump proved to be a more reliable social and cultural conservative than any Bush ever was), Pence’s pedigree was as establishment Republican as you can get, with no trace of America First policy emphasis. That changed after Trump chose him for the vice-presidential slot, and no one during the tenure of the administration was more adept at singing the president’s praises in public while undermining his key policy priorities in private than Mike Pence.
Many MAGA supporters appeared shocked by Pence’s faithlessness in violating his implicit private pledge to the president and his constitutional lawyers to send slates of electors back to state legislatures that had requested their return for recertification after the discovery of grave electoral irregularities. They must not have been paying attention during the preceding four years.
After the orchestrated leak of the “Access Hollywood” video to scuttle the Trump juggernaut in the 11th hour of the 2016 campaign, Ryan and other senior Republicans in leadership ran for the hills, not only expressing their own lack of enthusiasm about their standard bearer and issuing denunciations, but coordinating an effort to place distance between Trump and congressional candidates nationwide. While holding his fire publicly, Pence and his team went radio silent and cut off communication with Trump and his inner circle for a solid week, during which time he remained in active discussions with GOP congressional leadership about the prospect of replacing Trump at the head of the ticket.
As Trump turned the political ship around and it became clear that the anticipated hemorrhaging of support did not materialize, Pence quietly reestablished his campaign schedule and issued tepid public statements of support. But he learned an important lesson that he retained for the next four years: any behind-the-scenes undermining of the president and his agenda would be tolerated as long as proper fawning public obeisance was paid to Trump’s superior qualities as a leader and politician.
When James Comey and the entire intelligence community mafia put out a hit on Trump’s new national security advisor, General Mike Flynn, because of the threat he posed to the continuation of the deep state’s foreign policy agenda, Pence dutifully threw Flynn under the bus. Pence publicly accused Flynn of lying in characterizing his contacts with the Russians, parroting the whole ludicrous “Logan Act” construct that Comey and his confederates had concocted on the fly to frame Flynn. Pence successfully boxed Trump into reluctantly cutting Flynn loose, which in one blow carried out the orders of his deep state masters and eliminated Trump’s most competent and effective cabinet member before his administration had even gotten off the ground.
Without Flynn around to complicate matters, the Pentagon strategy became the slow roll. They responded to Trump’s insistence on getting the troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan by explaining to him that a complete drawdown of U.S. troops only could be achieved incrementally according to the “situation on the ground.” Every six months or so, when an impatient Trump would demand to know what had come of his order to bring U.S. troops home, the top brass at the Pentagon would have to come up with a new presentation for the boss to demonstrate progress towards his goal and a new schedule based on “new realities on the ground.” The fact that Trump was so enamored of “his generals” took his focus off the fact that they embodied the very military-industrial complex responsible for the perpetuation of the policy of endless war he had campaigned against.
The debacle of the standoff over the government shutdown after Christmas in 2018 was a perfect illustration of just how toothless and ineffective were Trump’s efforts to achieve his policy priorities. In a last ditch effort to get wall funding before a hapless Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) handed over the gavel to Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Trump held out for a record 35 days at great political cost to demonstrate seriousness on the issue to his voters, only to cave entirely at the end with nothing to show for it. Since the congressional leadership of his own party (and his own director of legislative affairs) had never been on board with either the policy or the strategy, the outcome was preordained. It was just a matter of letting the old man blow off steam. Maybe after this debacle, he’d be more compliant.
The Global Elite Strikes Back
Compared with how he was consistently outmaneuvered on immigration and foreign policy, however, Trump was somewhat effective in accomplishing his agenda in the areas of trade policy and adopting a tougher posture toward China. The tariffs and new trade deals he was able to implement dramatically illustrated just how bankrupt the empty “free trade” ideology of the GOP had become since the Reagan era. Despite doom-laden predictions of the tariffs provoking a losing trade war with China and gloomy forecasts from the usual “free market” ideologues on the Right of a negative impact on U.S. economic growth, by late 2019 the Trump economy was on fire with historic quarterly growth, record low unemployment, and rising wages across the board. Not only that, but China was clearly feeling the heat with faltering growth and the prospect of the protection of American industry harming their exports and restoring U.S. manufacturing.
Enter the Wuhan lab leak of the novel coronavirus in late 2019. Intentional or not, the criminal enterprise in charge in Beijing immediately recognized the potential of a global scare over the virus to reverse the dynamic of the Trump years and make China ascendent again. Through a combination of carefully choreographed media propaganda about their own lockdown measures, an almost total lack of information sharing about the virus and its origins, and a seeding of the virus abroad by means of an intentional diaspora of infected residents around the world before Western nations had gotten a handle on the situation, Beijing set the stage for the global catastrophe that was about to ensue.
The Chinese could not have accomplished their ambitious end of shutting down the economies of their competitors, however, without the collaboration of their pawns at the World Health Organization, and at the U.S. National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who had secretly sponsored the calamitous “gain of function” research responsible for creating COVID-19.
Trump’s handling of the pandemic and its consequences throughout the watershed year of 2020 illustrated, in dramatic fashion, every single one of his weaknesses as the leader of the MAGA movement. His initial instincts to shut down travel from China were sound, and he followed through with it on the advice of China hawk Peter Navarro and over the objections of Dr. Anthony Fauci and the pro-China contingent over at the NIH and the CDC. But the travel ban did not extend to infected Europe, and it proved too little too late since the virus already had been intentionally seeded worldwide.
Trump appointed the treacherous Pence as head of the Coronavirus Task Force, preferring to spend his energies at directionless and combative daily press conferences sparring with a press corps that saw its opportunity to finally bring down the hated Orange Man with a disastrous pandemic on his watch.
As his task force moved towards the hard economic lockdowns promoted by China and their useful dupes ensconced at the WHO and throughout the U.S. health establishment, Trump objected that the “cure” of economic lockdowns shouldn’t be worse than the “disease” of the pandemic. The president put Dr. Scott Atlas (who had argued persuasively that the economic, social, and public health costs of economic shutdowns, including school closures, were completely unjustified by the risks of the virus) on the task force. Atlas was quickly marginalized by the Fauci-led cabal, and was subsequently destroyed by Fauci and his minions with orchestrated attacks in the media and back at Stanford University where he had, before accepting the fateful appointment, been a tenured professor in good standing with his peers.
As “two weeks to flatten the curve” of infections (supposedly risking a hospital system overwhelmed with COVID patients) morphed into indefinite general shutdowns of business and social activity in state after state, grinding the national economy virtually to a halt, Trump watched helplessly as Fauci became the de facto policy maker not only on public health, but on social interaction, economics, and even whether Americans could safely celebrate holidays together or visit family members on their deathbeds. As schools shut down that spring amidst the generalized panic (stoked by the task force’s prognostications of millions of COVID casualties), the warnings of Atlas and others about the social and psychological costs to shutting down all of society over a virus went unheeded. The results were, again, utterly predictable.
Domestic Enemies Leverage Situation
Antifa and Black Lives Matter activists had been carefully monitoring police engagements with criminals all year, hoping that civil unrest stemming from some carefully curated racial incident could spark a nationwide conflagration of rioting. The George Floyd incident in Minneapolis was heaven-sent for their purposes, and with a little editing, coordinated dissemination, and a compliant media anxious to stoke racial tension in an election year, it was presented as a prime example of racist law enforcement practices, little short of a police lynching.
Organized demonstrations were unleashed in major cities across the nation, and for months the violence, looting, and torching of American cities appeared beyond the control of police departments or governments. Although regularly tweeting out messages like “Law and Order!” Trump seemed frozen, insisting the Democratic governors and mayors (with an obvious interest in seeing the unrest continue until Trump was driven from office) had to invite National Guard forces or federal troops into areas of unrest before the president of the United States could act to reestablish order.
All the while, son-in-law Jared Kushner and daughter Ivanka were counseling Trump against taking a heavy hand and in favor of letting the “protestors” blow off steam, lest he risk blowing up the inroads they had made with the African-American community with their pet issues of prison and sentencing reform. What law-abiding citizens of every race saw, however, was exploding chaos and violence in a shocking number of major American cities, and an administration apparently too weak to do anything to stop it.
The damage done by the violence and the lockdowns of businesses continued to accelerate throughout the year, and Democratic governors worked in concert to mandate unprecedented restrictions on civil liberties, measures always justified under the rubric of a “public health emergency.” Never did it seem to occur to Trump that Fauci and his dependents in the national healthcare and medical research establishments might be using the crisis and the economic shutdowns as a way of mortally wounding him in an election year, while diverting national attention away from their own complicity in collaborating in and helping to fund the dangerous Chinese research that created the virus.
Trump touted his partnership with Big Pharma in the “Operation Warp Speed” effort to invent a vaccine for the virus in record time, ignoring the fact that Fauci and NIAID had been massively profiting for decades from a crooked partnership with Big Pharma to shepherd their prescription drugs and vaccines to market without proper testing. In the end, Fauci, finally attaining the power and authority he had long lusted for, even used Operation Warp Speed against Trump, colluding with his Big Pharma partners to delay announcement of the vaccines until after the election, denying the president any possible political benefit for rolling out the vaccines on his watch.
During the summer of 2020, Democratic Party operatives like Marc Elias were working feverishly at the state level to dramatically loosen voting procedures and ballot security using COVID as an excuse, imposing universal absentee ballot distribution and expansion of voting days by means of court orders and gubernatorial dictat rather than through the state legislatures that retained the constitutional obligation to approve all changes in voting procedure. Meanwhile, Trump’s campaign manager Brad Parscale (recruited by Jared Kushner), took precisely zero measures and spent no resources to insure ballot security in November, failing to head off the train wreck of an unprecedented number of absentee ballots being distributed in Democratic states and cities, usually without being requested by voters.
Trump predicted fraud, but neither he nor his campaign took effective measures to push back against the new voting procedures. Parscale appeared more concerned about funding his conspicuously extravagant lifestyle than he was about heading off the most predictable election steal in history.
With Trump’s biggest political plus—the robust economy—effectively neutralized by the severe economic impact of the lockdowns, the approaching election that had looked like a potential blowout just 10 months before became close enough to steal in the Democratic-controlled major cities of the crucial swing states. And that’s just what happened.
Trump’s supporters saw blatant thievery happening in real time as polling places in Democratic-controlled cities of crucial swing states unprecedentedly shut down the vote count (in seemingly coordinated fashion) on election night and vote counts were extended for days—because of absentee ballots—to make up for Trump’s swing state margins of victory.
After Biden and the Democratic Party’s media lackeys called the election for Sleepy Joe, Trump’s supporters—with the candidate’s encouragement—rallied in the contested states demanding audits and investigations, hoping against hope that something could be done to reverse the steal. Predictably, courts wanted to stay as far away as possible from the political controversy, taking the view that enacting measures to prevent fraud is the responsibility of political parties and candidates and that reversing election outcomes would be politically toxic for the judiciary.
It all came to a head on January 6, with what now looks like a classic setup of Trump supporters by intelligence agencies and Democratic law enforcement. A year later, as some of those loyal supporters continue to rot in jail as political prisoners awaiting trial, Trump continues to complain about the stolen election but hasn’t lifted a finger to help his persecuted followers, other than to fundraise off of them.
What Comes Next?
With the Biden Administration in freefall and Trump contemplating what now appears an entirely plausible political comeback, it is time for serious proponents of the MAGA agenda to consider whether he is the most effective vehicle to advance that agenda. Arguments to the contrary notwithstanding, there is little indication that he has learned any actual lessons from his experience of serial betrayal and sabotage of his priorities during the tumultuous four years of his presidency.
Immediately after House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s latest political debacle of failing to keep his own caucus together to defeat a foundering Biden’s ruinous Build Back Better transformation of the U.S. economy, Trump tweeted praise for the hapless leader. This after McCarthy pulled the useless procedural maneuver of speaking for eight continuous hours on the House floor in a phony “filibuster” to delay passage and record his opposition to a bill he had already allowed to pass by failing to whip his members.
Back at Mar-a-Lago, things seem largely the same with Donald J. Trump. Jared and Ivanka are evidently still as influential as ever with the old man, despite the debacles of 2020. The former president has now launched his own think tank, the America First Policy Institute (AFPI), which appears to be a Jared operation. Kushner acolyte Brooke Rollins, a former White House staffer installed as president of AFPI, used the occasion of the organization’s first big gala to partner with Log Cabin Republicans in promoting the “Fairness for All Act,” which effectively would criminalize doctors who refuse to administer life-altering puberty blockers to gender dysphoric children, codifying the radical gender ideology so many parents have been fighting at the local school board level in recent months.
The event also launched the “Pride Coalition” in partnership with the Log Cabin Republicans to further the gender identity politics of the LGBTQ movement within the GOP. Rollins had been a key figure in the Trump White House in moving the president away from a focus on his core issues of law and order, economic nationalism, and restrictions on immigration. Among other things, she counseled Trump against a hard stance on rioting last year for fear of appearing racist, against holding China accountable for the coronavirus outbreak, and against an inquiry into Fauci’s funding of the Wuhan Institute of Virology. AFPI is focusing on criminal justice reform, predicated on the notion that the U.S. prison system is systemically racist.
Brad Parscale is back in the inner circle, angling at another senior campaign position, apparently failing up after the malpractice of his 2020 campaign management. In rallies with the faithful, Trump still enjoys going off on extended riffs about his mistreatment at the hands of the “fake news media,” apparently unaware that they moved on months ago, when he was safely out of the way, to demonizing his followers, “anti-vaxxers,” and those who question the integrity of U.S. elections. He continues to insist that he receive proper credit for his “incredible” accomplishment of rolling out his “beautiful” COVID-19 vaccines with Operation Warp Speed in record time, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the Biden Administration has successfully used universal vaccine mandates as a bludgeon to divide the nation and to hound Trump’s own followers out of their jobs, requiring their kids to be jabbed with a vaccine known to pose certain risks that may outweigh the dangers of the virus itself if they ever hope to attend school in person.
Trump genuinely doesn’t appear to grasp the gravity of the historical moment we are now in. It is a moment in which authoritarians in governor’s mansions across the nation have used “emergency health measures” to seize an unprecedented degree of arbitrary power, issuing mandates that have largely done away with the constitutional rights of their citizens to worship, assemble, and conduct business. It is a moment in which the Justice Department is using the FBI to target parents concerned about what their children are learning in school and in which Big Tech social media titans regularly censor speech they don’t like and deplatform anyone who questions the preferred narrative.
It is a precarious moment, not so much for Donald Trump as for the people who supported him.
Trump broke the Republican establishment mold in many ways, but perhaps the most important lesson of his stunning takeover and transformation of a complaisant and corrupt GOP was the example he gave for those who recognize that preserving the republic will require significantly more than election-year posturing and feckless accommodation of the woke, America Last agenda and rhetoric of the Left. He showed there is a huge constituency of American voters looking for political leaders who will stand up unapologetically for their interests and call out those forces (including big corporations) working to destroy our civilization, without fear of offending the bland, poll-tested orthodoxies of the political consultants and the donor class.
Trump’s electoral success in blowing up the old model has inspired a whole new generation of MAGA advocates to take up the political mantle of America First with courage, eloquence, and a greater grasp of the policy details and strategy than Trump himself (and without his political and personality baggage). Maybe the advancement of the MAGA revolution requires a standard-bearer who has demonstrated that he knows how, and where, to push back against the encroaching totalitarianism before it’s too late.