He couldn’t build a governing coalition and now he’s tearing at our democratic fabric. Enough.
U.S. President Donald Trump gives thumbs up to supporters from this motorcade after he golfed at Trump National Golf Club on November 22, 2020 in Sterling, Virginia. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
It’s time for conservatives to dump Trump. He’s a loser and a disgraceful one at that. Though he scored a political achievement of historic magnitude by transforming the political debate in America and setting the Republican Party upon a new course that could prove powerful in coming years, he now has reached a point with his antics whereby he’s hurting his party and his cause. And by continuing to defend the man and refusing to call him out, Republicans and conservatives are likewise hurting their own cause.
The object of politics in America is to build up a body of support within the polity that is sufficient to win elections and govern effectively. Trump couldn’t do that. He couldn’t even talk to people who weren’t already in his camp, the voters he needed to pull into his coalition in order to command a majority of the electorate and set the country on a new course. He could talk only to people already wearing MAGA hats. It’s great to fire up the base, and Trump did it as well as anybody. But without also expanding that base, he couldn’t operate effectively on the margin of politics, where all battles are won and lost in a democratic system.
His popular vote total earlier this month, more robust than many anticipated, demonstrated that he actually could have pulled together that governing coalition—not based on anything he could have said or done in the heat of the campaign (his fate was already sealed by then) but in terms of what he could have accomplished if, throughout his term, he had devoted his governance to the arts of coalition-building. The Republican electoral performances in congressional and state-legislative elections bolster the view that a successful presidential term was possible for Trump if he had known how to pull it together or had any real desire to do so.
Without a governing coalition, he couldn’t achieve any truly impressive legislative successes, even when he had both houses of Congress in his sway. Without a capacity to converse with the American people in soothing and inspiring ways, he couldn’t find a means of getting America out of any inherited military involvements in the Middle East, as he had promised to do during the 2016 campaign. Without any zest for the heady brew of true leadership, he couldn’t take charge of the COVID crisis in a way that would enhance his public standing and his support. He couldn’t give the country any lasting solutions on the critical issues of immigration or health care.
And so he lost the election. That makes him a presidential failure. The voters are sovereign, and any president rejected by them after four years is, by definition, a failed president. Jimmy Carter was one. So was George H. W. Bush. And now there’s Donald Trump, whose failure was a product of his own massive shortcomings.
It’s easy to understand why the president’s true-blue supporters continue to cling to him even now. He took on the establishment on their behalf and, for a time, had it on the ropes. He stood up for the forgotten, the displaced, the maligned, the ignored, the “deplorables”—in short, the victims of the policies and actions of the country’s meritocratic elites, who have dominated political discourse (though not always political outcomes) for the past half-century.
It’s easy to see why these Trump supporters also consider him a martyr based on the vicious backlash that greeted his election four years ago—the stealthy effort to undermine his authority through deep-state machinations; the establishment bloodhounds braying after him as a traitor to his country without any credible evidence; the rabid allegations of “obstruction of justice” that were quickly set aside at impeachment time (when, if there had been any merit to them, they would have been brought forward); the frenzied impeachment assault itself.
This is all valid thinking. The Trump opposition refused to accept the legitimacy of the election in a host of ways, some truly nefarious. It was a disgrace, rendered all the more so by the prospect now, with Joe Biden’s election, that those who perpetrated these reprehensible actions will never be held to account.
But democratic politics is always about the future, not the past. And the future belongs to those who can orchestrate it. Trump paved the way with his instinctive understanding, back in 2015 and 2016, that millions of Americans were disoriented, disgusted, and frightened by the direction of the country. He redefined the issues and political fault lines that had been ignored by the political class, including just about the entire Republican Party.
But he lost the election for all the reasons outlined above, and now he needs to go, like Marvin K. Mooney. Not only could he not build a governing coalition when the path to one was discernible, he is now making it nearly impossible for anyone else to do the job. The country won’t soon turn to a party that sanctioned and accepted Trump’s ripping and tearing at the sinews of America’s democratic legitimacy, meshed as it is with the country’s hallowed system of peaceful leadership succession.
And consider the two remaining Senate races in Georgia, where Republican incumbents are struggling to stave off Democratic challenges that, if successful, will turn the Senate over to the opposition. By clinging to power and making an issue of his outlandish claims on the electoral outcome, Trump is creating unnecessary difficulties for those two incumbents at the crossroads of American politics at a crucial moment.
There is no serious evidence that electoral irregularities robbed Trump of victory on November 3. In light of that, he should concede gracefully in the interest of the country, as even Richard Nixon did in 1960 when a challenge to John Kennedy’s vote totals would have been more credible than what we see today. But Trump can’t do that because he can’t rise to the level of character and selflessness even of Richard Nixon, not known as one of our more honorable presidents.
And so he will continue in his shenanigans, bringing further opprobrium upon himself, as is his wont and habit. But that doesn’t mean his party and conservative-minded Americans have to go down that path with him. It’s time for them to dump Trump.
Robert W. Merry, former Wall Street Journal Washington correspondent and Congressional Quarterly CEO, is the author of five books on American history and foreign policy.