You’ve heard it before: Donald Trump has had a bad couple of weeks. The House Ways and Means Committee finally released his tax returns, revealing that his companies suffered $53 million in net losses over six years. He’s under investigation in Georgia for election fraud, and just before Christmas the January 6 Committee referred him to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution for inciting an insurrection. This week, the former president was one of the parties named in a civil lawsuit filed by Brian Sicknick, a Capitol Police officer who died after the January 6 Capitol riot.
Here’s something else you already know: Trump has shown a deft ability to slime his way out of these kinds of sticky situations. And the Republican Party has demonstrated the propensity for forgiving him for a whole host of sins that include pussy grabbing, mocking the late Senator John McCain for his service in Vietnam, and failing to call out neo-Nazis for murder in Charlottesville.
Lately, however, it appears Republicans might be edging away from serving as the former president’s supplicants and defenders. A poll released December 14 revealed that Trump’s approval rating is the lowest it’s been for the past seven years. A separate poll showed that 56 percent of Republicans would prefer that Ron DeSantis wins the Republican 2024 presidential nomination, compared to just 33 percent who want Trump. Along the way have come a new series of intimations that Fox News is breaking up with him.
For those who have been intellectually fantasizing about Trump’s political demise since the day he announced his presidential candidacy, the former president’s fall from grace is long overdue. One of the more persistent fascinations in the political story arc of the past eight years has been wondering when the right might finally wake up and realize the orange emperor has no clothes.
But as satisfying as it might be to imagine a Princess Bride–like brute squad carrying Trump away to prison, his decline is not likely to come with a helping of cathartic satisfaction. You should be prepared instead for the cynical and emotionally unsatisfying way this will all end. Political icons of Trump’s stature do not explode into giant fireballs and depart the scene in a showy climax that leaves a breathless audience satisfied that justice has been rendered. Instead, they slowly slip away into irrelevancy as their former backers realize the has-been politician no longer possesses the means to advance their cause and careers. It will be the same with Trump and his erstwhile allies, who will leave the man behind while carrying his worst ideas forward.
While history doesn’t perfectly repeat itself, it offers clues of how the road ahead shall wend when and if Trump finally comes to ruin. One would do well to recall America’s political landscape in the 1950s—the era to which “Make America Great Again” beckoned—which was dominated by the so-called “Red Scare” ginned up by Wisconsin Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy. While his first few years in Congress were uneventful, McCarthy burst onto the political scene in 1950 when he delivered a speech claiming to have a list of 205 active members of the Communist Party within the State Department. These assertions were, as they say, “alternative facts”: The report identified 285 “security risks.” But it didn’t matter that McCarthy’s tone, tenor, and math were incorrect. By successfully stirring the preexisting paranoia pot, he became the most relevant right-winger in the Republican Party.
Much like Trump, McCarthy was not personally popular in his own party but got along with everybody because his fellow right-wingers realized it was better to have him on their side. In words that predated Senator Lindsey Graham’s “the party has gone batshit crazy” when the GOP backed Trump, Republicans of 1950 knew that McCarthy was no good but stood by him out of fear and—because his target was Democrats—convenience.
McCarthy’s anti-Communist witch hunts reached a fever pitch in late 1953 when he was head of the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and claimed the Truman administration had been “crawling with Commies.” But the following year, McCarthy took things one step too far: He began accusing the Eisenhower administration and the U.S. Army of harboring Reds as well. The Senator’s moves annoyed the president and put him on the path to losing the support of the public. A Gallup poll taken in January 1954 showed that only 39 percent of the country held a favorable view of McCarthy and almost 50 percent disliked him.
But while the tides were noticeably turning against McCarthy, the Republican Party didn’t suddenly stand up on the nightly news and denounce him. Instead, Eisenhower sent out his vice president to reel the party back from the edge of crazy. That vice president was Richard Nixon, who pursued his task with the delicate deliberations of a tightrope walker as he aimed to harness all the righteousness of McCarthy’s anti-Communist theatrics but do so in a way that distanced himself from the slowly fading senator.
Nixon began his 1954 speech by reaffirming the administration’s commitment to dealing with the threat of communism but added, “When you go out to shoot rats, you have to shoot straight, because when you shoot wildly it not only means that the rat may get away more easily, you make it easier on the rat.” While this figurative “rat” could be plausibly understood to mean Communists, it left open the door to imagine it as a catch-all metaphor that could enwrap Democrats or anybody who believed in left-wing policies into its definition.
McCarthy’s last hurrah came a few months later when the chief Army counsel, Joseph Welch, exploded against McCarthy during a Senate hearing, asking, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” But this wasn’t the end of McCarthy the man. It took four more years for him to die alone of alcoholism. Thanks to men like Nixon, his legacy lived long after his decline into dissolution. For decades, the right would continue to bully the American people and left-wing figures by labeling everything from health care reform to housing, to childcare as “soft on communism.” Nixon unleashed his own brand of anti-communism 20 years later as president when he claimed that a “silent majority” of Americans supported his policy to continue fighting Communists in Vietnam.
Trump may end up broken and forgotten, stuffed into a recluse’s redoubt at Mar-a-Lago, stewing in his own resentment and abandoned by former hangers-on. But it will be hard to take satisfaction from this denouement. As with McCarthy, Trump’s grotesque crusade to “Make America Great Again, Again” will be taken up by another politician, perhaps one more palatable to the American people, but just as toxic. Signs are already emerging that the GOP will have this opportunity: The same poll that showed Trump is losing favor to DeSantis also revealed that 60 percent of Republicans said they want a nominee who will continue Trump’s policies—but who isn’t Trump.
What’s going to happen in the coming months, or perhaps, years, is that Republicans will begin to perform the necessary rhetorical acrobatics to allow them to distance themselves from Trump while carrying his worst ideas forward—the blueprint of a new wave of right-wing extremism that has already permeated the party will not fade even as Trump does. Much as Nixon reasserted the need to hunt down Communist “rats,” Republicans will continue to hunt down this right-wing generation’s unlikeables; no doubt this will include migrants, trans people, and anyone who might be categorized as “woke.” We’re about to learn a hard lesson that there is no satisfaction to be gained from Trump’s demise because his ideas are not going to die alongside him. Daydream all you like about lambasting the president and his supporters by asking if they have, at long last, found any decency. The answer will come, with a satisfied smile, “No.”