Say what you will about former President Donald Trump, but there was a cynical, P.T. Barnum-like genius to his brief and catastrophic run at the apex of American politics. The man obviously has no deeply held beliefs or political philosophy beyond a commitment to self-promotion and personal enrichment, but like so many other skilled con men throughout history, he could sell stuff – most notably lies and half-truths designed to manipulate audiences.
For state and national conservative leaders, Trump’s shallow scam was both alluring and dangerous. On the one hand, Trumpism provided a path to power for a political party that had lost the popular vote in five out of the previous six presidential elections (today, it’s seven out of eight) and that increasingly finds itself out of step with the majority of voters.
Like a modern-day Harold Hill or Elmer Gantry, Trump could connect with average folks – especially struggling and sometimes fearful people for whom sober lectures from the Koch brothers and their ilk about the need for austerity and the “genius of the free market” held little appeal.
The politically problematic flipside to the conservative embrace of Trumpism, of course, is the wreckage with which the Republican Party and broader conservative movement must now cope in the absence of their top salesman. While there is no shortage of Trump wannabes out there, few if any possess the special magic that their hero honed during decades of promoting myths and spinning lies in the celebrity media spotlight.
And so it is that hundreds of Republican politicians of more ordinary communication skills and commitments to truth-telling find themselves in a difficult conundrum: having sold their souls and abandoned many of their key principles – fiscal discipline, free trade, a robust foreign policy – by embracing Trump, they are now rudderless and casting about wildly for issues without him.
This problem for the right has only been exacerbated by President Joe Biden’s skillful seizure of the initiative in shaping the national policy agenda during his first two months in office. While Biden has adeptly pushed real solutions to massive real-world problems – the pandemic, poverty, racial inequality, the climate emergency, access to healthcare, infrastructure, gun violence – many Republicans have been reduced to manufacturing faux controversies that it’s hoped will resonate with and/or distract the Trump base.
Hence, the spectacle of conservative politicians, commentators and activists, at a moment of profound national health and economic crises, devoting large quantities of TV, radio and social media talk to the Mr. Potato Head “issue.”
This sorry phenomenon has been on display in North Carolina as well in recent weeks as Republican lawmakers have attempted to gin up controversy around similarly meritless causes.
See, for example, last week’s embarrassing effort to parrot the national, Trump-driven “voter fraud” narrative regarding last November’s election by absurdly pillorying Board of Elections executive director Karen Brinson Bell over the highly successful 2020 election. As Raleigh’s News & Observer editorialized, the event showed that “Republicans would rather stir suspicion than acknowledge the truth.”
And then there’s the preposterous effort to “protect female athletes” by advancing legislation that would bar transgender women from participating in sporting contests involving public schools and universities.
Earth to GOP lawmakers: This issue has been settled (in favor of allowing participation) by most major sports governing bodies for many years; indeed, in the case of the International Olympic Committee, it’s been the case since 2003. If you want to help women athletes, how about supporting better funding for a change and ending your efforts to block campus sexual assault investigations?
This search for issues – any issue that might garner a headline – has grown so desperate that state
House Speaker Tim Moore has even resorted to resurrecting the hoary notion of congressional term limits. The Wilson Times reported yesterday that Moore is calling for “a convention of the states under Article V of the U.S. Constitution for the purpose of proposing a constitutional amendment that would limit congressional service.”
This from a man who’s spent 10 terms – nearly two-thirds of his adult life – serving in the same state House seat.
As countless experts have patiently explained, even if the idea of legislative term limits is superficially appealing in some ways, it’s also fraught with peril – not the least of which is the way it would dramatically enhance the empower of the unelected professional staffers and lobbyists not subject to such limits.
And even if one wanted to seriously discuss such an issue, the last thing the U.S. needs in 2021 is a second constitutional convention. What’s next, a constitutional convention to ban flag burning?
The bottom line: There’s a reason the Republican candidate has only won the popular vote in one presidential election since 1988 and it’s not voter fraud or the nation’s stances on term limits or trans athletes. Let’s hope this lesson finally sinks in before the GOP casts its lot with another dangerous megalomaniac like Donald Trump.