Last Saturday, Donald Trump made the first stop on his 2021 revenge tour, making his first large-scale public appearance before his cult members since the January coup attempt and his followers' attack on the U.S. Capitol.
During a speech at the North Carolina Republican Party convention, Trump continued telling the Big Lie about the 2020 election, claiming it was "stolen" from him (and therefore from the Republican Party and its voters). He claimed that the Biden administration has already "failed," which is true only to the extent that Biden's agenda has been blocked by Republican intransigence (enabled by misguided Democrats).
Trump's malignant narcissism was on full display as he took undeserved credit for the coronavirus vaccines and claimed he had saved the country from the pandemic. He rambled at times, bordering on incoherence. He made ignorant and racist attacks on "critical race theory." In short, Donald Trump was his usual self, but a little worse.
Trump experienced other "difficulties" during his speech, or so many Democrats, liberals and other Trump-haters convinced themselves.
On social media and elsewhere, many viewers indulged in elaborate "trutherism," claiming that Trump was wearing his pants backward and that they were made of some material designed to absorb wetness caused by incontinence. Other viewers claimed they could see urine stains that had soaked through Trump's purported adult diapers. The hashtag "#DiaperDon" would trend on Twitter over the weekend.
On Monday, "The View" — the daytime talk show popular precisely because of its vapid, overheated "debates" about politics — discussed the critical issue of Trump's trousers and supposed incontinence. The resulting online frenzy introduced the innocent and uninitiated to the slang term "FUPA."
For the record, the fact-checking website Snopes has debunked the claims about Trump's pants. They had a zipper in the normal position and were not backward.
But millions of Americans, and no doubt others around the world, had a good laugh — supposedly at Trump's expense. But this mockery was not a resistant act against power, similar to the jokes often told by Black human property about slave masters, and white people more generally, to affirm their own humanity in a society dominated by white supremacy.
Nor was this anti-Trump derision akin to the way serfs and other common people in medieval or early modern Europe inverted power relations at carnivals by mocking the king, the church, the powerful and social hierarchy more generally.
Instead, this most recent liberal schadenfreude moment was just another example of the infantile culture that birthed the Age of Trump, a historical episode in which millions of Americans have almost literally amused themselves to death.
It is easier to mock and laugh at Donald Trump's supposedly backward pants and rumored toilet challenges than to confront the reality that America's democracy is in crisis, hanging by a thread against the onslaughts of the Jim Crow Republican Party, and that the country may now face its greatest existential threat since the Civil War.
Of course it's possible to mock the former president and simultaneously comprehend the great perils America now faces. But when viewed in a larger context, these moments of hysterical laughter seem like manic reactions to the onward march of fascism.
Such laughter reflects the impotence and futility so many feel as the Democratic Party and other supporters of democracy face apparently inevitable defeat, while Republicans engage in a nationwide battle to prevent nonwhite people from voting and to lock down a fascist plutocracy or "managed democracy" designed to dominate the 21st century.
While liberals laughed, Trump's audience in North Carolina and across the country was energized by seeing their Great Leader return to the public spotlight and hint at a possible return to the White House in 2024.
Public opinion and other research continues to show Trump's powerful hold on the Republican Party and his followers. The Trump movement has been radicalized into terrorism and other forms of political violence, as seen not just on Jan. 6 but throughout his time in office. Law enforcement and national security experts continue to warn that white supremacist terrorists are the greatest threat to the domestic security of the United States. Trump's followers and at least 25 percent of Republican voters profess a belief in the antisemitic QAnon conspiracy theory, which proposes that a great battle lies ahead in which Trump will defeat his "deep state" enemies and then return to power.
Indeed, a majority of Republicans actually believe that Donald Trump is still the legitimate president, and that Biden is a usurper. Trump and his allies have floated the bizarre and blatantly unconstitutional suggestion that he will resume the presidency in August after somehow removing Biden from office. In total, the Big Lie has completely taken over the Republican Party, which is now a puppet organization for Trump's fascist movement.
This Americanized version of Joseph Goebbels' Big Lie cannot be separated from decades of stochastic terrorism and incitements to political violence against liberals, progressives and other "enemies" by the right-wing propaganda media, right-wing churches and religious organizations, Republican leaders and the "conservative" movement more generally.
Laughter cannot drown out the warnings, as Max Boot observes in a recent op-ed at the Washington Post:
Former president Donald Trump's secret weapon has always been that it is hard for educated people to take him seriously. He acts like a preening buffoon with pretensions of grandeur — doltish and delusional in equal measure. Everything about him, from his orange tan and bad combover to his insistence that he is a "very stable genius," screams: Are you kidding me? ...
If Trump runs again, he will easily win the Republican nomination. Despite his unpopularity with Democrats and independents, he might even win the presidency again — particularly if his opponent is not President Biden, a blue-collar White guy, but Vice President Harris, a woman of color who is a perfect target for his racist and sexist taunts. Even if he doesn't return to the White House, Trump could provoke more political violence, as he did on Jan. 6.
I'm relieved that the news media are not covering Trump's every inane and ignorant pronouncement, as they did in 2015 and 2016, because that only increased his appeal. But, please, don't make the same mistake we made back then of assuming he is not a viable candidate for the presidency.
Steve Schmidt, a former Republican strategist and co-founder of the Lincoln Project (he has since resigned from the organization), was even more direct. Last Saturday, he sounded the alarm via Twitter:
Some have posited that Trump's loss, social media bans, and inability to sustain a blog are evidence of his decline, irrelevance and diminishment. These people are fools and their delusions are dangerous for the survival of American democracy. We are at an hour that requires people to wake up. Trump is powerful and he is a clear and present danger to our democratic society and national stability.
Trump has the ability to kill and destroy with the spoken word. His words; his lies, delusions and conspiracy theories have caused bloodshed. That is what happened on January 6th. His words will surely kill again.
These are warnings from former Republicans, who understand all too well the monster that is today's Republican Party and Trump's neofascist movement. They helped to create the monster, after all, and made this moment possible. They must live with that — and the American people must heed their warnings if the country's democracy is to be saved.
In a new essay at his website, historian Timothy Snyder — author of the bestselling book "On Tyranny" — also explores the impending disaster that awaits American democracy:
9/11 led us to the invasion of Iraq, the foreign policy disaster that marked our century. 1/6 leads us to a catastrophe on that scale, but inside our own country. It is not at all clear that the plan to take power undemocratically will work, but it is clear that it will generate a lot of resistance. African Americans are right now being told the absurd lie that the problem in America is that it is too easy for them to vote. As the scenario plays out, all Americans will face an open denial of everything they have been told about their country.
In such a scenario, it is not clear what the armed forces or civil servants would do. Most likely they would fracture. An oath to defend the Constitution is hard to honor when it is unclear what it means. Both those who were stealing an election and those who were defending votes would claim that the Constitution was on their side.
The Supreme Court would rule, but would anyone pay attention? Those who have decided to overthrow democracy believe that the Court is on their side, which is why they are proceeding as they are. If they were proven wrong in January 2025, it would be too late; they would not change course. Those who are defending voting rights expect the Court to rule against voting, since that is what it generally does. If the Court rules against voting in the setting of antidemocratic regime change, this will seem screamingly illegitimate to a very large number of Americans. No Court, no Constitution. No Constitution, no rule of law. No rule of law, widespread violence. The collapse of the United States follows.
America is rapidly approaching the endgame of democracy. In this moment, the American people and their leaders will either decide to do the hard work necessary to be a true and representative multiracial democracy or instead surrender to fake populism and one-party white supremacist rule.
At this moment I am worried that the epitaph for America's democracy will read, "We laughed — and when we stopped laughing all we could do was cry."