It was Ash Wednesday on the Christian calendar, the first day of Lent in the six weeks leading up to Easter Sunday. Ash Wednesday is a day for fasting. It is a holy day to celebrate self-sacrifice and the exalted purpose of prayer. As Pope Francis said in his Ash Day homily this year, it is a day when God pleads for eternal return. Not a twenty-year cycle. Not a four-year cycle. But a journey that involves a whole life., in fact, the entire lifetime of humanity. From dust thou came. To dust thou shalt return.
A week ago, on Ash Wednesday 17 February 2021, I was called over to watch the blowing up of the 32-story Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City on a cell phone. It was a drab lead-grey day with a cold and biting wind sweeping across the city from the Atlantic Ocean. I am not sure that I could have endured watching either free from the deserted boardwalk or even from a car in a parking lot nearby where gawkers were charged $10 to watch the event, the charge going into the pockets of an Atlantic City charity. Where else would a thirty second implosion become a tourist attraction?
And on such a holy day! On a day when self-reflection should denote return, return for self-salvation and away from self-destruction, return away from demolition towards redemption. Perhaps the mayor saw in the event a sign of resurrection for a declining city, a rebirth for a modern Sodom. The Pope understood, even if the mayor did not. It was a day to ask, “Where is my life’s navigation system taking me – towards God or towards myself? Do I live to please the Lord, or to be noticed, praised, put at the head of line.” Assuredly, Donald Trump never asked such a question. He presumed the answer was to get to the head of the line even if he took Atlantic City and now the Republican Party – downwards towards self-destruction.
I wished I had seen the implosion on the full TV screen that had been Trump’s medium of choice before he fell in love with the twitter universe. It was both thrilling and appalling to watch this large skyscraper collapse on itself and be totally eliminated from the Atlantic City skyline in less than a minute. The building started to collapse inward from the top floors at the rear, gathered momentum until, really in seconds, there was only a pile of rubble hidden under a cloud of dust at the base. I wish I could send out the video with this blog, but you will have to look it up yourself. – https://news.yahoo.com/atlantic-city-recover-may-more-135235215.html.
The actual implosion was dramatic and sudden. The process leading up to the actual demolition was dragged out, repetitive, boring, and really quite tedious – there were a myriad of adverbs one could attach to the process. But whatever the words chosen, the event overall was not sudden. The big bang at the end was but the climax of a long and painful chapter in American history.
It seemed to me to be a perfect pictorial metaphor for where the Republican Party in the United States had been and was heading. Between 1984 and 2014, Trump had ostensibly owned Trump Plaza along with two other casinos – Trump Taj Mahal (now the Hard Rock Café) and Trump Marina (now the Golden Nugget). With his great love of pugilism, he had staged the 1987 Mike Tyson – Jose Ribalta heavy-weight bout there, which ended up being a dragged-out ten round spectacle as Iron Tyson, with a record of 25 wins and 23 KO’s, barely eked out a technical victory against his 6’6” opponent.
Iron Mike had been a gladiator of the ring, a fighter who was not only determined to win, but to destroy his opponents. He was a man committed to leaving no other man standing to hold up a fist of victory. If he could no longer stand himself, if another won and stood in what he presumed to be his destined place, he would, like Sampson, bring the whole building crashing down upon himself.
The boxing event adumbrated Trump’s own political career where he won the presidency because of the technicality of the Electoral College, though he lost the general election by three million votes in 2016. Eventually, Trump abandoned all three of his casinos in Atlantic City to bankruptcy when he moved on to politics and his new venture – and entered a political career that would end not only with a failed presidency, but with the bankruptcy of the Republican Party. The trajectory would repeat the slew of redundancies and unpaid bills that he bequeathed to the residents and local businesses of Atlantic City.
Mayor Marty Small of that city may have sighed with relief as he watched the collapse of the tower and remarked on what a great day it was for Atlantic City. But it had come about with enormous and excruciating pain for those who watched and much more for those who endured the process.
When the hotel was in its glory days, it was ostensibly owned by the Trump organization, but like much having to do with that business, that was smoke and mirrors. It was really owned by investors and banks. The Trump organization was only the manager. When the hotel-casino complex fell into receivership, the billionaire (an estimated 15 billion) Carl Icahn bought the property out of bankruptcy proceedings in 2016 in the same year that he had supported Donald Trump’s electoral bid to the tune of a quarter billion dollars. Icahn became the owner as the entire former Trump Plaza that gradually became a dilapidated wreck, with chunks of concrete periodically falling from the skyscraper and crashing to the street below. The building had become a danger to every passer-by. In 2020, Icahn donated only a pittance to the Trump election campaign. Trump’s personal value for a smart investor – in contrast to the man-in-the-street – had depreciated much more than the wreck of the Trump Plaza..
One of the striking features of the building was its huge 22-foot-thick glass windows – they appeared transparent and you could see through them, but they were, in fact, impenetrable. They could not be broken, only exploded into smithereens. Observers have noted the comparison with the self-destruction of the Trump presidency at the end of his term as he called foul and declared that the election had been stolen – but another lie in a presidency built on lies. Certainly, the ending was dramatic – a violent insurrection against the Capitol culminating in an impeachment. But though impeached, Trump escaped being found guilty and was acquitted because the Senate could not achieve a two-thirds majority to render a conviction. Further, Trump had an even more historic destiny – to bring down the Republican Party crashing down around his head.
One fear is that the decline and destruction of the Grand Old Party (GOP) would mean the twilight of democracy as the sun set in favour of the lure of authoritarianism. Certainly, this is what Trump represented – an icon for idolaters enamored with self-assured (and self-centred) dictators. But America escaped what John Dean had called an authoritarian nightmare. But by the skin of their white gleaming teeth as Michael Schmidt, The New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times described it in his dramatic account of Trump’s indifference to the rule of law in Donald Trump v. The United States: “Inside the Struggle to Stop a President.
The boardwalk is strewn with discarded bodies from General John Kelly who served as a security adviser, to Donald McGahn who served as White House counsel. And what about the 500,000 – yes, half a million – corpses, 20% of the world’s total of dead, left after a worldwide pandemic that Trump ignored, belittled or for which he prescribed fraudulent cures? Democratic opponents bear the scars of their infighting with Trump with two – yes two – impeachment failures to convict. His enablers, like Mitch McConnell, may finally stand up on plastic legs (“There is no question that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day,” after he voted to acquit), or they may come crawling back to be blessed by Trump’s good graces, like Lindsey Graham, even when it is reasonably clear that Trump will never again rise from the ashes.
Trump’s political legacy and belief that prisons have only been constructed to house his adversaries and never himself has come into clearer view as he seems destined to end up in jail as he faces a multitude of indictments from an array of sources. Charges of assaults against women piled up alongside assaults on dedicated civil servants, subservience to Moscow and Putin and waltzing with North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un, to whom he had offered a lift home from Hanoi in 2019 after a summit. An FBI’s counterintelligence investigation of Trump’s Russian ties disappeared in a wisp of smoke even as the Ukraine “scandal” of intimidation in return for dirt on Biden went up in flames.
Democracy proved to be fragile and ephemeral in the face of an ideology that disdained rational planning, believing that just-in-time delivery was a substitute for rather than a product of careful forethought, and was committed to the profit motive even in areas where there was no profit to be made. But this absolutist and all-encompassing belief system has proven hollow, but at a great cost to genuine conservative beliefs and faith in a free-enterprise system as George Will and the anyone but Trumpers in the Republican Party had been warning for years. George Will may desert the GOP but not conservatism, “An essential conservative insight about everything is that nothing necessarily endures. Care must be taken. The Republican Party will wither if the ascendant Lout Caucus is the face it presents to this nation of decent, congenial people.” (George Will)
But that true conservatism has not been the face the Republican Party has continued to display in the first five weeks of the Biden presidency. The louts – Ted Cruz (Texas), Josh Hawley (Montana.), Ron Johnson (Wisconsin) and Rob Portman (Ohio) – continue to rule the roost even in the hearings on the insurrection. Their lies and conspiracy theories multiply at a faster rate that even the rabid right-wingers who invaded the Capitol. If 9/11 taught Americans the real dangers of foreign terrorism and its ability to create great havoc and damage on American soil, that lesson for domestic terrorism as a result of 1/6 has not sunken in deeply enough. One quarter of Republicans now may turn their backs on Trump as their leader, but just over 50% seem determined to go down with him as Trump will never ever be able to win with only 25% of the vote. But he has more than enough support to beat his opponents in the primaries as he brands them as traitors and deserters.
Domestic fanaticism has shown that it can flourish and exert considerable influence, mostly destructive, as it is used to fertilize weeds rather than healthy crops. Trump, as Alexander Hamilton prophesied, has a talent for “low intrigue,” the main instrument in seeking and holding power for a populist. He courts the violent far-right, celebrates violence and privileges his own interests. But he demands absolute fealty from others as those others remain enthralled to his mythos.
Modern media, magnified enormously by twitter, has allowed Trump’s presence to become more ubiquitous among his followers than even television allowed, but it has reduced his reach among the general public. By closing off his access to twitter because of his unending stream of incendiary lies, even that support has begun to shrink. But it still has a huge base, half the Republican Party, and enough to bring the GOP to its knees, especially in the face of too few courageous souls in the party.
The downward spiral of the Republican Party is not helped when the Democrats fail to fight Donald Trump on his own grounds and launch a proper show trial rather than an investigative and prosecutorial effort in seeking justice. The system is rigged against winning. It may sound ironic that I am chastising the Democratic Party for not doing more to save the GOP by fighting on populist soil, but the conservatives in the GOP cannot do so alone. They need outside aid. And offering outside assistance is crucial for the salvation of democracy and a strong two-party system.
They should trade help for getting Republicans to help save democracy by defeating efforts to gerrymander and reduce voter participation. There are enough genuine believers in democracy in the GOP to launch a cross-the-aisle assault on undemocratic committed populists. For democracy is not majority will but minority protection. Democracy is, in fact, not an expression of will alone, as conservatives recognize, but of institutional norms that protect against mob rule and foster reflection and deliberation. Hopefully, this will happen in the inquiry into the attempted insurrection, even if many Republicans try to sabotage that effort. There are still enough institutionalists in the Republican party to at least save democracy even as the GOP self-destructs.
However, it will be no easy task. The Republican Party is ridden with malignancy and becoming sicker day by day in the face of worsening radicalization. Elected Republican members of the House voted unanimously to reject any proposal to punish Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (Georgia) for her blatant sympathies for QAnon and her endorsement of the use of violence against Democrats. Of three camps, cheering on a street brawler, remaining a passive enabler or declaring war but only fighting in accordance with Marquess of Queensberry rules, the latter is a distinctive minority.
But perhaps the Republican Party will not implode if the Democrats are determined to save it. However, I suspect they too are short-sighted and understandably bitter and unwilling to help. However, even as the implosion takes place, to the degree the key supports for democracy are strengthened, then at the very least democracy will emerge stronger than ever even as the two-party system suffers a temporary hiatus. Trump will use all his banalities and once again resort to anti-Washington rhetoric to set up and concentrate the antipathy upon which he feeds.
Unfortunately, Republicans have prioritized tribalism over patriotism. When a sitting president so blatantly violates his oath of office and Republican members in a significant majority support rather than condemn his rhetorical lie to “Stop the Steal” instead of condemning Donald Trump for not crying out, calling out, to “Stop the Assault,” then this evident lack of integrity will be the inevitable root of the rot that leads to the withering away of the GOP. For its elected representatives in the majority are complicit in the process of self-destruction.
How can these representatives stand by and stand aside as a president praises those who would hang his own vice-president, calls them special and expressed his love for the assailants? How can this so-called law-and-order president stand by as a police officer screams in pain, as other officers are poked and probed and struck with metal poles, as police officers are killed or die in a post-traumatic stupor?
Gross insensitivity will cost the GOP its life as Donald Trump declares himself the party’s presumptive nominee for 2024 at the forthcoming CPAC annual conservative political conference, Trump has become the Republican Party. McConnell may have issued a declaration of war, but Mitch is a Senate stalwart not a street brawler.