Trump’s Final Battle Has Begun

Like many other Americans struggling to find scraps of calm and slivers of hope in this anxious era, I resolved a while back not to get overly excited about Donald Trump’s overexcited utterances. They’re often a showman’s cheap histrionics, a con man’s gaudy hyperbole.

But I can’t shake a grandiose prophecy that he made repeatedly last year, as he looked toward the 2024 presidential race. He took to calling it the “final battle.”

I first heard Trump use that phrase in March, when he addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference. I laughed at his indefatigable self-aggrandizement. He said it again weeks later at a rally in Waco, Texas, not far from where the deadly confrontation between the Branch Davidians and federal law enforcement officials took place. I cringed at his perversity.

But as he continued to rave biblically about this “final battle,” my reaction changed, and it surprised me: He just may be right. Not in his cartoonish description of that conflict — which pits him and his supporters against the godlessness, lawlessness, tyranny, reverse racism, communism, globalism and open borders of a lunatic left — but in terms of how profoundly meaningful the 2024 election could be, at least if he is the Republican presidential nominee. And if he wins it all? He will probably play dictator for much longer than a day, and the America that he molds to his self-interested liking may bear little resemblance to the country we’ve known and loved until now.

With the Iowa caucuses less than two weeks away, a rematch of Trump and Joe Biden is highly likely — and wouldn’t be anything close to the usual competition between “four more years” and a reasonably sane, relatively coherent change of direction and pace. We’re on the cusp of something much scarier. Trump’s fury, vengefulness and ambitions have metastasized since 2020. The ideologues aligned with him have worked out plans for a second Trump administration that are darker and more detailed than anything in the first. He seems better positioned, if elected, to slip free of the restraints and junk the norms that he didn’t manage to do away with before. Yesterday’s Trump was a Komodo dragon next to today’s Godzilla.

And Joe Biden, who campaigned in 2020 on a promise to unify the country and prides himself on bipartisanship, has recognized in his own way that “final battle” is apt. He has suggested that he is running again, at the age of 81, because the unendurable specter of Trump back in the White House leaves him no other choice. Trump and Biden don’t depict each other simply as bad alternatives for America. They describe each other as cataclysmic ones. This isn’t your usual negative partisanship, in which you try to win by stoking hatred of your opponent. It’s apocalyptic partisanship, in which your opponent is the agent of something like the End of Days.

Trump talks that way all the time, ranting that we’ll “no longer have a country” if Biden and other Democrats are in charge. Biden’s warning about Trump is equally blunt, and it could assume ever greater prominence as he calculates how to win re-election despite widespread economic apprehension, persistently low approval ratings and attacks on his age and acuity.

“Let’s be clear about what’s at stake in 2024,” he said at a campaign event in Boston last month. “Donald Trump and his MAGA Republicans are determined to destroy American democracy.”

If the people on the losing side of an election believe that those on the winning side are digging the country’s graveyard, how do they accept and respect the results? The final battle we may be witnessing is between a governable and an ungovernable America, a faintly civil and a floridly uncivil one. And it wouldn’t necessarily end with a Trump defeat in November. It might just get uglier.

“There are people who don’t realize how dangerous 2024 could be,” Russell Moore, the editor in chief of Christianity Today and arguably Trump’s most prominent evangelical Christian critic, told me recently. “They’re assuming it’s a replay of 2020. I don’t think it is.”

He wondered about the rioting of Jan. 6, 2021, as a harbinger of worse political violence. He cited “the authoritarian rhetoric that’s coming from Trump.” He referred to the breadth of the chasm between MAGA America and the rest of it. When I asked him if he could think of any prior presidential elections suffused with this much dread and reciprocal disdain, he had to rewind more than 150 years, to the eve of the Civil War. “That’s the only precedent in American history I can see,” he said.

It’s certainly possible that over the 10 long months between now and Election Day, there will be surprises that set up a November election with different candidates, different issues and a different temperature than the ones in place at the moment. It’s also possible that our politicians’ heightened language and intense emotions don’t resonate with most American voters and won’t influence them.

“I see our political process pulling away from where people are on the ground,” said Danielle Allen, a professor of political philosophy, ethics and public policy at Harvard who is an advocate of better civics education and more constructive engagement in civic life. “The political process has become a kind of theatrical spectacle, and on the ground, since 2016, we’ve seen this incredible growth of grass-roots organizations working on all kinds of civic health. I think people are getting healthier — or have been — over the past seven years, and our politics doesn’t reflect that.” She noted that in a growing number of states, there are serious movements to do away with party primaries, a political reform intended to counter partisanship and produce more moderate, consensus winners.

But moderation and consensus are in no way part of Trump’s pitch, and if he’s on the ballot, striking his current Mephistophelian pose and taking his present Manichaean tack, voters are indeed being drawn into something that feels like a final battle or at least a definitive test — of the country’s belief in its institutions. Of its respect for diversity. Of its commitment to the law. Of its devotion to truth.

Do a majority of Americans still believe in the American project and the American dream as we’ve long mythologized them? Do they still see our country as a land of opportunity and immigrant ingenuity whose accomplishments and promise redeem its sins? Do we retain faith in a more bountiful tomorrow, or are we fighting over leftovers? Those questions hover with a special urgency over the 2024 election.

And that’s largely because of the perspective and agenda that Trump is asking voters to embrace. Even if the plans are bluster, the plea is a referendum on American values. He has said several times that immigrants “poison the blood” of our country, and a second Trump administration could involve the deportations of millions of undocumented immigrants annually and large detention camps. In his response to his indictments in four cases comprising 91 felony counts, he has insisted that the justice system is corrupt and vowed to overhaul it to his liking and use it to punish political foes. He praises autocrats, equating brutal repression with strength and divorcing morality from foreign policy. He unabashedly peddles conspiracy theories, spinning falsehoods when provable facts are inconvenient or unflattering. He’d have us all live in fiction, just as long as the narrative exalts him.

“When it comes to manipulating the information space, getting inside people’s heads, creating alternative realities and mass confusion — he’s as good as anyone since the 1930s, and you know who I’m talking about,” said Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of the 2021 book “The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth.” Rauch characterized the stolen election claims by Trump and his enablers as “the most audacious and Russian-style disinformation attack on the United States that we’ve ever seen” and questioned whether, under a second Trump administration, we’d become a country “completely untethered from reality.”

We’d likely become a country with a new relationship to the rest of the world and a new attitude toward our history in it.

“The Western liberal international order is the work of three-quarters of a century of eminent statesmen and both parties,” said Mark Salter, who was a longtime senior aide to Senator John McCain, has written many books on American politics and collaborated with Cassidy Hutchinson on “Enough,” her best-selling 2023 memoir about her time in Trump’s White House. “It has brought us times of unexpected prosperity and liberty in the world. And somebody like Vivek Ramaswamy or Donald Trump has got a better idea? It’s just ludicrous.”

“I just have this feeling,” Salter told me, “that the next four years are going to be the most consequential four years in my lifetime.”

Are our most generous impulses doing battle with our most ungenerous ones? That’s one frame for the 2024 election, suggested by the nastiness of so many of Trump’s tirades versus the appeals to comity and common ground that Biden still works into his remarks, the compassion and kindness he still manages to project. He celebrates American diversity and rightly portrays it as a source of our strength. Trump — and, for that matter, Ron DeSantis and many others in the current generation of Republican leadership — casts it as a threat.

“Part of what’s in danger is American pluralism,” said Eboo Patel, the founder and president of the nonprofit group Interfaith America and the author of the 2022 book “We Need to Build: Field Notes for Diverse Democracy.” “There was a consensus, from Kennedy to Obama, that diversity is part of what’s inspiring about America. Virtually every president in recent memory, with the exception of the guy in the Oval Office from 2017 to 2020, spoke about the virtues of American pluralism.”

Trump speaks instead about persecuted Christians, persecuted white Americans, persecuted rural Americans. He beseeches them to exact vengeance. Where, Patel asked, does that leave “the American civic institutions that we just expect to work,” the basketball leagues and Cub Scout troops in which political affiliation and partisan recrimination took a back seat to joint mission? They could well break down. “We’re already seeing this in school boards,” he said. “We see this when a high school doesn’t just have to cancel a play but disband its theater department.”

Jennifer Williams, a city councilwoman in Trenton, N.J., who made history a year ago when she was sworn as the first transgender person elected to any city council in the state, told me that while she identifies as Republican and has voted for Republican candidates in presidential elections past, the prejudices that Trump promotes terrify her. “My very existence as a human being and as an American is becoming more and more questioned,” she said.

There’s a meanness in American life right now, and the way 2024 plays out could advance or arrest it. The outcome could also strain Americans’ confidence in our democracy in irreparable ways — and that’s not just because the Supreme Court may wind up determining Trump’s presence on the ballot, not just because the popular vote and the Electoral College could yield significantly different results, not just because any Trump loss would be attended by fresh cries of a “rigged” election and, perhaps, fresh incitements to violence.

It’s also because so many voters across the ideological spectrum are so keenly frustrated and deeply depressed by the political landscape of 2024. They behold a Supreme Court that enshrines and protects ethically challenged justices and, as in the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, seems wildly out of touch with the country. They have watched the House of Representatives devolve into a dysfunctional colosseum of dueling egos and wearying diatribes. They’re presented with candidates who seem like default options rather than bold visionaries. And they feel increasingly estranged from their own government.

“That is so detrimental to our democracy,” said Stephanie Murphy, a moderate Florida Democrat who served in the House from 2017 to 2023 and was also one of the nine members of the House committee that investigated the Jan. 6 rioting. “Two-thirds of Americans don’t agree on almost anything, but two-thirds agree that they don’t want to see a Trump-Biden rematch, and that’s what they’re getting.” There will be no real Democratic presidential primary. The Republican presidential primary, to judge by the polling, is an exercise so pointless that Trump hasn’t bothered to show up for any of the four debates so far. “You’re further disenfranchising people,” Murphy said, and you’re fostering “disillusionment among the American electorate that their vote even matters.”

The irony is that in 2024, it will probably matter more than ever. How many Americans will see that, and how many will act on it? The final battle may be between resignation and determination, between a surrender of our ideals and the resolve to keep reaching for them, no matter how frequently and how far we fall short.

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