“Oh, shut up, silly woman,” said the reptile with a grin. “You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in.”
Donald Trump began repeating the couplet at campaign rallies in 2016. It’s from “The Snake,” a song whose lyrics leading up to that punchline he also recited, for greater effect. In his telling, the snake is an immigrant, eliciting pity and disarming his victim, the United States, before turning on it, robbing its citizens and vandalizing the common good, which weak-minded naïfs who subscribe to the honor system left unguarded.
Never mind the research suggesting that immigrants, even those who are undocumented, commit crime at lower rates than do the native-born. The purpose of Trump’s performance was not to articulate a policy position but to convey a moral: Expect to be conned by a conman if you give him the chance. Take him in and you learn soon enough, but too late, that the one taken in is yourself.
From the moment that the real-estate businessman and former reality-TV star entered the presidential race, seventeen months before the general election, he spoke with passion about shaking up the establishment, though he was short on details. The contest came down to a debate between voters who smelled the snake and those who thrilled to his promises or at any rate suspended their reservations about him.
“I think they are being conned and played,” Jonah Goldberg wrote of Trump’s “most ardent supporters” in July 2015, sounding the alarm early. “I feel like a guy whose brother is being taken advantage of by a grifter. I’m watching helplessly as the con artist congratulates him for taking out a third mortgage.”
Trump voters have been conned of nothing, however, unless they value the American political arrangement whose charter is the Constitution and whose oxygen is precisely the honor system that their leader has broken and now threatens to demolish and bury. We should not be surprised if a sizable and motivated minority of Americans have no love for liberal democracy and would prefer a populist authoritarian regime based on a personality cult à la Castroism in Cuba, or Chavismo in Venezuela. The emotions that demagogues appeal to are common and deeply felt, after all, as the U.S. military and government officials who planned the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961 learned to their chagrin. In their contempt for Castro, they had underestimated his popular support.
The principles of free and fair democratic elections and of peaceful transfers of power may be republican virtues to us. To others, they’re procedural niceties that inhibit the ability of a spirited people to express and assert themselves.
When President Trump called Georgia secretary of state Brad Raffensperger and urged him to “find” 11,780 votes to change the outcome of the election there, you were unlikely to be scandalized if you had rationalized his prior violations of the honor system: He never released his tax returns; he mocked a disabled man and castigated a national war hero for his heroism; in Helsinki, before an international TV audience, he took Putin’s side against that of U.S. intelligence. Trump called the president of Ukraine to offer foreign military aid in exchange for a promise to embarrass Joe Biden. During the 2020 presidential campaign, Trump refused to promise that he would honor the outcome of the election if he lost.
Here we are.
No one who has paid attention should be surprised by his post-election conduct, including the phone call to Georgia. This most recent offense of his, perhaps the most outrageous on record, is of questionable legality and, you would think, grounds for a second impeachment, but he appears to have shed few supporters. The most passionate among them circled their wagons around him long ago. They’re resolved not to budge. The bubble next to Biden’s name on the ballot is penciled in, but they say it isn’t. They petition to investigate the controversy, as they characterize their disagreement with recount after recount and with the exhaustive findings of patient judges and election commissioners who have looked into the Trump team’s parade of allegations and complaints and reported, unanimously, that evidence was lacking.
A nihilist, Trump bats away truth and attempts to substitute his will, as if repeating the same lie might make it true. Millions fight to maintain their loyalty to a fiction, sending America into a constitutional crisis. Because truth is of God, and you know who the father of lies is, the crisis is spiritual.
Nicholas Frankovich is an editor at National Review.