Just as much of the country prepares to breathe a sigh of relief at the prospect of saying goodbye to a Trump White House, two recent reports about President Donald Trump point to the probability that dangerous extremist groups linked to his presidency will persist well beyond his tenure.
On Thursday, we learned from Axios that the president told friends that if and when he leaves office, he wants to start a digital media company to "clobber Fox News" and undermine the conservative-friendly network, according to sources. A source went on to explain that Trump is considering a digital channel that would stream online because it would be "cheaper and quicker to start" than a cable television network. Before that news, there were also reports that the president would announce his intention to run again in 2024 as soon as President-elect Biden is certified as the 2020 winner.
Taken separately, each of those revelations raises a red flag about a protracted future for the likes of the Boogaloo Bois, the Proud Boys, QAnon and a growing number of violent "militias." And viewed together, the president's plans portend that our season of extremism is far from over.
Clearly, the Trump brand of GOP politics is somewhat attractive to many Americans — the president garnered more than 73 million votes in this election — and therefore some element must factor into future strategies for it to be successful. Democrats only narrowly held their majority in the House by the slimmest margin in decades.
But I'm not a political strategist — I'm a national security analyst. My concern is far less about partisan ideologies than about the dangerous cult of personality that encourages a subset of Trump adherents to believe fantasies about cannibalistic pedophiles running the world and to act out violently as part of a contorted crusade.
Those among Trump's base who align with extremist, hate-based groups like the Proud Boys and violent "militias" seem to be part of a cult of personality rather than any kind of political belief system. Their actions appear designed more to preserve Trump as guru than to sustain a system of values. Throughout history, entities and empires failed when protecting a person became more important than preserving principles and processes.
The upside of extremism anchored in personality over process is that typically, when the personality fades away, so does the extremist element of his or her following. That's why cults eventually collapse and why dictators are deposed: because, in part at least, the only thing they stand for is themselves. But what if the personality persists beyond the power imbued by some official designation like a presidential term? What if the personality finds a way to hold and even expand his or her influence while simultaneously suppressing those who might present more reasonable alternatives?
If Trump launches a media platform, he'll do it while many of his followers, encouraged by him, are rejecting their "go to" right-wing cable network, Fox News, ostensibly for not being "Trump enough." A Trump outlet, designed to become a digital extremist echo chamber, would amplify false stories and dangerous voices, all unchecked by any semblance of journalistic guardrails. Trump could exploit the fact that many of his followers, concerned that mainstream social media platforms are increasingly identifying false and threatening content, are fleeing spaces like Twitter in favor of largely unregulated, foreign influence-friendly and propaganda-tolerant platforms like Parler.
Without the balance provided by daily mainstream media vetting, Trump and his most dangerous extremists could joyride together on a wild journey that might end only in a tragic and violent crash.
A dedicated extremist media platform, combined with a kind of perpetual presidential candidacy, would also serve to stifle any senior GOP voices who might try to siphon Trump followers toward their own potential 2024 runs for the White House. That means that more reasonable voices in the GOP would have far less influence, less potential to restore order and less hope of mitigating extremist violence if Trump spends the next four years owning his party's front-runner position.
Moreover, President-elect Biden's efforts to stem the alarming spread of Covid-19 could be severely hampered when Trump continues to deride measures to protect the population. No one wants to see even partial shutdowns in America. But what if the surging numbers of Covid-19 cases necessitate it in some places but a former president persuades his followers to ignore such measures? As Trump said in last week's Rose Garden news conference, "This administration will not go to a lockdown."
A coordinated coupling of a Trump-centric media outlet with a protracted campaign for the presidency would pose the threat of even more violent extremism and perilously false narratives. In an interview with CBS News that aired Sunday, former President Barack Obama made an observation about our nation: "We are still deeply divided," he said. "The power of that alternative worldview that's presented in the media that those voters consume, it carries a lot of weight. ... It's very hard for a democracy to function if we are operating on just a completely different set of facts."
Obama is right. And our bitter divisions, already dangerously extreme, will become even more so the longer Trump maintains his stranglehold on the hearts and minds of so many of our fellow Americans.