The Worm Turns
Photo credit: Groman123 / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Donald Trump has done his work all too well. If he disappeared tomorrow, America would remain dangerously divided and on the brink. Some worry the center won’t hold.

Listen To This Story
Voiced by Amazon Polly

“Do you think the worm has turned?” 

My father used to ask me this, at that juncture of a baseball or football game we were watching when his spidey sense told him that the momentum just might  be shifting in our side’s favor. 

We were both inveterate pessimists, if not outright catastrophists, when it came to our beloved Mets and Giants, but we nevertheless had countless seventh-inning or fourth-quarter debates about the direction of that proverbial worm.

I thought of my Dad the week Donald Trump was arraigned, as I watched a game infinitely more serious than any sport — the game that will decide our nation’s future, and probably have significant bearing on the planet’s — and wondered whether, just maybe, the worm might be turning.

It was a week featuring several key political events, or tests, approached by observers with more than the usual amount of uncertainty and apprehension. Two of the biggest tests came on the same day and involved state courts: the arraignment of former President Donald Trump on criminal charges in New York, and the election that would decide whether the right or left would have control of the Supreme Court of Wisconsin. 

And then, two days later, came the vote by the Tennessee House to expel two Black members for “breaches of decorum.” The next day — Friday, April 7 — a Trump-appointed federal district court judge in Texas handed down a ruling effectively banning mifepristone, the abortion pill, nationwide.

Where, I wondered, in all this political topsoil, was the worm? 

Like many progressives (and moderates) who once thought America was at least puttering along in the general direction of goodness, I have looked on events and trends throughout the Trump years with an abiding dread — much as my Dad and I used to watch our teams’ games in their worst years, awaiting inevitable doom. 

Fascism — a word that, prior to 2016, you couldn’t even use in polite company or respectable journalism in connection with America — has been on the march, wrapped into an appalling cult of personality steeped in a Tasmanian devil’s cloud of lies and threats.

On the Streets of Manhattan

Facing indictment, Trump continued (of course) to lie, but it was his threats that drew the most attention, specifically the “potential death and destruction” that might befall America if Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg — or by extension any prosecutor — had the temerity to actually bring him before a court on criminal charges. 

Along with that warning, and in seeming furtherance of that outcome, Trump also called, on his Truth Social platform, for his supporters to “PROTEST, TAKE OUR NATION BACK!”

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) tweeted “We MUST protest the unconstitutional WITCH HUNT!” and headed to New York with her bullhorn. Rep. George Santos (R-NY), apparently eyeing an opportunity to move up from the MAGA D-List, joined her.

Security was ramped up: A “stand ready” order was issued to some 35,000 New York City police officers, basically the entire force, to defend potential targets of violence. Beginning with the area around the courthouse, the sites were hardened and prepared for a possible January 6-level onslaught. The NYPD put on their helmets, placed metal pillars in front of the building, removed trash cans lest they hide a bomb. 

And then… nobody came. 

Well, not quite nobody, but the protest peaked at a couple hundred Trump supporters, who were reportedly outnumbered by opponents and, for much of the morning, reporters.

Where were the Proud Boys, the Three Percenters, the Oath Keepers? They seem to have stayed home, along with all but a handful of supposedly Trump-besotted MAGAs. 

Trump’s base seemed uninterested in taking even a few hours off to make a sign and yell themselves hoarse.

A heckled Greene and Santos quickly fled the scene

And, more significantly, throughout the rest of America — even in its many bastions of MAGAdom — there were no other protests. From sea to shining sea, “TAKE OUR NATION BACK” had hardly any takers. 

In the Booths of Wisconsin

Okay, but surely, enraged by the spectacle of Trump’s arraignment on that very day, they’d at least take a few minutes to turn out and vote in an election for control of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, by far the most expensive judicial election in US history, acknowledged by both sides to be crucial for Wisconsin politics and quite likely for the conduct and outcome of the 2024 presidential election in which Trump remains an odds-on favorite to be a candidate.

Such was the thinking of one of the most highly respected analysts in the business, Cook Political Report Editor-in-Chief Amy Walter, who, couching her prediction in classic pundit-speak, told NBC News that “all of the energy among [Trump’s] base, the sense that he’s being wronged” might make “things a little more unstable when it comes to understanding turnout [in the Wisconsin Supreme Court race].” 

By which she meant that there was a decent chance that the indictment and arraignment in New York City could drive the MAGAs of Wisconsin to the polls in droves, enough to confound earlier predictions of a narrow “Democratic” (Wisconsin judicial contests are nominally nonpartisan) victory.

What actually happened was that the progressive candidate, Janet Protasiewicz, beat the Trump-supporting MAGA candidate, Dan Kelly, by an 11-point margin, a mega-landslide in a state where statewide margins have, for some time now, averaged about a tenth of that magnitude. If the Wisconsin MAGAs were mad as hell, they showed no sign that such anger and fealty would translate to votes, any more than it translated to “PROTEST.”

So, has the worm turned? Is America out of the woods when it comes to the Trump cult and the threats of authoritarianism — and worse — that have been emanating from that quarter? It is certainly a promising sign, wormwise, that the street and the voting booth on April 4 each proved to be a MAGA bust. 

The Psychology of the Duped

In trying to account for that turn of events, I found myself turning back to a classic observation by Carl Sagan, since confirmed by research in the field:

One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. … It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken.

The surprising correlative is that most of us would actually choose to continue being duped (or wrong) over having to acknowledge that we have been duped. 

How might this apply to the average MAGA, lied to and bamboozled by Donald Trump? Well, as we’ve seen, no matter what Trump does, no matter what grifts he runs, no matter how long a string of demonstrable lies he spews, and, tragically, no matter how little he actually delivers for folks not like him, his base keeps the faith — rejecting evidence as needed, just as Sagan would have expected. 

Even Fox News, which many would single out as the entity most responsible for our rolling national nightmare, is finally on its heels, brought to bay by, of all things, a voting equipment vendor, and exposed (to all of America except, so far, its own audience) as a collectively sneering, patronizing fraud.

As a consequence, all but a few Republican pols remain terrified of crossing or even criticizing him and so drawing that base’s wrath — because the poll numbers have seemed to indicate enduring loyalty, no matter what.

Please Donate to WhoWhatWhyBut it’s one thing to say you’re for Trump in a poll — when saying you’re no longer for Trump would be the “too painful” acknowledgement posited by Sagan — and another thing to bestir yourself to “PROTEST,” or even just vote, for him. 

Not just in the key Wisconsin election but in the 2022 midterms and an assortment of elections since, MAGA-GOP turnout has been underwhelming, especially in battleground states and districts where it matters most. Trump keeps losing, as those he backs and some of his loudest backers keep going down in key proxy elections. 

And then his long-feared indictment was met with little more than a national MAGA shrug.

What seems to be happening is that support for Trump is becoming more and more perfunctory and, deep down, unenthusiastic — just enough to keep the polling numbers up (although we’ve begun to see a bit of slippage even there) but not enough to win elections and certainly not enough to power coups and revolutions. 

Even Fox News, which many would single out as the entity most responsible for our rolling national nightmare, is finally on its heels, brought to bay by, of all things, a voting equipment vendor, and exposed (to all of America except, so far, its own audience) as a collectively sneering, patronizing fraud.

So, with crossed fingers, I think it may finally be fair to say that that worm has turned. 

Unfortunately, however, there’s another worm, one whose direction and ultimate destination are still the stuff of nightmares. Last week’s third major event sheds some indirect light, I think, on a still hazardous future.

The Tennessee Three

The Tennessee House Republicans, in a straight party-line supermajority vote, expelled two Black Democratic members, representing Nashville and Memphis, who had participated in a protest on the House floor for stricter gun laws after the previous week’s mass shooting at a Nashville school. A white female legislator who joined them in the protest retained her seat (by a single vote).

Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson were expelled for their alleged “breach of decorum” — a standard that, for what it’s worth, would have ended the US House careers of Marjorie Taylor Greene and several other Republicans for their behavior during the last State of the Union address. Not to mention that of the late Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), who led a 2016 sit-in for gun control on the US House floor. 

The Tennessee GOP’s treatment of their Lewis-emulating colleagues — who immediately became known as the Tennessee Three (and have since been reinstated, pending the holding of special elections in which they both plan to run, by vote of the Nashville City Council and Shelby County Board of Commissioners respectively) — has backfired spectacularly. Of course. In retrospect — and, for that matter, in prospect — it could not have been more politically and culturally tone deaf.

The Firefight Next Time?

Which is just what’s worrisome. The GOP’s Tennessee caper is no outlier, but just one example of what The Atlantic’s Ronald Brownstein heralds as “Republicans reach[ing] a new extreme in their effort to build a nation within a nation across the red states.” 

The Republicans — fighting off the federal government, sticking it to the blue cities and voters within their red-state borders, and to Americans everywhere through the long reach of the federal courts, as exemplified by the recent abortion pill case — no longer seem to be navigating by the north star of electoral triumph. 

But to take and hold national power it’s becoming more and more apparent that its only viable path — outside of wholesale election rigging or the emergence of a calamitous “nonpartisan” third party — is violence.

Both their broadly unpopular policy positions (anti-abortion, anti-environment, anti-safety net, pro-gun, pro-Putin, pro-established religion, etc.) and their increasingly aggressive gestures and rhetoric seem calculated to alienate, and indeed enrage, pretty much everyone outside the MAGA base. 

This would work out just fine for a party bent on regional control — a 21st century Confederacy — but as long as the US remains one nation, with a powerful and duly elected federal government, it cannot work. The base is simply too small, and there is no sign that it can grow large enough to prevail at the national level.

Unless. Unless electoral triumph is not what the GOP extremists like Greene have in mind. Of course the GOP will continue to do all it can with its gerrymandered supermajorities in state bastions of absolute power. But to take and hold national power it’s becoming more and more apparent that its only viable path — outside of wholesale election rigging or the emergence of a calamitous “nonpartisan” third party — is violence.

It’s all over their rhetoric (“potential death and destruction”) but it’s also lurking in the increasingly extreme reactionary, racist, misogynistic, and discriminatory policies they are shoving down America’s gagging throat. And in “because we can” stunts like the potential impeachment of the newly elected Justice Protasiewicz, apparently under consideration by members of Wisconsin Senate’s Republican supermajority. 

There is no thought of compromise, no respect for differences — just a relentless campaign to divide, drive down, punish, and provoke. Cruelty, as some have pointed out, seems to be the point.

This is not how you gain or hold power in a representative democracy — even one with a bunch of electoral thumbs on the scale in your favor. But it may be how you destroy that democracy and shift the battle to the streets.

Thomas Massie, Christmas card

Rep. Thomas Massie’s (R-KY) family Christmas card. Photo credit: Jack Cocchiarella / Massie / Twitter

What happens there is anyone’s guess. One suspects that at least some on the far right are aware of their tribe’s overwhelming advantage in firepower, including of course their much loved assault weapons. How alluring that prospect must be to those whose will-to-power seems fated to be permanently thwarted by the democratic process. 

And let us not forget that the Second Amendment, which they hold so dear, speaks not of hunting or even self-defense, but of militias, and was drafted in the context of an escape from tyranny. 

Even a left-wing friend of mine, concerned as he is about “government overreach,” recently expressed qualified support for the MAGA position on guns, shockingly saying he was “glad to know” they’d be there with their guns to protect our “freedoms.” How much stronger that conviction must be among those who actually possess those AR-15s!

Donald Trump has done his work all too well. If he disappeared tomorrow, America would remain dangerously divided and on the brink. We can see the powder in the keg and who knows what final provocation or outrage might (or might not) spark it? 

Should it start, and escalate, things could get very bad, very fast. There’s a significant MAGA presence in the US military but, even assuming the military faithfully set about trying to restore order, it would almost certainly mean the mass killing of American civilians — a national-scale Waco

The American Revolution had its Crispus Attucks, January 6 its Ashli Babbitt. Once the shooting starts, martyrs turn up everywhere and rage becomes all the rage.

There are some who believe America is ripe for a civil war — and many more who pooh-pooh that notion. True, there has been one, but long ago, and things were different then. We who live in America today — at least those among us who were born and have passed our whole lives here — have no experience of, and have given hardly a passing nod to, such a catastrophic breakdown. We have witnessed skirmishes and movements — from Kent State to Occupy — but few among us have given much, if any, hard thought to the center actually not holding.

It is unclear, as it is in so many turbulent times, just where we are in this game — is it the third inning or the bottom of the ninth? 

It is also unclear whether the Republicans — who seem to have inherited from Donald Trump the m.o. of doubling, and redoubling, down at every turn — will, or even want to, find an off-ramp from their charted course. Their taunt seems to be: “You want your America, fight us for it, on our home court.” For too many of them, democracy simply does not seem to be the future of choice.

So has the worm turned? If my father were here, I’d say to him it’s too soon to tell.

Jonathan D. Simon is a senior editor at WhoWhatWhy and author of CODE RED: Computerized Elections and the War on American Democracy.

WhoWhatWhy values our readers’ input and encourages you to drop us a note with your thoughts on this article at Your note will not be publicly displayed.


Comments are closed.