The Second-Most Important Election of our Lifetimes

Now that Joe Biden has won, I can tell you what I’ve been saying to my friends but promised not to say in public until the election was over: This was not the most important election of our lifetimes.

The most important election of our lifetimes was four years ago. And we lost.

Of course it matters that Biden won or, more to the point, that Donald Trump lost. But fascism is not defeated so easily. I was less panicked than most of my friends about this year’s election for two reasons.

First, the real damage to democracy has already been done.

Roughly 30 percent of our fellow citizens live in an alternative universe where, among other things, Donald Trump has done a fantastic job protecting Americans from the new coronavirus and only lost the presidency because of rampant election fraud. The Trump White House Reality Show has normalized blatant lying, corruption, and abuse of power: military aid traded for dirt on political rivals; militarized DHS units on city streets; Blackhawk helicopters buzzing rooftops in the capital; the Justice Department mobilized to look for nonexistent election fraud. These are all ready-to-hand tools for the next would-be dictator. Four years of Joe Biden are not going to solve that problem, especially when those 30 percent of Americans will see his presidency as confirming evidence of the Deep State/globalist/socialist/Venezuelan/Ivy League/Black Lives Matter/Council on Foreign Relations plot to rule the world. (And let’s not even talk about the Supreme Court, which we lost.)

Second, the appropriate question about the next Trumpist presidency is not if, but when.

There’s no reason to think that Donald Trump will fade from the scene or that his stranglehold over the Republican base will loosen. Nor is there any reason to think that the Republican electorate will abandon Trump anytime soon: racial resentment, militant religiosity, imperviousness to facts, and hatred of cosmopolitan elites are the natural outcome of the conservative political journey, not some freakish aberration. Odds are that the 2024 nominee will be a demagogue in the Trump mold, if not a Trump in name—Donald, Ivanka, or Donald Jr. In other words, every election for the foreseeable future will be a battle against the prospect of fascism. And presidential elections are usually close; one of these days, we’re going to lose one. (Don’t forget that we would have lost this one if not for the COVID-19 pandemic.)

So what now? I know what I think we should do, but I confess I’m not sure it will be enough. As those who read Take Back Our Party know, I think that rising inequality—and the widespread feeling of being left behind by an economic system that is rigged in favor of economic, financial, technological, and intellectual elites—was the structural condition that made possible the rise of President Trump. I doubt that people are any more racist than they were thirty years ago. I certainly encountered more overt racism as a child in a New York suburb than I do now. What has changed is that people no longer believe that the economy works for everyone. Instead, many poor and middle-class white Americans think, as so well described by Arlie Russell Hochschild in Strangers in Their Own Land, that “other people” are cutting in front of them in the line that used to lead to the American Dream.

In the long term, lower inequality is a necessary condition for an end to Trumpism. But I doubt that it is a sufficient condition. Once we lost the 2016 election, Pandora’s box opened, the toothpaste was out of the tube, pick your metaphor . . . Of course we should still push for higher taxes on the wealthy, Medicare for All, affordable housing, free college, and all the other policies that will alleviate suffering, reduce inequality, and restore hope to the tens of millions of people who think—with reason—that America is no longer the land of opportunity. But the great political divide in our country now is not between rich and poor, or even between white and nonwhite, but between people in completely different versions of reality. President Trump didn’t invent talk radio or the Internet, nor was he the first person to lie on either one. But, like no one before him (in this country, at least), he demonstrated how demagoguery, technology, and the power of incumbency could be combined to create and mobilize a mass following primed to believe the most absurd, hateful fantasies about their fellow citizens. In this environment, it’s hard to see how the most progressive, inequality-reducing policies could convince their very beneficiaries to abandon the cult of Trump, at least in the short term.

So how does Trumpism end? The best way is to smother it while it is still a curiosity, a fringe political fad that has little chance of success. But we had one chance to do that—in 2016—and we failed. One possibility is that the so-called traditional conservatives—people like Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, or Jeb Bush—could take back the Republican Party. To do that, they would have to win both the 2024 presidential nomination and the general election; anything less would only enhance the appeal of Trumpism. In any case, given the president’s chokehold on the Republican base, it’s hard to see the nomination going to anyone other than a Trump or a mini-Trump (Pompeo, DeSantis, etc.).

The other possibility is that we could be saved by demographics. The country is becoming less and less white every day. And young people are far more tolerant and progressive than any other segment of the electorate. These factors should be on our side in the long term. But the current Democratic establishment is playing a dangerous game assuming that nonwhites and young progressives will continue voting for technocratic, corporate moderates who do little about the most important challenges of our time: inequality, racial injustice, and climate change. President Trump’s gains among Blacks, Latinos, and Asians show the risks of taking the nonwhite vote for granted. Democrats’ dismal showing in down-ballot races also shows the emptiness of the party’s message, which once again boiled down to “We’re not Trump.”

Trumpism is a powerful political movement with a charismatic leader (hard as it is for many of us to understand his appeal) and an information and technology infrastructure that can excite and mobilize tens of millions of people quickly and effectively. The desire of many young and nonwhite people (and many older and white people, too) to live in a more fair, more just, more equal, and less racist world is another powerful political force, albeit without the leadership and infrastructure of Trumpism. They are the only viable future for the Democratic Party. We need to offer a future of real change—not the hopey-changey talk that Barack Obama excelled at, and not the return to normalcy that Biden promised. Every election that we take progressives for granted and try to grind out a win by picking up a few more votes from affluent suburbanites—who don’t want higher taxes, don’t want low-income housing in their town, want to keep their employer-provided health insurance, and like the police just fine—is another battle we may or may not win while losing the war for our country’s future.



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James Kwak

Books: Take Back Our Party, Economism, White House Burning, 13 Bankers. Chair, @southerncenter. Co-founder, @Guidewire_PandC. Freelance cellist.