If you’re a political nerd like me, elections are always an exciting affair: they’re an excuse to pull an all-nighter and hunker down in the living room, splitting your attention between the holy trinity of the television, laptop and phone. This year didn’t quite go to plan. I settled in on the settee and cracked open a beer only to quickly succumb to the irresistible urge to rest my head and get some brief shut eye.
Predictably I woke up a few hours later, having missed much of the action. Florida had been called for Trump. A huge Biden upset had been averted for the Republicans in Texas. Quite selfishly I was glad that things hadn’t been decided while I had been dozing – I’d been looking forward to the election for months. Even on Wednesday morning one thing had been made crystal clear: this wasn’t going to be the emphatic vote of no confidence in Trump that we had all anticipated. Despite having lost the presidency an even higher number of people have voted for him this year than in 2016 – all thanks to record high turnout.
This wasn’t supposed to be the case, but then I suppose supposing anything is a fool’s errand these days when it comes to politics. We learnt this the hard way in 2016: first with Brexit, then with Trump. Nothing should come as a surprise if nothing is assumed. The main takeaway of 2020’s result is that Trump and the movement behind him isn’t some anomaly, flash in the pan or seedy one-night stand. Trumpism has taken hold in the soil of American society, and its roots are deep and binding.
So much political analysis that concerns Trump tends to lead to discussion along the axis of whether or not the Trump phenomenon is a cause or a symptom of America’s broken politics, but I think it’s clearly both. Trumpism should really be seen more like a mould: forming in dark, rotten conditions and then eating away at the structural stability of the very thing it grows upon. And much like a mould you can’t just scrub him away and expect him not to return if you don’t first address the systemic issues that caused him to occur in the first place.
I think the reasons Trump outperformed expectations once again are much the same as the ones that delivered him the presidency four years ago. A lot of Americans (just under half of them by the looks of things) are unhappy. They distrust mainstream media, federal institutions and above all a political elite in Washington that they feel doesn’t represent them. Trump might be a buffoon but he has masterfully tapped into that undercurrent of resentment and poured fuel onto the fire for his own benefit. He paints himself as a victimised outsider, a voice for the sizeable portion of America who feel they no longer have a say.
It’s piss-easy to dismiss those that vote for him as bigots, racists and imbeciles. I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t my gut reaction too. But the truth isn’t nearly as simple. Trump has constructed a brand new coalition of Republicans, one that spans the traditional heartlands of the South and rural backwaters of America, encompassing unemployed blue collar workers in the mid-West and conservative Latino voters in places like Florida. Tarring all those voters with the same brush risks ignoring the nuance of the issue at hand, and glosses over the fact that the political battle lines have been redrawn.
There needs to be a reflection of what these new contours for the national debate are, and there are key takeaways from Biden’s uncomfortably narrow victory that should be of great significance to Democrats and Republican elites alike. The classic left/right divide is no longer a relevant interpretation of how politics operates in America anymore. You have redundant factory workers in Michigan voting for the same party as rich oil men in Houston, Cuban American immigrants in Florida wearing the same red hats as racist trailer dwellers in Oklahoma. There needs to be a recognition of the fact that the fundamentals of the debate have changed: this is about populism versus progressivism.
Populism is a word that get bandied around somewhat carelessly, so let’s briefly break down what we mean by that term. Populism is a form of politics which seeks to appeal to the ordinary person who feels left out and looked down upon by The Powers That Be™. It’s us versus them. The people against the elites. When combined with a heavy dose of nationalism the us/them dynamic extends not only to corrupt political institutions (the vertical “other”) but also outsider forces as well – Islam, immigrants, the EU (the horizontal “other”). Remember that vertical/horizontal distinction, I’ll return to that in just a moment.
There’s a pretty good chance that if you’re reading this you’re probably a progressive. You likely wouldn’t have clicked on an article comparing Trump to a fungal growth if you weren’t. Like me, Trump probably offends and disgusts you in the same way as that patch of black gunk you discovered in the corner of your bathroom. He violates the basic principles of decency, and what’s worse is that he doesn’t even seem to fucking care – if anything he practically enjoys it.
On the face of things there doesn’t appear to be a common cause a person like you or I could find with someone like him or really those that support him either. I would ask however that we look back at those dimensions of populism again: the horizontal and the vertical. I think if there’s one defining mood in the current zeitgeist it must surely be one of universal contempt for the establishment, whether that be toward the political ruling classes, mass media gatekeepers, police departments or the greedy 1%. This groundswell of discontent is directed vertically upwards towards our superiors, and it’s the common thread that links such separate movements as Occupy Wall Street, BLM or the MAGA brigade.
This brings me to Biden. How unusual is it that I’m writing an election analysis piece and I’ve barely spoken about the winner? Much of this comes down to just how utterly mediocre a candidate Biden is. His victory is about as exciting as receiving your monthly bank statement. I’ve registered no amount of enthusiasm from pretty much anyone about his victory, only relief that Trump has been given the boot. What does Biden really represent other than rejecting Trump? If the Democrats can’t effectively pitch a separate vision for what America should look like the debate will forever be on his terms.
The Democrats might have clinched the presidency by the skin of their teeth, but I feel this only offers us a short reprieve from the otherwise dominant political force of populism. In my eyes the fact that all we can talk about is Trump even after he has been toppled in battle is indicative of the fact that he has, in some sense, won the war. We might have wiped him off the bathroom tiling (and Trump himself might indeed be gone for good) but the spores of what he represents are now firmly embedded in the cracks, and the mould that stains America will grow back just as ferociously as before – even if it takes a slightly different form next time. The cat is out the bag. The damage? Done.
With a wafer-thin mandate Biden is pushing out all the unity rhetoric under the sun, but unless he strays radically from his neoliberal, back-to-status-quo-as-if-nothing-ever-happened platform then his empty words will fall on deaf ears. If people feel like they are governed by out-of-touch, distant centrists in Washington then such a message from yet another career politician is not going to resonate.
To be clear: last Tuesday’s result is a huge, welcome moment. But it is not cause for celebration. Biden’s victory has bought progressives some much needed time. Part of what makes Trump so brilliantly frightening is how he completely hijacks the conversation. He says something outrageous. He tells a blatant lie. Suddenly journalists and politicians are scrambling to try and denounce him and hold him to account. The pace at which he does this is so breakneck that there’s too little time to do much else. Some even think that Trump used this tactic throughout his presidency to purposefully distract and misdirect people’s attention from other news he didn’t want people to see – sort of like a magician but with less rabbits being pulled out of hats and more golden showers instead.
In the face of this Twitter Blitzkrieg it’s too challenging – let alone confusing enough – to try and mount any other response beyond trying to push back against his hyper-offensive, up-in-your-face playstyle. This leaves very little space to try and put forward another proposal. I think plenty of progressives are incredulous that his supporters don’t find his behaviour as abhorrent as they do, but I find this explanation by Salena Zito to be most apt when describing his loose relationship with facts:
When he makes claims like this, the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.
Again, it’s useful to refer back to that vertical resentment most of his supporters feel towards the mainstream media and the political elite – do you think they really care if CNN or an esteemed Senator found Trump’s comments derogatory? They probably get a bit of a kick out of it, and it probably confirms their suspicions that the media and progressives are more concerned about political correctness than they are about using government to improve people’s lives.
Before I proceed I want to emphasise that I don’t stand for what Trump says in any way, and that his dog whistle, hate-infused politics should rightfully be condemned. Here’s the thing though: if condemnation becomes the central response then we’re playing his game – he’s got us right where he wants us, playing gutter politics whilst he proceeds with dismantling environmental protections, bungling pandemic responses and handing out tax cuts to the stinking rich. And all that progressives shall receive and deserve from their politicians are people like Biden who offer up nothing in particular except disapproval.
How then can we ensure that the fungus of Trumpism doesn’t make a return? What measures can we take to properly ventilate the room and guarantee that it doesn’t creep back now that it’s been freshly bleached? With Trump expelled from the Oval Office we can now slowly start to begin that process of eradication. He’s had his main weapon – his platform – at least partially taken away from him. That’s significant because it means that instead of operating reactively to everything he says Democrats have a little breathing room to begin proactively laying out a road map for how to recover and how to reach out to all the disenfranchised voters that have abandoned them in their heartlands.
I feel that so much of establishment (and even progressive) thinking is bound up in the idea that all the anger capitalised on by populists like Trump or Boris Johnson can simply be dammed up, and that if you build the walls high enough (pun unintended) you can keep it from trickling into the mainstream. Inevitably those reservoirs fill up and up before they eventually burst through, and you end up with freak, flash-flood results like the ones we saw in 2016.
We need to redirect and harness that stream of anger. Populists benefit when we’re all fighting horizontal battles, and folk like Trump gleefully stir those pots any chance they get – it summons a vocal and deeply hateful group of their supporters and drains the energy of anyone that tries to oppose them. If America is to come together again after such a bitter and divisive four years then solidarity needs to be found in dissatisfaction. Progressives don’t need to fight fire with fire – you can be bold politically without pitting people against each other. If the one thing that unites us is that we look up to our politicians and our institutions and we don’t like what we see, then we shouldn’t look down upon people that think the same way.
As Biden’s presidency marks the beginning of a new chapter, let us not be fooled into complacency but rather look forward to 2024 (when hopefully Biden will voluntarily step aside at the ripe old age of 81). In four short years progressives are going to have to regain their footing and find a new champion for the cause that will deliver a much more convincing victory, all the while cleaning up the almighty pandemic mess that Trump has left in his wake. To achieve that the future Democratic candidate will have to convert a huge chunk of Trump’s support back to their party, which will be no easy task. The Dems have plenty of fresh talent to choose from for when that time comes, but in the meantime they can get to work making sure that the dreaded mould never makes a return.
Words by Charlie Forbes
Cover artwork by Katy Bremner (Instagram: @katsbrems)
Sources, Further Reading and Other Resources:
Brian Ott – ‘Donald Trump, Master of Misdirection’:
Salena Zito – ‘Taking Trump Seriously, Not Literally’:
Roger Brubaker – ‘Between nationalism and civilizationism: the European populist moment in comparative perspective’:
Van Jones – ‘What if a US presidential candidate refuses to concede after an election?’:
I can also highly recommend the book ‘How Democracies Die’ by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt which you can buy here: