As of now, it looks like Joe Biden will be the next president of the US. That’s the good news. Biden will be able to undo some of the damage that Trump has wrought over the past four years. The federal government will once again be permitted to perform the many functions of the “deep state” (i.e., public employees conscientiously trying to do their jobs) that have been undermined by the Trump administration’s devotion to plutocracy and to Trump’s personal political interests.
The bad news is that without a Democratic Senate, Biden won’t be able to put through most of the changes that this country badly needs. (Honestly, I was hopeful, but not confident, that Biden would be up to the challenges ahead of him. Now we won’t know.) The Trump tax cuts, which severely limit the government’s spending capabilities, will stand. Forget about anything resembling a green new deal. Even a more conventional infrastructure program will be at the mercy of Mitch McConnell’s determination to prevent a Democratic administration from demonstrating that government is capable of serving broad public needs. And of course, the right-wing dominance of the Supreme Court will be untouchable.
Most depressing of all to me is the fact that even after four years of demonstrable malfeasance and incompetence (most obviously and catastrophically evident in the pandemic), nearly half of the American voting public supports a buffoonish, racist demagogue; a lifelong con man devoid of integrity; a malignant narcissist lacking the moral compass of a normally socialized adult. How do we explain it? Trump’s popularity is all the more puzzling because on most policy issues, the public clearly favors a more progressive policy agenda closer to the Democrats’ side.
The explanation for Trump’s popularity has to start with Trump himself. As I have said repeatedly, the man is a tremendously talented demagogue—a genuinely charismatic figure who knows how to push all the buttons that make his followers light up. And I do think the Democrats needed to be much more hard-hitting and relentless in hammering away at the depth of the man’s corruption and immorality. Emblematic was Biden’s failure during the second debate to counter Trump’s phony charges of corruption with the sordid realities of the Trump record.
But the deeper roots of Trumpian popularity lie with the American public. Trumpism is powered by a widespread sense of political alienation and cultural grievance.
By “cultural grievance” I mean the sense that “our” America—the America in which the modal family is headed by a straight white male breadwinner earning a good salary—is slipping away. Racism is an important part of this story, of course, but it goes beyond race. It’s also about feminism and marriage equality challenging traditional notions of masculinity and family roles. Cultural grievance is especially widespread in rural America, reflecting a widespread and deep-rooted tradition of anti-intellectualism.* The idea that highly educated urban coastal elites are contemptuous of middle America has long been a staple of the Republican propaganda machine, and Trump has perfected its exploitation. But it’s important to understand the critical role of long-term economic trends: the growth of cultural grievance finds its most fertile soil in the de-industrialized lands of rust belt America, to Trump’s advantage.
By “political alienation” I’m referring to the well-founded perception by much of the American electorate that the political system is unresponsive to their interests. There are many reasons for that unresponsiveness, prominent among them being the dependable servitude of the Republican party to the interests of a relatively small, affluent slice of the electorate. But the low information voters who flock to the GOP don’t see that–they only see a distant, dysfunctional Washington. Along comes Donald Trump, who will drain the swamp. That’s nonsense, of course—Trump’s is the most corrupt administration in our history—but they believe it because Trump is the antithesis of a conventional politician. His crudeness, his vulgarity, his very nastiness make him refreshingly different; they prove his authenticity.
Ultimately, political alienation, like cultural grievance, is tied to economic trends. Inequality has escalated while the incomes of non-college-educated working people have stagnated. Good manufacturing jobs have migrated to Mexico, China and wherever. The politicians don’t do anything about the situation and probably make it worse. Only the non-politician Trump will really fight for us!
Ideally, a Biden administration would counter the appeals of Trumpism by demonstrating that government can be made to serve pressing public needs that the market can’t meet, like health care and climate change. But Mitch McConnell and his minions won’t let that happen. And who will get the blame for Washington’s dysfunction? An obvious target will be the conventional politician sitting in the White House. Biden, they will say, is no Trump. So, with or without the Great Leader as a candidate, Trumpism will live on, with decent prospects in 2022 and 2024.