2020 will be remembered for a lot, and one of the obvious low points is the start of a global pandemic. However, for many this will be offset (at least partly) by an incredible high point: The election that unseated Donald Trump. At least symbolically, this was (and still is) celebrated as a sizable blow to the grip of a new wave of populist, nationalist, and often racist tendencies on American politics. Yet, comfort in this kind of celebration should be short-lived, and more concern should immediately be focused on the monstrous social and cultural challenges still right at our doorsteps. There are no easy answers to any of these challenges, but the first step is recognizing the problems themselves, and the realities that face us.
Trump’s Political Successes Are Not Built on a Minority Audience
From the start of campaigns through to election results, U.S. Presidential runs create a lot of noise for themselves. The victor tends to relish in the glory of a spotlight that gives the impression of an ultimate triumph — a mandate from the vast majority of the public being realized. However, the winner-take-all setup of the presidency and electoral college allows people to overstate the conclusions they attached to the winner or loser.
The “American public” overwhelmingly rejecting Trumpism is a desirable story, but isn’t based on the numbers. As I write this, one of the election dashboards I use shows Biden and Trump at about 81 and 74 million votes respectively. Biden’s proponents claim a strong mandate has been realized for him to fulfill. Trump’s proponents are claiming that, at the very least, Trump’s mandate ended way too soon, and many claim his mandate is in fact not over and the election was stolen from him. One of the greatest social challenges moving forward is that — except for the claims of a stolen election — neither sentiment is necessarily false. Biden got merely 7 million more votes, so framing the 2020 election outcome as a pendulum decisively swinging away from Trump, the recent version of the Republican party, and everything they stand for, doesn’t really fly.
Nearly half the voters in this election experienced Donald Trump as president for four years, and decided that they liked what they saw and everything else that came with it — at least enough to vote for it again. Time will tell if the strength of the support that brought him to power, or the coalitions that worked for him, will dwindle in influence, but for now that certainly isn’t the case. Unless you’re a totalitarian idealist, these people cannot and should not be ignored, have their political autonomy taken away, or removed from existence. The only way that progress or meaningful social change can be achieved from this point forward is if anti-Trumpers truly accept the fact that Trump voters are not a fringe group that can be circumvented while other agendas are pursued, nor is it easy or desirable to dismiss 74 million people as lost causes. They will be a factor to consider and deal with in American social and political circumstances — no matter what the path forward is, and no matter their reasons for voting for Trump — for a long time to come. Such is the business of a democratic society.
Portions of the Intellectual and Business Classes Have Shown Support or Acceptance of Hyper-Nationalism
It turns out that Trump was not put into power only by MAGA-hat wearing, BBQ-loving, rust-belt types angered about the factory in their town shutting down (again). There are other, significant portions of the population that leaned toward Trump, Trumpism, and hyper-nationalist tendencies in 2016 and 2020 from the intellectual and business classes, and many other unseen pockets of the country. The perpetual discussion and media attention surrounding the “typical Trump supporter” archetype reinforces a perception in that what is being overturned in this election was a previous, not-to-be-repeated decision by a bunch of uneducated, simple, lower class hicks that don’t need to be taken seriously — they can now get out of the way and let the adults govern everyone back to some semblance of normal. After Biden was called the winner of the recent election by multiple sources, a lot of coverage and discussion used this archetype as a representation of how most Trump partisans were reacting — framing them mostly as unhinged, trashy, hopeless lunatics. All of this is a convenient distraction from the more serious discussion of the variance in the Trump voter base.
It’s easy and comforting to explain the phenomenon of Trump support away as mostly the result of either outright racist, backward people latching onto his style, or folks who got caught up in the long con of his brand. Make no mistake, that is definitely true for some of his supporters, but perhaps more troubling and interesting to consider what we often don’t see: the out-of-spotlight, formally educated and professional folks from many different walks of life that still place their allegiance with Trump and/or the Republican party, strongly or moderately. These people aren’t out screaming in the streets waving American flags or dancing around, nor are they counter-protesting Black Lives Matter rallies with MAGA hats — in other words, they don’t make for good TV. Instead, they are mostly at home, doing relatively well for themselves and their family (income wise), and are more than capable of understanding the kind of things Trump represents both rhetorically and in his actions. They also understand better than others what the consequences of hyper-nationalism paired with a strong state are, to some degree, and they seem perfectly okay with that outcome on balance.
While so many are distracted by stories of their preferred stereotypes, sections of formally educated and well-off people are able to intellectualize and justify their support for the populist, hyper-nationalist, and often racist sentiments — or at least tolerate it enough to cast a vote “against” Joe Biden. The normalization of these sentiments among sections of the population with higher incomes, living standards, and so-called education, largely escapes the volume and kind of scrutiny other groups of “typical Trump supporters” get. Frankly, this probably has its roots in class reasons and preconceived notions of certain classes many have internalized to some degree.
Any fight against the tendencies of hyper-nationalism, fascism, and extreme right-wing populism is only possible while recognizing that these sentiments are not shared exclusively among “outsiders” of the usual political game, or away from what many initially think of as professional, civilized, and decent people — these tendencies are deeply rooted across the entire country. The easy thing to do is think of these sentiments as heading out of Washington along with Trump. The harder thing to do is accept that these sentiments cannot simply be lampooned and laughed off the stage, but need to be countered with serious arguments and genuine public discourse over the long run.
The Nature and Function of the Mainstream Media Has Not Changed
The massive relief that so clearly set in with the mainstream media after the election was clearly heading toward a Biden victory is just one sign of the desire across the American news media industry and its intellectual circles for some sort of return to “normal” in the political news cycle and politics. However, for those who want to see a standard of investigative journalism that holds government to the highest levels of accountability under continuing scrutiny, “normal” was never satisfying to begin with. The aesthetic and rhetoric that Trump brought to the presidency — his approach to speeches and press conferences, pandering to some of the uglier elements of American nationalism and nativism, etc. — made it easy for mainstream news outlets to double-down on their self-image of crusading professionals acting as a check against power. This was especially true as outlets like The New York Times wrote for largely formally educated, suburban and urban audiences that agreed with them and disliked what they were seeing at the surface of federal politics just as much as the news outlets themselves — in other words, audiences were getting the criticism and ridicule they wanted to hear and read. However, journalism should often be for what people don’t want to hear, and unfortunately many in the public and among political elites probably won’t have the same appetite or demand for similar levels of criticism against Biden and his administration — or any other Democrat for that matter. The performance of these institutions during the Trump presidency should not become the high-water mark for the so-called fourth estate of democracy to hang their hat upon.
The Washington Post may be proud to tell us that “Democracy Dies in Darkness” with their new slogan adopted in 2017, but during the Trump presidency and the political polarization of the past five years or so, this is hardly a controversial stance or crusading principle against the majority, world order, or powers that be. The fact that most Americans were left in “darkness” about the holding centers and cages that children and families were locked in at the American border, until a non-elite-favored president came onto the scene and accelerated their use, points to a lot of questions about just how principled these outlets are with a media favorite — or more media-friendly — politician and administration in office. It certainly didn’t appear that Obama was regarded as some vile monster for keeping children in cages, or a war criminal for increasing the use of drones to continue global assassination programs around the world resulting in the collateral killing that comes with that.
To be clear, news media can be just as much of a friend to a critical mind as it is an enemy — it all depends who they’re covering and the kind of thinking and approach the audience brings to the content. And, this is not to say there are never articles published being critical about administrations more popular overall with media types — a simple internet search will show that’s not the case. However, certain articles trickling their way through the news cycle that read critical of an administration is a far cry from a constant hum of protest that frames the President as a dangerously powerful person at the helm of an equally dangerous structure of power, or consistent displays of righteous indignation against the crimes committed by the state and its masters. The fact that so many people would summarize Trump as a failed president leaving office in shame on the one hand, and Obama as a largely good guy who had some regrettable mistakes and missteps throughout his administration on the other, speaks to how both of these people were treated and framed by the mainstream media to a large degree — specifically those investigative and supposedly more serious outlets who were more friendly to Obama. It’s important to continually recognize and consider the subtle ways political information and current events are filtered through these outlets, and how everything from story selection, framing of topics, and tone and style, so easily results in the creation of long-term convictions in the public mind and the passive acceptance of certain truths.
As Biden transitions to the presidency and the spectacle of Donald Trump dies down, outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post shouldn’t be able to rest on whatever laurels they earned in people’s eyes during the last four years with a relatively easy target of an administration, nor should the tail of Biden’s rhetorical style in contrast with Trump’s, wag the dog of his coverage. If the media, their pundits, and intellectuals plan on taking any point of principle they uttered during the Trump administration, then their task is just beginning. Frankly, their work and criticism will only be laudable when they do it to the same rabid degree against those that appear to be more tolerable and politically “normal” on the surface.
The Breakdown of Consciousness, and the Retreat After One Battle
If the rise of Barack Obama to the presidency over 10 years ago taught only one lesson, it should be that the euphoria set off by slogans of “hope” and “change” joined with enough of the population disliking or hating an incumbent president still wasn’t enough to generate any 180 degree turns on the direction of government policy. Many people wanting to hold George Bush accountable for his actions as president (perhaps the worst being his administration’s architecting of the invasion of Iraq and increasing presence in the Middle East) seem to have thought the serious work of political consciousness and the heavy lifting of holding power accountable was over with the election of Obama. With (what they viewed as) the mostly right person being put in charge, many retreated away from the Bush-era level of political concern, thinking the country’s problems were in relatively good, or at least better, hands.
It turned out that rotating a new set of administrators into the White House didn’t cause problems to magically solve themselves. In fact, many of the Bush-era sins were extended or strengthened under Obama, including the Patriot Act, what is euphemistically referred to as “the use of drones,” and so on. International tensions and conflict still escalated as the United States continued to shape world affairs from its position of power, and domestically there were still injustices, including the abuse of power by law enforcement.
So, here we are at risk of the same cycle repeating itself.
The last four years have served as some degree of a much-needed political wake-up call for many people in the United States and around the world. It activated a political concern internationally about the rise of populism and nationalism, and a domestic level of consciousness that at least culminated in the highest voter turnout in over a century and the historical significance of removing an impeached one-term president from office. It also proved that small victories in the short-run from external pressure on institutions can affect outcomes in the long-run — even if we’re just nudging vectors at points of origin or along the way by a bit. Yet, it can all go to waste.
If Americans and those around the world truly care about a more just society, this should not just be the beginning of a decline in the new wave of concern and desire for political accountability with a whimper. Only the continuation of external pressure on the federal government from the people can make it politically profitable for politicians to reverse damaging social policies, or rectify some of the injustices of the structure of American power. Without external pressure, they will go about their business as usual. Perhaps the biggest challenge of the next four years will be holding the incoming president to an extremely high standard of accountability, preferably higher than Trump faced — a task easier said than done.
Joe Biden needs a term that amounts to four years of walking on eggshells. After all, he was Obama’s vice president and at least partially complicit in any of the injustices perpetrated by that administration, and he got a front-row seat to observe what a president can get away with while using the right tone of voice, smile, and taking the benefit of the doubt as far as it can go. If his administration gets to lean upon a massive sigh of relief from millions of people that eagerly retreat from a heightened level of political concern and back into minding their own business, then at that point we’re just waiting for the next brush with unhinged, unprincipled totalitarian tendencies, or maybe something even worse — perhaps more principled and systematic ones.