By the time you’re reading this, barring some unforeseen disaster, the Electoral College will have officially elected Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States of America. I’ve started to wonder about this era and what history will remember and how we will be defined and by what. After 4 years it is clear that the defining political figure of this generation was not George Bush, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell, or perhaps even Barack Obama. It has been Donald Trump, this is his era and like Reagan and Franklin Delano Roosevelt before him, he has redefined American social and political life and new political coalitions have formed that seemed previously unimaginable.
The big question of the last 4 years has been “What does the Trump presidency say about America?”. I think it says quite a lot, but first I want to address the election of Joe Biden which I believe is actually a confirmation of the cornerstone of American identity. Denialism.
In America we have a penchant for historical revisionism and erasing or “re-imaging” the parts of our culture that make us uncomfortable. The civil war is now about “states’ rights” as opposed to the obvious, slavery. We declared “Manifest Destiny” because “Genocide” didn’t have the same ring to it. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a left-wing anti-war and anti-racist radical who was deeply unpopular in white America yet even he, who existed in living memory, has been retaught as a popular conciliatory moderate. With Joe Biden we are attempting to pretend that we aren’t exactly the country that we know we are. We are being presented with a message that Biden and Kamala Harris represent the beginning of a racial democracy in America. 81 million Americans voted for Biden and Harris, therefore we are renewed and transformed and ready to move away from our old divisions. That’s a message that ignores that Biden was the least “woke” of all candidates in the Democratic primaries. Biden never said “Latinx”, Biden was a frequent target of social justice movements (most notably #MeToo and Black Lives Matter), and Biden had too many gaffes to count whether it was about the decency of Strom Thurmond or “You Ain’t Black”. Yet, he was overwhelmingly the choice of the liberal party. We could, but it’s not even necessary to touch on Harris’ complicated record on race in California as Attorney General and San Francisco District Attorney. This is all to say that Biden and Harris do not represent a move towards racial democracy in any literal or symbolic way, yet America continues to tell itself that story. Biden is not Donald Trump, but his record is also a racist one despite serving as the Vice President of the first Black President and now having selected a Black woman to occupy his former office. It’s that incongruity that is American as well, to be able to have these contrasting identities without acknowledging the cognitive dissonance. Which brings us to our outgoing President, Donald J. Trump.
What made Donald Trump different from any American politician that we’ve encountered in this century or the last was his complete irreverence for norms and institutions. Donald Trump never pretended to care about the legitimacy of courts or federalism or the separation of powers or precedent or internationalism or democracy. It’s not clear whether this was because he was opposed to these concepts, or indifferent to them, or simply did not understand them. It’s also not clear that it matters. Because what has become increasingly clear is that these values of the republic were from the top down, lauded by members of government, media, and academia but unfamiliar to ordinary people. Americans thrive in conspiracy, we are distrustful of our government, we are skeptical of new information and we are dreadfully terrified of one another. This is something that goes unsaid in politics because it diminishes the image of an indomitable and virtuous people. It perhaps also goes unsaid because politicians are often so detached from reality that they can’t see what’s in front of them. Regardless, the American people are almost unified in their desire for material prosperity which manifests itself in many different ways. For some it means a clean environment, for others it means economic opportunity in terms of jobs or avoiding debt, and for many of us it simply means having confidence that tomorrow will be easier.
They are unmoored by ideology, which isn’t to say Americans have no strong beliefs. Most Americans are religious, and that faith informs their politics in different ways, as does class and race more often than not. But they are not rigid and are willing to constantly transform themselves to survive. The small government, deficit hawk, free-traders of 10 years ago are now protectionists and have no taste for austerity. Conversely the immigration skeptic, entitlement reformer, doves now see themselves defending an indefensible war abroad and demanding a more generous welfare state at home. This is true of Donald Trump whose politics are self-serving, conceived to maximally benefit himself while minimally disturbing his own prejudices. Is Donald Trump, a man who almost certainly has paid for an abortion, genuinely pro-life? Is Donald Trump, an alleged multi-billionaire from Manhattan, genuinely concerned with Midwestern farmers? Is Donald Trump, a man who donated to Hillary Clinton, genuinely a Republican? There are likely few things Donald Trump is genuinely passionate about, except of course racism and wealth. His willingness to abandon old allies and identities and hold so many idiosyncratic views was part of his appeal.
The slogan Make America Great Again elicited reactions that were appropriate, questions of when was America great and how would Trump restore this alleged greatness. There were some who countered that America is already great because of its diversity or standard of living or high minded ideals. But fundamentally, what Donald Trump did was partly acknowledge that America is a nation in decline. We are not a great country, millions are imprisoned, millions more have been languishing in poverty for generations, the ghettos and the countryside are consumed with addiction, our children have no guarantees of future prosperity, and our infrastructure fails to meet the needs of our population. Of course, Trump was implying a return to a great white America where many were left behind, including a great deal of his voters, but that relevance became increasingly fleeting as the years went on.
Maybe it was our own nihilism that led to Trump because most voters didn’t think he was honest, moral, or trustworthy. But then again it was that he was so very deeply flawed that imbued upon him a level of humanity that he was undeserving of but was nevertheless familiar to so many of us. His many insecurities were laid bare in front of all of us and he was unintentionally vulnerable displaying his neurosis on an international stage. Many of us were embarrassed but many more were amused because to have Donald Trump as President of the United States was the ultimate statement on the ludicrousness of politics in general. Donald Trump is simply the worst manifestation of the ubiquitous frustrations that grip the American people. It is no more ridiculous that any human being, especially Jeff Bezos, should have $200 billion than it is that Donald Trump should be President. It is no more insane that America should be fighting the same war in Afghanistan for 19 years than it is that Donald Trump should be President. It is no more absurd that 60 million people in the richest country in the history of the world are exposed to unsafe tap water than it is that Donald Trump should be President. Americans understand that our shared reality is senseless and so it only stands to reason that we’d abandon all pretense and have a government to match.
Donald Trump will leave the White House next month but what he’s unleashed in America will be with us for the foreseeable future, for better or for worse. Because of Donald Trump all illusions of American Exceptionalism are gone, I don’t pretend to know what that will mean going forward. The best we can hope for is a politics based in the reality of the need to address enormous human suffering. The worst we should hope to avoid is an even more cynical and hopeless continuation of Trumpism which effectively has become a death cult. What I think is most important to acknowledge is that we (as in all of us) made Donald Trump happen. When we didn’t question our political order, it made it that much easier for a demagogue to exploit it’s obvious decencies and bring us closer to authoritarianism than we’ve been in living memory. That’s on all of us and the effects were globalized because when we made Donald Trump a legitimate political figure, it made it that much easier for Bolsonaro in Brazil, Johnson in the UK, Kurz in Austria, Modi in India, and Erdogan in Turkey to maintain power. It will take a long time to even begin to atone for this national sin, but it begins with continuing to question our myths and to scrutinize President Biden.
In the meantime, we’re going to have to wrestle with Donald Trump and recognizing that part of why he so arouses our disgust is because we see him in ourselves. If we don’t like what we see, it’s up to each of us to change it.