There are times when a victory is a failure. For Democrats, this is one of those times. Joe Biden appears on course to be the next president of the United States, snatching the office from Trump’s small duplicitous hands. The center-left should be rejoicing. The reign of Trump’s Twitter tantrums and egotistic ineptitude is over—and not a moment too soon. COVID19 has taken over 230,000 lives, the economy is severely scarred—perhaps permanently—and the appearance of armed militias during demonstrations has become routine. Under Trump, if America was not a failed state, it was undoubtedly a failing state.
Despite Trump’s callous incompetence, Biden’s victory feels anything but victorious. Pundits predicted Biden surfing across the electoral map on a Blue Wave. The hope was that Democrats—with control of the House, Senate, and Presidency—would be able to right the Trump administration’s wrongs. Finally, they could prove to the American people that they were the big-tent party of responsible government that they always claimed to be. With Republicans out of the way, Democrats could ensure that they would get the job done while also fulfilling Biden’s guarantee that nothing would fundamentally change. Nevertheless, that liberal-technocratic dream would have to wait. There was no Blue Wave. In fact, there was barely a blue anything. Democrats lost four seats in the House, and their chances at taking the Senate, while still possible, have drifted far out of reach.
In many ways, these mixed results were what centrist Democrats promised. Since 2016, leadership in the Democratic Party has been focused entirely on defeating Trump. In doing so, the party’s upper echelons opened their arms to moderate Republicans and opportunists in the Lincoln Project. The message from the Biden campaign was clear. You can split your vote, as long as you vote against Trump at the top of the ticket. And, indeed, many voters did just that. They voted against Trump and for their Republican candidates down ballot.
While this strategy was successful—barely—in ousting Trump from office, it failed miserably in addressing the fundamental problems that led to Trumpism in the first place. The Republican Party has become an impossible coalition. Free-market ideologues and sycophants for corporate America lead the party, but it wins elections by appealing to the prejudices of rural working class voters who, ironically, are some of the most impacted by the Republican Party’s sadistically cruel economic policies. This coalition should have dissolved decades ago, but Republican and Democratic leaders have found ways to keep it alive.
Republicans have doubled down on the most dysfunctional elements within the rural working class, hoping that intense dedication to a single issue would prevent voters from considering a broader economic agenda. Opposition to gun control and abortion, initially fringe issues, were moved to the mainstream. Any compromise on them was treated like an existential threat. Even while conservatives were in power, they projected a sense of being under siege by “cultural Marxists,” “globalists,” “George Soros,” or what covertly anti-Semitic euphemism fashionable at the moment. Far from being the movement for prudency, American conservatism has become a series of undulating panics. The proudly stuffy sophistication of William F. Buckley is gone. In its place is a word salad of dog whistles and double entendres with all the subtly of a fire alarm. Modern American conservatism has become a series of blunt meaningless phrases—”army of illegals,” “abortion factories,” “wokeness,” “Democrat run cities,” “fake news,”—with little regard for internal consistency or relationship to reality. Trump was a manifestation of this stew of conspiratorialism. His angst-filled stream-of-conscious campaigning both spoke to and elevated this faction of useful idiots. With this usual over-the-top extravagance, he implicitly promised the conservative movement that he would be the most useful and most idiotic of the bunch. Promises made, promises kept.
The other save to Republicans’ electoral coalition was the complete abandonment of the working class by the Democratic Party. By the 1990s, the Democratic Party had embraced neoliberalism, but their interpretation of Reagan’s Conservative Revolution differed from their Republican rivals. For Republicans, neoliberalism was about economic liberty. Its purpose was to free society from the social constraints that obligated us to share resources with each other. In Republican terms, neoliberalism meant the death of the welfare state. For Democrats, the purpose of neoliberalism was not to kill the welfare state but to make it more efficient. The qualifier that followed Clinton’s proclamation that “the era of big government is over” during his 1996 State of the Union speech was “but we cannot go back to the time when people were left to fend for themselves.” Unlike the Republicans, Democrats did not claim that free markets were inherently virtuous. Instead, the free market’s dynamism was needed to achieve the promise of New Dealism without actually supporting New Deal-like programs.
The obsession with making an efficient and fiscally responsible welfare state meant the Democratic Party had become the party of technocratic consultation. New Deal populism was dead. According to the Democratic leadership, those with the best education should be the ones in charge, because, well, they are the best people. Trade unionists were pushed aside, and room was made for managerial bureaucrats culled from the professional middle class. The majority of Americans without college degrees felt the condescension. The conservative slur of “liberal elites” found new life, as it became less a slur than an accurate description of power in America. For working class liberals, the move toward technocracy was a betrayal. For the last few decades, they have been frantically fighting to undo it and transform the Democratic Party into a force for progressivism. For the socially conservative working class, the move toward technocracy was not just a betrayal but certain death.
The abandonment of the working class by the Democratic Party, especially in rural areas, along with the elevating of the fringe elements within its ranks, meant the entire demographic was vulnerable to demagoguery. Trump did not mastermind a political realignment; he stumbled into one that was tailor-made for his style of spiteful showmanship. However, just as Trump provided an opportunity for Republicans to keep their coalition together, he also provided an opportunity for Democrats to obliterate it. Beyond the bluster and anti-establishment pageantry, Trump governed like a typical Republican. America’s corporate executives might all agree that Trump’s tweets were obnoxious, but they celebrated his tax cuts, his business-friendly appointments to the federal courts, and his slashing of regulations. To the surprise of no one on the Left, Trump proved to be a faux populist. Instead of seizing on this betrayal, the Biden campaign insisted on focusing on matters of competency and decorum. They argued that Trump should be ejected from the presidency because he is a miscreant blowhard who arrogantly mishandled a deadly pandemic. The argument is true, but in the context of contemporary America, it is not valid. Many people voted for Trump in 2016 because they thought he was the character he played on The Apprentice: a business wizard able to conjure market miracles. He retains that sheen in 2020, and with economic devastation caused by COVID19, people needed that more than ever.
The Democrat leadership fails to understand that the rural working class supports Trump because of his persona, not despite it. The rural working class respects Trump because his brand of economic nationalism promises to bring prosperity to anyone—not if they continue to work hard, the working class in America has already been doing that for decades—but if they refuse to take shit from anyone. This message speaks to the anguish and bigotries of America’s rural working class. Trump held out the hope that rural America’s racial resentments and economic anxieties can be dealt with for good by the sheer force of a boisterous personality. With that prize supposedly within reach, competency and decorum—and even the Constitution—be damned.
Assuaging the feelings of America’s rural working class will require listening to their pain, dissuading them of their destructive beliefs, and addressing their economic precarity with meaningful policy changes. After this election cycle, that is unlikely to occur. Divided government has allowed the leadership within both parties to avoid responsibility. Under Mitch McConnell’s Machiavellian guidance, Republicans have realized that they can hold American democracy hostage by monopolizing specific veto points. While the Senate is lauded as an institution of deliberation, its disproportionate power over the entire federal system inevitably creates incentives for obstructionism. The strategic stranglehold that Republicans have over the federal government prevents any reforms that threaten their corporate donors for being passed, while also giving them enough plausible deniability, especially when Democrats control the presidency, to convince their working class constituency that they are still fighting for them.
Scapegoats can always be found, especially when the real culprits can hide behind the fog of legislative politicking. The situation for Democrats is similar, with the caveat that the logjams have made the Democratic leadership more supine. Fearful that if they do not pass something—anything—Democratic leadership recoils at the possibility that they will be labeled ineffectual. For technocrats, incompetency is always more sinful than unscrupulousness.
If the 2016 election was a farce, then the 2020 election is a tragedy. Despite his lust for an authoritarian government sculpted around his ego, Trump was never truly a fascist. His lack of conviction for anything outside of immediate validation meant that a fascist coup was never going to happen. Trump does not have the discipline to form the necessary state-within-a-state to make fascism possible. Hitler wrote Mien Kampf while in prison; Trump writes tweets while vacationing at Mar-a-Largo. Instead, Trump is what he is: a failed real estate tycoon, turned reality TV star, who cosplayed through the presidency. At nearly every moment, he seemed to overestimate and simultaneously underestimate his power. He never had enough of it to create an authoritarian state, but always had too much of it to be removed from office. What he did do was step into a fascist moment in American history; a moment when, in Gramscian terms, the old world had given away, but the new world had not yet formed, the time when monsters can emerge.
With the 2020 election results, it still appears that the new world is still not ready to be formed. Trump lost the election, but the Democrats failed to defeat Trumpism because they never mobilized the working class against it. Instead, they put all their chips on the integrity of middle class professionals. They lead the party, and with a narcissism that rivals Trump, they believe that only an expansion of their ranks will save America. Their suburban mobilization gave Biden the presidency, but also the Republicans the Senate. For the next four years, Americans can expect their government system to be gridlock and their political culture to be anxious polarization. In other words, more of the same. The danger of gambling massively on the professional middle class is that they are still a minority, and one that is grossly out-of-touch with the millions of Americans without college degrees or who live in rural areas. It is still possible that under the guise of Trumpism, another Trump—one more disciplined and ideological—can emerge. If rural American remains bitter and alienated, there is always the potential for authoritarian demagogues to feed off it. At that point, without a progressive uprising from within the working class, Americans may find themselves for generations condemned to the time of monsters.