Though votes are still being counted, and will likely be disputed whenever that process is completed, it appears as though the four-year run of the Trump Show in America has come to an end. But the results of the 2020 presidential election, whatever they may be, have made few people happy, aside perhaps from some Republican senators. Polling, again, appears to have been misleading. And while Trump may be removed from the White House, his party (that is to say, what he fashioned out of the Republican rump) is still a large and vital force in America’s politics.
This has led to much soul-searching among liberals, but most of the analyses I’ve read miss an important point. That point relates to what Trump represented, and in turn what Republicans now stand for. I’ve spoken before about the bankruptcy of traditional conservatism, and I think that is now pretty firmly established. The idea that this is a party of fiscal responsibility, family values, law and order, or even deference to the Constitution (a “phony” document in Trump’s phrase) is only a joke now. Even such basic principles that one would have formerly thought of as core to being an American – like a belief in democracy and the rule of law – have been extensively repudiated. But at the same time I don’t think it’s correct to say that it’s only a party now of indurated racists and toxic masculinity. Yes, Trump is a shameless racist and a pig, but not everyone who voted for him shares those qualities. He had surprising support among Latinos, for example, and women clung to him in this election as well. Nor do I think his base can solely be identified with out-of-work white men without a college education, those left behind by the new economy. Anger is more general in society than that, and is far from the special preserve of its so-called losers.
I also find it unhelpful to say, as many do, that the right only cares about power. Everyone wants power, and power is rarely an end in itself. I don’t think there is a widespread longing for authoritarian government (though I’ll hold out for that being a possibility). It seems unlikely to me that rural voters in poor districts care all that much about maintaining, or reverting to, an archaic and mostly legendary status quo just for the sake of holding on to some kind of vestigial cultural (if no longer economic) privilege. Instead, I think there is a clear objective in view.
What the right (I can’t bring myself to call it conservatism anymore) stands for, its sole mission now, is, to use the preferred euphemism, “limited government.” A little more strongly put, but still not strong enough for many, this means the “dismantling of the administrative state.” This is something I’ve gone on about before (most recently here) and it doesn’t seem worth going over again. The bottom line, literally, was that once they had passed the tax reform that would starve the government of over a trillion dollars of revenue, Republicans had done all that their donors had paid them to do (they were candid about this) and could effectively sit on their hands.
Aside from such negative acts as cutting taxes and deregulation, Republicans don’t see government as having any function. Climate change is only a hoax and so nothing need, or should, be done about it. “Infrastructure week” became a running joke right out of the gate and the wall was never built, as everyone knew it wouldn’t be. The big, beautiful health plan Trump promised turned out, four years later, to only be binders full of blank paper. One can’t emphasize this enough: there was never even any intention of the government actually doing anything in any of these cases, because government itself was seen to be the only problem that needed fixing. And the only way it can be fixed is by getting rid of it. When the COVID-19 crisis struck, to say the administration was wrong-footed would be to mistake what happened entirely. Trump, and his task force, didn’t want to do anything. They figured government shouldn’t get involved. Right-wing apologists, even of the Never Trump variety, argued for government getting out of the way so that the saintly private sector and free markets could do their work. The MAGA crowd took their lead from this and railed against anyone in government telling them to wear a mask or cut down on social gatherings.
So aside from the Republican negative agenda of government self-euthanasia (tax cuts, deregulation, downsizing or shuttering government departments) there was nothing else but the rallies, led by the orange-faced Hate-Monger. At the Republican convention in 2020 they didn’t even bother with a platform. Now that the tax cuts had been passed there was nothing left to do but to go on looting the till, stripping the copper wiring from the wall, and, as Sarah Kendzior likes to put it, selling off the country to the oligarchs for scraps. This serves the interests of the 1% very well, and for a large segment of the population, educated by Fox News and suffering the daily frustrations, aggravations, and humiliations of having to deal with all levels of government authorities, hatred of the government and the public sector is an easy sell. Most of us, even on the left, can relate. Indeed for some on the left the government is an even bigger bogeyman.
This anger is a force underlying much of what Democrats have, apparently, failed to understand. In a piece on Latino support for Trump that ran in The Atlantic just before the election it was said that Democrats didn’t get the strong strain of “self-reliance” within these communities, with that quality just being another way of referring to their distrust or dislike of government (self-reliance being something totally other than, or at least not including, personal responsibility, something that Trump rejects categorically). In a post-election essay in the same magazine George Packer wondered about the two Americas but failed to draw a conclusion that I found obvious in his earlier book The Unwinding. As I said in my review of The Unwinding:
Government of either party and at any level is now despised as being not just useless but parasitical and downright destructive. Elected representatives couldn’t get anything done if they tried, and it’s clear they have no intention of trying to do anything but continue to service the very rich. As the chapters on Jeff Connaughton show (he’s an idealistic young man who goes to Washington and is disillusioned), even those in government hate government.
When one party in a two-party system is a wrecking crew committed to dismantling the state I’m not sure the country can still be considered governable. Moving forward, the Republicans have no interest or incentive to be anything but Mitch McConnell’s “party of no.” Meanwhile, the support for this radical anti-governmentalism is unshakeable. This is now a platform Republicans will be held to, while at the same time never being held accountable for any failure to provide good governance. Even in power they can always blame the evils of their own government, which have been so evident over the course of the last four years, on a shadowy Deep State residing somewhere in the bowels of D.C., perhaps a basement where children are kidnapped and sold as sex slaves.
If you believe stories like that – and I’m afraid a great many people do – then we are quite beyond hope of finding common ground. Just as the Republicans have no reason to work with Democrats, Democrats have no reason to compromise or try to appeal to anyone who voted for Trump in 2020 after just witnessing a record of crime, corruption, and incompetence, unparalleled in American history. Joe Biden’s finest moment on the campaign trail came in the early going when an older man (older even than Biden) said he was struggling with the stories about Biden’s son in Ukraine. An exasperated Biden turned away, saying simply that if he was concerned about that, in the face of Trump’s various enormities, then he was never going to vote for Biden anyway. I’m sure he was right.
The name that’s usually given to this tribal bifurcation is polarization, a word that’s been kicked around a lot for a while but that has now truly entered into a terminal phase, abetted not just by different media bubbles but the work of algorithms that control our consumption of news. The left and the right speak different languages, and are pursuing ends that are not just opposed but wholly incompatible.
Trump was the culmination of various trends in American politics that are still operative, and which one should expect to get worse. As Ronald Brownstein writes of the now “impermeability of the nation’s divisions”: “The clearest message of this week’s complicated election results is that the trench is deepening between red and blue America.” The anger that characterizes the political zeitgeist will only deepen, fueled by growing inequality, economic crisis, and self-reinforcing media silos that profit out of manufactured outrage. Who can believe this will end well?