Like most of you, i cannot wait until Donald Trump leaves the White House and the daily onslaught of Trump “news” ceases. Unfortunately, while Trump will move on to the netherworld, the political madness will continue. The most difficult 2020 election lesson is that Trump is not the cause of Republican insanity, he is its symptom.
In the 2020 election, more than 74 million Americans voted for Donald Trump. They chose crazy.
It’s a deeply disturbing fact that millions of Americans voted for Trump. A fact that’s important to consider, because Trump will disappear but Trumpism will persist. Many Trump voters will continue to support Republican irrationality.
Many pundits disparage Trump supporters; call them stupid, deplorable, or worse. I believe the most apt characterization of MAGA devotees is desperate. Trump supporters feel hopeless and have grasped Trump as a “lifesaver.”
This is the perspective expressed by UC Berkeley Sociology professor Arlie Hochshild in her 2016 book: “Strangers in Their Own Land.” Hochschild conducted a five-year study of Louisiana Tea Party voters who eventually became Trump supporters. Hochschild details their “deep story,” a narrative shared by her interviewees: “You are standing in a long line leading up a hill, as in a pilgrimage. You are situated in the middle of this line, along with others who are also white, older, Christian, and predominantly male… Just over the brow of the hill is the American Dream, the goal of everyone waiting in line. Most in the back of the line are people of color… Look! You see people cutting in line ahead of you! You’re following the rules. They aren’t. As they cut in, it feels like you are being moved back… Who are they? Women, immigrants, refugees, public sector workers — where will it end?”
The voters Hochschild interviewed had been screwed over for so long that they were profoundly disoriented. Grasping for a lifeline, they latched onto Trump. After January 20th, Trump may slink offstage, but the desperation experienced by Trump voters will not disappear. As a consequence, Trump voters will continue to support Republican irrationality.
This is a perspective shared by New York Times columnist, David Brooks, who recently wrote (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/26/opinion/republican-disinformation.html? ): “We live in a country in epistemological crisis, in which much of the Republican Party has become detached from reality.” [Emphasis added] Brooks explained: “In 1972, people without college degrees were nearly as happy as those with college degrees. Now those without a degree are far more unhappy about their lives… This precarity has created, in nation after nation, intense populist backlashes against the highly educated folks who have migrated to the cities and accrued significant economic, cultural and political power…. People in this precarious state are going to demand stories that will both explain their distrust back to them and also enclose them within a safe community of believers. The evangelists of distrust, from Donald Trump to Alex Jones to the followers of QAnon, rose up to give them those stories and provide that community. Paradoxically, conspiracy theories have become the most effective community bonding mechanisms of the 21st century.”
Brooks concluded: “Under Trump, the Republican identity is defined not by a set of policy beliefs but by a paranoid mind-set… Distrust and precarity, caused by economic, cultural and spiritual threat, are the source.”
The key question for the Biden Administration is what to do about this. How should they manage a situation where a substantial percentage of the populous not only did not vote for Biden-Harris but actually believes their election was illegitimate?
Addressing this political and social divide will take time. There are several obvious steps. First, the message from the Biden Administration has to be one of reconciliation. In a recent speech, Joe Biden said, ““We are not enemies. We are Americans. This is the time to heal in America.” That’s the right message, but many Trump supporters will not accept it; many MAGA devotees will hunker down within their paranoid communities.
Biden has taken control of the “bully pulpit.” Over the next four years, Biden has to use this communication advantage to promote a positive message of reconciliation and hope. The key is message consistency; if it’s maintained, Trump supporters will succumb.
The second step requires understanding that “the populist backlash” is a symptom of class conflict. Donald Trump, and other Republican leaders, have — to further their selfish political agenda — promoted a class war: the “deplorables” versus the “coastal elites.” Listen to the language of Trump attorney Sidney Powell: “American patriots are fed up with the corruption from the local level, to the highest level of our government… We are going to reclaim the United States of America for the people who vote for freedom.”
In 2016, Trump’s message to his supporters was: “The system is broken and I alone can fix it.” Millions of Americans responded to Trump’s message, because they believe the system is broken.
The third step is to address the substantive grievances of Trump supporters, and millions of other Americans. They want a shot at the American Dream.
In October, the Gallup Poll asked Americans: “In general, are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States at this time?” 80 percent of respondents said they were “dissatisfied.” These Americans are dissatisfied with a lot of things: their jobs, housing, healthcare, and the education of their children. They are dissatisfied because they do not believe there is “a level playing field.” They are dissatisfied because they believe that a seminal American mythic narrative is dead. A myth that Robert Reich (https://delong.typepad.com/egregious_moderation/2008/02/robert-reich-th.html) identified as: “The Triumphant Individual… the familiar tale of the little guy who works hard, takes risks, believes in himself, and eventually gains wealth, fame, and honor.”
This dissatisfaction is not unique to Trump supporters. It’s shared by many who voted for Biden-Harris. That’s the silver lining in this difficult situation: most Biden supporters, and Trump devotees, ultimately want the same thing: a fair shot at the American dream.