As I write these words on Friday, November 20, 2020, it is nearly two weeks since the end of the elections, but as the whole world knows, Donald Trump is yet to concede that he lost the elections. Indeed, as recently as yesterday, he gave indication that he will stick to the bitter end in his refusal, even if this leads to a fatal breakdown of the political and constitutional order of the United States. But there is no doubt that Trump is close to endgame. The clearest indication of this is the fact that he has given up his attempt to use the courts and legality itself to overturn Biden’s victory. The outlines of this post-legal strategy are still unclear but basically, it involves getting Biden’s electors to cross over to Trump’s side when the Electoral College meets on December 14, 2020. This will mean nothing less than a coup, a non-military coup whose chances of success are between zero and zero minus. This brings to mind that sardonic adage: a drowning man will clutch at a straw.
But if Trump is more or less “finished”, at least for now, Trumpism is far from dead. As a matter of fact, ironically, it is precisely at the very moment that Trump himself is politically at the end of his tether that Trumpism recorded its greatest electoral gains. The most disturbing expression of this astonishing point is the fact that while Trump himself was defeated, Trumpism recorded stunning electoral victories. Against all the polls, all the confident predictions that Biden and the Democrats would score impressive electoral Congressional victories, the Democrats actually lost many seats in the House of Representatives and failed to flip control of the Senate to their Party. Moreover, many of the Republicans whose victories significantly reduced Democrats’ control of the House to single digits are far-right, Trumpian diehards. Control of the Senate is still within reach of the Democrats but that is only if they win the two seats in the State of Georgia in runoff elections that will be held on January 5, 2021. Thus we can say that Trump may be gone but Trumpism is still here with strong legs and muscular sinews, alas.
It is far too early to get a working sense of what this will mean for the incoming Biden administration in particular and, more generally, for the country and the whole world. We must be honest with ourselves: we expected a great, thumping electoral repudiation of not only Trump himself but of Trumpism also. Everything was riding on that expectation, that hope. The racist, misogynistic, xenophobic and fascist excesses of Trump and his hordes would be radically curtailed, if not completely wiped out. The normalization of falsehood, vulgarity and cruelty in big and small things would vanish from public life. Corruption, mediocrity and autocratic highhandedness would go away from governance. And in the wake of these expected changes would come fundamental redress of both ancient and new savage inequities of American society, both at home and in relation to the world at large. None of these happened.
Before the advent of Trump and Trumpism, most Americans had forgotten or never thought much about how ugly and repellent aspects of Americanism could be, side by side with the universally admired achievements of American society, culture and civilization in science, technology, music, literature and the arts, sports and entertainment. McCarthyism and its cult of paranoia and scapegoating in public life were more or less forgotten. The harrowing travails of most immigrant groups in the country, especially the darker-skinned races and peoples, were buried under feelgood myths and narratives of American openness to immigrants. Racism and White supremacist ugliness and violence were consigned to a past that America was said to be doing everything possible and necessary to put behind it. Magical thinking and a medievalism that seemed more than half a millennium behind all modern societies were thought to be completely incompatible to the spiritual and moral arc of American progressivism. That is until all of them were resuscitated by Trump and his hordes, almost intact and indeed in invigorated forms and incarnations.
I cannot move on and away from this list without singling out one of the most confounding and pernicious expression of this Trumpian regress to America’s spectral dark past, this being the so-called QAnon movement. That millions of Americans believe, literally believe, that Democrats and the Hollywood glitterati are pedophiliac and satanic cannibals who sexually molest and then consume children, what can one say in the encounter with this mass movement of Trumpian America, especially given the fact that Trump himself is regarded as a sort of demigod, a half man and half deity avatar of the movement? Please note that some of the newly elected Republican members of Congress are avowed, militant members of QAnon. Note also that Trump has spoken warmly and positively of the movement. Note, finally, that QAnon is so osmotic within Trumpian cultural politics that it has melded seamlessly and effortlessly into the right-wing Christian evangelism that is a huge constituent formation of Trump’s political base.
Perhaps the most consequential aspect of Trumpism that has robustly survived beyond Trump’s electoral defeat is the mythology that the Covid-19 virus is either a hoax or is miraculously disappearing. In the last one week, accounts have been coming from the storm centers of the pandemic in hospital ICU’s showing that even as some terminally stricken patients are dying from affliction by the pandemic, they continue to maintain that the virus is a hoax and what the doctors and nurses are telling them is a misdiagnosis! I place great emphasis on this issue not only because it will tragically cause hundreds of thousands of deaths but also because, so far at least, Biden and the Democrats do not seem to know how to deal with this phenomenon. As they see it, what they need to do is to depoliticize the response to the pandemic. But any careful and nuanced analysis of the Trumpian masses’ response to the pandemic would show that it belongs far more to the phenomenon of mass hysteria than politicization by an opportunist demagogue. When thousands of men and women, adult men and women, go willingly to their deaths believing Trump and not Dr. Anthony Fauci, it should be obvious that the panacea should combine depoliticization with the application of mass shock therapy.
As I approach the conclusion of this discussion, permit me to say, once again, that Trumpism without Trump in power is a phenomenon that is unprecedented in America or perhaps in the world. If this seems like saying that Hitlerism survived Hitler, I would hasten to respond by saying that Hitler built full scale Hitlerism only after he had destroyed every institution and norm of German liberal democracy whereas Trump achieved full-blown Trumpism with most of the institutional and normative foundations or strongholds of liberal democracy in America still relatively intact. This is why already Trump has begun to fly the kite of a bid for the presidency in 2024. This promises to be the ultimate test of the strength of Trumpism without Trump in power because Trump can only be the Republicans’ presidential candidate in 2024 if his looming criminal and civil troubles once he leaves office do not imperil his rights as a legally unimpeded citizen. Only time, in the immediate future as well as in the long haul, only time will tell.
I will end this discussion on one of the most urgent issues that will arise in the immediate aftermath of this emergent space of Trumpism without Trump whose major characteristic is the fact that not only was Trumpism not decisively repudiated but it actually gained considerable electoral strength and leverage. This issue is none other than the alliance of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement with the Democratic Party. Here, permit me to say that I can only give tentative remarks and commentary since we are still in the midst of evolving, open-ended developments. My point of departure, I should emphasize, is my belief that the kind of victory that Biden and the Democrats won shows that America is still fundamentally a Center-Right country whereas the BLM-Democratic Party alliance was predicated on the belief, the hope, that America was about to become, at last, a Center-Left country.
I will be very concrete in my remarks in illustration of this thesis. In any of the liberal capitalist democracies of the West, being Center-Left means you will always need sizeable electoral victories to transform demands articulated in radical activist protests and demonstrations to egalitarian economic, social and civil policies. This is the political and ideological foundation of the welfare state and its celebrated economic and social features – socialized medicine; structural rearrangements of relations between wealth, income and the tax burden in favour of the working and middle classes; state or public support for quality of life, employment, education, pension, leisure and recreation for all and not just those who can afford them, etc., etc. If at any time the Center-Left formation suffers electoral reverses or outright defeats, the ramparts of egalitarianism unravel and social and economic policies undergirding the welfare state unravel. This is what has been happening to the Labour Party and its allies in the United Kingdom in about the last decade.
Of course, America has never had a true or full-blown welfare state, though of course it has had periods of significant progressivism in social and economic matters. I hope that I am not being hasty in my thoughts and deliberations here, but it seemed to me in the final stretch of the marathon electoral cycle of the 2020 American presidency that for the first time in the political history of the country, a historic Center-Left alignment was about to emerge via the alliance of the BLM and the Democratic Party.
We know enough already that this did not happen in the recent elections. In very concrete terms, this means that the numbers and the spread are not there for Biden and the Democrats on one side, and the BLM on the other side, to translate their electoral platform into policies through legislation. Of course, Biden can and will almost certainly use the power of presidential incumbency and, especially the so-called “Executive Orders” to effect meaningful or considerable improvement in the living and working conditions of Black people and other exposed minorities. But BLM and the radical wing of the Democratic expected far more than this. At the very least, they expected that their performance in the elections would lead to procuring the legislative muster to pass far-reaching laws against police brutality and lawlessness against Black people, legislation that would have had multiplier effects on other areas of American public and civic life. We should not expect that they will abandon these legislative agendas; too much “blood”, too much thought have been given to these projects. But, regrettably, to deploy Chinua Achebe’s luminous words, it is not yet morning on creation day in race relations, in undiluted racial justice in America.
I will end on a note of realistic hope. Perhaps it was too idealistic to hope that a country like the United States that is the heartland and the center of gravity of global capitalism can move from Center-Right to Center-Left in one single electoral cycle? Perhaps for that to happen, we would need two or three electoral cycles of the BLM-Democrats’ alliance. If so, the midterm elections in 2022 should serve to confirm or refute these prognostications.