In November of last year, Donald Trump lost the presidential election with the highest number of votes for a Republican candidate ever and the second-highest for a presidential candidate. Only Joe Biden did better. Trump also managed to garner the second-highest share of the non-white vote, 26%. Only George W. Bush outdid him, winning 28% in 2004, as a number of commentaries, seeking to diminish Trump’s feat, have pointed out. What they fail to acknowledge, however, is the fact that the two candidates were very different. Bush had many flaws, but race-baiting was not among them.
Against that, by the time of the 2020 election, there was a wealth of evidence that “racial revanchism” was central to President Trump’s political agenda. This, however, did not prevent a significant number of minority voters from casting their ballots for him. Whether or not this made a difference is an interesting question. In some cases, it might have, most notably in Texas.
Trumpism After Trump: The Wrong Person at the Right Time?
To be sure, Biden won the vast majority of the Hispanic vote in the big cities like Dallas, San Antonio and Austin. Trump, however, did surprisingly well in the heavily Latino counties in southern Texas along the Rio Grande border with Mexico. In Starr county, for instance, which is almost completely Hispanic, Trump gained more than 55% of the vote compared to 2016. These results, as neutral observers have charged, “ended up helping to dash any hopes Democrats had of taking Texas.”
Ahead of the election, Democrats had high hopes that this time, the emerging Democratic majority was finally going to materialize. The notion goes back to the title of a book from 2002, written by John Judis and Ruy Teixeira. In it, the authors argued that the future belonged to the Democrats, for a number of reasons. There was the transformation of America’s demography, there were secular ideological changes going in a progressive direction, and there was, last but not least, the growing socioeconomic and sociocultural dominance of large metropolitan areas, rooted in the growth of a postindustrial economy — what Teixeira called “ideopolises,” organized around ideas and services.
The idea was that the Democrats were in a better position than the Republicans to appeal to the diverse constituencies emerging from these developments: on the one hand, the growing ranks of professionals in the high-tech, finance, education, law and medical sectors, a growing number of them women; on the other, ancillary services, such as sales clerks, waiters, janitors, security personnel and teachers’ aides, a large number of them Hispanics and African Americans. Together, Teixeira suggested, they “formed powerful coalitions that now dominate the politics of many ideopolises united in their support of a politics of “tolerance and openness.”
In the meantime, much ink has been spilled over the crucial socioeconomic and sociocultural importance of metropolitan areas, largely confirming Teixeira’s assessment. Today’s “global cities” such as New York, London, Paris and Tokyo generate a significant part of their respective nation’s wealth. At the same time, however, they also represent quasi self-contained entities increasingly disconnected from the rest of the country.
This is a problem, for in the process, the hinterland, which at one time played a crucial role as a supplier of myriads of inputs from small and medium-sized companies, has largely become structurally irrelevant to the metropolitan economy. With it went the middle-class labor force that was the backbone of what once was known as America’s heartland but is today disparaged as flyover country, its inhabitants dismissed as deplorable and repellent racist, sexist, homophobic ignoramuses. Proof: Why else would they have voted for somebody like Trump?
After roughly two decades since the book was published, the emerging Democratic majority has still not fully materialized. Instead, what we have got are two antagonistic political tribes whose seemingly irreconcilable differences have polarized American politics along a wide range of fault lines: views on immigration, reproductive choice, gender, Black Lives Matter, gun control, affordable health care, social security — the list goes on. This divide’s grand signifier in today’s politics is Donald Trump. As unbelievable as it might sound — given he lost the election, given he was impeached twice, given he left the office scorned and disgraced — his legacy continues to haunt post-Trump politics and is likely to do so for the foreseeable future.
Not Fade Away
According to a recent representative survey, around 80% of Republicans continue to have a favorable view of Donald Trump; more than 70% believe that the charge that the former president incited the assault on the US Capitol on January 6 is untrue; and almost two-thirds believe there was widespread fraud in the 2020 election. It fits that according to the most recent Quinnipiac poll, conducted after Trump’s acquittal in the Senate, three-quarters of Republican respondents said they wished Trump would continue to play a “big role” in the GOP. So much for those who think Trump will somehow fade away into oblivion.
Trump won in 2016 because he quite skillfully managed to articulate, appeal and respond to a range of diffuse popular grievances, accorded them legitimacy and, in the process, gave the impression that he listened and not only understood, but empathized with them — reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s well-known “I feel your pain” from 1992. Even if Trump should miraculously disappear from the American political scene, Trumpism, as The Washington Post’s conservative commentator Gary Abernathy has recently maintained, “Trumpism is the GOP’s future.” If this indeed should be the case, it means that the chances for the emergence of a Democratic majority are likely to be as bleak as they have been over the past two decades.
The notion of an emerging Democratic majority is premised on the idea that certain groups in society, most notably the highly educated, visible minorities, women and sexual minorities, qua their subordinate socioeconomic and sociocultural position have a “natural” affinity for a certain type of politics. Any deviation is either seen as a result of “false consciousness,” a failure “to get with the program” or, worse, simple betrayal of the cause, as the singer Madonna charged in 2016. A case in point was Barak Obama’s attack on Hispanics who voted for the incumbent in 2020, accusing them of ignoring Trump’s track record of race-baiting.
America Is No Longer One Nation
The same applies to all the white women who voted for Trump, despite his record of routinely disparaging and denigrating women. As Sarah Jaffe has put it in an article for the New Labor Forum, no single fact about the 2016 election was “more confounding than the fact that Trump’s margin of victory included a slim majority of white women voters.” Things were even worse in 2020. While Trump lost some support among white men, his support among white women remained virtually unchanged.
Political parties, particularly in two-party systems such as the United States, have to assemble a coalition of disparate groups. A case in point was the Democratic Party, which for a long time managed to hold together two factions, one from the South and the other from the Northeast, that were fundamentally at loggerheads over major issues such as civil rights. Behind the idea of the emerging Democratic majority is the expectation that it is possible to put together a coalition on the basis of shared values and shared aspirations, derived from shared experiences of a lack of recognition, if not outright discrimination.
Twenty years ago, this was a reasonable expectation, given the direction of social, and particularly demographic, change. The populist surge that has swept over the United States during the past decade or so, however, has fundamentally altered the logic of electoral choice. Populist mobilization derives its logic not from shared values and aspirations, but from disparate grievances and the perceived unresponsiveness of the political establishment to these grievances.
Successful populist protagonists are not successful because they come up with elaborate blueprints for profound socioeconomic change, but because they absorb and reflect myriads of disparate grievances and give them a voice. More often than not, populist politics are not about the future but a glorified past, reflecting the surge of nostalgia that has become a hallmark of the current age, further enhanced and intensified by COVID-19.
There is nothing wrong with nostalgia. In fact, new studies show that nostalgia can be a beneficial mechanism helpful to coping with a difficult situation. It becomes dangerous, however, when it provokes an aggressive response. This, it seems, is what has happened in recent years among parts of the American public — or, at least, that is what the recent survey mentioned earlier suggests. In response to the statement that “the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it,” more than a third of respondents agreed either completely (11%) or somewhat (25%).
In light of the events of January 6, this is quite alarming. But it jibes with the findings of a recent study of MAGA supporters, who to a significant extent consist of white Christian males beyond retirement age. Full of resentment toward assertive women no longer willing to take shit from men, African Americans seen as not trying hard enough and immigrants accused of changing American culture for the worse, they epitomize this kind of radical political nostalgia.
Nostalgia in terms of a yearning for the status quo ante might to a certain extent explain why a majority of white women voted for Trump. More often than not, grievances stem from changes that individuals perceive as having been imposed on them. A classic case is the construction of nuclear power plants, which in the past gave rise to massive popular resistance and contributed to the rise of Green parties. In the current situation in the United States, grievances stem to a significant extent from both demographic change and the increased visibility of minorities who refuse to remain silent.
When white women voted for Donald Trump, it was because what has been happening over the past years is a fundamental challenge to the existing racial hierarchy that had been taken for granted. A vote for Trump was a vote for maintaining a tenuous status quo, where white women might be second-class with respect to gender but first-class with respect to race. The same logic certainly does not apply to black voters supporting Trump, a majority of whom were black men. It also does not apply to Hispanics, whose diverse background (Mexican, Cuban, Central American, etc.) makes it even more difficult to come up with a common denominator. Religious considerations, particularly with respect to reproductive choice and gender issues, certainly played a significant role, as did the perception that neither party cares about their concerns.
What has been emerging over the past decades is a new constellation of political contest, pitting substance-based politics grounded in reasoned deliberation and values, however flawed, against grievance-based politics fueled by anger and resentment. This is hardly confined to the United States. Western Europe has been struggling with this phenomenon and its fallout for decades. Yet given its peculiar system, the United States is in a unique position to serve as a laboratory to see how these dynamics play themselves out. One might wish that the vision behind the notion of the emerging Democratic majority will ultimately carry the day.
Nietzschean skepticism informed by the notion of “human, all too human” calls for caution. Trump might be finished politically. His spirit, however, is alive and well, capable of causing mischief to no end. Trump’s recent full-front attack on Mitch McConnell is a foretaste of things to come. It portends an attempt to completely transform the GOP into a radical right-wing populist party, devoid of any kind of real substance — in other words, a replica writ large of the Great Leader.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.