The discontent that swept Trump to power in 2016 has not gone away. To pretend like it has will only invite future disaster.
Normalcy and the restoration of a modicum of decorum to the White House: that is what many elite supporters of Joe Biden hope for now that he has won the election. But the rest of us are turned off by this meagre ambition. Voters who loathe Trump celebrate his loss, but the majority rue the return to what used to pass as normal or ethical.
When Trump contracted COVID-19, his opponents feared he might benefit from a sympathy vote. But Trump is not a normal president seeking voters’ sympathy. He doesn’t do sympathy. He neither needs nor banks on it. Trump trades on anger, weaponises hatred and meticulously cultivates the dread with which the majority of Americans have been living after the financial bubble burst in 2008. Obscenities and contempt for the rules of polite society were his means of connecting with a large section of American society.
The reason 2008 was a momentous year wasn’t just because of the magnitude of the crisis, but because it was the year when normality was shattered once-and-for-all.
The original postwar social contract broke in the early 1970s, yielding permanent real median earnings stagnation. It was replaced by a promise to America’s working class of another route to prosperity: rising house prices and financialised pension schemes. When Wall Street’s house of cards collapsed in 2008, so did this postwar social contract between America’s working class and its rulers.
After the crash of 2008, big business deployed the central bank money that refloated Wall Street to buy back their own shares, sending share prices (and, naturally, their directors’ bonuses) through the stratosphere while starving Main Street of serious investment in good-quality jobs. A majority of Americans were thus treated, in quick succession, to negative equity, home repossessions, collapsing pension kitties and casualised work — all that against the spectacle of watching wealth and power concentrate in the hands of so few.
By 2016, the majority of Americans were deeply frustrated. On the one hand, they lived with the private anguish caused by the permanent austerity to which their communities had been immersed since 2008. And, on the other, they could see a ruling class whose losses were socialised by the government, which defined the response to the crash.
Donald Trump simply took advantage of that frustration.
And he did so with tactics that, to this day, keep his liberal opponents in disarray. Democrats protested that Trump was a nobody, and thus unfit to be president. That did not work in a society shaped by media which for years elevated inconsequential celebrities.
Even worse for Trump’s opponents, portraying him as incompetent is an own goal: Donald J Trump is not merely incompetent. George W Bush was incompetent. No, Trump is much worse than that. Trump combines gross incompetence with rare competence. On the one hand, he cannot string two decent sentences together to make a point, and has failed spectacularly to protect millions of Americans from COVID-19. But, on the other hand, he tore up Nafta, the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement that took decades to put together. Remarkably, he replaced it swiftly with one that is certainly not worse — at least from the perspective of American blue-collar workers or, even, Mexican factory workers who now enjoy an hourly wage considerably greater than before.
Moreover, despite his belligerent posturing, Trump not only kept his promise to not start new wars but, additionally, he withdrew American troops from a variety of theatres where their presence had caused considerable misery with no tangible benefits for peace or, indeed, American influence.
Trump’s opponents also frequently called him a liar. But Trump is not simply a liar. Bill Clinton lied. Again, Trump is far worse. He has an ability to spew the most incredible untruths, while, at the very same time, telling crucial truths that no president would ever admit to. For example, when accused that he was de-funding the post office for electoral gain, he destabilised his accusers by admitting that, yes, he was restricting funding to USPS to make it harder for Democrats to vote.
Trump’s rudeness to his opponents, however disagreeable, might have even brought some relief to the forgotten Americans who associate Biden’s politeness with the gentle mercies that the former vice-president reserves for Wall Street and the super-rich who bankrolled his campaign. Not unreasonably, they see Biden as a polite emissary of the bankers who repossessed their homes and, at once, a member of an administration that bailed out — with public money — those same bankers.
They hear Biden’s sleek, well-mannered speeches about unity, respect, tolerance and bringing citizens together and they think “no, thanks, I don’t want to be united with, or tolerant of, those who got rich by shoving me in a hole”. To them, Trump’s behaviour is an ugly but welcome manifestation of solidarity with ordinary folks who feel empowered by the combination of the president’s vulgarity and his evocations of America’s irrepressible greatness — even if, deep down, they never expected their prospects to improve significantly when America becomes “great again”.
The tragedy of progressives is that Trump’s supporters are not entirely wrong.
The Democratic party has demonstrated time and again its determination to prevent any challenge to the powerful that are responsible for the pain, anger and humiliation that propelled Trump to the White House. Democrats can talk until the cows come home about racial justice, the need for more women in positions of power, the rights of the LGBT community etc. But, the moment politicians like Bernie Sanders threaten to challenge the power structures that keep black Americans, women, minorities and the poor in society’s margins, they go all out to stop them.
Trump’s supporters are unlikely to articulate this in so many words. However, their contempt for the liberal establishment is rooted in the realisation that the rich Democrats behind the Biden-Harris ticket won’t ever truly change conditions for the poor. Any redistribution of wealth and power that threatens their kids’ trust fund, or soaring asset prices on Wall Street, are off-limits — and those voters know that.
Against this background, however hard Biden tries to speak the language of some Green New Deal, no one can imagine him uttering a phrase like Franklin Roosevelt’s, who referring to bankers once said: “They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.” Without a readiness to confront the greatest concentration of corporate power in the history of the United States, even the most amiable of presidents will fail to deliver either social justice or serious climate change mitigation. At least Trump wasn’t hypocritical, his supporters might say.
So yes, Joe Biden has won. And thank goodness for that. But let’s understand that he did so despite, not because of, his social graces or promise to restore normality to the White House. The confluence of discontent that powered Trump to power in 2016 has not gone away. To pretend like it has is only to invite future disaster – for America and the rest of the world.
This article was originally published in The Guardian.
Do you want to be informed of DiEM25's actions? Sign up here