Joe Biden is inching closer to victory, but Trumpism will not disappear with Trump. The results this year demonstrate the enduring appeal of racism and misogyny in the United States, and how America’s sclerotic and anti-majoritarian governing institutions continue to leave us vulnerable to authoritarianism.
Though the last few days have been anxiety-provoking, some of the apparent closeness of the election is a mirage. As was widely anticipated, rural votes were tallied faster on election night than votes in the cities, and mail-in ballots took days to count, resulting in early apparent leads for Trump that dwindled and reversed as more votes were counted. The ridiculous and malignant anachronism of the Electoral College means that Biden’s millions-strong popular vote margin did not assure his victory. Republican efforts to suppress the vote, stop the vote count, and even invalidate ballots already counted, have made the results more tenuous than they would otherwise be.
Nonetheless, and despite an uncontrolled pandemic that has already killed 234,000 Americans, more than 68 million Americans (and counting) voted to keep President Trump in office. Indeed, though Trump has fulfilled nearly every nightmare scenario his opponents warned of, and though he has all but abandoned the vague gestures he once made toward economic populism, Trump gained at least six million voters over his total in 2016.
These results are a fundamentally unsurprising but nonetheless stark reminder of the enduring power of racism and misogyny in America. More broadly, Trump’s core appeal is the appeal of fascism: the pleasure of inflicting cruelty and humiliation on those one fears and disdains, the gratification of receiving the authoritarian’s flattery, and the exhilaration of a crowd freed from the normal strictures of law, reason and decency.
Americans are not immune to the charms of authoritarianism. We did not need Trump to know this about ourselves; racial authoritarianism has existed within and alongside our democracy from the beginning. Trump was in essence a rearguard action by those who wish to preserve the racial hierarchy that has defined America from its founding.
Given the lure of authoritarianism, divided government in 2021 poses a very real danger. If our government’s capacity to provide for the American people remains hobbled by a conservative minority’s intransigence, more people will lose faith that democracy can provide the economic security and stability they long for and deserve. If Americans are excluded from the material power that is the right of a democratic citizenry, more voters will choose the symbolic proximity to power that racial authoritarianism and patriarchy provide, and others will cease to participate entirely. In other words, four years of gridlock will be an engraved invitation to fascism.
The future looks brighter if there is a governing coalition that has the strength and the will to eliminate minoritarian roadblocks like the filibuster and actually govern. When politics is limited to style and rhetoric, conservative cultural symbolism thrives in its echo-chamber media ecosystem. But the political calculus changes when politics has visible material consequences for voters. Republicans repeatedly voted to strike down the Affordable Care Act when they knew that President Obama would veto the legislation. But once they could actually strip Americans of protections for pre-existing conditions, suddenly the party could not find the votes to do so. The problem was simply that, as appealing as it was for conservatives to destroy the Obama legacy rhetorically, the decision to deliver on that rhetoric would have actual consequences that their constituents would notice.
The Democratic trifecta necessary in Washington for major legislation to pass will likely hinge on special elections in the state of Georgia. But even if the federal government remains mired in disastrous austerity politics, there remains much work to be done at state and local levels. After all, it is in our bluest cities the police have engaged, with near-absolute impunity, in the systematic abuse of protestors. It is Democratic mayors and city councils that, while happily decrying Trump, have utterly failed to hold their own police forces to account. The successful ballot measures that passed this year are only a small first step. For Democrats rightly concerned about America’s slide toward authoritarianism, at least part of the solution starts at home.