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“As the count currently stands, nearly 80 million Americans voted for Joe Biden,” Senator Bernie Sanders recently remarked: “With this vote against the authoritarian bigotry of Donald Trump, the world can breathe a collective sigh of relief.”
But how did Trump’s bigotry triumph in the first place?
Sanders has an answer similar to what many political scientists have been saying since 2016: “At a time when millions of Americans are living in fear and anxiety, have lost their jobs because of unfair trade agreements and are earning no more in real dollars than 47 years ago, he was perceived by his supporters to be a tough guy and a ‘fighter’.” Sanders went on to lament how “a certain segment of the working class in our country still believe Donald Trump is on their side.” As a result, he concluded, Biden and his fellow Democrats “must show, in word and deed, how fraudulent the Republican Party is when it claims to be the party of working families.”
It’s certainly true, as Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson recently showed, that, under Trump, the plutocrats got richer, while his populist base got… tweets. But it’s also true that Trump got less support from working class whites than he did from more affluent middle and upper-middle class white voters, and that that white working class support shifted slightly towards the Democrats in 2020. The percentage of white working class men voting Democratic increased from 23 percent in 2016 to 28 percent in 2020, a shift that could have been critical to Biden’s win in states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.
Still, Sander’s piece overlooks several worrisome aspects of his hope to wean the white working-class away from the GOP.
For one thing, it’s not new: as Nicholas Carmes’ and Noam Lupu’s careful study shows, working class support for Republican candidates has been climbing steadily since 1992.
Second, it is not clear that the growing support for Trump among poorer white voters had much to do with class. Since early in the new century, class has been covered over with culture, and the cultural factors that drew working class supporters to Trump had little to do with the robust working class culture of Sanders’s youth. As Brian Schaffner and his collaborators found, based on the 2016 results, support for Trump was more closely associated with sexism and racism than with a low level of education, a key criterion of being part of the working class.
As a result, any effort to win back such working class supporters from the Republican Party would likely risk alienating suburban women and some African American voters – key factors in Biden’s 2020 success.
But there is a more critical reason for caution about a strategy that would pivot on trying to appeal to Trump’s core white working class base.
This base is no ordinary voting constituency; it is a social movement, and movement supporters depend less on the transactional benefits they can gain from a leader than from the symbolic satisfaction they receive by being part of a community.
No one who saw the crowds of MAGA-hat wearing acolytes praying for Trump’s recovery outside Walter Reed hospital could see them as ordinary constituents. As Jeff Sharlett wrote in Vanity Fair, they “love Trump because he makes them feel like insiders even as they imagine him their outsider champion.”
The result is that when Trump called the election “fixed,” it was nearly impossible to convince such voters that Biden’s win was due to anything but chicanery. A week after the results were declared, polls suggested that nearly eight out of ten of Republican voters agreed with Trump that Biden’s win was illegitimate. These are not the kind of voters who are going to rise to Sanders’ call to return to the Democrats.
Moreover, Trump’s base is not mainly made up of uneducated voters waiting passively for his tweets – but of well-organized groups of people who know how to mobilize others. A large portion of Trump’s supporters came to him with substantial institutional resources, defined by clear collective goals. They offered him not only unflinching electoral support but also organizational skills honed by their participation in the Tea Party and evangelical movements, from NRA-sponsored gun clubs, and Koch-networked backed nonprofits.
These are not the views of a voting bloc that sees politics as a transactional choice over who should get a bigger slice of the economic pie. They are voters who see politics as a form of partisan warfare. In their attitudes and their fealty to their leader they are frighteningly evocative of the working-class authoritarians that the sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset wrote about in the 1950s.
A renewed neo-Trumpian movement could capitalize on three aspects of the current political situation.
First, Biden’s effort to revive the economy and fight climate change through increased public spending will provide an easy target for voters who suddenly remember that they are deficit hawks. Second, the notable presence of suburban women and people of color with whom Biden is staffing his administration will tweak the sexist and racist nerves of many of them. But the most lethal tool in Trump’s armory will be the campaign he has already begun to delegitimize Biden’s government. As Hitler learned after Germany lost World War One, nothing works better to mobilize a populist base than stoking the memory of an imagined stab in the back.
What will the Democrats need to do to stave off these attacks on the legitimacy of their rule?
The first is to distinguish between the various sectors of Trump’s base. A substantial part of his support in 2016 was based on pro-business voters and was transactional, rather than populist. The business leaders who moved away from him after Biden’s victory are unlikely to ever support a Democratic agenda, but they are equally unlikely to support another populist like Trump, who promises chaos rather than a stable business climate.
Expect business-oriented Republicans to oppose progressive policies because that’s what classical Republicans do. Hope that they will rebuild the party around institutional conservatives like Judge Matthew Brann, who slapped down Trump’s lawyers’ claim of fraud in the Pennsylvania elections, and the Michigan election official, Aaron Van Langeveld, who defied his national and state party chairs. Don’t expect the Republican Party to return to the eastern moderate wing of the party that Geoffrey Kabaservice writes about in his Rule and Ruin, but hope it will emerge from its Trumpian nightmare as the constitutional conservative party that Thomas E. Patterson wishes for in his recent book. The politics of class that Senator Sanders proposes would only push these plutocratic groups back into a neo-Trumpian coalition.
Equally important will be the effort to reorient the Democratic Party toward a frank defense of liberal democracy. This involves an effort to hold together the various strands in the anti-Trump resistance that emerged soon after the 2016 election. Part of that movement, as Lara Putnam has shown in her research on middle class white women in Pennsylvania, was heavily invested in the kind of pluralist democracy that Trump was attacking almost from the first day of his administration. A second strand are the Black Lives Matter activists who cohered around a racial justice program after the killings of Michael Brown, George Floyd and other African Americans. And a third are the “Bernie bros” – mainly white progressives who take a dim view of the kind of liberal democracy that Biden represents.
As Trump’s administration revealed a tendency to evolve into an elective authoritarianism, the Resistance coalesced from the separate claims of these groups into a common campaign organized around the preservation of democracy. We could see that evolution in the difference between the Democrats’ programmatic claims in the 2018 election – which mainly focused on health care – and their plea to the voters to defend democracy in 2020.
After the 2016 election, some of the anti-Trump Resistance movement hoved off into extremist factions like the “antifa” movement, triggering an equally violent white nationalist countermovement. But most of its activists found their way into the Democratic Party where they pumped money into the party’s coffers and helped to get out the vote in 2020. It was, in the metaphor used by political scientist Daniel Schlozman, the “anchoring” of a movement into a party.
Some episodes of “anchoring” in American history – like the “fusion” of the Populists with the Democrats in 1896 – proved lethal for the movement. Others – like the anchoring of the labor movement into the New Deal in the 1930s and the Civil Rights/Great Society linkage in the 1960s – were fruitful for both party and movement. With Trump defeated and Biden predictably re-emerging as the centrist he has always been, there is fear that the Resistance/Democratic party alliance will fall apart, as the Populists and the Democrats did after their joint loss in 1896. Nothing would be more beneficial to a potential neo-Trumpian movement than a Democratic party that either shrugs off its Resistance allies or embraces the class-laden program of Senator Sanders and his allies.
The most effective – and, indeed, the most essential – weapon with which to combat a future neo-Trumpian movement will be to remind Democrats of what can happen when progressives and moderate liberals turn against each other, and deliberately work to unite the resources of the Resistance and the campaign for racial justice into a movement to preserve democracy.
Some observers – like Tom McCarthy, writing in The Guardian on November 30th – would have us rely on the buttresses of decentralization, turnout, transparency, the courts, and the media to do this. While I share McCarthy’s hope, I worry that these were the very institutions that allowed Donald Trump to come to power in 2016. Without a concerted movement/party alliance in civil society, I fear that Trump and his movement will give us more of the same.
Sidney Tarrow is the author of Power in Movement (2011), and of the forthcoming study, Movements and Parties in American Political Development.