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The worst outcome of the election is so obvious, it’s scarcely worth mentioning. The second worst, however, is far from obvious. So let me spell it out. If Joe Biden beats Donald Trump, the temptation in the Washington press corps, and hence the rest of the electorate, might be to conclude extremism on “both sides” was defeated and “centrism” triumphed.
If that happens, we will have given extremism a second chance at life, allowing it to go underground, where it will wait to reemerge. We will have given the Republican Party, moreover, an opportunity to revive its lexicon of coded rhetoric, which it used successfully for 40 years to make extremely unpopular policy goals seem super-duper jim-dandy. We will not have ended our long national nightmare. We will have merely kicked dirt over it.
A wave election might encourage Americans to think our democratic republic and its institutions held up after all. Biden’s victory, especially if it’s a landslide, could allow Americans to think the Trump presidency was an anomaly, a deviation from conservative-liberal politics-as-usual, and that the Republican Party and the Washington press corps did not in fact play pivotal roles in the rise of fascism. Trump’s defeat may end up helping super-white elites trying to dodge accountability for four years of sadism from being held accountable. Calls for reform, therefore, might sound overblown. Worse, it might encourage white liberals pained by daily reminders of their whiteness to deny their whiteness had anything at all to do with Donald Trump.
The present is a product of the past. Trump did not take over his party. The party made room for him because it saw him as an opportunity, even though leaders in 2016 expressed some misgivings. Turns out they protested too much. The president is a political masochist. He will mutilate himself to mutilate enemies, real and imagined. Mitch McConnell and others have exploited that weakness to get more out of him than they ever got from previous GOP presidents unwilling to die on every hill. And now the senate leader seems ready to cut Trump loose. In fact, he seems to be laying the groundwork for saying: Thank God the bastard’s gone. Let’s get back to normal.
Without a doubt, allowing McConnell to get away with that would be the worst outcome, second only to the president’s reelection. Normal would mean Republicans continuing to pretend they are a reasonable party intent on governing in the greatest interest of the greatest number of people when they are in fact bent on reversing the New Deal (i.e., Social Security), reversing the Great Society (i.e., Medicare), reversing Obamacare, and reversing the expansion of the voting franchise. When Mike Lee says that, “we’re not a democracy,” he’s not engaging in an ennobling debate over principle. What he’s saying without making his intentions quite clear is: his party, if need be, reserves the right to commit treason.
If the Democrats have unified control of the government, they must change the system so it’s no longer conducive to the reemergence of homegrown fascism. Reforms up for debate should include abolishing the Senate filibuster; adding Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico as states; expanding the number of justices of the US Supreme Court; expanding the lower courts; codifying into statutory law Roe (reproductive rights) and Obergefell (marriage rights); passing a 21st-century Voting Rights Act; and of course, taxing the living hell out of the very, very rich, including outlawing dynastic wealth by banning individual inheritance over, say, $1 million.
The rest of us, meanwhile, must understand Trumpism is something we let happen. Yes, we. Remember: the present is a product of the past. Today’s fascist politics are the direct result of a conservative political regime, established almost four decades ago to the day when Ronald Reagan won a landslide victory over Jimmy Carter, that we have allowed to decline and decay, either by complicity with it, indifference to it, or an unthinking faith that it would never metastasize into a political (and sometimes armed) insurgency. To defeat extremism, we must create a new normal. We must work to establish a regime in which “conservatism” is bankrupt and liberalism—and its privileging of know-how, process, tolerance, duty and equity—is the new vital center.
Contrary to popular belief, Election Day will not mark the end of our nightmare. It can mark, however, the end’s beginning. “Movement conservatism” went mainstream when it was seen as a sensible alternative to the real and imagined decline and decay of the liberal consensus that led to the political and economic crises of the 1970s. Perhaps something like “movement liberalism” (a terrible name; don’t use it!) will eventually be seen as a sensible alternative to the conservative consensus that led to the political and economic as well as climatic and public health crises we now face.
John Stoehr is the editor and publisher of the Editorial Board, a newsletter about politics in plain English for normal people. He’s a visiting assistant professor of public policy and liberal studies at Wesleyan University.