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Neither a Biden nor a Trump victory on November 3rd is likely to calm America’s political and social turmoil. For one thing, a profound urgency underlies the attack on democracy by Donald Trump and the Republican Party.
After four years we are thoroughly familiar with the man’s personal intensity, driven by what Jennifer Rubin calls his “insatiable need to satisfy his own desires.”
But party leaders who preceded and may long outlast him are fiddling with the most sacred American constitutional and democratic traditions. Why have they become unwilling, as Jan-Werner Müller says, to lose in “the right way” in a democratic election – to accept defeat, to become the loyal opposition? Why are they scheming to bypass the will of the people in order to give their president four more years?
From voter suppression to attacks on the Post Office and absentee balloting, their anti-democratic maneuvers depend on Trump’s “base,” his fervent supporters. Trump’s people are experiencing what can only be called an existential crisis, their long-term dread of being a minority now sharpened by the prospect of being defeated in an election by a broad coalition of whites and nonwhites that includes countless non-Christians.
Two-thirds of those who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 saw that election as “our” last chance to “stop America’s decline.” In an interview on Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network shortly before the election, Trump explained why: “If we don’t win this election, you’ll never see another Republican and you’ll have a whole different church structure.” He elaborated: “I think this will be the last election that the Republicans have a chance of winning because you’re going to have people flowing across the border, you’re going to have illegal immigrants coming in and they’re going to be legalized and they’re going to be able to vote, and once that all happens you can forget it.” Translated from the dog-whistle language, “you” means white Christian America as understood by Evangelical Christians. “Decline” means that their racial and religious importance is endangered as they become a minority. “You can forget it” means that Trump is the Republican party’s last chance to keep this from happening.
Trump’s dark warning points to the recent crash of white Evangelical hopes after their spectacular rise in the 1970s and 1980s. As the “Moral Majority” a generation ago, their numbers increased enormously and relatively suddenly. They entered politics, becoming the largest single bloc in the Republican party. Yet the trends they sought to arrest — at first racial integration and sexualization of the culture, and then abortion, women’s equality, and acceptance of LGBTQ people — have only accelerated. Having few victories to show for putting their party in the White House and in control of Congress for most of the past generation, their worst moment came in 2015 when gay marriage became the law of the land. More ominously, white Evangelical Christians are now clearly in relative numerical decline due to immigration trends and because “nones” (those belonging to no religion) are increasing steadily, including among their own children.
No less important, white Americans in general are declining in proportion to nonwhites, to the point where in 2014 their children became a minority in the public-school system. Another twenty years will see whites become a minority of the population as a whole.
While whites in general, and Christians among them, feel threatened by these developments, they are especially troubling to white Evangelicals. Before the 2016 election, a large majority of them said that things have changed for the worse since the 1950s, a sizeable majority of them even claiming to perceive as much discrimination being directed at them as at Blacks and other minorities. In Strangers in Their Own Land, Arlie Russell Hochschild tellingly presents white southerners’ feelings of being overlooked and insulted after playing by the rules but being passed over by government attention to Blacks, women, refugees, and other immigrants.
By 2016, Donald Trump, who had earlier called for the death penalty for the Central Park Five and stoked the Birther hoax, had become practiced at appealing to such grievances. During the campaign he took the next step, reaching out to white Evangelicals and their leaders. He became a champion of militant whiteness, and the racial and cultural desperation of these people was built into Trumpism. Eighty-one percent of white Evangelicals voted for him, accounting for nearly half of his turnout.
For four years, his base has not wavered in its support as Trump has exploited fears no other politician had dared touch. Yet outside of the sense of shared grievance and the cult of personality generated in his rallies, he has done nothing concrete to assuage the fears of his followers. Even the panaceas of building a wall or blocking nonwhite immigration have failed to stem the growth of America’s nonwhite population.
After a generation of listening to apocalyptic, fearful sermons about America going to hell, many of Trump’s supporters have had considerable training in thinking fearfully and angrily about the changing world. But religious dogmatism and rejection of evolution and climate science makes them ill-equipped to deal with the present. Looking out into the wider world constantly reminds them of their distance from the mainstream, and Trump expertly manipulates this further source of grievance.
Thus beyond those who have taken a transactional approach to Trump — for example, the very rich who go along with him for financial reasons; big oil and coal companies; and corporations, ideologues, and small business-owners craving deregulation — Trump’s mass base contains a deep irrational streak. Its core is a reflex of denial. It demands a constant recourse to fantasy in place of facts, to lies instead of truth. Its political energy is hostile, vicious, and destructive. In addition, the devotion of this base has encouraged Trump to do and say whatever he wants, uncontrolled from within or without. This absence of restraint, even more flagrant since the impeachment trial, has given his words and actions a manic, increasingly disordered quality.
We see how denial on the part of Trump and his supporters has played out during the pandemic, making his base a powerful negative constituency, crippling its ability to cope effectively with public health issues, and further fueling the alienation from the mainstream that drives Trumpism. Clinging to him against the wider world, no wonder his base remains solid heading into November. And Trump has played a major part in their refusal to accept the America being reshaped by the George Floyd uprising. Sadly for the rest of the country as well as themselves, their president is playing to a T the role for which they elected him, and together they answer with more denial. Although enormous numbers of other whites, and America as a whole, have been coming to a new reckoning with our racist past and present, this very public shift is met with incomprehension by Trump’s base. Egged on by him, over eighty percent of Republicans — and a clear majority of nearly every red state — oppose Black Lives Matter.
“Our last chance” has another meaning today as the Republican Party has reconfigured itself around Donald Trump. Increasingly its political strategy has become directed at keeping power as a minority party rather than, as in its “Autopsy” after its defeat in 2012, opening itself to minorities, immigrants, and gays and being less single-mindedly committed to the very wealthy. David Frum identifies one of the consequences: “If conservatives become convinced that they cannot win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism. They will reject democracy.” Their existential issue: how to hold power in democratic elections as a permanent white minority party culturally dominated by Evangelical Christians. Giving up on democracy may only be the beginning.
How to respond to this Republican project? As Robert Borosage recently wrote in The Nation, it is essential to end fantasies of cooperation. After the election, this first of all means ending the filibuster in the Senate. But for this to happen not only a sweeping Democratic victory is needed in November but also a change of attitude. “Congressional Republicans have pledged to fight dirty. Democrats need to stop playing nice,” he writes. To secure and extend majority rule, it is necessary to become militant and unwavering about democracy.
Democrats will need a change of outlook: to become motivated by the sense, as Republicans have been for most of the last generation, that something is awry in America. With the Republicans crossing a red line and assaulting the Constitution, they will need to find in themselves the willingness to fight to make things right. With the exception of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, over the last generation Democrats have too often been infected by tepid centrism, with few exceptions playing political defense.
Political scientist Jeffrey Isaac and novelist Joseph O’Neill offer complementary visions to Borosage of what the change might look like. O’Neill recently took the hard line in his New York Review of Books discussion of remaking the Democratic Party. “All that Democrats can do to change the GOP is to defeat it. Reduce it to electoral rubble and force it to rebuild itself as a party that is basically competent and doesn’t pose a threat to organic and democratic life.” This is jarring, but bracing, followed by a demand for stoking “negative partisanship” against Republicans who have enabled and embraced Trump. The master narrative should be: “The Republican Party can no longer be trusted with power.”
Isaac advocates preparing “a range of possible measures that might be taken up in 2021-22, including D.C. and Puerto Rican statehood, and including the expansion of the size of SCOTUS.”
These writers remind us not only that progressives need to find a new kind of energy in order to fight the Republican attack on Democracy. More, it is in fact staring us in the face. Over the past five years many moderates, especially older Democrats, have been made uneasy by Sanders speaking of the top one-tenth of one percent of Americans owning more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. Compared with the other Democratic candidates in 2020 Sanders was often seen as being “too angry.” Perhaps we now can learn from Bernie’s young supporters who were telling us something when they were cheering his abrasiveness and force of conviction. Today we need his intensity as we do battle with the Republicans’ attack on democracy.
But long after the election the core of the problem will remain, Trump’s base. How to approach those tens of millions of members of his cult of personality who have helped enable his antics, outrages, and destructiveness?
The base must be seen as heirs of America’s anti-democratic past, all the way back to slavery. They are the descendants of those who defended segregation, supported the campaigns of Barry Goldwater and George Wallace, cheered the anti-busing movement, were for the Vietnam war and against the peace movement of the 1960s, defended school prayer in the 1970s, opposed the Equal Rights Amendment, and embraced the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition. When a Black president took office in 2009 they joined the Tea Party to “take our country back.” Today they oppose gay marriage, give endless support for gun culture, and believe in “religious freedom” to discriminate. Many of them reflexively justify police killings of unarmed black men.
They are not going anywhere soon and, mobilized into a massive political force, they are likely to occupy our attention into the foreseeable future. 2020 may hopefully return the United States to majority rule, but this anti-democratic minority of millions will be with us for a long time to come. Continuing the long-term struggle to make America democratic is one of the most fundamental challenges of our time.
Ronald Aronson is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of the History of Ideas at Wayne State University. His most recent book is We: Reviving Social Hope (2017). He is also the author of several books on Sartre, including Jean-Paul Sartre: Philosophy in the World, Sartre’s Second Critique, and Camus and Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel That Ended It.