Trump isn’t some alien boil on body politic

Donald Trump Noah Berlatsky, The Independent As midnight Eastern breezed past on election night, results

Donald-Trump

Donald Trump

Noah Berlatsky, The Independent

As midnight Eastern breezed past on election night, results remained uncertain, but one thing was clear: Joe Biden had not coasted to victory in a landslide. President Donald Trump won Florida early with a strong Cuban turnout in Miami-Dade, and appeared poised to hang onto Ohio. Biden still looked to be favoured in Arizona and the Rust Belt states of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Who will hold the majority in the Senate is also uncertain.

Biden spoke just after 12.30am in Delaware, telling supporters blaring their car horns that he remains “optimistic about this outcome”. Minutes later, as if to underline their differences, Trump tweeted: “We are up BIG, but they are trying to STEAL the Election. We will never let them do it. Votes cannot be cast after the Poles are closed!”

One other thing is clear: millions and millions of Americans cast ballots for Trump in the middle of a flagrantly mishandled pandemic that has resulted in more than 300,000 excess deaths and a brutal recession.

Those who see Trump for what he is can scarcely believe that people would positively choose a continuation of the past four years. And so, even if Biden pulls out a narrow win, many will blame him for failing to defeat Trumpism as soundly as it needed to be defeated. The same arguments that were made against Biden in the primary will resurface (and are already resurfacing on social media.) He’s too timid and too boring. He doesn’t inspire. And he doesn’t embrace the kind of transformative policies, like Medicare for All, that would really motivate voters.

Biden was not my first choice in the primary (I much preferred Elizabeth Warren.) Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez argued, just after winning her own race in New York, that he had failed to put in enough effort with Latino voters. That certainly seems like a reasonable criticism, given Biden’s lacklustre performance with that demographic. Perhaps another candidate like Warren or Sanders would have done better in the general; it’s impossible to know.

But I think it’s a mistake to convince ourselves that Trump, or Trumpism, is easy to defeat, or that there is some candidate who would romp to victory if only they could capture the right blend of youth, rhetoric, and policy. The truth is, as we are learning again, Trump, in all his incompetence, brutishness, and cruelty, embodies one powerful, ugly, and persistent version of the American dream.

Trump has built his presidency on resentment and hatred. In 2016, he called Mexican immigrants “rapists,” and ever since then his presidency has been an exercise in singling out marginalized people to insult and demonize. He has denounced Black Lives Matter and the 1619 project, framing Black protest and Black history as attacks on America. He has told Democratic Congresswoman of colour to “go back where you came from,” as if only white people get to be Americans. He has separated immigrant children from their parents, and his detention centres have reportedly inflicted forced hysterectomies on prisoners.

For Trump’s opponents, the flagrant bigotry and the atrocities are a sign that he is unfit for office. But for his enthusiasts, they are a sign that he is putting America back in line with its traditions — Making America Great Again, as they say.

Nor are they wrong, exactly. America’s Constitution declared that enslaved people were only three-fifths of a person. President Woodrow Wilson screened Birth of a Nation — a film that is blatant KKK propaganda — in the White House. Concentration camps and forced sterilizations of marginalized people aren’t inventions of Trump’s America, either.

Trump’s followers forgive Trump his failure to contain the virus or provide economic aid because he tells them that they don’t need to take any action either. He assures them that only the weak, the elderly, or the unfit will die. Again, it’s a common American theme — we are a meritocracy, so the wealthy, white, male, straight, able-bodied people deserve what they get, even when they are real-estate heirs. Those who suffer, Americans like to tell themselves, deserve it.

We are a nation of self-deception and hatred. Trump isn’t some alien boil on the body politic. He’s the natural offspring of what America is, and what a lot of Americans want to be.

Maybe some candidate other than Biden could have beaten that other America back more effectively. But we shouldn’t be surprised that xenophobia, hatred, or smug indifference to suffering have a constituency in the United States. They all have a deep history here, and the fight against them is longer than one election. Making America better is a long, hard slog, and perhaps one doomed to failure. But we haven’t failed yet.

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