In ‘Is America by Nature a Violent Society?’ (1968), her critique of the racism ‘inherent’ in American life, Hannah Arendt wrote:
the real danger is not [Black] violence but the possibility of a white backlash of such proportions as to be able to invade the domain of regular government. Only such a victory at the polls could stop the present policy of integration. Its consequence would be unmitigated disaster – the end, perhaps not of the country, but certainly of the American Republic.
Arendt, though hardly blind to her adoptive country’s flaws, could be accused of an immigrant’s naivety. After all, ‘white backlash’ had been present in ‘the domain of regular government’ since the defeat of the South in the Civil War. D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation was the first film screened at the White House, during Woodrow Wilson’s presidency (Wilson was a supporter of the Ku Klux Klan). The Southern ‘Dixiecrats’ had a seat at the table in FDR’s administration, allowing them to ensure that Black people were excluded from the New Deal and Fair Deal. White anger later found a grim and calculating ally in Richard Nixon, with his ‘Southern strategy’, his appeals to the ‘silent majority’ and his calls for ‘law and order’ in America’s cities.
Yet no American president has so flagrantly pandered to white grievance as Donald Trump, even as he has praised himself for doing more for Black Americans than anyone ‘except maybe Abraham Lincoln’. The significance of this ugly achievement should not be underestimated. Trump understood that euphemisms are no longer necessary when it comes to attacking and humiliating people of colour – or making common cause with white nationalists, whose company would have scandalised earlier Republican leaders, whatever their convergences of views. In the last four years, Trump has fed his supporters a steady diet of racism and aggression. A small selection from this extensive menu would include his Birtherist questioning of Obama’s citizenship; his attack on the family of a Muslim-American soldier killed in action; his praise of those ‘very fine people’ among the Neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville; the Muslim travel ban; the fulminations against ‘shit-hole countries’; the gulag archipelago that his adviser Stephen Miller created for undocumented immigrants, in which children were separated from their parents and some women forced to undergo invasive vaginal examinations that reportedly resulted in sterilisation; and, not least, the violent dispersal of a Black Lives Matter protest outside the White House.
Not all of Trump’s supporters have enjoyed this theatre of cruelty. But most were indifferent, and saw no reason not to support him a second time. (An estimated 93 per cent of Republicans voted for him.) They were not dissuaded by his brazen misogyny, his envious embrace of foreign strongmen, his corruption and double-dealing or his continual lies. Even when those lies became literally lethal, Trump’s followers were not dissuaded by his conspiratorial claims that Covid-19 was a hoax contrived by Democrats, scientists or doctors to shut down his wonderful economy and deprive him of victory at the polls (or ‘Poles’, as he tweeted on election night). They were not dissuaded by the revelation, in Bob Woodward’s Rage, published in September, that Trump had recognised the airborne lethality of Covid-19 as early as 7 February. They were not dissuaded when he became infected with the virus and briefly acknowledged its gravity. On the contrary, they continued to go to his rallies, where not wearing a mask was a badge of pride. Epidemiologists have estimated that these gatherings caused 30,000 infections and 700 deaths. If this were the Middle East, the behaviour of Trump’s most ardent supporters might have been described by the mainstream media as an expression of fatalism, fundamentalism or a desire for martyrdom. But they believed that the closure of the economy posed a greater threat to them than Covid-19 – even when it began to ravage red states, whose residents, taking their cue from the president, either denied its reality or took comfort in the fact that it had so far mainly killed people in the infernal blue states of New York and California. They did not protest when Trump openly spoke of refusing to accept the election results, or assailed the postal service, or accused the Biden campaign of cheating. There was no possibility that ‘their’ America – and they left little doubt whose America it was – could vote against Trump; any victory for Biden could only be an illegitimate takeover, a triumph for ‘socialism’, for Black Lives Matter and antifa rioters, foetus killers and other enemies of the nuclear family. Trump, as one of his evangelical supporters told the New York Times, is ‘our bodyguard’.
In The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Richard Hofstadter wrote that the right-wing extremists who rallied behind Barry Goldwater’s 1964 race for president were
concerned more to express resentments and punish ‘traitors’, to justify a set of values and assert grandiose, militant visions, than to solve actual problems of state … Their true victory lay not in winning the election but in capturing the party – in itself no mean achievement – which gave them an unprecedented platform from which to propagandise for a sound view of the world.
Trump, however, succeeded not only in capturing the Republican Party, but in proving that open resentment, raging against foreigners, denouncing ‘treason’ and essentially avoiding governance could be, for nearly half the population, an acceptable, even admirable, style of presidential leadership. Through his thunderous, nihilistic fury, he established an almost erotic connection with his base, which, unmoved by reason, often heedless of its own economic interests, found emotional compensation in his tributes to the ‘uneducated’ and his insults against members of Eastern seaboard ‘elites’.
Even in defeat, Trump gained nearly seven million more votes than in 2016. (Only one presidential candidate has won more votes in US history: Joe Biden.) He won in Florida by playing on fears of socialism among Cubans and Venezuelans, and even managed to pick up around 18 per cent of the vote among Black men by stoking their well-founded distrust of Democrats who have supported tough-on-crime policies (in this instance, both Biden and Harris).
Republicans appear to have held on to the Senate, and made some progress in the House, where Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia will soon become the first QAnon supporter to be elected to Congress. Trumpism and its darker manifestations are far from dead. Democrats have won the national popular vote in seven of the last eight elections, yet they are struggling to get their candidate elected. Biden will soon find himself attempting to pass legislation in the face of a Republican-controlled Senate run by Mitch McConnell, whose success in forcing through Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination energised the Republican base. According to Nate Silver, Biden would stand only a 20 per cent chance of winning the election if his lead over Trump were 1-2 per cent, because of the distorting effects of the electoral college. Each of the fifty states, no matter its population, is represented by two senators. California, with a population of almost 40 million, wields the same amount of power in the Senate as Republican strongholds like South and North Dakota, whose populations are both under a million. There is a term for this system: minority rule.
The presidency and the Senate would look very different if representation were based on population. But the only way to eliminate the electoral college, and to make changes to representation in the Senate, is by a constitutional amendment, which requires a two-thirds majority. Why would South Dakota or Wyoming support this? Not only would it be against their interests, it would represent the kind of meddling with constitutional precedent that both parties find impossible to contemplate. (The only conceivable scenario in which red states might consider reforming the electoral college is if Texas turns Democratic, which may happen within the next 15 years.) And though there’s no constitutional limit on the number of Supreme Court justices, the very suggestion of expanding the court raises accusations of ‘court-packing’, as if it amounted to political thuggery, if not outright profanation.
In The Frozen Republic (1996), Daniel Lazare argued that the sacralisation of the constitution stands in the way of a genuinely popular democracy. ‘In their infinite wisdom,’ Lazare writes,
the Founders created a deliberately unresponsive system in order to narrow the governmental options and force us to seek alternative routes. Politics were dangerous; therefore, politics had to be limited and constrained. But America cannot expect to survive much longer with a government that is inefficient and none too democratic by design. It is impossible to forge ahead in the late 20th century using governmental machinery dating from the late 18th. Urban conditions can only worsen, race relations can only grow more alienated and embittered. Politics will grow more irrational and self-defeating, while the price of the good life … can only continue its upward climb beyond the reach of all but the most affluent. Rush Limbaugh, Howard Stern and other demagogues of the airwaves will continue to make out like bandits, while the millions of people who listen to them will only grow angrier and more depressed.
Lazare’s predictions today seem understated. The ‘demagogues of the airwaves’ on Fox News, notably Tucker Carlson, not only fan the resentments of their audiences, they now help steer the Republican Party and influenced the policy-making of the Trump administration. Politics has become so constrained that both Democrats and Republicans dream of achieving through the courts what they can’t achieve through political channels. The Republicans under Trump have exploited this route more effectively than any previous administration. But, whichever side is benefiting from it, this is a defective system.
The weaknesses of American democracy, which the Trump presidency has so powerfully exposed, can’t be entirely blamed on the constitution or on political procedure. They are rooted in the defeat of Reconstruction after the Civil War and the enduring power of white supremacy. In recent years, they have been amplified by deindustrialisation, the collapse of organised labour and the rise of social media. The Democratic Party bears a share of the responsibility for this. Since the Clinton administration, it has prioritised free trade and globalisation over jobs and economic equality, becoming a party of college-educated middle-class professionals, and largely turning its back on working-class voters.
Blue-collar whites have been easy targets for Trump, with his promise to restore the Rust Belt to its former glory. He campaigned against foreign adventures while continuing to arm the Saudis in their war on Yemen and to carry out drone strikes with far greater frequency than Obama. But the important thing for his base was that he wasn’t sending ‘our boys’ into action. While Democrats lamented America’s ‘retreat’ from global leadership and the unravelling of the nuclear accord with Iran, Trump appeared to prioritise protecting the ‘homeland’ and steered clear of sanctimonious lectures about American virtue. He not only echoed but flattered his supporters’ cynicism about power.
Although Trump failed to deliver on his promise to revive American industry, he gave his followers the illusion of power, something they felt they’d been denied under Obama. He spoke powerfully to red America’s understanding of what it calls ‘freedom’. This freedom is as old as the republic, as old as our other great freedom narrative: the emancipation of Black Americans in their struggles against slavery, Jim Crow, and, more recently, mass incarceration. It originated as a fantasy of untrammelled individual liberty, made possible by the enslavement of Africans and the genocide of Native Americans. Today it means not having to take responsibility for other people or for the environment. Anti-taxation, deregulation, gun-ownership, ICE raids, Blue Lives Matter and environmental despoliation are its contemporary manifestations. The adherents of this ‘freedom’ don’t seek to build the country but to be left alone – even if it means dying of opioid addiction, or Covid-19. (This was what Mike Pence meant when, in response to a question about virus controls during his debate with Harris, he said that Trump trusts American families to ‘make choices in the best interest of their health’.) They are sovereigntists who don’t care about the opinion of the world beyond America’s borders. They don’t see why they should ‘go high’, as Michelle Obama advised. Going high is what happens when you ascend to heaven. On earth, you do what it takes to win – and in politics it takes a bully.
If we don’t descend into protracted court battles or armed clashes, Trump will leave office on 20 January 2021. But the erosion of American democracy will continue to leave us vulnerable to other bullies and bodyguards of aggrieved and angry whites in rural and suburban areas. Trump will cast a long shadow, especially overseas, where America’s image has suffered a calamitous blow. Every country is at times reduced to playing a crude caricature of itself, exhibiting its ugliest attributes. The question now is whether the US can move beyond its worst expression. We have a long way to go before America becomes, at last, what James Baldwin called ‘another country’.