The 2020 United States presidential election is both over, and yet isn’t. Donald Trump lost. Yet, on two scores the election is not done. One is that there are the tailwinds that propelled Trump forward. They continue blowing with no headwinds forecasted.
The second is that Trump will not concede defeat. Though he will eventually leave, calling out the election results as fake maintains his brand of defiance of the “deep state.” Truth, for Trump, and his followers, is whatever they proclaim, and that outlook is reinforced when he makes his own “facts.” Conventional opinion rightly holds that Trump’s bluster regarding the election is posturing. Trump wants relevance. Conceding defeat would consign him to irrelevance. His visibility intact, Trump remains undiminished among his followers. This sets the stage for him to create a post-presidential digital politico/info/entertainment platform to take in gobs of cash, while keeping the Trump family in political business. It is also, in James Brown fashion, “The Payback” for Democrats’ impeachment efforts over Russia and Ukraine, which, it must be conceded, was short on substance and long on politics. While Trump’s pursuit of action in the courts and through state electors in the Electoral College will not succeed, their main value does not lie in helping him keep the office, but in fueling indignation among his flock that the election was stolen.
But, this raises the question of how the US got Trump and his movement? The question brings to mind Leon Trotsky’s characterization of Hitler’s base one year into Nazi rule, published in The Yale Review—they don’t get A-list talent like that anymore! Trotsky saw men of the middle strata (the petty bourgeoisie) as Hitler’s base. Facing uncertain economic conditions and diminished social status after the First World War, they considered bankers and journalists their enemies. The former profited as the conditions of others suffered while the latter were tarred as purveyors of “fake news.” Much of the industrial working class, by contrast, was immunized against the fascist contagion by the work of the communist party.
Fast forward to the United States and Trump. The post-Second World War Bretton Woods order that delivered some stability and dignity for the white working class and petty bourgeoisie, was broken by the 1980s. The US was backfooted by Vietnam and anti-systemic movements of the Global South (remembering that the US had an internal “Global South” with much of its minority populations). Rising commodity prices and manufacturing competition from abroad led US capital to turn against its own working class. Ronald Reagan led the supply-side revolution designed to cut wages for workers and slash taxes for the wealthy to increase corporate profits. Inflation was slayed in order to protect wealthy “savers” under Paul Volker’s shock therapy. However, though this restored dollar dominance strangled inflation, it also suffocated many US export industries in cities such as Milwaukee, Pittsburg, Cleveland, Toledo, and Akron, as the strong dollar rendered them uncompetitive, thus making their industrial workers lose “bigly.” Yet, the petty bourgeoisie maintained living standards by increasing work hours, and via cheap imported goods and credit. Thus, they preserved a certain dignity, and privilege, even as they had to work harder to keep it. The hard working small business owners with little education, but above average incomes were Trump’s most loyal supporters. As Trump declared, “I love the poorly educated.” The feeling was mutual.
These economic forces were complemented by the Republican electoral “Southern strategy.” GOP Reagan and Bush strategist, Lee Atwater, worked to pick up the South through “dog whistling” racist messages to rural and suburban electorates. This also worked in the rural areas of the upper Midwest. Moreover, Republicans moved to deregulate business to boost profits, with weighty consequences ensuing. Since the 1920s, the federal government had regulated new media, such as radio, to promote the public interest. Regulations against concentrated ownership of media, and requirements for diversity of perspectives, were enforced. Under deregulation, big business began grabbing the media. The 7-7-7 rule demanding that no one could own more than seven each of radio, TV, or newspaper outlets, was converted to a looser 24-24-24 restriction before all limits were lifted. The fairness doctrine of the Federal Communications Commission, originally introduced in 1949, requiring diversity of viewpoints was also tossed. This was followed by continued defunding of public television and radio. Right-wing talk radio then emerged, finding a captive audience stuck in suburban rush hour traffic jams. Already anxious and angry over ever more economic precarity, they had a ready-made audience for fascist messaging. Then, when commuters arrived home, they could relax with the evening news. Or, not. Unraveling media regulation permitted the rise of Fox News in 1996, which realized former Richard Nixon aide Roger Ailes longstanding goal to create a hyper-partisan “GOP TV” news network. Thus, talk radio’s listeners could be further accosted at home with aggressive messaging. Simultaneously, television programming declined in quality and cost with the rise of “reality TV,” which eventually introduced Donald Trump to many Americans with his program The Apprentice. In short, conditions were ripe for these pieces to mutate, or fuse, into a neo-fascist news and entertainment system, especially after social media was added.
Yet, Trump’s election in 2016 was not pre-ordained. By 2016, neoliberalism’s failures had been felt for a generation. Much of the country never recovered from the 2008 financial shock, where only Wall Street, not Main Street, was bailed out. The press, politicians and pundits told people globalization (a proxy for neoliberalism) was good and only personal failings explained why many failed to thrive under it. No wonder Trump’s attacks on the press elicited such enthusiastic cheers at his rallies. Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans were ossifying into dynasties by offering up another Clinton and Bush in 2016. This created an opening for Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump to make anti-systemic bids for power.
Trump drew upon all these elements in his packed stadium rallies across the small-town and rust-belt America. Their festive spirit recalled at once sports tailgating events and early 20th century Southern public lynching as entertainment. Trump routinely outed the press at these spectacles as fakes, elites and cheats, enemies at once of him and “real” Americans. Neo-Freikorps militias orbited these events and menaced state capitols in Michigan and Wisconsin, even plotting to capture and kill the Michigan governor and to televise murders of public officials at Michigan’s state capitol daily. While much better armed than Germany’s historic Freikorps, this contemporary version has, so far at least, proved considerably less competent. However, little prevents more effective militias emerging in the future.
Trump was personally and politically repulsive. His presidency had, however, a solid redeeming feature. He opposed US adventurism and saw neocon foreign invasions and liberal interventionism as losers for the US. The “American Century” was brought to a close in a two-stage process. First, Reagan hollowed out and offshored US industry, replacing it with dollar dominance. Second, George W. Bush took Osama Bin Laden’s bait to invade Iraq to fuel the rise of an Islamic Caliphate. While the GOP controlled Trump on policy more than he checked it, he did prevent it from launching their long-desired war on Iran. Trump made the most aggressive neocon, John Bolton, his National Security Advisor and took visible delight in humiliating him and keeping the neocons’ most aggressive attack dog tightly chained to the porch. At most, Trump gave neocons the bone of the airstrike that killed Iranian major general Qassim Suleimani. Trump, and Steve Bannon, decidedly saw Iran as an enemy. As such, Trump overturned the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action championed by President Obama to control nuclear weapons development in Iran. But, Trump nixed the neocons’ war option as the means for dealing with Iran.
Sanders generated excitement, money and big crowds only to be thwarted by arcane state primary voter registration and other party rules and Elizabeth Warren’s refusal to endorse him to unite progressives. Trump represented no threat to the GOP’s policy platform and even excelled at political communication. With Sanders sidelined by the Democrats, some working-class Sanders supporters jumped to Trump, thus giving the latter enough of a push to win the Electoral College. Once lost to Trump, some of these white working-class supporters never returned to Sanders in 2020. Additionally, messaging in the Sanders campaign changed in 2020. In 2016, it focused on the interests of working people generally and those of minorities in particular. By 2020, his messaging leaned towards younger activists’ identity concerns. It is difficult to say if this cost Sanders support but Trump advisor Steven Bannon was clear that this was exactly where he wanted the Democrats: campaigning on identity, not class. Yet, Sanders remained strong, especially on money, and looked to be on his way to capturing the 2020 nomination. By January 2020, a frustrated Elizabeth Warren colluded with CNN to take Sanders down on sexism. Lacking credibility, the accusation failed to gain traction, but it further split their respective camps. By February, as a Sanders victory looked inevitable, Democrat attacks were ratcheted up to hysterics, with some MSNBC pundits asserting they would rather have Trump as president than Sanders. By March, Democrats spread fear that a Sanders primary victory meant Trump’s re-election. While Warren’s bid was close to a mathematical impossibility by March, she remained in the race, thus serving the Democratic Party establishment by denying Sanders the delegates he needed to take the nomination.
As Trotsky noted, those hoping Hitler would correct the abuses of economic liberalism only got the rollback of political liberalism that left economic liberalism intact. The same goes for Trump. Those who hoped for an economic policy following the national interest only got a deepening of neoliberalism alongside an egregious erosion of democracy. That was why the only demographic to reduce its vote percentage for Trump in 2020 compared to 2016, was non-college white males. Or, in the words of George W. Bush, “Fool me once, shame on—shame on you. Fool me—you can’t get fooled again!”
It should be clear by now that the 2020 presidential election was more about the loser than the winner. We ought, however, to close with some reflections on the latter. Biden voters were anti-Trump, not pro-Biden. He was insipid, but so avuncular that even Sanders could not muster much to say against him during their debates. Biden barely campaigned against Trump, reducing chances for gaffes. In his victory speech, Biden thanked his Republican supporters second only to Democrats. Progressives were fourth or so on the list. Whatever one thinks of Russian sociologist, Aleksandr Dugin, he was among the first to grasp that 21st century politics would be marked by a collapse of the centre. Neoliberalism destroyed what Arthur Schlesinger Jr. argued was the source of American stability, “the vital center.” Politically, nothing has been resolved. The right is now marked by a deadly grotesque carnival politics amplified by social media. The forces of Mordor are awakened. A “Civilization and its Discontents” irrationality has been unleashed. Paranoia and aggression are off the charts. Many right forces have lost all fear of the state, which has been eviscerated of most capacities by austerity. The left, meanwhile, has lost its universalistic message. Recapturing that language under the flag of the immense talent of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez could be a winning formula. Yet, presently, politics threatens to become even more tribal, with the left potentially marginalized if discourse continues in this direction.
Jeffrey Sommers is a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Senior Fellow at UWM’s Institute of World Affairs and visiting professor at the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga. His academic research centres on global capital accumulation, accelerated integration of places into new networks of accumulation. In addition to his academic work, he has been published in outlets such as the Financial Times, The New York Times, The World Financial Review, The Guardian, The Nation, Social Europe, Project Syndicate and others.