On November 7, at a drive-in rally in Delaware, Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate for US president, declared victory. After four years of Donald Trump, the address Biden delivered was stunningly, platitudinously normal. “It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric, lower the temperature, see each other again, listen to each other again,” he said. “And, to make progress, we have to stop treating our opponents as our enemies. They are not our enemies. They are Americans.” Biden had to give this kind of come-together speech; it’s even possible he believes it. But the social and institutional sickness that Trump exposed—the rot at the heart of American democracy—will not go away. As the Trump years end and the Biden era begins, the United States will be stuck with a few bleak truths.
1. Trump is here to stay—and so is Trumpism.
Seventy-nine million people voted for Joe Biden—the most votes received by any presidential candidate in American history. Seventy-three million picked Donald Trump—the second-most votes received by any presidential candidate in American history. An election that should have been a cakewalk for Democrats came down, instead, to a sliver of votes in a handful of states: 21,000 votes in Wisconsin, 12,000 votes in Georgia, 10,000 votes in Arizona. Meanwhile, would-be battlegrounds, like Florida and Texas, remained comfortably red. This is after four years of unparalleled chaos in American life: a presidential impeachment; the near-daily torrent of leaks, scandals, and outrage; a pandemic that has, to date, claimed a quarter-million lives in the US; and one of the worst economic crises in recent history. The 2020 election was supposed to be an unambiguous repudiation of Trumpism. It wasn’t.
Trumpism is not a coherent political philosophy. It’s a mess of spontaneous hatreds, cultural chauvinism, and false populism, intermittently fused to conservative orthodoxy and channelled via the bizarrely captivating avatar of the man himself. Trump is not a genius—he is, in fact, pretty stupid—but he can be intuitive. He has a carnival barker’s sense of his audience and a remarkable hold on a huge chunk of the public. That hold is not going away any time soon. Even when Trump vacates the White House—hardly a guarantee, considering his ongoing refusal to concede—he will likely continue to insist that the election was rigged, and tens of millions of Americans will continue to believe him. He will keep lobbing Twitter grenades over the White House fence, perhaps in preparation for another campaign. There are already whispers that he will run again in four years, and there are the ever-present rumors of Trump TV, a media empire even further right than Fox News.
The GOP is now Trump’s fiefdom in every meaningful respect. He has scrambled the basic tenets of conservatism and dramatically altered the bounds of polite discussion. A few old-guard Republicans may survive the coming years—the Senate’s resident cowards, like Ben Sasse and Mitt Romney, who chide Trump on matters of tone, then unfailingly support his tax cuts and judicial nominees. But most establishment Republicans, like Lindsey Graham and Mitch McConnell, have realized that they must adapt or die. Biden’s win received a handful of tepid acknowledgements from moderate GOP senators—Susan Collins of Maine congratulated him on his “apparent victory”—but the vast majority of the party remains either silent on, or supportive of, Trump’s spurious claim that the election was rigged. The party’s leaders are betting that the rank-and-file will remain in thrall to him; they don’t want to risk a primary challenge or a Twitter broadside. Indeed, down-ballot Republicans are now parroting Trump’s voter-fraud lie in their own races. Baltimore-area House candidate Kimberley Klacik, who lost to the Democratic incumbent by more than forty points, is insisting she actually won.
Meanwhile, the Republican base has developed a taste for blood. If Trump doesn’t run again in 2024, it’s hard to imagine the MAGA hordes baying for, say, a mild-mannered traditionalist like Ohio senator Rob Portman to take up the cause. Instead, a generation of Trump acolytes—Mike Pence, of course, but also men like Tom Cotton and Ted Cruz—will compete to inherit his mantle. None of those candidates have Trump’s strange star power, and their efforts to imitate him will probably fall short (see: Marco Rubio’s failed turn as an insult comic in 2016). But it is chilling to imagine them in power. They will be more disciplined enforcers of the new Republican normal—more effective administrators of empire abroad and minority rule at home.
There is another possibility for 2024: the Trump clan’s evolution into a political dynasty. Donald Jr. is popular on the alt-right and, despite his near-total lack of charisma, a huge hit at rallies. Ivanka, her father’s favoured child, is the family’s more palatable representative, the one tasked with hitting the campaign trail to woo back the “suburban housewives” Trump drove away. Although Trump doesn’t want to lose the presidency, he seems to palpably dislike being president—it’s hard and boring and everyone is mean to him. But he’s adept at stoking rivalry among his brood, inculcating in them the same competition for approval his own father fostered in him. Installing one of his children in the country’s highest office would be a fitting final act to the Oedipal drama of his life.
Trumpism’s staying power won’t be limited to the Republican Party itself. The last four years have seen an extraordinary explosion of white nationalism and far-right terrorism, and it’s naive to predict that a Biden presidency will slow that growth. The Tea Party, remember, arose in reaction to Barack Obama; the only reason we no longer talk about anything called “the Tea Party” is because it is now indistinguishable from mainstream conservative belief. Indeed, we’re already seeing a new version of this phenomenon, with Republican candidates openly supportive of QAnon—the Trump-worshipping Satanic-pedophile conspiracy theory—being elected to the House of Representatives and absorbed cozily into the party. In the coming years, there may well be more of everything that has flourished during the Trump era: more gubernatorial kidnapping plots, more hate crimes, more white-supremacist terrorism, more conspiracy theories, more street clashes between right- and left-wing activists.
2. The Republican Party will keep clinging to power.
For Democrats, the country’s increasingly diverse demography looks favourable, prompting political observers to forecast a future era of deep-blue rule. But there are problems with this prediction. For one, pundits have been making it for years. In 2013, after two consecutive presidential losses, the Republican National Committee commissioned an autopsy that insisted the party do more to broaden its appeal. Three years later, of course, Trump did what neither John McCain nor Mitt Romney could: he won, and he did it on outright racial grievance.
The second problem: demography isn’t destiny. This year, Trump not only netted more votes overall than he did in 2016—according to some polls, he actually gained support among constituencies that were supposed to be anathema to him. Trump’s support among both Black men and Black women rose by small but significant margins. He earned a substantial increase in support among Latino Americans, not only in states like Florida and Texas but throughout the country. Of course, racialized people still overwhelmingly vote Democrat, but it’s notable that Trump’s gains came after four years of “kids in cages,” of “shithole countries,” of “build the wall,” of “very fine people on both sides.” In fact, the only major demographic group in which Trump’s support declined was white men. People are complicated; racial, ethnic, and linguistic groups are not monoliths. It’s possible we’re seeing the beginnings of a new Republican coalition—much as earlier generations of Irish and Italians and Eastern Europeans transformed from “ethnic” to “white” voters and moved into the conservative fold. Democrats take Black and Latino-American support for granted at their peril.
The third problem for Democrats is the antidemocratic nature of American institutions. The electoral college is infamously unbalanced—only in America could a candidate lose by nearly 3 million votes, as Trump did in 2016, and still legally win an election. So, too, is the Senate, where the two Republican representatives of Wyoming (population 570,000) get the same votes as the two Democratic representatives of California (population 39.5 million). That’s not to mention the disproportionate power wielded by the states, where the majority of governorships and legislatures are Republican held. Even if the House of Representatives remains friendlier ground for Democrats, and even if a Republican presidential candidate never again wins the popular vote, the GOP will continue to exercise veto power over the country’s progress.
Republicans’ final advantage is that they are shameless. The basic GOP electoral strategy is fourfold: ensure that traditional Democratic voters are unable to cast ballots thanks to stringent ID requirements, modern-day poll taxes, and voter-roll purges; gerrymander districts into logic-defying contortions in order to entrench white rule; cram the judiciary with hard-right ideologues who will side with their benefactors in any voting-rights dispute; and soak the entire process in so much money that the average voter will, understandably, feel too alienated to bother. This strategy predates Trump—the “voter fraud” myth began with everyone’s favorite anti-Trump Republican, George W. Bush, whose campaign used it gratuitously during the 2000 Florida recount. We can have a democracy, or we can have the modern Republican Party, but we can’t have both.
3. The Democratic Party can’t meet the moment—yet.
The nationwide relief at Biden’s win has disguised the fact that this election was otherwise a disaster for Democrats. The party will lose at least five seats in the House and is only narrowly holding on to its majority. Senate races that were supposed to be nail-biters, or at least competitive, weren’t even close. Susan Collins won reelection by nine points, Lindsey Graham by eleven, Mitch McConnell by more than twenty; Democrats poured hundreds of millions of dollars into those races for nothing. Control of the Senate now comes down to January’s runoff elections in Georgia. Considering Biden’s razor-thin margin of victory there, it’s very hard to imagine those seats going blue—Georgia hasn’t elected a Democrat senator in twenty years.
Predictably, blame for Democrats’ poor showing has already been foisted upon the party’s left flank. A moderate Democrat congresswoman from Virginia, Abigail Spanberger, said in a private caucus call that Democrats could “never use the words socialist or socialism ever again.” This excuse might be persuasive if it weren’t so tired. Hillary Clinton blamed Bernie Sanders for her loss four years ago; in the Obama era, when the party had no socialist wing to speak of, Democrats suffered wave upon wave of historic losses in the House, the Senate, and state legislatures. A more compelling explanation for the party’s 2020 defeats may be that Joe Biden made the election a referendum on Donald Trump. That was enough for Democrats to win the presidency but little else.
At the first presidential debate, Biden broke through Trump’s interruptions long enough to say one thing of note: “I am the Democratic Party right now,” he insisted, rebuffing an accusation of socialism. If that’s true, Democrats are in trouble. It isn’t just that a seventy-eight-year-old white male moderate hardly seems representative of a party that is getting younger, more diverse, and more progressive; it’s that Biden’s entire philosophy is the vestigial tail of a more primitive creature. Democrats like Biden believe politics is about the business of governing. Republicans, on the other hand, recognize the truth, which is that politics is about the raw exercise of power. Republicans make no apologies about the extremity of their beliefs or the dirtiness of their tactics, while Democrats still behave as though decorum matters and technocracy will win the day. The country is at war with itself, though only Republicans seem to recognize this.
That’s to say nothing of where Biden and the rest of the Democratic establishment stand on the actual issues. In a year when millions of Americans have lost their health insurance, a year when climate change has become more threatening than ever, it’s depressing (though not surprising) to hear Biden disown Medicare for All and the Green New Deal—exactly the sorts of ambitious programs the moment demands. Democrats may argue he needs to do this to avoid alienating swing voters, but that’s because they’re thinking like Democrats: sticking to the terms of the debate rather than rewriting them. The US needs a wholesale transformation of its political culture, and that won’t happen as long as Democrats keep ceding rhetorical ground.
If there’s a source of hope, it’s in the newfound swagger of the Democrats’ left flank—in the recent victories of insurgents like Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush, who ran on brazenly progressive platforms. The progressive wing of the party is finally figuring out what hard-right Republicans learned a decade ago: in politically safe districts, there’s no reason to compromise. If the limits of American discourse are ever going to shift, Democrats need to speak as boldly on every key issue—jobs, taxation, policing, abortion, the environment—as Republicans do. It’s not enough for Democrats to know what they stand against. The party needs to offer voters concrete improvements to their material conditions, and do it without hedging or apology.
The Biden campaign was premised on a return to normalcy, but the US has been irreparably transformed by the past four years. That’s not entirely a bad thing. The one redeeming quality of the Trump era has been the sense of possibility it created. Trump proved it was feasible to buck establishment consensus and build something new; he just did it in the service of his own roiling id. One can imagine another version of this transformation: a version in which Americans receive the same basic social-democratic rights—universal health care, guaranteed parental leave, some semblance of a safety net—afforded to citizens of other Western democracies. Then again, this is America we’re talking about. That may be too much to ask.