No matter what happens to Donald Trump or who assumes the presidency in January, we can say this: He brought the truth of America to the surface. I’ll leave his policies and his politics — to the extent that he ever had policies or coherent politics — to the pundits. As a critic, I can say that he embodied, embraced or inflamed almost everything ugly in American culture, past, present and perhaps future. He made it palpable and tangible even to people inclined to see the bright side of everything. That this week’s election wasn’t a repudiation of Trumpism, that some 6 million more Americans believe in it now compared with four years ago, is horrifying. But it’s also reality, and it’s always best to face reality.
He also gave our unique brand of ugliness — rooted in racism, exceptionalism, recklessness, arrogance and a tendency to bully our way to power — a name. Trumpism is now rooted in the lexicon, and although white supremacy may be the better, more clinical term for what ails America, Trumpism is a useful, colloquial alternative. It encompasses an even wider category of people that includes not just avowed racists who have publicly supported the president but also those who downplay the problem, or align with it for personal gain, or are simply unwilling to acknowledge its history and persistence. Naming a thing is an essential first step to understanding it, and although some White people will reflexively resist acknowledging how their lives intersect with white supremacy, it may be easier to see how much Trumpism exists in all of us.
Nostalgia and a yearning for normality? The thought that an hour picking apples might rekindle the spirit of better times? The certainty on a beautiful fall day that no matter how bad things get, there will always be a place for you? That’s the Trumpism talking, and it’s best to resist it.
In moments of despair, it’s easy to think that the past four years were a failure of civic discourse, that slightly more than half of America simply failed to convincingly argue against Trumpism. America, in the aggregate, seems just as stupid as it was four years ago, when it became clear that we would have to learn some painful lessons, and learn them the hard way, through the collapse of competent governance, the destruction of civility and, now, the ravages of a grossly mismanaged pandemic. But if we are stupid in the aggregate, many individual Americans are more clear-eyed and conscious than four years ago. The 2016 election proved that the argument against Trumpism had largely failed, but although losing an argument is maddening, it also makes your argument stronger, clarifies your reasoning and orders your logic. Half of America may be right where it was four years ago, still mired in Trumpism, but some part of the other half of America isn’t just opposed to Trump but also smarter and more cognizant of how Trumpism has rooted itself in the society. That’s not a negligible accomplishment.
Grappling with white supremacy, or Trumpism if you prefer, was never going to be easy, because it exists not just in a handful of ugly epithets, the caricatures we see in old movies and statues scattered across the landscape. It is existential, precognitive and pervasive, as fully present in how we conceive of beauty as it is in the assumptions we make about that driver who just cut us off while swerving between lanes.
Changing how we think would be difficult even if we all agreed on the necessity for change. It is even more difficult given that 48 percent of the country resists the project entirely. But for all the damage Trump has done, much of which may never be undone, he has inadvertently, accidentally and unintentionally left us with a model for what needs to be done.
Trumpism is embedded in America and can be fought only through rigorous self-discipline, through constant surveillance of the thoughts we think, the words we use and the assumptions we make. There was white supremacy before we started thinking of it as Trumpism, but before Trump, there also was a tendency to think of it as “out there” rather than “in here.” Now we know it not as a perverse blemish on American culture but as foundational to American culture. That’s progress.
On a summer morning in 1861, holiday makers, the picnic crowd, the Washington swells went out to the battlefield at Manassas to watch a quick and decisive battle bring an end to the Civil War. Head east past the battlefield on Interstate 66 and you’re roughly retracing the holiday crowd’s steps when they fled back to Washington in panic and disorder after Confederate troops routed Union forces. Some of them, safe again in the nation’s capital, were perhaps slightly less ignorant about the magnitude of the war that awaited them.
Disillusionment isn’t an event — it’s a process. It doesn’t arrive and do its work all at once, like an epiphany. It is a way of living, a perpetual vigilance, a habit of mind. We may wish that Trumpism could be defeated, like an external enemy. But reality requires that we think of it as a chronic condition of American public life — not a virus that can be quarantined and perhaps cured, but a lifestyle disease rooted in sedentary thinking.