Such allegations are corrosive and repulsive, and I could spend the rest of this column dissecting Trump’s nihilistic fantasies, or condemning what I hope will be his final, desperate attack on U.S. institutions. But I’ve been at it for five years, and if it hasn’t worked already, it won’t. Better to ask, I believe: How can we heal the damage of the past four years without guaranteeing that he returns four years from now, still a major figure in American life, still sore about his loss, still screaming about his grievances and still vowing to take revenge on what is left of the resistance?
It could easily happen if we insist on making the Biden presidency the After Trump Show. After all, four years of an all-hands, THIS IS NOT A DRILL freakout is poised to deliver only a very narrow win for Democrats, not a national epiphany. Another four of investigations and recriminations will deliver even less, since half the country won’t believe the results, and the other half already does. We’d only provide more fodder for Trump’s insatiable ego, and, if we are honest, for our own.
For too many people, including me at times, the Trump administration has been as exciting as it was horrifying. Opposing a dictatorship-on-the-make is obviously more important than opposing someone who wants 25 percent less government spending than you do. It is easy to complain about vote suppression or limits on the First Amendment or harassment of various communities. It is much harder to understand why the Republicans held or gained seats in the House and state legislatures.
One might even suggest that our own role as resisters has already made it more difficult than it should have been to defeat Trump, because it made it so hard to understand why so many people — and more this time around than last — were voting for the man.
You may want to tell me that you know why: They voted for white supremacy, patriarchy, homophobia, xenophobia. Yet Trump apparently improved his vote share among minority voters in 2020, particularly among Hispanic voters who were supposed to be most alienated by his immigration policies. This seems a good time to check the root premise, as sociologist Musa Al-Gharbi has been urging us to do for the past four years.
Yes, Trump uses offensively coded language, and his speeches often seem calculated to violate the delicate racial and sexual etiquette of the cultural establishment while maintaining maximum deniability for those outside the professional class. Yet concluding that’s his main appeal is a big mistake; it reasons backward from our own feelings, as if his supporters are mere mirrors of ourselves, who love whatever we most hate. More likely, they just don’t care as much as we do about certain things and are therefore focused on something else entirely.
Certainly, I’d argue they should care more. But that’s not the same as actively supporting oppression, unless you endorse absolutist arguments made by people like Ibram X. Kendi: you’re either actively anti-racist, or supporting racism, full stop.
This is like arguing that when you go to work and buy a new breakfast table on the way home instead of organizing and donating to relief efforts for the looming famine in Yemen, your main goal in life must be the deaths of 100,000 Yemeni infants. Human moral intuitions don’t work that way. And if this election will have proved anything, it will be that we don’t win against Trumpism with these kinds of absolutist arguments, no matter how good it makes us feel to raise the moral stakes to “existential threat.”
Because it’s not working. If Biden wins, Trump will have very narrowly lost to a man who ran a low-key campaign of decency, normalcy and acceptance across party lines, while progressives cost Democrats House seats, and maybe the Senate, with maximalist takes on divisive issues.
So I’d suggest that the best way for all of us to win the future is by living in it, rather than the past — and putting the focus not on Trump, nor ourselves, but on the vast common ground of the country we all have to live in.