Let’s start with a question: How do you feel today? How do you feel on the eve of Donald Trump leaving the White House, of Joe Biden officially taking over as the American president?
If you’re reading Paste, there’s a greater-than-50-percent chance that on some level, you’re thrilled. I feel it too, just like I felt it on election, um, week, when it became clear that Biden was going to win. On both a psychological and a visceral level, Trump occupying the White House was a nightmare. The policies could have been worse, admittedly, a fact that owes itself mostly to his incompetence, but from damaging fiscal maneuvers like the tax bill to the separation policy that shocked and enraged us, it was a dark onslaught. On the management side, it was steadily bad until COVID-19 hit, at which point it became criminally deficient. And on a rational level, it was alternately embarrassing and (mostly) infuriating to watch a smug egomaniac grin his crude way through a full term as our leader, cheered on at every step by the foot soldiers who would never (will never) leave his side.
At the end of all that, of course it’s normal to feel relief and even a sense of joy. But the reality behind all this is that when someone like Trump takes office, he never really leaves. The legacy of a man who loomed this large in the national conscience does not end the minute he’s off the grounds and the next one is sworn in. That may sound dire—who wants Trump around forever, even symbolically?—but in fact it’s a neutral truth, and the outcome depends on how we react.
On the negative side, we’re not off to a flying start. I’ve written before about the polarization of America, which was in full swing long before Trump came around, and which laid the ground both for his initial campaign and his lingering popularity. The key trait of a polarized people is that they will not change their minds. We’ve seen this phenomenon play out over and over again with Trump supporters, who meet each new outrage with a few tried-and-true tactics, most of which depend on arguing that the other side has done the same or worse, or, more recently, simply insisting that all criticism is a lie. Another uncomfortable truth is that polarization breeds polarization, which means that to a less intense and less sociopathic degree, we’ve begun to see the same intransigence on the left. If your dream for America is that the Trump years will prompt a reckoning that results in material gains for our people, polarization is your greatest enemy. It prevents both Trumpists and liberals from embracing anything remotely progressive, the former because anything on the left is broadly seen as the enemy (regardless of how the left’s policies would materially improve their lives), and the latter because any deviation from doctrinaire democratic establishment capitalism will be seen as dividing the party and making it harder to keep the enemy out of power.
When neither side will budge, and the sides are roughly equal, we call this a stalemate. The problem is that while the word implies a kind of status quo, we know from experience that when a nation is stuck in its respective ruts, what actually happens is that everything becomes worse. Sometimes the devolution is slow and sometimes it’s rapid, but without major change, the general trend is always downward. And the important point on this front is that Trump has ratcheted up this polarization to a dizzying fever pitch. In the last year, we’ve seen riots on the street and an attack on the Capitol, all in the name of political activism. Trump has made it wildly difficult to bridge this gap, since his major contribution to American life was to widen the chasm. It’s a gift you have to assume he’ll keep giving from outside the seat of power.
There is also the problem of what a successful progressive candidate would look like, and how he or she would operate. A two-party system is more than a bureaucratic curiosity; it’s a state of mind. What that means is that along with a set of economic policies (for instance), being a Democrat comes with an implied set of cultural values. As it happens, those cultural values tend to be far more irresistible and end up occupying an outsize spot in the discourse, to the extent that a MAGA Republican could never support someone like Bernie Sanders, since along with Medicare For All or free public education, Sanders comes as part of a package that includes what they would derisively refer to as “wokeness.” And for many, that’s a deal-breaker.
While identity politics keeps the right away, it also serves as a very effective tool with which the liberal center can attack the left. We saw the Sanders campaign become bogged down in charges of racism and sexism, while in the U.K. the Corbyn campaign was mired and ultimately sunk, in part, by absurd accusations of anti-Semitism. Cynical though it may be, using the left’s own values against itself is about as reliable a political judo move as can be found in the western world, and it derives from the same cultural polarization
Who is the mythical figure that can appeal to the more masculine ethos of the Trump voter on economic terms without alienating the left on cultural grounds, or who can satisfy the requirements of a good leftist without appearing weak to conservatives and getting bludgeoned too much with identity politics by Democrats? If such a person seemed like fantasy before, Trump has made the path even narrower by shoving the sides brutally into the next echelon of polarization.
But after all the dire warnings, there is, at least potentially, a silver lining to the Trump presidency. There can be no doubt that it has served as a wake-up call, as the turnout in the last four national elections has shown. Who could have imagined, for instance, what happened in Georgia on election night and with the Senate races this past month? Who could have imagined that Trump would increase his vote total by 12 million and still be swamped by Biden’s blue wave?
There is pure political energy happening right now, and while that can lead to things like the storming of the Capitol, there is a flip side that can’t be denied. The critical fact, of course, is that the energy must be directed in productive ways, but even now we’re seeing the glimmer of progressive policy taking shape in the Biden administration even in the absence of intense public pressure (the impending re-cancellation of the Keystone XL Pipeline, for instance).
On these matters, we’re forced to speak broadly, but I contend that there’s no way to heighten political awareness to this degree without seeing knock-on effects in how policies are perceived and enacted. In 2016 alone, we saw how one man could turn a concept like Medicare for All from political poison into a concept that’s supported by the majority of Americans and is set to gather more and more momentum with time. This will happen on many fronts, and it’s a strong antidote to the fascist impulses of the right.
There is a simple truth at play here, which is that to combat the mounting anger and radicalization of the American right, you need to capture an opposing energy on the left. That doesn’t mean violence, but it does mean resisting the years of inertia that would now typically see the Democrats resting on their laurels, defaulting to the centrist mode of weak power, and paving the way for the next big Republican victory. That would be disastrous if it happened, not just because of the lunatics running the asylum again, but for the toll it would take on the movement. Years would be lost, and just as crucially, belief would vanish. When the spirit is high, you have to push for progress or risk the enthusiasm fizzling out and not returning for a generation. Ask the hippies.
The fact that the groundwork has been laid for something that goes beyond our usual feckless liberal politics is extraordinary, and can be explained for the most part by the overwhelming reaction against Trump. If there’s a gift he’s give the nation in these four years, among the pain, it’s this: the oppositional momentum that defeated him, and that can now be used to build something better.
The cliché applies—we’re at a crossroads. The left has a weapon in its hands, the tides are changing, and progress is tangible. It will be incredibly difficult for all the reasons mentioned above, but it will be even more difficult to do nothing. The Trump years have meant deepening division and an underlying fear that churns like an ulcer in the pit of American life. Whether it means something more, and whether the reaction to this cancerous figure yields something from the ashes of his term, remains to be seen. We’re on the precipice of something, and to yield to nostalgic liberal impulses and seek a return to what we imagine life was like before would be a unique disaster. Stasis is death, and a return to pre-Trump days offers nothing but a proven path to the next Trump. Rewinding a movie doesn’t change the plot. But there’s a way forward here, and every effort must be made to harnessing and stoking the progressive energy Trump has inspired. That was his only gift to us, albeit an unwitting one, and our future depends on using that gift long after he’s gone.