Anyone paying attention to this presidential election is aware that nearly all of the discourse this season from liberals and leftists has centered nearly singularly on how important it is to get Donald Trump out of office. Trump is often described as the laughingstock of the world, a clown, and a president uniquely disrespectful of American tradition, institutions, and civility. Joe Biden is heralded as the opposite of all of this, someone capable of the civility that Trump so desperately lacks.
I don’t think any of this is untrue. However, I would speculate that the fixation on Trump in this election suggests a widespread view that there is something unique about Donald Trump that makes him far more dangerous – and far removed – from other members of his party and the Republican political apparatus as a whole.
The narrative from liberal political pundits appears to be that the “Trumpist” wing of the Republican party may be dealt a death blow by a Trump presidential election loss, after which the fiscal-responsibility-and-family-values wing will reemerge to lead the party out of this era. This wing, we might think, is bitterly resistant and is being held hostage by Trump, eagerly waiting to take back the party. This is complete fiction. Trump’s demeanor, integrity, and civility (or lack thereof) may or may not be unique to him, but his politics absolutely aren’t. To even call his politics “Trumpism” is to be willfully ignorant of the trends in the American right that produced him and of the reasons why Trump was elected in the first place.
Hillary Clinton and her flaws in making a convincing case to the American people aside, Donald Trump won in 2016 expressly because his political positions do match very real discontents felt by Americans. No matter how valid or invalid they are, the anxieties that Trump voiced about immigration and manufacturing job loss are very real fears and discontents felt by voters, and this was reflected in the election. According to polling by the Pew Research Center, two of the top 3 most important issues of the 2016 election for Trump supporters were the economy and immigration, broad topics that encompass more specific concerns related to job loss and nativism.
The crux of this is that these sentiments exist regardless of whether Trump voices them. The voters hold these opinions – they precede Trump and will outlast him.
They’re recycled by media talking heads, too. Consider Fox News, long considered the bastion of the mainstream American right’s popular thought. It’s very difficult to look at Fox News’s Tucker Carlson co-opting and twisting left rhetoric to tell his viewers that the elite want them to focus on racism as an issue to stop them from developing class consciousness (yes, this is real) and not understand that these sentiments have spread beyond some kind of atomized “Trumpism.”
“Populism,” “fascism,” or whatever you want to call it, a sentiment of nativism and ostensible working-class empowerment with economic interests chiefly in service of these two goals (the general guise of restoring the American worker) has taken root in the American public consciousness. It won’t end with a Trump electoral loss any more than Carlson or anyone like him will resign in that event.
In all of this, despite the massive budget deficit that President Trump has racked up, Republican legislators have more or less fallen in line, with only a few notable exceptions (Susan Collins, Mitt Romney). This could be chalked up to political expediency. The vast majority of Republican Senators represent districts won by Trump in 2016, and breaking the party line could come off badly with these voters (Senator Collins’s state, by the way, was not won by Trump). However, the zeal with which Mitch McConnell and his Senate majority have gone to bat for Trump reveals a much more deeply set willingness to fall in line with whatever gets some limited number of universally Republican goals accomplished. The Republican party on the whole is no longer concerned with being the party of free trade, fiscal responsibility, and a low budget ceiling, at least not right now.
In tandem with this, a wave of local races across the country are being contested by and won by people with the exact same politics as Trump. This November’s elections alone, a minimum of 25 US Congressional contenders are believers or former believers in the QAnon conspiracy theory. How these candidates will contend isn’t known; what is clear is that this is a movement unto itself.
I’m at risk here of sounding like I’m minimizing the danger that Donald Trump poses (or that I think traditional Republican politics are all that much better). This is not what I’m saying at all, however. Like many others, I very much understand that President Trump is starkly in opposition to the interests of marginalized people, the workers that he claims to speak for, and the institutions that we consider important. I’m not arguing that he’s any less dangerous than anyone might think he is. Rather, I’m saying that he is not the be-all-end-all of that danger. With so much of the discourse surrounding this election focusing on how Donald Trump violates the “norms” of American democracy, acts like a “clown,” or otherwise is considered to be uncivil in his tone, there is a risk run of making it seem that the issue is at its heart about civility. This is a huge tonal gap from reality; to act like a president with the same positions as Trump but more “civility” would be noticeably less harmful (or even less harmful in general) misses the mark completely.
This election is lauded as an opportunity to boot Trump. It could be much more. Regardless of what you think about Trump’s opponent, this election could be presented to the American people as a referendum on the fascist politics embodied by President Trump as a whole. Without this framing, the door is wide open for future politicians just as dangerous Trump to hide under a veneer of civility to effect even more harm.