A nightmare began with Donald Trump’s victory in November 2016. It has just been extended indefinitely with his narrow loss and wild allegations of electoral fraud.
In his 2016 campaign, Trump prospered by challenging the legitimacy of America’s political and economic system, arguing that it was rigged to benefit a few elites. Over the next four years, he demonstrated, in diverse and ingenious ways, his profound unfitness for high office.
Still, nearly 70 million voters plainly wished to keep him in the White House, confirming that Trump’s self-presentation as an outsider despised by political and media elites had gained broad and enduring acceptance.
Trump will have to vacate his official residence in January and begin grappling with numerous legal and financial difficulties. And the coalition of interests he provoked in opposition to him will be formidable in the years to come.
But there seems little doubt that his anti-system politics of anger and resentment has acquired a long lease of life in American politics and society.
Much analysis since Trump’s shock election of 2016 depicted him as a radical aberration. The many repellent aspects of his personality helped cement a narrative in which he posed an unprecedented threat to democracy and liberalism.
In fact, he was always a symptom of the breakdown of both democracy and liberalism: a belated but calamitous political consequence of the financial crisis of 2008 and even such older phenomena as uneven growth, diminished social security, extreme social and economic inequality and, most crucially, loss of faith in political representatives.
Trump himself doesn’t seem so unprecedented or singular when he is examined together with fellow “outsiders,” from Brazil to India, who successfully exploited disaffection with political elites grown unresponsive to ordinary distress.
Like Trump, these pseudo-mavericks were successful because they alchemized a long-felt helplessness among many voters — the despairing sense that nothing can or should be done before the forces of the market and technocratic governance — into a craving for performance, no matter how crude or destructive.
Take, for instance, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who rose out of political disgrace in the early 2010s on the back of an ostensibly apolitical anti-corruption movement aimed at India’s then-ruling party, the Indian National Congress.
India, headed by an impassive technocrat, had been manifesting high levels of inequality and erratic economic growth. Depicting himself as an outcast victimized by establishment politicians and journalists, Modi promised to clean the Augean stables of a system favoring the rich, the corrupt and the nepotistic, and to make India great again.
During his six years in power, even as he has committed policy disasters great enough to destroy any other political career, Modi has managed to maintain his pose as a rebel, besieged by bitter beneficiaries of the old system. More remarkably, his likely successors are already busy mobilizing the anti-establishment energies he so fruitfully deployed.
Even before India, Italy revealed the strength and persistence of an anti-system insurgency. The political status quo there was radically disrupted as early as the 1990s by the exposure of incredible levels of corruption in all major parties. Since then, one self-proclaimed outsider after another has flourished in Italy — from the business and media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi promising “a new Italian miracle” to the comedian Beppo Grillo, who rose to political prominence in 2007 with a “V-day” (vaffanculo, or “f--- off” day) aimed at an ostensibly rotten political class.
This unvarnished mode of politics — performative and explicitly destructive in intent — turns off many voters. But many others prefer it in the absence of better choices. They remain susceptible to anyone who can colorfully articulate their frustrations and resentments and identify suitable enemies to crush.
Grillo’s Five Star Movement, the largest party in the Italian parliament today, has failed to govern effectively. But the likely beneficiary of its fiascos is a far more virulent demagogue, his former coalition partner Matteo Salvini of the anti-migrant League party.
Likewise, Modi’s probable successors today seem even more hardline than him, while the pandemic and ensuing social and economic chaos make the soil for their electoral growth more rather than less fertile.
In other words, there is little respite from clownish demagoguery once a long-standing political order loses credibility and legitimacy among a significantly large proportion of the population. That fatal conjuncture was achieved imperceptibly in the United States well before Trump’s shock victory in 2016 made it explicit and undeniable. This is why there can be no easy or quick escape from his baleful shadow.
Joe Biden will eventually replace Trump in the White House. But, a loyal functionary of the old order is hardly the man to restore faith in it. And so this almost certainly won’t be, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, the end of Trumpism, or even the beginning of the end, but merely the end of the beginning.