By Chris Winters
The election is over. Joe Biden won, and by bigger popular vote and Electoral College margins than Donald Trump did four years ago. By all reasonable accounts, that should give President-elect Biden a mandate to set an aggressive agenda.
Given the twin crises of the pandemic and economic collapse, Biden, once in office, will have to move insistently if the United States is to recover at all. And in keeping to his “build back better” slogan, he’ll have to take on more systemic problems: vast income and wealth inequality, race disparities in the criminal justice and health systems, the persistent and growing threat of climate change.
On top of all that, Biden will have to deal with an insurgent movement of Americans tens-of-millions strong, and inspired and encouraged by the rantings of Donald Trump, who is likely to continue spewing his toxicity on right-wing cable outlets and social media once he leaves the bully pulpit of the White House.
Biden has pledged to be the president for all Americans, including the more than 74 million Trump supporters. Many of those people are still convinced that Trump won the 2020 election in a landslide, and that Biden used a massive vote fraud scheme to steal it from him. Already right-wing groups are mobilizing—and committing acts of domestic terrorism—to try to “stop the steal.”
It’s complete nonsense, of course, but four years of Trump have successfully created an alternate reality for his legions of followers. Courts have thankfully adhered to the law—and common sense—and thrown out dozens of frivolous lawsuits before the Electoral College vote. That included a particularly insane suit by Texas to overturn the election results in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. More than 120 Congressional Republicans signed onto a brief supporting that suit, as did 17 Republican state attorneys general (including most of the former states of the Confederacy).
Still, millions believe that the election was stolen: Powerful voices in Washington, such as U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, held a hearings into bogus allegations of voter fraud; State-level Republicans have called for secession or for Trump to invoke martial law to seize power. Add to that the fact that the economic forces that facilitated Trump’s rise are even stronger today than they were in 2016.
Beginning day one, President Biden will have to deal with what amounts to a recalcitrant fifth column in American society that stretches into the government, and which has been conditioned to see his administration as illegitimate. Biden will have a hard enough time governing without having to worry about the schism in the body politic.
If the Republican Party holds onto just one of the Georgia Senate seats in the Jan. 5 runoff, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell won’t hesitate to use his de facto veto power to hamstring any legislation that doesn’t include major giveaways to big business. A Supreme Court newly cemented on the hard right wing—similar in judicial outlook than the infamously anti-civil rights and anti-labor “Lochner” court of the early 20th century—is unlikely to endorse broad-based changes in the economic structure of the nation, even as climate change poses an existential crisis.
And so we have to acknowledge and be prepared to take on the challenge(s) ahead. One of the hallmarks of cultlike behavior, which is being demonstrated by Trump supporters, is a resistance to facts that conflict with the adopted narrative. The illogicality of that belief system also shields adherents from logical persuasion. We won’t be able to argue our way out of this without fundamentally changing the facts on the ground. That means addressing those basic economic issues that have been ignored by both Democratic and Republican administrations for decades.
Since the pandemic began, 8 million people have fallen into poverty. Rural America and small towns are still being hollowed out by a post-industrial collapse. Trump’s plans to make America great again were by default plans to make racism acceptable again and to give the wealthiest people more tax breaks—his followers are still waiting for that economic payday that never came, and they’re still angry at everyone except the people most responsible for their plight.
Some commentators have seen the future of divided government and anti-democratic Trumpism as a sign of imminent collapse. In The New York Times interview with historian Joseph Tainter, Ben Ehrenreich writes, quoting Native American scholar Michael V. Wilcox, “collapses happen all the time.”
“This is not to diminish the suffering they cause or the rage they should occasion,” Ehrenreich continues, “only to suggest that the real danger comes from imagining that we can keep living the way we always have, and that the past is any more stable than the present.”
The increase in right-wing domestic terrorism we’re beginning to see has precedent in the epidemic of lynching of Black people after the Civil War and the violent suppression of labor unions. White right-wing extremists have been responsible for more terrorist attacks in recent years than Islamic extremists.
While it may be easy to do so, and the desired progression for some, we cannot ignore the huge number of Americans who now effectively live in a cultlike bubble, immune from persuasion, and who will be back in four years to support another Trump-esque candidate for president, whether he or she bears the Trump name or not.
We have to recognize that people can and do leave cults and extremist movements to rejoin society. That’s not to say they don’t still hold on to certain ideologies. But they may recognize the harm they’ve done and seek to make amends. Or perhaps they simply miss the connections they’d previously severed. Sometimes, entire societies can be transformed; just look at Germany. But the process of deprogramming a cultist doesn’t usually involve clever arguments on social media or fact-by-fact debunking of falsehoods. Instead, it often comes down to one-on-one communication with a heavy dose of empathy and kindness—it’s a slow and arduous process, but it’s the one that works best.
Whether we’re talking about neo-Nazis abandoning extremism or people leaving cults led by manipulative personalities, a hate-the-cult, love-the-cultist approach is what’s called for.
That’s admittedly a tall order for many of us, especially those who have been targeted by Trump’s and his minions’ hatred. Some of us won’t be able to do it at all. And that’s understandable. Far better that our sympathy be with the victims of this administration—the jailed children separated from their parents, the families and friends of slain Black people, the poor people denied relief from punitive medical bills during a pandemic.
Trump’s supporters are not owed our sympathy. Those raised in the Catholic Church know this: You aren’t forgiven for your sins until after you’ve confessed and done penance. Kindness and empathy also shouldn’t be conflated with compromising. And we should scorn those who proudly wore pro-Trump T-shirts that read “F**k Your Feelings” now demanding that Democrats should “understand” their hurt feelings.
That isn’t empathy; it’s capitulation. You don’t meet White supremacists halfway in the hopes they’ll be less violent. (Hint: they won’t.) And this isn’t about Donald Trump, or the people that enabled his assault on our democracy. They all belong in prison, and Biden shouldn’t shy away from prosecuting the myriad crimes that have been committed in the Trump administration.
Germany didn’t transform into a modern democratic nation until after it was defeated in war, its leaders killed or imprisoned, and a full-scale denazification process of every sector of society had taken place.
Peace without justice never lasts.
We didn’t go as far down the road to autocracy as wartime Germany did, but there is still a lot of work to do before our democracy is both secure and just. And we can’t wait for 74 million Trumpists to come around. They may decide to come along and renounce their former anti-democratic cult, but they’re going to have to realize that “returning to normal” is going to look different this time around. The Trump years have laid bare for all to see just how much injustice and inequality still needs to be addressed.
President-elect Biden, for all his centrism and desire for normalcy, also needs to recognize that the Republican Party has been taken over and transformed into a Trumpist cult. You can’t compromise in a democracy with those whose goal is the abolition of democracy. We’ve been compromising our basic principles for decades already, and all it got us was Trump.
There is going to be enormous pressure, just as there was in 2008, to sweep the crimes of the outgoing administration aside in the name of “comity” or “bipartisanship.” That will be a fatal mistake for us now.
Yes, opening the channels of communication with the Republicans in Congress is necessary. But a party that has spent the past 40 years running ever further to the extreme right has a long trek back before we can talk about meeting in the middle again. We’re on a long journey toward a better nation, now. We can, and will, continue to argue about the details, but our goal of being a more just, fair, and equitable nation can’t be traded away.