William D. Adams
THE SENATE’S ACQUITTAL OF DONALD TRUMP on the charge of inciting insurrection on January 6 casts a glaring, unflattering light on the Republican senators who voted to exonerate the former president. There’s plenty to say about their cravenness, but the real story lies elsewhere. The impeachment trial raises all over again the central question of the 2020 election: what was on the minds of the more than 74 million people who voted — enthusiastically or grudgingly, fervently or coolly — for Donald J. Trump? As the country digests the outcome of the impeachment proceedings, this question looms larger than ever, the black box of the meaning and consequence of the Trump era.
Scaling is in order. Joe Biden won the national election by a bit more than 7 million votes, reestablishing small Democratic majorities in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, and pushing Georgia and Arizona into the Democratic column for the first time in many years. Good for Democrats. Meanwhile, Donald Trump received more votes than any Republican candidate in the history of American presidential elections. Indeed, he received more votes than any candidate in presidential election history save one — Joe Biden. Trump received 13.8 million more votes than John McCain in 2008, 12.8 million more than Mitt Romney in 2012, and 11.8 million more than George W. Bush in 2004. He received 4.3 million more votes than Barack Obama in 2008 and 7.9 million more than Hillary Clinton in 2016. Relative to 2016, the raw number of Trump voters grew in almost every demographic category: young and old, white and non-white, rich and poor, well-educated and not. Trump increased his margin of victory in three key battleground states that he carried narrowly in 2016 — Ohio, Florida, and North Carolina — and he achieved greater margins in most of the deeply red states he won easily in 2016. Perhaps most important in the long term, and with the notable recent exception of Georgia, down-ballot results in congressional and local contests generally favored Republicans. The “blue wave” that many were predicting (or fearing), including some Republicans, did not materialize. Not good for Democrats.
These numbers are closely related, of course, to the impressive and encouraging voter turnout on November 3rd — nearly 67 percent of the voting-age population, the highest since the beginning of the 20th century. But that turnout was driven in substantial part by intense and intensely polarized voter emotions centered on Donald Trump himself. A substantial majority of Biden voters — 68 percent, according to Edison Research exit polls as reported in The New York Times — regarded their votes as “mainly” votes against Trump. “Any Functioning Adult,” as one widely distributed campaign sign put it. By contrast, exit polling among Trump voters revealed that only one third (or about 24 million) regarded their votes as “mainly” against Biden. That leaves roughly 50 million people who voted to affirm some or all of Trump’s agenda. In the less precise domain of optics, Biden’s carefully controlled and socially distanced campaign looked positively sedate compared to the noisy, unmasked whirlwind of Trump’s frenetic Air Force One roadshow. The advantage in the public display of political emotion and energy was decisively Trump’s.
Consider, too, the immediate context in the months leading up to the election: a national health crisis that revealed the incompetence or indifference of senior officials across the administration, including the president; an economy still severely stressed by the pandemic, with 7 percent unemployment and 3.8 million permanent jobs lost; Trump’s chaotic leadership style, always on display during his tenure, but especially clear in the months leading up to the election; approval ratings for Trump that never cracked 45 percent and trailed disapproval ratings by 8 percentage points on election day; and Trump’s relentless effort in the weeks leading up to the election to undermine the confidence of voters in the electoral process itself, a campaign that reached its inevitable, terrible crescendo on January 6.
And so what were they thinking, the 74 million?
SOME PART OF THE ANSWER to “what?” is “who?” and, even more decisively, “where?” As in 2016, a majority of Trump’s supporters in 2020 were white, male, older, married, straight, less well educated, and more religious (and mostly Protestant). And the majority came from places outside major metropolitan areas. As the election results piled up, a map published regularly by The New York Times showed where and by what margins the candidates were racking up meaningful majorities of voters. The blue and red bubbles told the story, perhaps the most striking story of this and the last election. Biden’s popular and electoral college victories came by way of the Boston/Washington corridor and the greater metropolitan areas of Atlanta, Miami, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison, Minneapolis, Dallas, Houston, Austin, Denver, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. With a few weird exceptions like Vermont, Trump prevailed virtually everywhere else, in small and medium-sized towns and the vast and sparsely populated Midwestern and Western rural areas just beyond the edges of our rapidly growing mega-cities, with their densely populated urban cores and burgeoning suburbs. Trump won more than 80 percent of all counties in the United States while losing the popular contest by more than 7 million votes. It is a stunning reminder of how sharply our political values and beliefs are being shaped by place and by divergent cultures and senses of place. And it raises important and complex questions about how voters’ values and inclinations are related to place.
Most of these demographic patterns were familiar from 2016. But in the meantime, Trump had been governing, and the things that he and his administration had done — or not done — are now baked into the election’s outcome and detail.
Among the things done or claimed to be done, nothing was more consequential in the long-term, or unifying of Republicans in the short-term, than the transformation of the federal judiciary. During Trump’s administration, the U.S. Senate confirmed more than 200 appointments to the federal bench, including three appointments to the Supreme Court and 13 appointments to the federal courts of appeal. Trump voters expressed their enthusiasm. Roughly one-half of voting Republicans (94 percent of whom voted for Trump) stated that appointments to the Supreme Court were either the most important reason or one of the most important reasons for their votes. Trump knew they were watching, of course. Exactly one month before the election, he hosted an elegant, private White House nomination reception for Amy Coney Barrett. Guests included prominent evangelicals, business-oriented conservatives, originalists, libertarians, and other Trump loyalists, all of whom found common ground in the prospect of a conservative judiciary. It was fitting that at the very moment Trump was promoting this success he was also getting, or giving, the coronavirus, thus highlighting in a single stroke his most important governing success and his most glaring governing failure. A substantial majority of Republican voters seemed non-plussed by the failure, opining in exit polls that efforts to contain the virus were going “very well.”
As important as they were, changes to the federal judiciary trailed substantially the importance of Trump’s economic agenda for voters. Over 80 percent of all Trump voters reported that the economy was the most important election issue, and Trump himself made his economic record the leading edge of his 2020 campaign, the pandemic notwithstanding.
As a matter of economic policy, Trump pursued an idiosyncratic brand of neoliberalism seeking to stimulate business investment, restore American manufacturing, and create jobs. The familiar elements of this agenda included aggressive tax cuts (principally for corporations and the wealthy), aggressive deregulation, especially in the financial and environmental sectors, reduction of the scope of government, and low interest rates, aimed in part at the stock market. The idiosyncratic pieces included a striking indifference to deficit spending and a strain of protectionism seemingly at odds with the classical neoliberal aim of liberating global capital and labor markets. Whence the threatened and real trade wars, tariffs, and torn up or renegotiated trade deals. Trump also pressured corporations to alter plans to close factories or to build new ones in hard-hit parts of the country, efforts that seemed to make good on his promise to reverse basic trends in American manufacturing that adversely affected so many micropolitan communities, especially in the Midwest.
As in 2016, election data suggest that a substantial portion of Trump’s voters came from micropolitan and rural communities that continue to experience economic decline, Trump’s interventions notwithstanding. And Trump’s vote share in many of these communities increased in 2020. Biden narrowly prevailed in the critical states of Wisconsin and Michigan, for instance, owing to massive turnout in urban areas, where the African American vote was decisive, and in communities with newly diversified economies. The election effects of differences in economic opportunities appeared to be even greater in 2020 than in 2016.
For micropolitan and rural voters, especially, the protectionism of Trump’s neoliberalism was a strong attractor, notwithstanding the pain that tariffs inflicted on farmers and other groups of workers and producers. The trade war with China was the unifying symbol of this protectionism, resonating with voters still bitter about the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs and worried about more to come.
Protectionism in a different register anchored Trump’s partly successful attempts to constrain immigration. The argument for constraint was in part economic. The contraction of economic opportunity in parts of the country, the administration argued, was not merely the result of the offshoring of manufacturing, but also of the onshoring of labor in the form of legal and illegal immigrants taking American jobs and securing government benefits at the expense of taxpayers. But the economic argument always had a heavily xenophobic tilt, ever-present in Trump’s comments on various countries of origin and in his oft-repeated scorn for cities with large immigrant communities. Whence the persistence of the snaking symbol along the southern frontier, periodically hauled into view for Trump’s visits to the border, as much television set as physical barrier. During one of his late visits to the region, he clarified in a particularly graphic way the connection between his vision of the nation and fear and exclusion. “There is indeed an emergency on our southern border,“ he said in Calexico, Nevada on April 5, 2019. “It’s a colossal surge and it’s overwhelming our immigration system, and we can’t let that happen…. We can’t take you anymore. We can’t take you. Our country is full.”
The immigration issue was central to Trump’s victory in 2016, but the picture was a bit more complex in 2020. The administration and its supporters crowed often and loudly about “promises kept” and “strong leadership,” clearly including immigration policy among them. But some moderate and swing voters, and especially women, expressed uneasiness about the administration’s heavy-handed approach to families and children. Their reservations were well-founded. At its heart, the separation of families was a cynical enforcement tactic, far more intimidating than the wall or border patrol agents.
America-first economic protectionism and the tough stance on immigration meshed well with isolationist impulses in the administration’s national security and foreign policy agendas. The disparaging of traditional military and political alliances and the go-it-alone foreign policy were constant themes of Trump’s time in office, and they had real (and mostly negative) effects on the country’s standing in global affairs. These effects worried many traditional Republicans, even as they gladly endorsed Trump’s expansive and expensive defense spending. But for those not wedded to Republican orthodoxy and more skeptical of globalization generally, Trump’s isolationism made sense. The endless wars in Afghanistan and, especially, Iraq had exhausted many Americans’ patience with adventures abroad. Trump kept his promise to enhance the country’s military might while keeping it focused squarely on the country’s interests, narrowly construed. “Don’t Tread on Me.”
The vision of a nation belligerently committed to isolation was of a piece with the sweeping, sentimental nationalism that Trump articulated and exploited so effectively during the 2016 campaign and throughout his time in office. His repeated efforts to stage a 4th of July military parade, replete with tanks, military jet flyovers, and marching troops, stood for many related gestures. Nothing was more central to Trump’s enactment of the presidency than his constant agitation of the nationalist nerve, sometimes with adversaries in view (Korea, Iran, ISIS), but more than not with nothing in view, except perhaps the mirror and his supporters. The aesthetic vocabulary of the Trump presidency expressed this agitation in the relentless and restless display of candy red and admiral blue banners, flags, and signs that festooned every presidential procession and public event. The significance of that vocabulary to Trump’s supporters was manifest in the swag that was hawked and consumed at Trump’s rallies, the same swag that adorned pickup trucks careening through American cities during the campaign and that reappeared with such harrowing visual force on the balconies and steps and stairways of the U.S. Capitol on January 6.
While a significant majority of Republican voters cited the economy as the most important election issue, Democrats were much more worried about race and race relations. Over 90 percent of Democratic voters reported that racial inequality was the most important issue in the election, and nearly 70 percent expressed the view that racism was among the country’s most significant problems. By contrast, 84 percent of Republican voters reported that racism was not a problem or only a minor problem. The data from exit polls followed closely the results of polling conducted during the volatile summer months of BLM protests, showing rapidly diverging views between Democrats and Republicans regarding the magnitude and centrality of race, racism, and racial inequality. “In that summer survey,” the Pew Research Center reported, “74% of Biden voters said “it is a lot more difficult” to be a Black person in this country than to be a White person — a view shared by only 9% of Trump voters. And while 59% of Biden voters said White people benefit a “great deal” from advantages in society that Black people do not have, only 5% of Trump voters agreed.”
During the 2016 election, Trump famously appealed to African American voters by asking them what they had to lose by giving him a shot at the presidency. The answer, as it turned out, was quite a bit. Charlottesville set the tone, and things didn’t change much after that. Notwithstanding several one-off initiatives, including the FUTURE Act, which guaranteed federal support for financial aid at historically black colleges and universities, Trump continued to send strong signals of support to militant white nationalists while simultaneously whittling away policies designed to ensure equal access to employment, housing, and education. After the killing of George Floyd and the eruption of demonstrations around the country in May, the race issue exploded into public view. Trump squared off, physically and ideologically, with the Black Lives Matter movement and its allies in the streets and public opinion. The dog whistles became louder and more obvious, as Trump warned darkly about the prospect of urban riots migrating to the suburbs. His warnings had a discernible effect. On election day, more than 70 percent of Republican voters reported that crime and safety were key election issues, second only to the economy in overall importance.
In the waning, beleaguered days of Trump’s presidency, immigration and race came together in a revelatory moment. For his final outing as president, Trump chose to visit the border with Mexico in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. It was a telling indication of how important immigration and the border were and are to his understanding of his presidency and legacy. But it was also a potent symbol of the co-dependency among the components of the ideological core of Trumpism. Speaking briefly to reporters before boarding Air Force One, Trump defended his January 6 remarks to protesters gathered on The Ellipse on January 6 by recalling the Black Lives Matter protests in cities across the country during the summer. It was in those protests, he asserted, that the cycle of violence began. Several hours later, speaking at a podium erected next to a newly constructed piece of the border wall along the Rio Grande, Trump invoked the law and order core of his immigration policy. Prior to the wall and his reversal of the “catch and release” enforcement approach of his predecessors, Mexican gang members, drug lords, and terrorists from the Middle East were free to enter the United States at will. But thanks to the wall and his new policy of “detain and remove,” American families could go about their lives in peace and security, knowing that the criminal hordes were stymied before entry or quickly evicted if they managed to slip through. It was not insignificant that Trump chose this particular place to deliver this particular law and order message in the final hour of his presidency. Not 20 miles away, the “Shrine of Texas Liberty,” the Alamo, celebrates the heroic struggle of Texans against Spanish colonialism. The Lost Cause, Texas-style.
Perhaps the most important, brilliant, and spectacularly ironic dimension of Trump’s approach to governing was his virulent and infectious contempt for government itself. In the Trumpian world view, all elites are potentially suspect, but the most suspect of all are political elites, and especially the political elites in Washington. Draining the swamp. During the 2016 campaign, Trump played the outsider’s outsider, and he never really stopped playing that role even as he governed and stocked his administration with corporate CEOs, former members of Congress, lobbyists, and investment bankers. Not draining the swamp. Shortly after the inauguration, Trump’s then-reigning political theorist, Steve Bannon (himself an investment banker), spoke to a gathering of the Conservative Political Action Conference. Channeling Trump’s anti-elite impulses, Bannon announced that one of the administration’s principal goals was the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” He was forecasting efforts to dismantle the federal regulatory framework, but he was also launching the notion of a cabal of federal institutions and actors whose primary mission was to thwart the will of the new president and the people who had elected him — “the deep state.” Bannon didn’t last long, but he had given Trump a priceless gift: a simple, clear sound bite that focused and packaged his message about political elites.
Trump’s contempt for political elites did not stop at institutions and individuals. It also targeted political processes and electoral processes in particular. In anticipation of losing the 2016 election, Trump introduced the prospect that the election was rigged from the beginning. In the wake of his surprising win, he narrowed his complaint to the magnitude of Hillary Clinton’s margin of victory in the popular vote. Beginning with the appointment of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, which failed to discover any fraud, Trump never stopped undermining public confidence in the legitimacy of the electoral process. It was a constant drumbeat during his years in power, reaching a furious, destructive peak in the wake of his loss in November, with the terrible results that are now visible for all to see.
In the absence of legitimate, dependable democratic institutions, actors, and processes, political authority devolves to the leader. And Trump was there, waiting. The final and perhaps most important element of Trump’s approach to governance was his authoritarian construction of the presidency itself, most clearly embodied in his demagogic relationship with his keenest followers, but also abundantly evident in his relationships with other branches and parts of the federal government. Trump famously expected the Attorney General to act as his personal lawyer, and he nearly succeeded in making it so. But other parts of the government proved more intractable — the Supreme Court, for instance, and of course Congress. And yet Trump went on hoping, and expecting, that all the branches of the government would bend to his will.
It was not hard to see how important Trump’s authoritarian style was to his popular appeal. The widespread television coverage of his MAGA rallies, where the leader’s authoritarian energy and his followers’ adoring admiration came together in such dramatic fashion, provided evidence for all to see. But beyond this well-defined and brightly lit circle, Trumps’s projection of strength also apparently mattered to larger circles of voters. 72 percent of Republicans interviewed in exit polls cited Trump’s “strength as a leader” as the personal quality that mattered most to their support. Even those who were skeptical of parts of his agenda expressed grudging admiration for his dogged persistence and combativeness. There is a clear political logic to such admiration. If political processes and institutions are largely corrupt or feckless, the strength, discipline, and doggedness of the leader become even more critical to political stability.
In one of the more memorable representations of Trump the strongman and tough guy that appeared during the latter stages of the campaign, the face of the president is transposed upon the body of Sylvester Stallone in a marketing poster for the film Rambo: First Blood Part II. A shirtless, ripped, and sweaty Trump/Stallone hoists an M60 machine gun as he fixes his determined gaze on the horizon. Behind him, an enemy helicopter pursues. Scrolled across the top of the poster are the words “TRUMP: No Man, No Woman, No Commie Can Stop Him.” There is an element of playfulness in the composition of the poster, but there is deadly seriousness, as well, particularly in the evocation of Trump’s gun-friendly policies, the Lost Cause of the war in Vietnam, communism, and the trouble that Trump had (in several senses) with women.
The adoration and fealty that Trump’s authoritarian style inspired and demanded, especially (though not exclusively) among his most zealous supporters, was riven from the outset with irony and contradiction. In a dress rehearsal of the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, armed militiamen and women entered the State Capitol in Lansing, Michigan last April to protest Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s coronavirus restrictions. The protestors called Whitmer a tyrant and claimed to be reasserting their natural liberties against the overreaching authority of the state. Meanwhile, Trump was egging them on with his tweets: “Liberate Michigan.” Like the assailants at the U.S. Capitol several months later, the protesters in Michigan were simultaneously soldiers of liberty and soldiers of Trump. In the strange alchemy of authoritarian politics, the anti-government fury that Trump channeled and amplified so effectively ultimately returned to him in the form of even greater power and adulation.
JUDICIAL CONSERVATISM, COCKEYED NEOLIBERALISM, protectionism, xenophobic restriction of immigration, nationalism (economic, Christian, white, and otherwise), racism and the stoking of racial division, the undermining of political elites and institutions, authoritarianism; these were the most consequential aspects of Trump’s governing agenda, things done and “promises kept.” Silhouetted and sorted against this background, the question returns: what were they thinking, the 74 million?
One of the most important and glaring realities of the Trump era, confirmed by polling and election results, certainly, but also by events, is how quickly traditional blocks of Republican voters found hooks upon which to hang their support for Trump. First in line, in this regard, were those business Republicans committed narrowly to the traditional elements of the neo-liberal economic agenda — tax cuts, deregulation, less government. We can surmise, generously perhaps, that these Republicans voted for Trump despite his not-so-neoliberal economic views and other regrettable political objectives and personal qualities. Better a cockeyed neoliberal than a Democrat, even a moderate one like Joe Biden.
And the list goes on: evangelicals (abortion, the Supreme Court, judicial conservatism), neo-conservatives (defense spending), libertarians (“the deconstruction of the administrative state”), business leaders and workers in waning or threatened sectors of the economy (protectionism). Everyone knew or encountered someone on the list: the African American cab driver in Washington worried about the influx of immigrants in the taxi business; the successful venture capitalist who just couldn’t endure the idea of a Democratic president and administration; the impatient entrepreneur who admired Trump’s vigor and resolve in the era of Washington stalemate; the radio evangelist and cab driver in Memphis who viewed Trump as God’s unconscious instrument; the Maine fisherman approving of Trump’s trade wars; Latinx voters in Miami worried about socialism. And many more.
What is notable and discouraging about these one-issue or two-issue Trump supporters is how ready they were to sacrifice the integrity of American democracy for their particular interests. No one foresaw exactly what happened on January 6, but a great many people believed and argued publicly that the Trump presidency would end badly and do damage to the country along the way. It was not all that hard to see. Nevertheless, millions of traditional Republicans made their peace with Trump, and do so still, even after the assault on the Capitol.
But what of the rest? Recall that approximately 25 million Trump voters described their votes as being primarily against Biden, leaving roughly 50 million voters who voted in broad support of the Trump program. On December 23, 2020, FiveThirtyEight reported that its most recent amalgam of polls pegged Trump’s overall approval rating among registered voters holding at 42 percent. One of those polls found that between December 19–22, 72 percent of registered Republicans “strongly approved” or “approved” of the president’s performance during the transition period. Other polls in the post-election period found that up to 75 percent of Republicans believed that there was sufficient fraud in the November presidential election to affect the outcome. Perfect precision is not possible here, but as a matter of general magnitude, it seems reasonable to conclude that the “all-in” or “mostly all-in” voting block for Trump included 40 to 50 million people.
The combinations of the various elements of Trump’s agenda in the hearts and minds of real persons among the all-in or the mostly all-in are endless and endlessly complex. For each real person in each region and demographic group, the key issues, policies, emotions, interests, complaints, and enthusiasms merge in ways that are difficult, if not impossible, to map. But given the powerfully negative and destructive energy of Trump’s agenda as a whole, it makes sense to worry a lot about the magnitude of his core support — the 40 to 50 million — and where its political energy might go now, even as the wounded leader retreats to Florida. Some number of the all-in or mostly-in altered or moderated their views in the wake of the events of January 6. But even so, the specter of dozens of millions of Americans holding fast to the notion of electoral fraud and most, if not all, of the elements of Trumpism is disconcerting, to say the least.
The persistence and direction of Trumpism after Trump has a lot to do with origins. Trump did not create the economic disfunction that generated so much anger and resentment in parts of the country that voted so decisively for him in 2016 and again in 2020. As many have observed since Trump first burst on the scene in 2015, the tectonic dynamics of neoliberalism, including the globalization of labor, capital, and manufacturing, have been grinding away in the United States and elsewhere for nearly half a century, profoundly transforming the country’s economic and political landscape in the process. Trump’s malign genius was to name and focus the attendant confusion, anger, and resentment, and to exploit them for his own political purpose and benefit. In the narrow sense, that program is now in shambles, but the anger and resentment are still there, along with the underlying economic trends and dislocations that caused them. How the country, and the Democrats, in particular, respond remains to be elaborated.
Trump’s ability to ferret out, excite, and focus political emotions was just as dramatically displayed in his approach to immigration, race, and the meaning of the nation itself. But in these matters, too, he was more bricoleur than inventor. For those with the inclination, leisure, and resources to step outside the moment, the crisis at the southern border brought back into focus the country’s long, contentious history of immigration and the xenophobia that has always accompanied it. At its core, that struggle has been principally about what it means to be American, even as the terms of the struggle — the identity of insiders and outsiders, the us and the them — have steadily evolved. Trump caught and froze that evolution in this time, giving it contemporary texture by naming real others and attaching them to specific economic and social anxieties about work, crime, and culture. But the notion that our national identity requires exclusion, and that exclusion requires cultural and racial markers, long precedes him. The meaning of the words that Trump spoke at the border in 2019 — “We can’t take you anymore. We can’t take you. Our country is full.” — is deeply lodged in our history, cultural landscape, and mythology, and it survives Trump’s presidency in full force.
And so, too, with race. Trump’s victory in 2016, his rhetoric and policies throughout his presidency, and the magnitude of his support in 2020 all revealed the salience of race as a political issue and political tool. Trump employed the tool with cunning, but the tool would have been useless without the great reservoir of racism that still haunts the country and sustains the prospect of racialized politics. The Lost Cause of the confederacy is one of the surprisingly resilient regional myths nourished by this reservoir, and Trump was certainly mindful of its power. Early in his administration, he weighed in on behalf of the defenders of Confederate monuments across the country, including those gathered in Charlottesville. He was still at it in December of last year, vetoing the National Defense Authorization Act in part because it proposed to rename U.S. military installations named after Confederate generals. His militant followers noticed. Among the hundreds of Trump banners and American flags carried by the rioters on January 6, the Confederate flag was conspicuous, a shocking reminder that the Lost Cause is still far from lost.
Rioters at the Capitol carried yet another flag with equally strong symbolic and mythical import. The Gadsden flag was designed by South Carolinian William Gadsden during the American revolutionary war. It displays a coiled and threatening timber rattler rising above the words “Don’t Tread on Me” against an ochre-yellow background. The flag was first used in 1776 by the fledgling U.S. Marine Corps as a symbol of American determination and ferocity. The Tea Party adopted it in 2009, and right-wing militias have displayed it prominently in recent demonstrations at statehouses across the country.
The Gadsden flag speaks the language of revolutionary resistance against overreaching state power, but it also evokes the expansive, wild, and nearly limitless ideal of individual liberty that is imagined to flourish in the absence of governmental authority and institutions. Among his important attunements to culture and myth, Trump understood the hankering for this kind of liberty, and where that hankering, literally and symbolically, most commonly lives. To trace the circuit of Trump’s MAGA roadshows and his electoral success is to see once again that Trump country truly is in some sense the country, the real and figurative wide open spaces of rural America, actual, historical, and imaginary. “Don’t Tread on Me” is a declaration of the freedom afforded by distance and isolation, a fantasy of the country as untrammeled and open, accompanied by the anxiety that it is disappearing, along with the liberty it ensures. “We can’t take you anymore. We can’t take you. Our country is full.”
IN HIS INAUGURAL ADDRESS, Joe Biden featured themes of unity and healing, as he did throughout his campaign and during the presidential transition. This is certainly the right impulse and first message, and it’s what most of his 81 million supporters desired and expected. But in reasonably short order, the Biden administration and its supporters will have to find a way to go beyond the rhetoric of unity and healing and begin to untie the knot of passion, grievance, conviction, disappointment, anger, and illusion that constitute the ideological and political core of what now remains of Trumpism. The untying will have to include the mundane stuff of policymaking, and especially economic policymaking aimed at repairing the damages inflicted by 50 years of triumphant neo-liberalism and the breathtaking economic inequality it has produced. But it will also have to include as yet unimagined and unnamed ventures in cultural reparation. As one close observer of Washington put it in the aftermath of the January 6 assault on the Capitol, “…there are dark specters running through our nation — beasts with shaggy manes and feral teeth. They have the stench of Know-Nothingism, the hot blood of the lynchers, and they ride the winds of nihilistic fury.” What the election of 2020 finally teaches us is that we will not be able to move past the damage of the Trump era without facing up to the specters and beasts that are still among us.
Published resources cited or used as background in this article include the following:
Joe Lenski, Tom Webster, Randy Brown, “What We Learned from the 2020 Election Exit Polls,” Edison Research, January 28, 2021.
Weiyi Cai and Ford Fessenden, “Immigrant Neighborhoods Shifted Red as the Country Chose Blue, The New York Times, December 20, 2020.
Ford Fessenden, Lazario Gamio, and Rich Harris, “Even in Defeat, Trump Found New Voters Across the U.S.,” The New York Times, November 16, 2020 https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/11/16/us/politics/election-turnout.html?smid=tw-nytimes&smtyp=cur
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John Gramlich, “How Trump Compares with other Recent Presidents in Appointing Federal Judges,” The Pew Research Center, January 13, 2021. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/01/13/how-trump-compares-with-other-recent-presidents-in-appointing-federal-judges/
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Mark Muro, Ely Byerly Duke, Yamg You, and Robert Maxim, “Biden-voting Counties Equal 70% of America’s Economy. What Does that Mean for the Nation’s Political-Economic Divide?” Brookings, November 10, 2020. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2020/11/09/biden-voting-counties-equal-70-of-americas-economy-what-does-this-mean-for-the-nations-political-economic-divide/. John C. Austin, “Where Midwesterners struggle, Trumpism lives on,” Brookings, Monday, November 23, 2020. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2020/11/23/where-midwesterners-struggle-trumpism-lives-on/. Will Wilkinson, “The Density Divide: Urbanization, Polarization, and the Populist Backlash,” Niskanen Center, July 26, 2019.
Zeke Miller and Jonathan Lemire, “’Our country is full’: Trump says migrants are straining system,” The Associated Press, April 6, 2019. My italics.
Nicole Narea, “Immigration is no longer a winning issue for Trump,” Vox, November 2, 2020 https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/21540020/trump-immigration-2020-election
“Voter Attitudes about Race and Gender Are Even More Divided than in 2016,” The Pew Research Center, September 10, 2020. https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2020/09/10/voters-attitudes-about-race-and-gender-are-even-more-divided-than-in-2016/
“A Once in a Generation Outcome: The Future Act Signed by President Becomes Law,” The United Negro College Fund, December 19, 2019. https://uncf.org/news/a-once-in-a-generation-outcome-the-future-act-signed-by-president-becomes-law
Mark Dunphy, President Donald Trump Visits Border Wall in Alamo, Texas, San Antonio Express-News, January 12, 2021.
Max Fisher, “Stephen K. Bannon’s CPAC Comments, Annotated and Explained,” The New York Times, February 23, 2017.
Michael Tackcett and Michael Wines, “Trump Disbands Commission on Voter Fraud,” The New York Times, January 3. 2018.
Carl Hoffman, Liar’s Circus: A Strange and Terrifying Journey into the Upside-Down World of Trump’s MAGA Rallies (New York: Custom House, 2020).
FiveThirtyEight, January 17, 2021. https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/polls/
The Economist/YouGov Poll, December 19–22, 2020. https://docs.cdn.yougov.com/df1m5n9hgq/econTabReport.pdf
“Biden Begins Presidency with Positive Ratings: Trump Departs with Lowest-ever Job Ratings,” The Pew Research Center, January 15, 2020. https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2021/01/15/biden-begins-presidency-with-positive-ratings-trump-departs-with-lowest-ever-job-mark/
Wendy Brown, In the Ruins of Neo-liberalism: The Rise of Anti-Democratic Politics in the West (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019).
Aaron Curico, Black Market: The Slave’s Value in National Culture after 1865 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2020).
Dan Brezmitz and David Adler, “Reshoring Production and Restoring American Prosperity: A Practical Policy Agenda,” American Affairs, Winter 2020, Volume IV, no. 4.
David Brooks, “This is When the Fever Breaks,” The New York Times, January 7, 2021