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Joe Biden has defeated Donald Trump. Millions across the country are applauding the downfall of a president who has been mendacious in his public communications, loathsome in his personal conduct, and utterly inept in his handling of a pandemic that has killed 230,000 Americans.
Amid the celebration, however, there should be nagging fear. Biden ran largely on the idea that he will be a return to the normalcy of the Obama years. But if he governs as a “normal” Democrat, it won’t be long before we have to deal with the next Donald Trump.
The real Trump buried himself in blunders and couldn’t deliver on campaign promises to voters. Instead of saving manufacturing jobs and protecting, as he pledged, “the jobs, wages and wellbeing of American workers before any other consideration”, the Trump administration eliminated paid overtime rules, created tax cuts for the rich and lost 740,000 manufacturing positions this year alone.
Yet a different Donald Trump might have handled the coronavirus pandemic competently and launched an ambitious infrastructure and jobs program capable of improving the lives of millions of people. Without actually challenging oligarchs and big business interests, this alternate-reality Trump might have been able to effectively marry economic populism with xenophobia, the same formula that has propelled rightwing authoritarians to power elsewhere in the world. A different Trump might have even managed to win over enough voters who typically vote for Democrats, including black and brown voters, to expand his base into one capable of winning the popular vote.
As bad as the last four years have been, we’ve been lucky to get the actual – bumbling – Trump, as opposed to a more effective politician, an American Narendra Modi or Jair Bolsonaro.
We’re not preordained to go the route of rightwing populism, of course. Countries like Denmark, Portugal and Spain have cemented left-of-center governments in recent years and held the right at bay. But to prevent the rise of another Trump, liberals are going to have to start thinking more seriously about what gave us Trump to begin with.
Trump was not just a product of latent racism and sexism. The economic hypocrisy of recent Democratic administrations alienated part of the Democrats’ traditional blue-collar voting base, not to mention the millions of unaffiliated voters who simply opted not to vote for either Clinton or Trump in 2016. It’s these voters, not the wealthy suburbanites which many in the party’s establishment cater to, that still hold the keys to American politics.
Biden won simply because of how unpopular Trump is. Democrats will need to offer Americans something different – a type of politics that can activate irregular working-class voters and deliver on bread-and-butter economic issues – if they’re to create a stable and responsive government.
Progressives have to challenge the centrist policies of past Democratic administrations. But they will also have to resist narrow identitarianism within their own ranks. There can be no mass progressive politics if we insist on only talking to those who already agree with us. By staying siloed in the progressive bubble we implicitly reject the possibility of organizing workers of all races, rural and urban alike, behind a program of Medicare for All, good union jobs and a Green New Deal.
Biden campaigned differently than Clinton did. He embraced a slightly more populist message and campaigned in areas the former secretary of state neglected. But the thrust of his proposed method of governance is closer to the normal of the Clinton and Obama administrations than the one advocated by Biden’s erstwhile, more leftwing allies, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders.
Under Bill Clinton, that “normalcy” saw much of the manufacturing base of the United States gutted, mass incarceration accelerated and essential welfare supports eliminated. Under Barack Obama, millions of people were deported, establishment figures like John Podesta were given White House posts, and even during a Great Recession there was no serious attempt to break with decades of failed economic policies.
When Hillary Clinton told voters that she had been in politics for 30 years, there were plenty of reasons for voters to be skeptical, given what happened to their lives and communities during 30 years of stagnant wages and soaring inequality. By deciding to play the role of populist, Trump was able to win over just enough of them to sneak into the White House.
He squandered whatever mandate he had. If Joe Biden does the same, the next rightwing president might not.
Bhaskar Sunkara is the founding editor of Jacobin magazine and a Guardian US columnist. He is the author of The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality