It Was Never Really About Trump
America and the world are, at long last, rid of Donald Trump the President. His nepotistic family and venal associates, whose litany of improprieties runs longer than the golf course on which Mr. Trump was informed of his defeat, have been similarly cast out, at least for now.
The same cannot be said for the factors that enabled Trump’s rise to power in the first place. Some of them, such as an America that is steadily becoming more ethnically and culturally diverse, should be celebrated. But other aspects, like a shifting global economic landscape, ever-growing wealth disparity, and dysfunctional governing institutions that no longer serve the interests of most citizens, must be seriously examined and addressed.
Donald Trump’s ascendancy to power was less a cause than a symptom of what current ails America, after all. Trump is now gone, but Trumpism, for lack of a better term, is still alive and well. In fact, it is just in its infancy. Someone worse than him — equally nativist and jingoistic, but more focused and competent — will eventually come into frame unless policies are enacted and attitudes are taken that respond to the needs of working people.
There is a democratic deficit in America, and not only when it comes to the outrageous but common measures taken to suppress inconvenient votes. Tactics such as gerrymandering electoral districts and implementing unreasonable voter ID laws that disenfranchise the poor — to say nothing of the discriminatory criminal justice system — are just a few of the ways in which the modern political establishment (and, let’s be honest, mainly the Republican Party) signals that it has little interest in allowing ordinary people to exercise any meaningful influence over their own lives. Dysfunctional institutions, biased electoral processes, and ungodly sums of dark money ensure that political outcomes always fall within a range that is acceptable to entrenched interests. Even Donald Trump, ostensibly an “outsider” figure in Washington, was nothing more than a blunt instrument the Republican political establishment realized it could use to slash taxes and regulations for the wealthy, advance aggressive foreign policies, and fill the law courts with judges favorable to a socially and economically conservative worldview. They tolerated him just as long as they needed to. Now he is gone, and they remain. It is a dangerous game for elites to play, however. Nothing in life is free, not even seemingly unlimited power. They are accumulating a debt that will eventually come due. Trump’s election in 2016 was a warning sign.
Cynicism in establishment circles extends even deeper, though, and across both aisles. Many elite liberal voices, as a reflex, decry “low-information” voters, or worse, the “deplorables” who would dare vote for someone so loathsome as Donald Trump. From the perspective of those enlightened few occupying the liberal side of society’s privileged upper crust, to have voted for him you must have been either evil or stupid. And in their frustration with those deviant working class folks, it is common for those same elites to conclude that decisions over the future of society are therefore best left to those who know better.
Loathsome though he certainly is, shouting this brand of complaint from the rooftops does nothing to remedy the underlying causes that led America into the mess. The truth is that there are no stupid people, just intellectually lazy ones. Yet, even this charge is too rudimentary, because it doesn’t account for how difficult it has become for many people to separate fact from fiction. Low-information voters are responding in a manner that seems rational to them given what they think they know. If what they think they know is, in fact, false, then the bulk of the problem lies with the source of the false information and those who allow it to be spread unchecked. Unfortunately, we have entered into a media environment containing a minefield of moral hazards, in which the purveyors of news profit hand-over-fist not from educating the public about the world, which apparently is much too boring, but by appealing solely to consumers’ most tribal instincts and primal desires, regardless of what is true. The bifurcation of the media into two opposing sides, each serving a distinct constituency, is one of the gravest threats to democracy. To quote Walter Lippman, public opinion is not “a moral judgment on a group of facts,” as we would wish it to be, but rather “is primarily a moralized and codified version of the facts.” Today we are witnessing not just two “versions” of facts, but a fracturing of public opinion itself: surveys show that nearly 3 in 4 Republicans believe there was widespread voter fraud in the US presidential election that saw Joe Biden defeat Donald Trump. (Never mind that many Republican Congresspeople were elected to office on the same, ostensibly rigged, ballots.) Add to all this the proliferation of deepfakes (see video), which will soon force us to doubt our very senses, and we are flirting with the prospect of no longer being able to agree on any basic facts about our own reality.
Each of us, of course, has a responsibility to think critically about what we are told. But that is easy to say for someone who has had the benefit — the luxury — of an upbringing, social circle, and liberal-arts education that challenges them to do so. Furthermore, it’s not only difficult to recognize an echo chamber from the inside, but also painful, for it means admitting that those you love, and those you trust for reliable information, may not be the same people.
So where do we go from here? One major solution would be to take democracy seriously, for a change. That starts with reforming bad policies such as those listed earlier, but it doesn’t end there. In order to flourish, what democracy needs above all is faith in itself. Which is to say, faith in its citizens.
Chief among the culprits of democratic decline is a pervasive assumption in elite circles that people value comfort more than truth. It is a convenient belief, too, because if ordinary people lack the ability to make hard decisions, those already with decision-making power can console themselves with the knowledge that they are doing the right thing by keeping it. The self-fulfilling prophecy continues accordingly, all while breeding elite contempt for the will of the masses.
Yet the people who end up running things are hardly paragons of wisdom. Establishment figures have smarmy, sanitized personalities (at least publicly), because almost everyone who rises to the upper echelons of politics has done so by working hard to build a resumé, curate an anodyne image, kiss the right asses, and ingratiate themselves to power. A career spent doing these things, though, is almost by definition inimical to authenticity. Along with a hyper-partisan political environment that provides little incentive for politicians to show candor, citizens thus find themselves in a situation where they are seldom told the full truth about anything. A society that respects its own citizens, by contrast, would level with people about the extent of the challenges facing them, be it mitigating climate change, or funding the welfare state, or adapting to a global economy in which the United States is no longer the biggest kid on the block. In short, more trust needs to be placed in ordinary working people. If the ideal society is one in which all citizens are civically engaged, it follows that steps should be taken to ensure they are all capable of, and interested in, being so. And if achieving such a vision requires investing more resources in education and civic engagement, then the policy priorities should be obvious.
America will have to recover its commitment to principles over party if it is going to successfully swim back to shore. Unless and until it does so, it will remain bobbing aimlessly in the waves, suspended delicately between floating and sinking. One can say likewise about other democracies, which all inhabit the same evolving technological ecosystem, and thus face similar challenges. America was fortunate to suffer only a single term of the worst character to ever sit behind the Resolute desk. But unless things change, and quickly, that record could again be broken sooner than later.
I write about politics, economics, and feminism. Check out my Table of Contents for a list of everything I’ve written on Medium.