In many American cities it was a clear autumn night on Saturday 7 November and the spontaneous celebrations there were sighs of relief. Thousands gathered with placards, music and songs to celebrate — as one sign read: “We grabbed him by the vote”. Donald Trump, the political figure who for four years embodied American authoritarian populism had been electorally defeated.
During his presidency his policies and actions encouraged the public appearance and empowerment of white supremacy groups. Armed white militias made their public presence felt. Trump’s immigration policies made a mockery of the conventional liberal American mantra that America is a country of immigrants. His refusal to pay taxes for many years was lauded as smart, while he ran a White House political operation in which his family were the most trusted aides. Now he has been defeated in the largest turn out of the American electorate in 120 years.
It had been a bruising and difficult campaign in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. As the campaign came to a close, the number of coronavirus cases soared, with figures higher than those previously reported in the first wave during the spring and early summer. President Trump himself was struck with Covid-19 and after receiving the best possible medical care — with experimental drugs and steroids — he walked out of the country’s leading military hospital, Walter Reed, on to the verandah of the White House and with the studied gestures of an authoritarian leader took off his mask, adjusted his coat and posed. It was politics as performance, a sign of how politics is deeply rooted in symbolic political culture. In particular, it was about how conservatism thrives on a panoply of political semiotics in which deed and performance tap deep into certain living traditions of American political life.
Earlier, in the midst of the Black Lives Matter upheaval during the summer, Trump had cleared protesters from the vicinity of the iconic St John’s Church and the surrounding area of Lafayette Park. With some members of his cabinet he walked to the door of the church and briefly held up a Bible in his hand, as a show of dominance over the uprising. On Saturday, 7 November, as the news of Biden’s victory at the polls was being declared, the renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza bounded to the south by the park became a site for all-night celebrations. It was an irony of contemporary history.
The electoral statistics tell the story
It was the largest voter turn in America’s political history for over 120 years. President-elect Joe Biden and Vice-President-elect, Kamala Harris, garnered nearly 75 million of those votes, and Trump 70 million. The voter turnout for Trump, however, was significantly more than he received in the 2016 election.
The story of the overall electoral turnout resides in the robust voter organising activities of black voter education groups. America has never been a fully representative electoral democracy. As a republic, it was founded with an electoral system based upon the exclusive political equality of white men with property. There have always been fierce political battles about the electoral franchise. Women did not get the right to vote until 1920, with the passing of the 19th amendment. The African American population was vigorously denied political equality, first as part of the American racial order of racial slavery, and then Jim Crow — the apartheid system of the American state — and after that by various other tactics of voter suppression.
A consequence of this was that voting became a central black political activity. In the 1960s one of the most popular campaign buttons of the student nonviolent coordinating committee was: “One man one vote.” Massive voter registration drives were sometimes called “freedom registration”. In Mississippi, one such drive led to the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party as an inclusive political party. With this history of deep struggles for political equality and voting rights, a key issue which emerged in this election was how would voter suppression be fought?
Trump followed a political line about voter suppression which returned to the political language of Ronald Reagan. In the 1970s, when the Jimmy Carter presidency proposed a series of reforms to the electoral process — which in his words prevented “millions of Americans from voting in every election by antiquated and overly restrictive voter registration laws” — Reagan, then a journalist and commentator, commented that the reforms created the “potential for cheating”.
The conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation noted that the proposed reforms would allow “eight million illegal aliens to vote” and stated further that it was a “mistake to take for granted that it is desirable to increase the number of people who vote”. This election then was not just about Trump but also American electoral democracy. The political work of broadening American electoral democracy was led by black political figures. Perhaps the most significant example of this political activity occurred in the state of Georgia, with the work of Stacey Abrams.
Defeated in 2018 in an electoral contest for governorship of the state, allegedly by voter suppression, she and others undertook one of the most extraordinary voter education campaigns ever seen in American history. Recalling the Civil Rights Movement and the complex struggles for political equality which culminated in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, 100 years after the abolition of racial slavery, and honouring those who had died for this right, Abrams along with the Georgia Project, and in collaboration with groups such as She the people and the multiple regional organisations which comprise the Movement for Black Lives shifted their political organising focus to voting, and a massive “get out the vote” campaign.
The critical role of black feminist groups
The success of their efforts point to the centrality of the political demands and activities of the African American population, specifically to the critical role of black feminist groups. It is not a matter of demographics, as some commentators would have it, but rather how the racial oppression of African Americans, and the struggle against this subjugation, continues to be a fundamental factor in American society and politics. The broadening of the American electoral democratic process with the electoral victory of Biden was a sign of relief for many because it thwarted the drive of conservatism. In a world where many authoritarian regimes still hold sway, a great number of persons felt that at least there was now a new liberal normal. With Harris as the first female vice-president, and vice-president of colour, the symbolic liberal representation of America which oftentimes focuses only on representation was complete.
Is Trumpism defeated?
Donald Trump lost the election, but is Trumpism defeated? Are the social ideas which brought him his electoral victory four years ago vanquished? We should recall at this point that over 70-million Americans voted for him, and that in any disaggregation of those voters, while his support was reduced in the so-called rust belt states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, he extended and deepened his base in the rural areas he carried.
As the voting data tells us, Trump overall carried white voters by 15 points. Also, he was able to carry 12% of black male voters, while in some states he was able to win over the complex Latinx vote bloc. This did not only happen in southern Florida, where this voting bloc is largely composed of anti-Castro Cuban Americans and Venezuelan Americans who myopically believe that Biden is a socialist. In states such as Arizona, where there is a significant Mexican American population, there were millions of votes for Trump.
As one such voter said: “I am a Catholic and do not believe in abortion, so even while I am upset about how he treats immigrants I do not believe we should have a government which approves of abortion.” All this means that one critical political issue in the post-Trump era is that of Trumpism itself, and the admixture of social and cultural ideas that constitute it. It means that a central political issue is not about healing the nation, and the divide between red and blue voters because “we are all Americans” — rather, it is the political and ideological defeat of Trumpism.
And what are the constitutive elements of Trumpism? The American studies scholar Donald Pease has made the point that at the core of Trump’s political practice have been his efforts “to disconnect American democracy from its liberal foundations”. Central to this practice was his animating political discourse, rooted in white settler colonialist language and ideas.
Trump’s political project was to remake America into an “illiberal democracy”. That is, a state where institutional liberal democratic norms are the constitutional frame of mainstream politics, but are consistently undermined by daily political practice. This is a core element of authoritarian populism. Stuart Hall, in a series of essays in the 1980s, noted how authoritarian populism foregrounded the political ideological dimension in what he called “class democracies”.
What is the character of Trump’s political practice?
For the Trump project to succeed at least temporarily, it had to tether itself to white supremacy as the hegemonic common sense of America. So, it was not just that Trump was racist — of course he is — the issue was how and why did he tap into and then create the grounds for the public resurgence of white supremacy, with its armed militias, even while the Federal Bureau of Investigation identified these groups as the most active domestic threat in America?
In understanding this we move from thinking about politics as primarily about elections to grappling with how political practices operate at the level of the affective — how political discourse touches individuals affectively and moves them to action. Understanding how capitalist globalisation has adversely impacted various social groups, Trumpism initially seized upon a form of American nationalism. To “make America great again” was both an imperial and national project. Drawing from racially imagined nostalgia, he constructed a coalition with whiteness at the core of an imagined community. It is why when white supremacy groups marched in Charlottesville, he commented that there were “good people on both sides”; why he advocated for the protection of confederate monuments, and history projects which confirmed conventional histories of America, and made illegal — or anti-American — any education to the contrary.
To make the illiberal project work politically, Trumpism had to create a series of affective ideological fantasies, based on “alternative facts”. Additionally, drawing from a long history of American political culture in which paranoia, fear and conspiracy theories were the yeast of American politics (recall McCarthyism), he was able to create a political sensibility of white fear, and more than that, a general illusionary sentiment among his supporters of being the aggrieved outsider. Historically, this has been how authoritarian regimes function as they erode liberal democratic norms.
The fact that over 70-million voters voted for the continuation of such a project is of note. It points to the firm social strength of a deep conservatism in American society. In this regard, one recalls how the election of President Barack Obama in 2008 galvanised American conservatism and led to the rise of the Tea Party, opening a new chapter in the history of American conservatism. Adapting the conservatism of Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk — one of the most important figures in the history of American conservatism — wrote in 1953 that the essence of conservatism is the “preservation of the ancient moral traditions of humanity”. Of course, these traditions bear little semblance to human equality and so the contemporary American conservative movement defines them in terms of “free white persons”.
In doing this they make the argument that the 1790 Naturalisation Act in the US was the consolidation of this imagined community of whiteness. The point here is that in American political thought and politics, conservatism draws upon white supremacy as a founding precept. As such, white supremacy becomes a tradition, as does patriarchy and the re-interpretation of certain religious ideas. Trump was not only able to pull together a political coalition for electoral purposes, he was able to make Trumpism a mosaic of social ideas, feelings and sentiments, rooted in what many understood as fundamental aspects of the American political tradition. In this way he was able to re-energise American conservatism, making it a form of authoritarian populism.
It would have been strange, both politically and historically, if Trump had won an electoral victory in the wake of the Black Lives Matter uprising, in which 26-million people marched for months. The uprising punctured the hegemony of white supremacy. But puncturing is not defeat, and although the recent celebrations are signs of relief, the conditions for the return of conservatism remain.
When Obama won the elections in 2008, the mood was euphoric, and indeed many commentators began to write about a post-racial moment. That so-called post racialism quickly proved to be illusionary. Now, in our relief, we may be tempted to think in terms of a post-Trumpian moment. In doing so, we conflate figures with historical currents. Figures might represent currents but they are not the currents themselves. For relief to become a new political moment requires new eyes on the prize — how to transform America?
In 1935, the African American scholar and activist W.E.B Du Bois observed how in the moment of attempted reconstruction in the aftermath of the abolition of racial slavery that America could have been transformed by a political programme he called “abolition democracy”. In making this point he drew upon a form of radicalism which would transform the racial foundations of the American republic while establishing forms of radical democracy. For many persons today, after the defeat of Trump, there is now the political opening to defeat Trumpism, while creating new social and political horizons. In this autumn one hopes for a political spring.