At Donald Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, the incoming president promised: “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.” The speech, authored in part by right-wing white nationalist Steve Bannon, blamed not just Trump’s usual specters of “crime and gangs and drugs” for this havoc, but also poverty, loss of jobs, and an education system that left many Americans behind.
Trump ran a campaign in 2016 that included some populist undertones, promising that “everyone will be covered” by healthcare under his presidency and that he would protect welfare programs like Social Security and Medicare. Some pundits wondered aloud, as expressed by Politico’s Michael Lind: “Is Donald Trump the Perfect Populist, one with broader appeal to the right and the center than his predecessors in recent American political history?”
Of course, the answer was never in doubt. Donald Trump has lived his entire life as a distinct member of America’s ruling class, using his vast inherited wealth to enrich his friends and business partners while living lavishly off the labor of working people to whom he’s never shown a stitch of legitimate interest in helping. Trump’s vision of politics was always built upon the goal of pure adulation for himself through securing power via any helter-skelter means possible. His populism amounted to little more than some “it’s us against them” rhetoric and a genuine love for fast food.
While he pledged to deliver much-needed help to Americans facing economic pain, instead Trump unleashed a wave of mass death and suffering upon poor and working people. His empty promises and disinterest in governing have made chronic crises of poverty and joblessness far worse. The lesson for Democrats, who will soon be handed the reins of government, should be clear: False populism is a path to the political wilderness, whereas making good on vows to make Americans whole is how to win and retain power.
Today, after four years of Trump at the helm, the carnage is everywhere. We’ve just lived through the deadliest year in all of American history, due in large part to the president’s ineptness and refusal to respond to a hellish pandemic that has claimed over 365,000 victims and upended all of our lives. The economic impact of the crisis has been nothing short of catastrophic. According to the New York Times, “At least 7.8 million people have fallen into poverty, the biggest plunge in six decades; 85 million Americans say they have had trouble paying basic household expenses including food and rent” while there are now around 10 million fewer jobs than there were in February when the pandemic first hit our shores.
And this week we saw what carnage looks like when it’s carried out by anti-democratic forces incited by the president and his many backers in the Republican Party — a violent storming of the U.S. Capitol that left at least five people dead. The insurrection is just the latest manifestation of a lunatic fringe in American politics that has provided some of the most hardcore support for Trump. Its adherents run the gamut from QAnon followers who believe a satanic cabal of pedophiles runs the U.S. government, to white supremacist Proud Boys, to anti-statist militias, to those whose entire political identity has been defined by loyalty to the president.
While the chaos provoked horror among those caught inside the buildings overrun by armed pro-Trump hordes, the president himself appeared incurious, focusing his attention instead on humiliating his vice president for not overturning the election results to allow him to stay in office. His administration even reportedly waved away offers of more support from those like Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan to secure the Capitol, allowing for a spectacle of mobocracy to continue undaunted.
The outrage over President Trump’s direct role fomenting the assault has rightly led many members of Congress to call for his immediate removal from office. But nobody should be surprised by his actions. The provocations to undermine democracy and infiltrate the government in order to defend Trump’s ego are the only expressions of “populism” that were ever truly on offer from a megalomaniac who never much cared for being president in the first place.
The Republicans who continue to carry water for Trump, and even now parrot the false allegation that the election was “stolen” from him, should never be forgiven for their actions. One man alone cannot sow the level of discord that has overrun the country — this has only been possible due to the GOP establishment backing him up every step of the way, no matter how absurd and dangerous his claims.
Trump will soon be gone, though it won’t be soon enough. But the potential heirs to Trumpism are already lining up, hoping to win over the ginned up base the president will leave behind. With a Democratic president, House and Senate set to take control in the coming weeks, the Republican game plan will quickly pivot from protesting a supposedly unfair transition of power to blaming the Democratic Party and the broadly defined “Left” for all the deep-seated problems left behind by the Trump administration that will continue to plague America.
The promise of Trumpism was always a lie. The president never planned to deal with economic and social injustices that have afflicted working people for decades upon decades. From the start, he stacked his administration with billionaires and corporate CEOs hell-bent on bloating their portfolios, with the growth of the stock market and a right-wing takeover of the judiciary as their only north stars.
Yet, as the Tea Party wave of 2010 illustrated, even a party as deeply tethered to the financial elite as the GOP can still harness real resentment and anger over personal hardship, and use this resentment for electoral gain. After President Obama took office in 2009, Republicans attempted to tag Democrats as the party of Wall Street bailouts and indifference to workers, even as the GOP opposed any progressive policies that might infringe on corporate power. But Democrats responded by acting with a perilous timidity that helped cement their future losses, not just in 2010 but throughout Obama’s two terms as president.
The tinder for a right-wing backlash under President Biden is already assembled. Millions of Americans are desperate and, without help, will search for an outlet to express that anguish. But that fate isn’t written into stone. Hesitancy and inaction are the result of decision making by those in positions of power, and can just as easily be renounced in favor of bold governance that responds to the imperative needs of America’s working-class majority.
In contrast to the Republicans’ vacuous response to the emergency facing the American people, incoming Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders gave voice to this urgency on Thursday night, saying on CNN:
“We have to act and act now. And the first order of business, by the way, is to pass an emergency Covid-19 bill which, among many other things, says to working-class Americans, we know you’re in pain and we’re going to get you a $2,000 check for every working-class adult in this country. We are on your side. We are prepared to take on the big money interests who have so much power… And if we do not do that, those millions and millions of people who vote for Trump, they’re going to continue to believe that government does nothing, nothing for them. And we have to change that attitude, and the only way I know how to do that is to do the work that the people need us to do.”
We have witnessed what happens when the U.S. government leaves its people to starve, drown in debt, and die amid the worst crisis in a generation. And after Tuesday’s results in Georgia, where John Ossoff and Raphael Warnock won shock victories over their Republican rivals, we’ve also seen what can happen when Democrats lean into a class war message that calls out GOP hypocrisy and promises direct material support to working people. As Natalie Shure wrote in response to the victories in Georgia, “Whether it’s a $15 minimum wage, green jobs program or expanded healthcare, Democrats should now seize the opportunity and push for bold progressive policies (and their constituents should pressure them to do so however they can), just as the New Deal helped fortify Democratic loyalty for a generation.”
Trump will be leaving more carnage behind in his wake than many thought imaginable just a few years ago. Undoing it — by using government as a vehicle to improve people’s lives through redistributing wealth and power downward — is the only way to make sure we don’t wind up with a future monster like Trump who’s even worse.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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Miles Kampf-Lassin, a graduate of New York University’s Gallatin School in Deliberative Democracy and Globalization, is a Web Editor at In These Times. Follow him on Twitter @MilesKLassin