It’s been a roller coaster of a week – a week that felt like a month. I was thrilled and relieved when Pennsylvania was declared for Biden, ensuring that he would become the next President of the United States (absent some extreme skullduggery). And then for the next several days I went back and forth between hopefulness and dread. As Biden named his transition team, I was uplifted by the fact that the government would again be staffed largely by competent and experienced professionals with some commitment to the rule of law. But I was daunted by the pervasive efforts to challenge the legitimacy of the Biden presidency and by the damage that has been done to our Republic by Trumpism and to the potential for being a genuine democracy. The activist Ady Barken reflected on the Biden win by saying that we have stepped back from hopelessness and are now instead only confronted with disaster. I believe that we have indeed stepped back from a precipice – that democracy had little chance of survival if Trump had acquired a second term. We now face the challenge of repairing the prodigious damage that Trump and the Republican party have inflicted on the nation. So I have been enjoying some uplifting moments, leavened with stark reality checks. In the coming weeks there will be a lot of talk about paths forward and that’s a good thing – a sign that folks can envision a future. Here are some of my initial thoughts on those paths.
We must be cautious not to presume that we have won the fight against tyranny and lawlessness, and that things will shortly return to normal and that we can all get back to the way things were before Trump imposed himself into our lives. The challenges we face are considerable. While we have stepped back from the brink of being a racist autocracy, the future is nonetheless fraught with plenty of ominous obstacles. We are entitled to take a bit time to celebrate our reprieve but we can’t afford to downplay the obstacles that we face or to put off confronting them. These include:
- Over 70 million people voted for an overtly lawless fascist party and chose a fulminating, willfully ignorant, polarizing, authoritarian, lying racist who is actively looting the country while doing his best to fan the flames of a surging pandemic over a genial old guy offering to try to bring us all together. The reconciling language from Biden has been roundly and derisively rejected by much of the MAGA crowd. Trump may be leaving but Trumpism will remain in his wake. Somewhere between 30-40% of Americans prefer minority rule, fascism and white supremacy to democracy under a big inclusive tent and see no prospect of their reconciliation with the majority. There is no simple solution to mending this rift that Trump has so aggressively exploited and enlarged.
- We are in the middle of an attempted coup, marked most notably (but not exclusively) by Trump’s litigation to throw out all of the ballots in Pennsylvania and Michigan and have the Republican dominated legislatures of those states award the state’s electoral votes to Trump. The coup is lazy and sloppy and will almost certainly fail. Nonetheless, it has been endorsed tacitly or explicitly by most of the Republican party. We should not be dismissive of all the hazards that this poses.
- The corpse of the Trump campaign was not even cold before centrist democrats began to attack the left flank of the party – blaming them for the closeness of the election (it wasn’t close) for losing seats in the house, and for failing to take back the Senate. These attacks on progressive forces in the Democratic Party were led by Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Representatives Abigail Spanbergber (D-VA) and Connor Lamb (D-PA) and were echoed by other centrists and “never Trumpers”, such as former Republican Governor John Kasich and TV personality and former Congressman Joe Scarborough. Such attacks have drawn a lot of press coverage. But the charges ignore that every House candidate who ran on Medicare for All won their race and every candidate that accepted the campaign assistance of progressive Justice Democrats won their race. Progressive values on health, education, and the environment were demonstrably popular with voters this time around. Starting a civil war within the party while the legitimacy of Biden’s win is still being challenged does not bode well for fending off the opposition that we are going to face from the White Supremacist Republican party that may still hold the Senate Majority for the next two years.
- Our electoral system is broken. The astonishing degree to which voter suppression and other forms of electoral cheating by the GOP have been normalized and accepted as baked into the process of holding elections is simply not sustainable. People wonder why the polls were off so much this time around. I once read that in Wisconsin, Democrats think that voter suppression gives the GOP a 4-6% advantage that must be overcome for a Democrat to win. Factor in such a “cheating advantage” for the GOP and the presidential polls actually look pretty accurate. Such cheating is necessary for a minority party to stay in power and plenty of Republican operatives have acknowledged this. With a Supreme Court majority now committed to abrogating voting rights, participating in a genuine democratic process is just going to get harder. The Democratic party has been pretty passive about combating voter suppression over the last two decades. This has to change if we hope to live in a functioning democracy. North Carolina just passed a statute outlawing citizen ballot initiatives and reserving that right exclusively for the legislature. The erosion of democracy is all around us and will continue until the people see it as intolerable and push back.
- The election was not close. Biden won (and Trump was rejected) by record turnouts and record margins. The majority of this country clearly rejected Trump and Trumpism.
- The win was brought to us by the tenacious organizing of communities of color – who delivered Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Arizona. There would be no Biden victory and likely no holding the House without the record turnouts of People of Color in Detroit, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Phoenix.
- The stage was set for this organizing by the mobilizations of Black Lives Matter in the past year where a massive outpouring of anger and solidarity emerged across the country and across all demographics in response to the murder by the police of George Floyd – demonstrating that organizing for justice by and for People of Color can also mobilize impressive numbers of white allies.
- American institutions are weak. If Trump has taught us anything it should be that our institutions – the ones that everyone said were going to save us are fragile and easily subverted by folks who don’t share a democratic sensibility. We need to build a mass democratic movement along the historic lines of abolition, women’s suffrage, civil rights, gay rights, and anti-Vietnam War that forced the government to embrace progressive policies that it did not endorse.
- Candidates in swing states who ran on Medicare For All won and those who rejected it mostly lost. Progressive values of health, education and the environment are popular.
- The right-wing noise machine – most notably centered on Fox news but rapidly expanding (see e.g. OAN or Breitbart) has created an alternative reality for the MAGA crowd in which the pandemic is a hoax (or is not a hoax but was created in a lab by Obama and Fauci to subvert the Trump presidency), where our cities are being burned to the ground by anarchists and Black thugs, where Joe Biden not only wants to take away our guns, but also our health insurance, our cars, and our holidays, and where the Democratic party is actively engaged in child sex trafficking. And my favorite – that Biden is a radical Marxist Communist. I spent six weeks text banking for Biden in Wisconsin and was astonished, not only by the things that Trump supporters know to be true but by their shock at my ignorance for not knowing these things. When people reside solely in the Fox or OAN Universe, they are completely enveloped by that alternative reality. I have no answer for this but it’s clearly a challenge that needs to be taken on.
- We cannot defeat fascism through appeasement. Fascist, anti-democratic convictions among the MAGA crowd have only deepened in the last week as believers consume fantastical stories of massive voter fraud on the part of Democrats, and no amount of goodwill will diminish their hostility. Nearly half of our fellow citizens (and indeed half of our Congress) prefer a one party state. We’re going to need to figure out how to deal with that as Trump and his cronies pour kerosene on the existing polarization by continuing to promote the idea that the election has been stolen.
- A non- fascist, democratic future does not lie in embracing GOP light, by meeting racists half way, but will be grounded in a progressive agenda. A non-fascist future will not be built on repudiating BLM or Defund the Police or socialism or other movements for social justice but in proudly defending democratic process and expansive civil rights as the alternative to tyranny. As the Supreme Court prepares to consider revoking many hard earned civil rights – the defense of existing rights and the work to expand them ought to be a locus of organizing.
- The antithesis to the polarization that Trump has left us is solidarity, built around a movement for dignity and justice for all people. The last election was won by good old fashioned community organizing. We need to continue to mobilize, expanding a new base beyond electoral politics while recognizing the limitations and fragility of electoral politics. As Noam Chomsky has noted, we can’t afford to ignore electoral politics but we should not expect it to be the source of the changes we need.
- There can be no hope for building a genuine democracy on the wreckage that Trump has left us unless we prosecute the criminality of the last administration. To fail to do so is to permanently normalize the anti-democratic practices that have indeed become the norm during the last four years. This must become an unrelenting, loud public demand.
- The leadership of the Democratic Party has shown an aversion to fighting back, demurring on the many opportunites to impeach Trump, Barr, or Kavanagugh, or to prosecute any of the perjury of Trump appointees or their ubiquitous criminality, or even to enforce the subpoena power of Congress. If we continue along those lines, we’ll have another autocrat the next time around and the next fascist that we get may not be as lazy or as ignorant as Trump. So we’re going to have to get better at using our popular power to keep democracy in the forefront of our consciousness, of our public discourse and we’re going to have to force our reps to defend it whenever it is threatened.
- What about Biden? We’ll take that up in another column but one thing is clear. Biden will be able to accomplish a lot more if the Democrats regain control of the Senate – a possibility if the DEMS can win both of the seats that are up for grabs in a special election in Georgia on January 5. Without the Senate, Biden’s appointments and his legislation are likely to be blocked by a GOP Senate majority (as current Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)has pledged – going so far to boast that he may deny Biden a cabinet if he dares to appoint any “liberals”. So it seems to me that one of the most urgent steps forward is to put a lot of energy into that election in support of the Democratic candidates for the Senate in Georgia, Raphael Warnock and John Ossoff. Those who would like to support the campaign with time or money can look here. And for what it’s worth, the current polls list both races as a dead heat.
Art Keene is Managing Editor of The Amherst Indy. He is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at UMass and has lived in Amherst since 1981.