In the immediate aftermath to the US election, much digital ink was spilt decrying what I will call the enablers of incompetence.
Without a trace of credible evidence, Donald Trump’s closest allies in the senate and various government departments have continued to question the election outcome and have entertained the president’s spurious claims of election interference and voter fraud.
While Secretary of State Pompeo promised a ‘smooth transition to a second Trump administration’ Senator Graham advised Trump not to concede, arguing that ‘if Republicans don’t challenge and change the US election system, there will never be another Republican president elected again’. Similar remarks by Republican grandees such as Ted Cruz and Mitch McConnell back Tump’s allegations of a conspiracy against his supporters.
Outrageous as these remarks by professional cheerleaders of the still-president may be, I want to shift the spotlight onto an arguably even more important group of Trump-enablers: The approximately 72.5 million Americans, who cast their vote for the “Donald”.
From his emergence on the political stage in 2016, Trump supporters have been patronised, belittled and underestimated. In a major strategic miscalculation, Hilary Clinton called half of Trump supporters a ‘basket of deplorables’ and was punished by a stinging electoral defeat, including in many states that were previously thought of as Democratic strongholds.
Pollsters, who predicted sweeping victories for Clinton in 2016 and Biden in 2020 were humbled by much narrower elections. Contrary to all expectations, Trump turned out more voters this year than any other loosing candidate in US history.
Clinton’s remarks, in particular, seemed to reveal a disregard for an increasingly significant section of the American people. Their indignant resentment of a distant and indifferent Washington elite made possible the reality-show presidency of the man who promised to “make America great again”.
The current cohort of Trump supporters among the electorate mount a challenge to American democracy. Despite a decisive Biden victory in both the electoral college and the popular vote, a considerable section of the Trump base continues to deny the election outcome. This denialism is not merely evidence of America’s deep divisions, it mounts a credible threat to the functioning of the country’s democratic institutions.
Let us try to break down what this challenge entails. As all major newspapers and television channels agree on the result, these voters signal a willingness to take Donald Trump’s word over that of all intermediary institutions committed to providing citizens with shared truths.
Trump voters’ disregard for the courts and their repeat dismissal of voter fraud allegations casts doubt on one of the most important checks on executive power. Commentators have also identified blatant racism in Tump voters’ unwillingness to concede: Voter fraud is alleged in majority black district of Detroit, Atlanta and Philadelphia, not in majority white urban counties.
Yet, it is the populism literature that offers the best explanation for the phenomenon of Trumpist election denialism. Populism conceives of the people, the referential entity of all democracies, as pure, homogenous and unified.
In what the Princeton academic Jan Werner Mueller refers to as a ‘moralised form of anti-pluralism’ populism denies the diversity intrinsic to our contemporary democracies. In other words, those who fail to see the greatness of Trump’s leadership are excluded from the people and, thus, simply don’t count.
While Mueller’s definition helps us understand the exclusionary way in which the Trump base views democracy, an alternative perspective on populism helps us disentangle who the people really are.
The late Argentine philosopher Ernesto Laclau teaches us that populism works by aggregating different claims, including about the economy, belonging, irregular migration and the coronavirus, into overarching slogans such as Trump’s promise to ‘make America great again’.
This process of joining grievances up into a simplified slogan helps us understand that, despite their seeming unity, Trump voters are anything but homogeneous. While some look fondly on Trump’s removal of environmental regulations and the much-hailed tax cut, others feel threatened by increasingly assertive women’s and minority movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter.
Yet others fear the demographic and cultural change brought by migrants from Latin and South America or the economic shut-down triggered by the coronavirus. Some may indeed be racist, others simply reckless. What does that mean for us now?
First, we need to stop speaking of Trump voters as if they were a fixed and cohesive group. Compared to 2016, Trump seems to have brought more Blacks and Latinos into his coalition. They are unlikely to share the xenophobia still prevalent in rural areas and many Southern states.
Second, it is wrong to treat Trump supporters as a lost cause. Politicians and pundits must take their individual grievances seriously and address them one by one. This does not mean giving up on progressive goals or environmental commitments. It does mean finding a place in society for those who risk losing out when these goals are achieved.
Third and finally, the large turnout of Trump supporters reveals deep flaws in the American political system. Biden must find a way to make politics feel inclusive again. First soundbites from the president-elect suggest that he understands the urgency of the task at hand.