The world has spent the past four years obsessing over President Donald Trump: his biography, his ideology, his speech, his tweets, his moods, his health, his hair. But what did the Trump era teach us about ourselves, and the country he was elected to lead?
Trump’s presidency has been a four-year war on many people’s assumptions about what was and wasn’t “American”—what a leader can call people in public, which institutions really matter, whether power lies with elites or masses. And it has forced serious arguments about what information, and what version of our history, we can even agree on.
With four years of Trump nearly behind us, Politico Magazine asked a group of smart political and cultural observers to tell us what big, new insight this era has given them about America—and what that insight means for the country’s future.
Many were alarmed to discover that our political institutions and norms are more fragile than they thought. Others pointed out the blind spots that members of the political and cultural elite have for the deep sense of dislocation and injustice that their fellow citizens feel. Some wrote optimistically about an America that is steadily becoming more diverse and inclusive, or one that has retained a powerful role in the world. Yet, even in the face of a common enemy—a once-in-a-century pandemic—“patriotism became a blunt instrument that Americans wielded against one another,” as one contributor put it.
Others questioned whether the disruptions of the past four years have really shaken us out of old patterns, and whether the political establishment has really been diminished. “The house always wins,” one wrote. And then there was this conclusion from another contributor: “At the end of Trump’s term, what I’ve learned is that I really don’t understand America well at all.”
Katherine J. Cramer is professor of political science and chair of Letters & Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is author of The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker.
The past few years have taught me just how removed the cultural elite in the United States is from many of the other people in this nation. By cultural elite, I mean those of us who create the knowledge and the media content people consume, as well those of us in positions of political and other decision-making power. There is a deep well of people in this country who are sure the system is not working for them, and we seem to be only coming around to recognizing how deep it goes.
Four years ago, I published a book about the feelings of resentment many rural people in Wisconsin felt toward the urban elite. When Donald Trump won in 2016, partly by tapping into this resentment, people turned to me for answers. I became aware just how surprised many in the cultural elite were about the challenges facing rural communities and the fact that many people living in these places feel they are not getting their fair share of attention, resources or respect. The shock at the closeness of the 2020 race suggests we are still unaware of the depth of this resentment.
We are removed not just from rural residents. Those of us in the cultural elite are inexcusably unaware of the challenges and perspectives of many others in this country who feel they are not getting what they deserve. George Floyd’s killing and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement this past summer means it is no longer possible to ignore the centuries of violent dehumanization of Black people in this country. But how long has it taken us to confront this reality? The astonishment among white cultural elites (myself included) at the extent of police brutality until cellphone video cameras came along leaves me questioning what our democracy is actually built on. What is the infrastructure that allows the hardships of so many to remain invisible?
Tim Wu is a law professor at Columbia University and the author, recently, of The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age.
We’ve learned something important about America’s resistance to an authoritarian takeover. Most republics, even the best of them, have struggled when confronted with a nationalist leader who shows up in bad economic times, blames everything on immigrants and foreigners, and promises to restore greatness. That’s the fate that befell, among others, the Roman, Spanish, German and Russian republics. Before Trump, it was widely thought that the written Constitution and its fabled “separation of powers” had spared the United States from a similar fate.
But over the past four years, we’ve watched constitutional checks repeatedly fail to control the president, trumped by party loyalty. Congress and the judiciary asserted limited control at best; even impeachment turned out to be just another party-line vote. What really mattered, in the end, was a different set of checks, upheld not by a document but by people: namely, the independence of federal prosecutors, the neutrality of the armed forces and the independence of the electoral system. He tried hard, but Trump ultimately couldn’t find a prosecutor to indict Joe Biden and his family. The armed forces declined to embrace Trump’s proposed occupation of liberal cities over the summer. And, finally, when it mattered, election officials, at a distance from the White House, conducted a fair vote.
In a manner that John Adams might have found satisfying, we have learned that internalized constitutional norms matter more than any external checks.
Nicholas Carr is a writer covering technology, economics and culture. His book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.
“Truth Trumps Lies.” That motto, needling yet reassuring, has been a popular hashtag ever since Donald Trump’s election in 2016. But the last four years have revealed its hollowness. In the digital marketplace of ideas, where most of us now get our news, falsehoods go viral while facts go begging. An extensive MIT study of Twitter posts, published in Science in 2018, found that fake or otherwise misleading news stories are 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than truthful ones. The audience for misinformation is routinely an order of magnitude larger than the audience for accurate reports. “False news spreads farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth,” the researchers concluded.
In the 20th century, propaganda came from the top down. Tyrants would seize control of radio, TV and other mass media to broadcast their poison to the public. In the 21st century, propaganda is a bottom-up phenomenon. Falsehoods may be seeded from the White House or the Kremlin, but they circulate through the public’s own posts and tweets. Social media has allowed propaganda to be crowdsourced; it has democratized George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth. The problem won’t be solved by a naive faith in truth’s innate power to prevail over fabrication. Nor will it be solved by the removal from office of a mendacious president. Without far-reaching institutional, educational and legal remedies, lies will continue to trump truth.
Leslie M. Harris is professor of history and African American studies at Northwestern University and the Beatrice Shepherd Blane fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.
During the Trump presidency, I have had the odd sensation of being in two time frames at once. The recrudescence of classic struggles around race, class and culture exists alongside the reality that many have moved forward from that toxic terrain. When Trump entered office in 2016, the nation—knowingly or not—elected to return to these struggles in their 1980s form. New York in the 1980s was a time of white urban racial violence, racialized assumptions about crime, widespread homelessness and decaying infrastructure. In Trump’s New York, we were asked to believe that graffiti artists were to blame for the condition of old subway cars that lacked heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer, when the graffiti in the subway was the most attractive thing about it. We were told that high taxes and high crime rates—as opposed to racism, inflated rents and depressed wages and salaries for the working and middle classes—were why “the tax base” (presumed middle class and white, but in fact much more diverse) had left Manhattan.
In the 1980s, I was infuriated by the beatings of Cedric Sandiford and Timothy Grimes and the murder of Michael Griffith in Howard Beach, but, finally, reduced to tears by the death of Yusuf Hawkins in Bensonhurst—all of these crimes committed by young white men who thought Black people didn’t deserve to be in “white spaces.” Meanwhile, Trump was silent on these crimes, but took out a full-page ad demanding the execution of The Central Park Five—who we now know were wrongfully convicted.
Trump’s GOP has enacted some of these practices on a national scale. The middle and working classes were again left behind by GOP tax cuts that benefit only the wealthiest among us. The racialized-crime dog whistle use of the 1980s has become an inescapable bullhorn. And discussing the parallels in the struggles over sexual politics then and now would take another whole article.
But as important as the resurgence of these backward-looking policies has been the rise of a radical response—necessary in a moment in which we face a radical set of problems: a pandemic; ongoing racial brutality enacted by the police and by individuals and political movements steeped in white supremacy; a crumbling infrastructure exacerbated by climate change; and an ever-widening gap between those with stable access to a living wage, education for their children, and proper nutrition and health care, and those without. This radical push for greater equity has been in existence longer than failed GOP policies—indeed, 1980s GOP policies were a response to the successes of the 1960s. But the demand for radical equity has gained more adherents than ever, as the support for politicians like Bernie Sanders, the members of The Squad and Elizabeth Warren demonstrates. In the past five years—before Trump took office—we have witnessed a series of massive protests. Such demonstrations have called for the removal of cultural imagery honoring Confederates and others who supported racial hierarchies. Some protests challenged the sexual violence enacted by Trump himself. And, this past spring, the largest and most diverse demonstration in American history spilled into the streets to protest racialized police brutality. All of these protests and movements have echoed around the world. Although Trump was not a world leader, U.S. activists for equity are. Will these radical demands for change take root or be crushed?
Mark Bauerlein is a contributing editor at First Things and professor emeritus of English at Emory University.
Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 was a trauma for the elites. Why? Because he showed that people in charge of major U.S. institutions weren’t as elite as they liked to believe. It wasn’t just that the concerted efforts of those in high places failed to keep him out of the White House. It was their inability to explain how it happened: Russia collusion, racist working-class white voters, cheap demagoguery … any reason but themselves, the faces in the mirror. Ordinary Americans looked at the elite zones of academia, Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Wall Street and Washington itself, and saw a bunch of self-serving, not very competent individuals sitting pretty, who had enriched themselves and let the rest of America slide. Remember when Trump told crowds at his rallies to turn around and “Look at ’em!”—at the media with their cameras and notepads? The audience complied, stared back at the Fourth Estate, raised their phones and put them on camera—a turnabout that delighted Americans sick of these strutting egos who had been putting the rank and file down for years.
It wasn’t Trump’s politics that disgusted the college presidents, celebrity actors, Google VPs, D.C. operatives and the rest. It was because he pinpointed them as the problem—the reason factories and small stores had closed, unemployment was bad, and PC culture had cast them as human debris. And millions cheered. This was unforgivable to the elites. They sputtered in reply, which only confirmed that our betters aren’t so smart or skilled or savvy, and not so virtuous either, though very good at self-help. The outburst was a long time coming. Trump gave it an outlet, and the scorn for men and women at the top of our country is now widespread and frank. It’s not going to pass any time soon.
Francis Fukuyama is senior fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and Mosbacher director of its Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law.
The single most confounding thing about the Trump era is that we still do not really understand why more than 70 million Americans voted for Donald Trump, and why there remains a smaller core of fanatical supporters who will believe anything he says—most recently, that he won the election but that it is being stolen through voter fraud.
Over the past several years, a legion of explanations for the Trump phenomenon have been put forward—that it is a backlash against the inequalities created by globalization, that it represents the fear of white voters fearing a loss of power and prestige, that is has been generated by social media companies, that it reflects a huge social divide between people living in big cities and those in smaller communities, that it is based on level of education, and so on.
All of these factors are probably true to some extent, but none of them adequately explains the fear and loathing evident on the right in America today. There is a qualitative change in the nature of partisanship that conventional explanations fail to capture, reflected in poll data showing that a majority of Republican voters believe some version of QAnon theories about Democrats drinking children’s blood. Nor have I seen a good explanation for why so many conservatives can see such an imperfect vessel as Trump as the object of cultlike worship, or fear the Democrats as the embodiment of Satan.
At the end of Trump’s term, what I’ve learned is that I really don’t understand America well at all.
Suketu Mehta is a journalism professor at New York University and author of This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto.
I immigrated to America with my family in 1977, and with each passing year, I found the United States more and more welcoming—until 2016. It wasn’t just Donald Trump who assumed power; it was an army of nativists who voted for him because they wanted to Make America White Again. Hate crimes surged, and anti-immigrant invective, including incitement to murder, found nightly vent on mainstream airwaves. I was truly shocked. Was this really the nation I claimed as mine? Did it have a place for me, or my children? Did Miss Liberty still lift her lamp beside the Golden Door?
Sixty-three million people voted for Trump in 2016. After four years of an all-out war on immigrants, both legal and illegal, that tally rose to more than 70 million. Most Trump voters, I like to believe, consider me American. But many don't, and they are legion. And so it makes me realize: I can’t take anything for granted, including my place in this country. I’m going to have to fight for it: Speak up against bigotry, demand my rights as a citizen, get politically involved. No immigrant can afford to focus exclusively on chasing the American Dream, because we have just lived through four years of the American Nightmare. Trump is out of the house, for the moment, but the ugly passions he unleashed are not. The white supremacists and xenophobes are marching in the streets, heavily armed. This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land too, but I’ll have to fight for it to be so.
Adam M. Enders is assistant professor of political science at University of Louisville. Joseph E. Uscinski is associate professor of political science at University of Miami.
Donald Trump’s candidacy and presidency exposed a rift between what politicians and journalists think Americans’ political views are, and what those views actually are. Elites—politicians, journalists and other commentators, as well as a small number of politically sophisticated Americans—understand politics through worldviews arranged neatly along a left-right continuum, ranging from Democratic to Republican, liberal to conservative. But most Americans do not see politics this way, and their views do not necessarily align with left-right principles or ideologies. And, while many Americans feel an emotional attachment to a party label, many Americans don’t like either party all that much or hold closely corresponding issue preferences. Instead, many Americans see politics as a battle between “the corrupt elite” and “the good people.” Trump took advantage of such views, presenting himself as an outsider taking on a corrupt group of elite insiders. His conspiracy theories about the deep state and election rigging, for example, closely approximate what many Americans think about politics. His 2016 message about the country needing to “drain the swamp” was, in this sense, an ingenious ploy aimed at people who already agreed with the general sentiment.
To treat Trumpism as an extreme form of conservatism or Republicanism is to erroneously overlook the populist, conspiratorial and anti-establishment sentiments that really drove Trump’s appeal. And, if we interpret Trump’s banishment from the White House as a repudiation of the views that brought him to power, then we will miss the important fact that these views continue to exist without Trump––he is a symptom, not a disease. Trump’s unique contribution to American electoral politics was harnessing anti-establishment views, imbuing them with legitimacy and making it advantageous for other politicians to voice such views, as well. These sentiments remain a fixture of the American political landscape, lying in wait to be taken advantage of by the next strategic politician seeking to broaden his or her base and execute policy goals at any cost.
Theodore R. Johnson, a retired military officer, is a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice and author of the forthcoming When the Stars Begin to Fall: Overcoming Racism in America.
It used to be an article of faith that in the face of a national threat, Americans would put differences aside and unite to meet the challenge. In those moments, patriotism was the lifeblood of our shared identity and common interest. Yet, the past few years have demonstrated that, in the clutches of increasing hyperpartisanship and toxic polarization, nothing is inviolable—including patriotism. It has been both painful and sobering to realize that, in the face of a foreign nation interfering in our electoral process, an economic downturn stranding millions and a once-in-a-century pandemic, the American citizenry was unable to muster a united disposition. Instead, patriotism became a blunt instrument that Americans wielded against one another, each side accusing the other of being the threat to a well-functioning democracy.
If the United States is to overcome the threats to its democracy, the past few years prove that Americans will need to find a patriotism grounded in national solidarity. It will need to be one of both devotion and dissent, praising progress while holding the nation accountable for its shortcomings. That is, we will need to reimagine what it means to be American in a 21st-century multiracial democracy and who is included. This past summer has given us a reason to be optimistic. The protests following the killing of George Floyd were a demonstration of multiracial, multigenerational union across lines of party and class unrivaled in recent American history. An inclusive form of patriotism is both possible and elusive. We will need to decide if we will lean on the version that brings people together or succumb to the narrow and exclusive sort that’s exploited for political advantage.
Maria Hinojosa is anchor and executive producer of “Latino USA,” and author of Once I Was You: A Memoir of Love and Hate in a Torn America.
One of this country’s greatest faults is that when things take a turn for the better, democracy takes a seat at the back of the bus. When Barack Obama was elected, there was a collective celebration, another sigh of relief, and then people went back to their daily lives. Obama did wonderful things, but he also made great mistakes. With Vice President Joe Biden at his side, he deported more than 3 million people. The greatest lesson this country has just learned is that democracy really is a verb—that the only way that things get better is with everyone participating. These past four years have taught us that street politics and electoral politics run neck-and-neck.
But this time around, I believe this country’s younger generations are not going to take a back seat. Democracy will continue to be a part of their lives on an everyday basis. It will involve voting at the polls. It might also involve marching on the streets and organizing locally. I hope the country has learned that democracy is only as good as the people—all of us—who make it, one person, one vote, one act of love and solidarity at a time.
Brad Thor is the author of the New York Times bestseller Near Dark and other novels.
After four years of an “America first” (and sometimes “America only”) foreign policy, America’s international alliances remained solid. When necessary, such as with the G-7 and the question of readmitting a revanchist Russia, our allies pushed back. America’s NATO partners, the majority of whom were not investing their agreed to 2 percent of GDP in defense, took their lumps (often publicly) and recommitted to honoring their obligations. Even South Korea withstood reduced joint military exercises and the elevation of North Korea’s dictator on the world stage in the hopes of achieving lasting peace and denuclearization on the Peninsula.
Every step of the way, no matter how confusing or unconventional the approach to breaking up the status quo ante, through wins and losses, our allies stood with the United States. We are more than just the man or woman behind the Resolute desk. We continue to be that shining city on a hill, a beacon of hope for the entire world. Our allies continue to need and trust us. Like a marriage, we will go through ups and downs, but the longer-term vision of peace and stability is what binds us.
Helen Andrews is a senior editor at the American Conservative and author of the forthcoming book Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster.
When Donald Trump won in 2016, it proved that millions of Americans felt so dispossessed by globalization that they were willing to risk America’s future on a gamble. The lesson of the last four years is the one learned by gamblers everywhere: The house always wins. The bipartisan establishment threw everything it had at stopping Trump, and it worked. He couldn’t even get control of his own bureaucracy. The anti-Trump elites that dominate America’s universities, corporations, media and even churches might have taken their 2016 defeat as a wake-up call and given the populists’ grievances a hearing, for once. Instead, they put all their energy for the past four years into making sure nothing like the 2016 upset could ever happen again. Trump’s supporters elected him because they felt powerless. Evidently, they are.
William H. Frey is senior fellow at the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program and author of Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics Are Remaking America.
The most striking development over the past four years has been the deliberate political use of wedge issues to widen what I have called the “cultural generation gap.” This refers to the political and cultural divide between our highly diverse younger generations and largely white older generations on issues such as racial inclusion, immigration and criminal justice. This demographic divide between the young and the old has been evident for a while and made plain in the disparate age-race voting patterns in recent presidential elections, including the present one. I have long maintained that it is important for Americans to see a common future across this divide.
However, in the past four years, the president and other politicians have done the opposite by creating a myriad of generational wedge issues. The long-term impacts of the Covid-19 crisis could exacerbate this tension even further, as the nearly “minority-white” younger generations—millennials and Gen Zers—who have suffered most from the pandemic economically move further into their schooling, home-buying and working ages. To respond, the government must provide much more support to young people in the areas of education, job training, health care, housing and family services. Demographically, we are now at a pivotal period that requires greater recognition among citizens of all ages of how crucial this generation’s well-being will be not only for them but for the nation’s productivity—and, as well, for the future viability of programs like Social Security and Medicare that benefit our growing senior population.
Charles Sykes is editor at large of The Bulwark.
I suppose I should be more upbeat. But what strikes me now, looking back, is how many Americans were able to watch Donald Trump and say, “Yeah, I’m all right with that.” Not a majority, to be sure, but more than 70 million Americans wanted to give him four more years. And that’s a revelation.
Trump didn’t create our dysfunctions, but he exposed the degree to which we live in alternative, clashing realities. He also exposed our inconstancy on things like values, character, honesty and constitutional norms. We watched one of our great political parties become a cult of personality.
Americans are a good, decent, honorable and empathetic people. We think of ourselves as exceptional. But it turned out that we were also gullible, vulnerable to demagoguery and willing to embrace bizarre conspiracy theories. Many of our neighbors were also willing to tolerate racial dog whistles and extraordinary cruelty, including separating children from their parents. And every day now, we learn that our neighbors’ commitment to democratic norms was thinner than we had once imagined.
Matt A. Barreto is faculty co-director of the UCLA Latino Policy & Politics Initiative and was a pollster for the Joe Biden campaign.
When the Tea Party movement emerged in late 2009, University of Washington’s Christopher Parker and I closely studied the group’s opinions and motivations. Our book documented how the election of Barack Obama ushered in a new, diverse America that many whites were uncomfortable with. It was not the price tag of Obama’s health care plan they opposed; Tea Party supporters loved government spending on Social Security and Medicare. It was what Obama’s health care plan represented: providing equitable access, through government backing, to Black, Latino, Asian and immigrant communities in America.
As Parker and I wrote back in 2013, this new movement was motivated by an existential threat to their inward-looking America, and by paranoia and conspiratorial discourse. Obama and his coalition represented a shocking change that Tea Party adherents could not take.
So, what have we learned after four years of Donald Trump? That millions of white Republican voters in America are so motivated by the threat they see to their status in America that they hunkered down in 2020 and voted in favor of Trump in larger numbers than in 2016. While many preelection polls hinted that white voters, especially college-educated women and men, were drifting away from Trump, in the end, white voters largely stayed true to Trump. In fact, white women increased their vote share for Trump from 52 percent in 2016 to 55 percent in 2020. College-educated whites increased their support from 48 percent to 49 percent. Across rural America, Trump increased his vote share among white Americans over 2016.
The Tea Party movement was captivated by Trump in 2015, when he launched his campaign with a tirade of racist attacks against immigrants, Mexicans and Muslims. As president, he regularly disparaged Black members of Congress, especially women, calling their districts dirty and corrupt. He refused to condemn white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia. In one of his debates against Joe Biden, Trump infamously told the white supremacist group Proud Boys to “stand by,” which they quickly took as a sign of support. Yet more than 70 million Americans voted to reelect Trump.
Social scientists who have been studying race in America are not surprised at all. There is much work to do in bringing the nation together and pursuing a path toward unity, but that must start with a recognition of the historic institutional racism, and an acknowledgement that so many millions of white Americans proudly agreed with some of Trump’s most hurtful rhetoric. To heal our nation, all Americans must see an equal path forward for their community, and also recognize that diversity and multiculturalism are strengths.
Gary Shteyngart is the author, most recently, of the novel Lake Success.
I mostly live in a rural area, and my county voted for Donald Trump. Yet nearly all the conversations I have are with like-minded people. Our blue/red segregation is complete. The local newspaper that once served as a common source of information is gone. There’s always a sadness when a beloved shopkeeper puts up a Trump sign or another ironic “Cold Beer Matters” pops up in a front yard, but mostly the past four years have brought about a resignation of reaching over to the other side and finding a common purpose. After Charlottesville, the dream of an exceptional nation marching among others, our disagreements in tow, died a quick death. Was the dream fraudulent to begin with? Joe Biden’s acceptance speech hit all the right notes, but I doubt it will make much of a difference up and down my rural drive. Time is your friend, a doctor told me after a recent wound refused to quickly heal. I would like to believe so. But how do we heal when my newfound hope in this country is mirrored by a neighbor’s hopeless despair?
Kirsten Greenidge is a playwright and an associate professor at the School of Theatre at Boston University.
When presented with the question of “What has Trump’s America taught us,” I think, on the eve of this era’s end, I am heartened by the idea that many more Americans are asking, “Who is this ‘us’?” And they are learning not to be as threatened by the answer—that this “us,” so to speak, is capable of holding within it multitudes; multitudes of individuals of diverse racial, ethnic, religious backgrounds; of people of diverse sexual orientations and expressions; of those of us of varying political points of view. I am heartened by witnessing more Americans work toward a better future where more of this “us” are included, celebrated and expected to participate in this experiment in democracy we’ve come to know as the United States of America.
Larry Diamond is senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.
Our political polarization is so intense, our mutual distrust so great, our partisan tribalism so overwhelming, that it is seriously eroding democratic norms. To be sure, the Congress is more polarized than the American public. As my colleagues and I learned in a deliberative poll in September 2019, Americans are ready—even eager—to reach across the partisan divide, hear one another and deliberate on the issues thoughtfully when given the opportunity to do so in a safe and supportive environment. But out there in the real world of political fear, rage and shouting matches, our civic life and democratic culture continue to deteriorate. As a result, large numbers of Americans are willing to ignore or condone violations of democratic norms—abuse of power, chronic disinformation, vulgar incivility, voter suppression—because they are so afraid of or angry at the other political party. And a growing number of Americans are thinking that there might be some justification for violence to press or defend their partisan cause.
I still hope and believe that had Donald Trump tried to do something much more blatantly authoritarian, such as suspend elections or the Constitution, many of his supporters would have at that point defected. But probably, many others would have stuck by him even then. And the central finding of recent political science research on polarization and democratic regression in other countries seems to be true for the United States as well: The majority of voters put their partisan attachments and policy or material interests ahead of their commitment to democracy. You can’t defeat a populist autocrat simply by denouncing his violations of democratic norms. We have to find ways to reduce partisan polarization in the United States, or our democracy is going to be in deepening trouble.
Charlamagne tha God is co-host of the nationally syndicated radio show “The Breakfast Club” and author of Shook One: Anxiety Playing Tricks on Me.
America can’t unsee what it has seen over the past four years, from George Floyd’s death to Covid-19 killing Black people at double the rate of whites because of systemic inequities. But the reality is that racism in America isn’t just about Donald Trump and “Make America Great Again.” The foundation of America is literally built on racism. The illusion of this country is that it’s an all-inclusive resort that everyone can access, when the truth is it’s a country club for old, rich, white men. America has never been great for Black people, and it’s not clear it’s about to get better.
When Joe Biden says “Build Back Better,” what does that even mean? Everyone is cheering and jumping for joy saying Biden’s win means a return to normal. What the hell is normal when you are a Black person in this country? Normal has never worked for us. I hope Democrats don’t think they had such high voter turnout because Black people actually bought into Biden and this return to “normal” his campaign keeps talking about. We voted against fascism. We voted to save democracy. Personally, I think Kamala Harris is the political change agent this country needs moving forward. But she can’t play small. It’s important that Black Americans have her back so she can show up in that White House as her full self and not have to worry about tip-toeing around white, fragile, male egos—you know, the same egos who said she was too ambitious when Joe was looking for potential running mates. I think Kamala will actually listen to progressives and embrace some progressive policies, and if centrist Democrats and progressives don’t get on the same page, the future of the Democratic Party is not bright. I can easily see progressives forming their own party, just like we’ve seen Black people do recently with “Our Black Party.”
Democrats won a battle in this election, but not the war. Biden is a placeholder who reminds the Black community too much of the past, a past that so many of us will never forget because he was the architect of legislation that ruined us. Does he have a chance to atone for that? Of course he does. Will he? The jury is still out, but I can tell you this: If Democrats get a majority in the Senate and House, along with the Oval Office, and they don’t make any real tangible moves to improve the conditions of Black people in America, then good luck energizing Black folks to vote in future elections.
Joan C. Williams is a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law and author of White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America.
I lived in Venezuela growing up. Now, I have lived to see the Venezuelization of my own country. Venezuela had tremendous oil wealth, but at age 8, I was deeply shocked at the level of inequality. I still remember driving into Caracas for the first time and seeing people living in shanty towns, with little boys running around in only shirts. Our house there had high concrete walls topped with broken glass. This brought home to me that the white picket fence we think of here in America signals the social trust and peace possible only in a democracy that offers workers a stable, middle-class life.
Donald Trump represents what happens when the American dream dies. It is dying: Virtually all Americans of my generation did better than their parents, but only about half of those born in 1980 will. Americans feel ripped off, and they’re looking for someone to blame—that’s what Trump showed me. His election made me realize that I and other progressives had failed to clearly communicate to our fellow Americans the reason for the hollowing out of the middle class: a toxic brand of slash-and-burn capitalism where Big Men’s frantic performance of masculinity “requires” them to hoard outlandish wealth so they can win the masculinity contest that defines their lives—gutting workers’ futures in the process.
The left’s failure to explain this enabled Trump to blame immigrants for the disappearance of solid full-time jobs, and to convince many in the fragile and former middle class that they’ve been victimized because they’re white. Immigrants aren’t to blame; slash-and-burn capitalism is. We urgently need to draw that link, clearly and soon, or our democracy’s days may be numbered.
Lynn Vavreck is professor of American politics at University of California, Los Angeles.
For the past 16 months, my colleague Chris Tausanovitch and I have been interviewing 6,250 people every week as part of the Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape Project. We now have more than 400,000 interviews with Americans across the country. Despite the closeness of our last two presidential elections, the narrow split in the U.S. Senate and the intensity with which people engage one another politically, I’ve noticed a few areas on which most Americans agree—regardless of party, gender, age, race or where they live. Even in the Trump era, there are some big things on which Americans agree.
Most people, for example, want to live in a country with universal background checks before gun purchases, 12 weeks of paid maternity leave, a path to citizenship for Dreamers and a tax cut for families earning less than $100,000 a year. These are policies currently under debate—and most people want to see them enacted into legislation. So why don’t we live in this world? People prioritize these policies differently, and politicians respond to their constituents’ priorities. But the lopsided nature of public opinion on these issues (for example, 83 percent of Trump voters and 92 percent of Biden voters want universal gun background checks) suggests a path forward for entrepreneurial politicians who really want to unite the country.
What politicians also know is that they can lead their constituents on important matters—especially signaling the importance of things their voters already want. They do this in campaigns all the time. There are opportunities right now for the president-elect, but also for Republican elites, to give voters a set of things they want and focus on the things Americans agree on instead of the things they don’t. In fact, this moment in time might be uniquely situated for this kind of cross-partisan coordination, the result of which would somewhat surprisingly be to actually give people what they have wanted for some time. This isn’t an easy prescription. It will require talented politicians with vision and the courage to lead.
Chris Buskirk is editor and publisher of American Greatness.
One thing has become very clear to me in the past four years: With stagnant wages real, the American middle class is in trouble, it has been for a long time and it’s getting worse. That is causing social and political turmoil that no one of either party who holds power is equipped to address. Rising wealth inequality—first slow and lately fast—as a result of stagnating real economic growth beginning around 1970 and other structural demographic forces, is producing a situation that is unsustainable.
If this situation persists, we will experience more government patrimonialism accompanied by increasing factional conflict. This is not, strictly speaking, an ideological issue along a traditional right-left political spectrum. It has been partially described by some as a class conflict (ruling class vs. country class, globalists vs. deplorables, anywhere vs. somewheres), as a racial conflict, as an education gap, as a spiritual deficit, and so forth. There are elements of all of these things, but many of these conflicts are initiated or at least intensified by a lack of long-term economic growth. The frustration and broken dreams that occur when children can’t do as well as their parents are at odds with the expectations we’ve been promised and with our understanding of what America is and should be. This produces persistent social and political conflict that undermines American solidarity.
Even wise political leaders would have a difficult time successfully navigating these issues. But for now, the political class remains trapped in an out-of-date framework: one that assumes science is still advancing quickly, that productivity growth driven by scientific advance will continue to make the economy grow indefinitely, and that the United States is still the world hegemon that can use the massive preponderance of its wealth and power to get its way on everything. In reality, this obsolete worldview is more likely to exacerbate our structural problems than to resolve them.
Melissa Deckman is chair and professor of political science at Washington College.
Donald Trump’s election in 2016 helped to foster higher levels of political engagement among Generation Z, particularly young women, many of whom were angered by the country’s willingness to elect a man with a penchant for demonizing women and other marginalized groups. It wasn’t just Trump’s bombastic style, however, that galvanized many young people politically. His administration’s rejection of science, its refusal to address gun violence and its dismissal of youth-led racial, gender and LGBTQ equality movements have been wholly out of step with the priorities of this generation, who are growing up with existential concerns about systemic racism, the well-being of the planet and mass shootings in their schools and on their streets.
What’s unique about Gen Z is that they have brought unparalleled organizational tools to their brand of progressive activism. Teens and young adults have borne witness to the success of youth leaders fighting against climate change and the March for Our Lives movement, inspiring the creation of similar offshoot organizations, both in their own communities and on-line. Social media also has provided an excellent venue for the mobilization of younger voters—including during a pandemic, when voting became more complicated for all Americans.
While older Americans still turned out at higher numbers this election cycle, exit polls show that the youth vote was much higher in 2020 than four years ago. Young voters also preferred the Biden/Harris ticket by a 25-point margin, their support critical in battleground states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania. This nascent generation’s allegiance to the Democratic Party is far from certain, particularly if Democratic leaders are slow to address their progressive concerns. And there are pockets of Gen Z that lean more conservative on many issues, particularly young white men. However, if these voting and activism patterns hold in the future, we could see a leftward surge in policy in the years to come, particularly as Gen Z becomes a bigger part of the electorate.
Steven M. Teles is professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, senior fellow at the Niskanen Center and author, with Robert P. Saldin, of Never Trump: The Revolt of the Conservative Elites.
A significant chunk of the American people are radically unsure of whether they want to live in America as it actually exists. Political scientists often get at this through the concept of “negative partisanship”—when attachment to a political party is driven more by aversion to the other party than commitment to your own party’s governing program. But I think there is something deeper going on.
The United States includes places with very different ways of governing the economy, whether taxes, services, regulation or unionization. On a deeper level, the United States includes highly secular, ethnically diverse big cities whose culture is shaped by the elite media and universities. But it also includes a wide swathe of places where the culture of white Christianity still shapes the worldview and organizes people’s lives, and which defines itself increasingly in contrast to what they think is the ethos of big cities.
America is a huge country that cannot be governed in the way that smaller, more homogenous states can. Too many Democrats allowed themselves to imagine that they could use the rising ethnic minority population of the United States as a battering ram to impose the form of governance of American cities on the rest of the country. But it turns out that Hispanic and Black Americans are not as homogeneous as that strategy imagined. Trumpists thought that they could elect a sort of strongman who would put the experts and increasingly assertive racial minorities in their place. But that didn’t work either. I am unsure whether the aspiration of either side of our culture war to be free from having to live with the rest of America has been extinguished. But the ambiguous results of this election just might show that we will have to find ways to live with the ideologically, racially, economically and religiously diverse America that actually exists.
Michiko Kakutani is the author of the new book Ex Libris: 100+ Books to Read and Re-Read. Follow her on Twitter @michikokakutani and on Instagram @michi_kakutani.
“The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.” During Donald Trump’s tenure in the White House, many Americans had reason to worry that de Tocqueville’s observation would be proved wrong—that Trump’s assault on our institutions and the massive propaganda and disinformation campaign run by him and his enablers would mortally wound our democracy and subvert our Constitution, along with our values and ideals.
Trump’s nearly four years in office have exposed weaknesses in our government—from checks and balances that can be sabotaged by extreme partisanship, to norms and traditions that need to be codified into law—and underscored how dangerously polarized America has become in an age when many people receive information through social media and through partisan outlets like Fox and Breitbart.
The election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, however, showed that a majority of voters repudiated Trump’s divisive and autocratic vision and reaffirmed the ability of Americans, in the words of the great John Lewis, to use the ballot box as a nonviolent “tool to redeem the soul of America.” From his lifetime as a civil-rights leader, Lewis knew that “democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part” to help build it. In 2020, voters—in unprecedented numbers—did exactly that, led in crucial battleground states by African Americans, by women, by young people and by people who understood exactly what was at stake. This was a sign that de Tocqueville was prescient in pointing to America’s “ability to repair her faults.”
At the same time, the refusal (so far) of Trump and his GOP enablers to recognize the results of the election are reminders that we can never let down our guard, never take anything for granted. As Lewis’ mentor and colleague the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. observed: “human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work” of people determined to “make real the promise of democracy.”
Tom Nichols is professor at the U.S. Naval War College and author of The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters.
We’ve learned a great deal about ourselves and our fellow citizens over the past four years, and much of it is unpleasant. But even more important, we’ve learned that our system of government is almost entirely dependent on shared cultural norms and traditions about democracy and accountability. If we are not willing to hold our elected officials—and each other—responsible for guarding those traditions, then the law and even the Constitution itself might not be enough to sustain our democratic republic.
In the past, we assumed that the existence of laws or constitutional requirements was sufficient to protect our rights and our institutions. We fell back on these codified and written statutes as insurance against our own behavior and insulation from our political choices. But when we empowered a chief executive and a political party to be “disruptive,” we learned that disruption can spread from the policy world and the conduct of our leaders into the groundwater beneath our entire system of government and poison its various wells. The “law” does not guarantee that we are protected by the rule of law; our commitment to rule of law as a basic value is what protects us and our rights. The Constitution does not automatically enforce itself. Institutions, such as a free press and open elections, do not renew themselves like some kind of perennial garden; they require our actual care and attention.
I hope that one lesson that we take away from the past four years is that we remember that merely writing things down on paper does not create a liberal democracy. We have to care about whether the laws are faithfully executed, whether impartial justice is served, whether the oaths our leaders take were spoken with sincerity. We have to care, deeply, about all of these things and more. Otherwise, all is lost, no matter who wins the next election, or the next one after that.
Lilliana Mason is associate professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park, and author of Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity.
This nation has never fully dealt with our legacy of racial violence and oppression, and a large portion of the electorate has no interest in doing so. The deepest divide between Democrats and Republicans today is over whether systemic racism and sexism exist. As Democrats increasingly lean into the need to address racial and gender-based inequality, Republicans deny that it needs to be addressed, and some violently oppose any efforts to promote equality. We are in a fight over the persistence of the traditional social hierarchy, and whether we can or should become a truly egalitarian democracy that represents all Americans equally.
John Austin directs the Michigan Economic Center and is a nonresident senior fellow with the Brookings Institution and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
It’s become clear over the past four years that, unless we address the root economic causes of many American voters’ anger and social alienation, we will remain a divided nation, with many remaining susceptible to the message of demagogues like Donald Trump. In much of left-behind rural America, and still struggling communities that dot the industrial Midwest around my home, anxieties about the economic future interact with a perceived loss of identity, status and control in a changing society. These dynamics generate a toxic brew of resentments of “others,” whether coastal elites or immigrants, and cravings for a return to a simpler and ordered time.
From afar, it appears that Joe Biden rebuilt the “Blue Wall” of Midwest industrial states this year and won over the white, working-class voters that powered Trump to the presidency in 2016. But Biden’s narrow victory in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania was made possible only by an historically high anti-Trump voter turnout, particularly among African Americans in cities. Working-class -whites from still struggling manufacturing towns and farm country doubled down on Trumpism, more excited than ever over Trump’s mix of economic nostalgia, nationalism and nativism.
Where residents of “old economy” communities in Michigan and elsewhere succeed in finding new economic purchase, their attitudes are different, as are outcomes at the ballot box. We’ve seen this in the Midwest swing states, where voters in newly revitalized former industrial communities—like Pittsburgh and Grand Rapids, Michigan—are exhibiting optimistic, forward-looking attitudes, and turning blue. I saw powerful trends away from nationalism and nostalgia in rebounding Rust Belt communities that supported moderate centrists both in the 2018 midterm elections and in this year’s results. The Biden administration and Congress must rebuild and spread the emerging new economy to more people and places in the American heartland. Only then will we heal our politics.
Sohrab Ahmari is op-ed editor of the New York Post and author of the forthcoming The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos.
For conservatives, the most acute lesson of the past four years was that corporate America—the owners of capital and the highly educated technocrats who serve them—isn’t on our side. More than that, corporate elites are actively aligned with the cultural and political left: an epochal realignment.
The shift was already apparent, in a latent way, during the Obama administration, but it became nakedly undeniable under President Donald Trump: from brands’ thorough adoption of the latest sex-and-gender dogmas; to sports leagues going woke (even as they looked the other way at their Chinese business partners’ hideous oppression of Muslims); to the way Silicon Valley dweebs living in some of America’s toniest neighborhoods turned against law enforcement. This is all very exciting for us on the right: How much more noble and worthwhile to stand with the working classes than to hanker for marginal tax cuts and trade deals!
Jonathan M. Metzl is professor of sociology; medicine, health and society; and psychiatry at Vanderbilt University and author of Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland.
The Trump era has taught this country about the always fragile and always tenuous nature of racial progress. It taught us that narratives of white racial resentment, and of white aggression masked as victimhood, persist and are too easily manipulated. It taught us that our inability to fully address the traumatic narratives of the past (wages of whiteness, the “color line”) or craft more equitable societies in the aftermath of crisis (e.g., Reconstruction) leave psychological fissures and structural inequities that open at times most urgent and least opportune. Trump’s America exposed our differences, and manipulated them. It taught us that, just as racism is structural, so too is white anxiety a structural feature of our racialized politics. As a result, if it is not continually guarded and protected, democracy can morph into fascism in the blink of an eye.
Ultimately, though, Trump’s America gives us a way forward. It taught us the vital importance of culling the collective power of our diversity in support of the greater good. Building networks and structures based on the common good in turn moves us closer to what economist Amartya Sen calls a “better society” that can emerge from moments of crisis—like an election held during a pandemic and a national reckoning with racism—that spark a renewed drive toward building shared and mutually beneficial communal infrastructures. National health care systems, reformed police, more vibrant food distribution networks, protected climates and closed wealth gaps. As Sen explains it, societies that react to moments of crisis by democratizing access to resources and seating the greatest number or shareholders around the decision-making table come out ahead in the long run. Those that fail to do so are not great again for a very long time.
Tom Frieden is president and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives, an initiative of Vital Strategies, and former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The country as a whole needs to do a much better job addressing the fundamental concerns that middle-class people have about the loss of jobs and of a sense of place and meaning in their lives. A symptom of not addressing these challenges is growth in support for ideologies that demonize other people and also increased “deaths of despair”—including the increase in suicide and the epidemic of drug overdose. Addressing these concerns will determine the future health and future prosperity in our country. If the United States doesn’t act to support all in society to have fair opportunities—to vote, to work, to get health care—we will continue to be a divided, unhealthy country.
Gustavo Arellano is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.
I don’t think this country has learned one bit from four years of Trump. The left will, as usual, bite off more than they should and allow the right to win again. The right, as always, will underestimate the anger that they stoke with their retrograde agenda and lose. This game has been going on since the days of the Federalists, and it will continue even as the country diversifies—and if you don’t believe me, talk to the Mexican Americans down in South Texas!
Michael Hendrix is director of state and local policy at the Manhattan Institute.
Even as America grew more polarized by geography and density over the past four years, culminating in the 2020 election with one of the greatest urban-rural partisan divides in our history, this country’s metropolitan areas have consolidated power to become the deciding factor in nearly every matter of national consequence. And no wonder: America’s 50 largest metros alone account for half the country’s population, more than half its votes and two-thirds of its economy. Even as population growth slowed in some core cities over the past four years, their surrounding suburbs still boomed, in many cases becoming large cities in their own right. And rather than fleeing to the countryside during the Covid-19 pandemic, people leaving big metros have mostly moved to other big metros, such as Atlanta, Austin, Nashville and Tampa.
The result? Today’s most pressing issues, from the pandemic to civil unrest and economic distress, are all playing out in our cities and suburbs. The Trump era saw mayors become national figures for tackling these local issues. Because urban areas account for a disproportionate share of the nation’s economy and population, their recovery fuels the rest of the country. We must identify barriers to and opportunities for growth—from addressing fiscal woes and onerous housing rules to restoring good quality of life and schooling—not only for the sake of urban dwellers, but for all Americans. As goes America’s metros, so goes our country.
Michael J. Glennon is professor of international law at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
For a lawyer, the stunning discovery has probably been the extent to which our “rock-solid” government has always rested not on laws or judicial opinions or even the Constitution but on unwritten social norms—and how quickly those social norms can be hacked away. John Adams was wrong: It’s not at all a “government of laws not men.” From the start, it’s been a government of people—people who imagined this grand, majestic juridical edifice we call law. Those imagined norms were built up over many decades, and it’s unlikely they can be resparked swiftly, which is why freedom is hard to get and easy to lose.
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a senior adviser at Akin Gump, represented South Florida in Congress for three decades.
These past four years have taught me that, when talking about politics, we must find a way forward that treats others with respect, even when we disagree strongly with them. What has happened to the cliché we would use when the differences in our opinions seemed insurmountable: “Let’s agree to disagree”? Now we think we must fight to the death, to cling stubbornly to our positions and cede no ground. On all sides of the political spectrum, we stick to our own views because to do otherwise would seem weak. It is not enough that I win. I must insist that you lose.
We have forgotten that we are all Americans. We all fundamentally want the same things: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. If we can have something in common with our Founding Fathers of 244 years ago, surely we have common ground now. Let’s look for it and stop assuming the worst of our neighbors because of their campaign yard signs. Let’s make a concerted effort to debate and disagree with others but to not berate them, belittle them or call them names. Enough. Basta ya.