The results of the 2020 American Presidential Election left many overjoyed, relieved, and vindicated. While some may wonder if 2016 was a fluke, the political consciousness of the U.S. undeniably awoke when Donald Trump was elected President, and with that awakening came a disturbing look at the politics of a nation. The ensuing four years were exhausting for his supporters and detractors alike, a daily deluge of unthinkable actions followed by an even more ridiculous discourse to defend or condemn his behavior. It was all incredibly stupid but also vital to the survival of the republic, and all of us had moments where we smashed our collective heads against the wall in frustration and wondered how people we loved could feel so strongly about the Commander-in-Chief, often to the point of damaging lifelong relationships. It’s hard to say if it’s over, even with Trump being voted out there are a number of directions the next four years could take; if Trump decides to remain in the public eye we’ll almost certainly continue the exhaustion of the last half-decade with the soon-to-be former President acting as an immensely popular heckling troll with a base waiting with bated breath to see if he will run in 2024. Make no mistake about it, Donald Trump isn’t going anywhere, and while many have done their best to eschew his rise to power as a fluke-ish cult phenomenon, the real answer to who Trump is should worry all of us as we march toward a Biden administration promising to heal a divided nation.
Ink aplenty has been spilled dissecting the anatomy of Trump supporters, from profiles of everyday rural Iowans in the NY Times to deep psychological and sociological dives into how the reality TV star became so popular. These attempts to understand his ascension fail to even consider the idea that Trump did not change the Republican party, nor did he shift the thinking of millions of Americans, but he embodied the existing Republican party and all of it’s values. When John McCain passed, a viral video surfaced of the late senator correcting a woman at one of his rallies who called Barack Obama an Arab. McCain quickly grabbed the microphone back from his supporter and talked about how Obama was a good family man that happened to disagree with McCain on key issues. Many focused on McCain failing to shoot down the idea that Arabs were bad people, and that’s fair but also not half as important as the woman herself: she wasn’t an outlier, she represented the pulse of white voters whose lot in life was worsening drastically. Where McCain “failed” along with Mitt Romney was not understanding that islamophobia and racism were far more widespread among Republicans than they hoped, and instead of tapping into that fear they dissuaded it in the name of unity. That’s noble, but in modern Republican politics it’s a losing strategy to focus on tax law and defense budgets while far too much of the population is worried about where their next meal is coming from. Trump’s rise was fueled by exactly that, and whether he knew it or not, tapping into that fear and that desire for blame got him over the hump versus a far more qualified pool of candidates, some of whom he beat in the 2016 primaries. Trump was absolutely a cult of personality, but he did not win the presidency because of his lack of a filter, or his tweets, or his political outsider status, or even his business acumen. He won because he embodied a party that wants badly to be the small government, lower taxes party but can only win key elections as the bigotry party.
Republicans did not embrace Trump, Trump was simply a perfect fit for a party that was tired of being told their own problems were their own fault, and needed somebody who wasn’t rich to blame for it. Manufacturing job numbers haven’t budged at all in the last four years, yet his rust belt supporters remained and even strengthened. The Dow Jones has seen massive swings, and unemployment is at record numbers along with mental illness and climate-related disasters. Yet his supporters most negatively impacted by all of this have dug in and only shown more fervor for their president. This is not a party with morality, this is not a party with a way out, and this is not a party that can afford to change their politics. In the words of Dennis Green, “They are who we thought they were.” At some point we need to address why some of our family members will defend a rich politician with more vigor than their own loved ones, why many were upset with the media treatment of an incredibly privileged man with more power than anyone in centuries, and why despite leading a country that is far worse off now than it was four years ago, he still persuaded 70 million Americans to show up during a pandemic to cast their vote for Donald Trump.
These people are not necessarily stupid, but they are far too deep in to give up on their king now, and the same reason they were attracted to Trump from the outset is the same reason they went back to the polls for him in 2020, they’ve made up their minds that nothing is their fault. Trump is one of them, and his base feels that connection as strongly as he does. Watch one of his rallies, drive down a street in a red county, turn on Fox News, the deep-seated love for this man goes beyond a paycheck or policy, he’s conned tens of millions of people into joining him to fight a war against any and every entity that disagrees with them. It’s not baffling why his lies and misinformation haven’t changed his popularity, it’s perfectly sensible when you see Trump not as a politician serving the nation, but as a war general whose troops will lay down their morality and common sense to be part of something in a country that has largely abandoned them.
Many well-educated folks in media have come up with logical labyrinths to try and understand why this could be, and I’m here to tell you that it is, plain and simple, the bigotry. This was not a phase, this will not go away, and if Trump doesn’t come back to claim his throne in 2024, a more refined, somehow more cruel politician will step up to fill the shoes of the defeated Republican leader, and they will do so with the same scorched-earth populism without the needless mistakes that narrowly lost Trump the 2020 election. 70 million votes will not die off, and we need to stop acting as if they will. The people that showed up to threaten poll workers were not old, Dylan Roof was not old, nor was Kyle Rittenhouse, and nor will the next white supremacist that gets their hands on an AR-15. We’re in deep trouble, and while we spend the next four years recovering, we need to do serious work to change the heart of half of America’s electorate. With liberals lacking the eagerness to empathize with a group that has done everything in their power to spite them, and that same group unwavering in it’s mean-spirited, bigoted attitudes, the divisions in the country promise to only exacerbate, and the heart of the Republican party won’t become any less dark in the coming years while half the country hates their guts. Nobody has the answers to where we go from here, but it’s time we start asking the right, honest questions in our quest for healing.