Joe Biden and Kamala Harris scored a clear and decisive result at the top of the ticket. Down the ballot, though, Democrats saw the limitations of their “return to normalcy” message. The Senate majority, which some in the party believed it was poised to capture, will likely be decided by two difficult runoff elections in Georgia, while House Democrats saw their majority narrowed and state legislatures, thought to be on the brink of turning blue, remained in GOP hands.
“I am saddened by the fact that this election did not serve as a full repudiation of Trumpism,” said Andrew Yang, a businessman and CNN contributor who ran in the Democratic primary this year. “There is a real need to address the roots of Trumpism. … The temptation will be, now that Joe has defeated Trump, to say, ‘We are done with Trumpism, the fever has broken, and everything will be back to normal now.'”
The challenge ahead for Democratic politicians and the broad popular front of leftists, liberals, moderates, and centrists from both parties is a daunting one. The appeals that delivered Trump to the White House in 2016 and drove support for allied Republicans this year are the animating core of the Republican Party. Trumpism, a novel strain of right-wing populism, is poised to remain a powerful force in American politics — and the Democratic Party, caught now between relief and anxiety, has already begun a debate within its ranks over the path forward.
Voter turnout skyrocketed in 2020, but the assumption that a historic surge would propel a Democratic wave didn’t account for Trump’s ability to bring out more of his own supporters. And even as the contest began to slip away from him, leading Republicans — their eyes on 2024 — took turns on Fox News defending and promoting the President’s baseless lies alleging election fraud.
Their calculations were clear: to either move up or remain “relevant,” it is imperative to defend Trump at every pass — an acknowledgment that, even after he leaves office, the President will remain an influential figure in GOP politics. Republicans like Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah and Maryland Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who have been critical of Trump and urged the country to accept the election results, are outliers in their party. The influence of Fox News and the right-wing echo chamber is stronger than ever.
Mandela Barnes, the Democratic lieutenant governor of Wisconsin, looked at the election results and swiftly concluded they were “not a rejection” of Trumpism. Instead, he told CNN, “That sh*t was strengthened.”
“That is the scariest part of it, because there will be an adherent of Trumpism that is much smarter than he is, someone who is much more capable than he is,” Barnes said. “A capable person with the same polices would not have lost this election. And that is what is frightening.”
Barnes didn’t want to be too dour — “I am way more excited than I am stressed,” he said — but also called on Democrats to “approach the next two years as if we just lost this election.”
With Trump on the way out, he added, the party must embrace a relentless, aggressive push to change the environment that created a habitat for the President’s rise.
“I don’t want us to be like, ‘Oh yeah, we got it done here.’ Because that is what happened 12 years ago,” Barnes said, looking back on the complacency that followed Barack Obama’s first election. “And we got dealt a deadly dose of reality two years later.”
Former first lady Michelle Obama, in an Instagram post on Saturday thanking volunteers and congratulating the Biden and Harris families, painted a stark picture of the road ahead.
“Let’s remember that this is just a beginning. It’s a first step,” Obama wrote. “Voting in one election isn’t a magic wand, and neither is winning one. Let’s remember that tens of millions of people voted for the status quo, even when it meant supporting lies, hate, chaos, and division. We’ve got a lot of work to do to reach out to these folks in the years ahead and connect with them on what unites us.”
Understanding the fight ahead
The work of undoing the siren call of Trumpism will require, to begin, a deeper understanding of its appeal, said Jeff Goodwin, an New York University professor of sociology and expert on movement politics.
Goodwin described Trumpism as a “contradictory, unstable amalgam” of five key ideological pieces: Social Conservatism, as seen in Trump’s anti-abortion and anti-LGBT polices; Neoliberal Capitalism, characterized by tax cuts for the wealthy and deregulation; Economic Nationalism, which is not inherently right-wing, but can be steered that way, as Trump has; Nativism in the form of anti-immigrant rhetoric; and White Nationalism, underscored by the President’s refusal to disavow racist groups like the Proud Boys.
None of those elements are new to the American political scene, but rarely has any individual successfully married them together as Trump did during his ascent.
“A large part of Trumpism’s appeal is Trump’s personal appeal to a lot of people — as a celebrity, as a crass speaker of truth, as these people see him, someone who doesn’t mince words, someone who really tells it like it is. He’s figured things out, he’s a billionaire and he knows how the system works,” Goodwin said. “All these elements of Trump’s personality and character seem to have a lot of appeal to a big segment of the population. But I don’t know if there is Trumpism without Trump.”
Whether there is a politician or celebrity outsider who can harness the fervor in the way Trump did, at least for a few years, is another open question. The President, even after he leaves office, will retain his Twitter account — and with it, the potential to become a GOP kingmaker. Two of his sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, have already promised political retribution against Republicans who don’t promote their father’s lies about election fraud.
Biden and his team campaigned on the premise that Trump was, at his core, an aberration. The President-elect on Friday night, less than 12 hours before he claimed that title, pushed forward with a call for reconciliation.
“I want you to know that I’ll work as hard for those who voted against me as those who voted for me. That’s the job,” Biden said, his goal in sight. “We don’t have any more time to waste on partisan warfare.”
And yet, there is little expectation among rank-and-file Democrats that Trump-loyal, ambitious Republicans will take him up on the offer.
“I had hopes, for the benefit of this country, that we would see a wholesale rejection of what Donald Trump has represented,” said Danny O’Connor, the Franklin County Recorder in Ohio, who lost a bid for a House seat in 2018. “And we didn’t necessarily see that.”
Charting a path forward
The debate over how to attack Trumpism has already begun to play out inside the House Democratic caucus, which has been thrown into a tumult by unexpected losses that pared down its majority.
Virginia Rep. Abigail Spanberger lashed out in the aftermath, pointing fingers at progressives, suggesting that ambient talk of socialism and pointed criticism of the police successfully fueled GOP attacks on her and moderate, swing district colleagues.
Progressives have shot back, highlighting the popularity of their core agenda — like the $15 minimum wage, which passed as a ballot measure in Florida, where Biden fell short — and the decisive turnout that members like Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar and Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib helped deliver for Biden in their respective districts.
Sarah Groh, the chief of staff for Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley, told CNN that she believes that “the job description for Congress has changed in this moment” and that Democrats in the aftermath of Biden’s victory needed to “give flowers to the organizers that turned out” to lift Biden to victory.
But like so many others, especially in progressive circles, Groh was adamant that the work of cracking Trumpism’s grip on tens of millions of Americans would require more — and more ambitious action from Democrats in the months and years ahead.
“What I have heard is folks saying, Trump is a mirror, not an anomaly. And I think that rings true,” Groh said, arguing that the economic policies spelled out by Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, like a wealth tax and guaranteed universal health care, should serve as a beacon for Democrats trying to change the current dynamic. “We have the blueprint. What Warren and Sanders and others have laid out is we have folks that know how to get at these entrenched issues. And some of these are very straight forward, common sense policies.”
For more moderate Democrats, especially those in states like Ohio, where Trump won twice and voters seem to be moving away from the party, the message is broadly the same, even if the specific policy prescriptions are different.
“From an Ohio-centric view, it is easy to feel a little bit disappointed in the results,” O’Connor said. “From our perspective here, it shows that Democrats need to do a better job, from a wholesale image standpoint, of focusing on pocket book issues for people.”
But the legislative blockade a Republican-controlled Senate could impose complicates the matter and will further inflame intra-party tensions. Biden is by his nature a seeker of consensus, a trait hardened from decades in the Senate and reinforced during a winning presidential campaign. Where he draws a hard line, and on what issues he is willing to negotiate, will stoke recriminations from both ideological ends of the party.
Progressive activists are already digging in.
Justice Democrats, the group that launched Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s first campaign and, in 2020, was crucial in effectively doubling the progressive ranks of “the squad” with victories from Missouri’s Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman of New York, is poised to see their power grow in the next Congress. The “four people” that Speaker Nancy Pelosi dismissed in 2019 could now, especially within a shrinking majority, hold a veto on some legislation.
The group’s executive director, Alexandra Rojas, shrugged off suggestions that the progressive agenda and language of liberal activists was a drag on the party down the ballot.
“There’s been a lot of the divide-and-conquering of America around the lines of racial resentment and those attacks against socialism, against defunding the police, are not going to go away,” Rojas, a CNN contributor, said. The key to “mitigating” the Trumpist agenda, she argued, was not in simply launching big-spending campaigns but a rededication to Democrats’ “investing in year-round, deep canvassing, and the organizations that are regularly (talking to) their communities about issues that they care about.”
A base calling out for attention
Democrats must also contend with the reality that, despite their base of support in minority communities overwhelmingly backing Biden, Republicans for a third consecutive presidential election appear to have gained ground with Black voters. Mitt Romney in 2012 improved slightly on John McCain’s 2008 numbers and Trump in 2016 bettered Romney. Early exit polls in 2020 suggest that Trump continued the trend — which worries some leading Black organizers as they eye the battles ahead.
“These aren’t pro-Joe Biden rallies that you’re seeing. These are people who are committed to making sure that their votes and their voices are heard,” said Nicolas O’Rourke, the organizing director for Pennsylvania’s Working Families Party, from a street demonstration Friday in Philadelphia. “These are the folks who recognize fascism from the moment they saw it in Donald Trump. And are celebrating the stop of the march of fascism and an autocratic president right here in a Black and brown city.”
He issued a warning to Democrats who might attribute Biden’s victory to shifts in the suburbs or with White voters who defected from Trump this time around. His message: Know your base, deliver for it, or risk it peeling away even more in the years to come.
“You don’t start retreating to the middle. You don’t start abandoning the margins,” O’Rourke said. “You organize and you speak to them, you hear us, and you build power and you put forward plans and provide solutions and deliver on them for those folks.”
Across Pennsylvania, in the western part of the state, Trump continued to gain ground in predominantly White, rural communities, even as Biden turned a few bellwether counties and narrowed Trump’s margins from four years ago. The Commonwealth figures to be a battleground over the future of Trumpism in coming elections, including a Senate race in 2022 to fill retiring GOP Sen. Pat Toomey’s seat.
State Rep. Sara Innamorato, a democratic socialist whose district includes parts of Pittsburgh and northern Allegheny County, and overlaps with Rep. Conor Lamb’s congressional district, said Democrats could not defeat Trumpism without reconciling internal tensions over how to speak about race, class and the economy — a challenge that continues to bedevil the party.
“We can’t write off people who voted for Trump, like the White working class who very much need investment and need to live in communities that are safe and need jobs and need a family-sustaining wage and those entitlements,” Innamorato said. “That group also cannot be coddled and not be a part of the conversation around racism in America.”
She paused and laughed uneasily.
“But I have no idea how to do that.”