illustration by Ren Rader
I’m sure you’ve heard that this is the “most important election of our lifetime.” It’s an old cliché often thrown around by politicians and activists on both sides. We hear it every two years or so in hopes of driving voters to the polls, but one wonders how true it is. Fundamentally, all elections matter and have an impact, but presidential elections are particularly important. Think of 1968, 1980, 2000 and 2016. Each of these elections defined the politics of whole generations of people and shifted the paradigm by which our national politics operated. While this election is indeed important, and for far too many of us a matter of life and death, I’ve seen a lot of my fellow Democrats throw around this cliché and forget the bigger picture. This November, the possibility for a blowout win should not distract us from the long-term obstacles that the Democratic party will continue to struggle with.
The way I see it, even if Joe Biden puts an end to the long national nightmare that is the Trump presidency, we will still be confronted by a conservative movement enthralled with populist illiberalism and authoritarianism. Beating Trump will not be a cure-all for our problems, and we need to realize that. In 2016, Trump was not a fluke and benefited from a larger shift in our politics that goes beyond any one candidate. He represents a large constituency of voters who’ve now had a taste of power. Even though the GOP lacks a written platform for this election, Trump voters have an agenda and will continue to look for leaders who will deliver for them after Trump is gone. They are somewhere between the 43% of Americans who currently approve of and intend to vote for him and the nearly 63 million Americans who already did.
We’d be deluding ourselves if we thought things would return to some nostalgic sense of normalcy in a Biden administration. All things point to the fact that Trump filled a void left behind by Reaganism in the conservative movement. Therefore, Trump will likely go down as the first among many Trump-like figures yet to come. Over the next few years, we will see Republicans debate what truly defines Trumpism without Trump as a new generation of leaders, like Josh Hawley and Tom Cotton, seek to succeed him. Whoever ends up replacing Trump and what strand of conservatism comes out on top in his wake should be a concern for all of us. I know there are those who think that a Trumpian Republican is preferable because they’re “open about their racism” or they’re “easier to beat” for whatever reason, but that’s a bunch of malarkey.
We should all want Trumpism to be resoundingly rejected and relegated to the trash heap of history away from any national party platform. For those of us who have experienced first-hand the heightened bigotry and racism under Trump, we cannot go on while Trumpism is in control of the world’s fourth-largest political party. Moreover, for the sake of our democratic republic, we must concern ourselves with not only beating Trump but beating Trumpism. Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, famously said “a house divided cannot stand,” and like a house, our democracy cannot stand if one of the two major parties threatens our democracy. That’s why this liberal Democrat cares very much about who the Republican party nominates for President come 2024, 2028 and 2032.
In a future election, it is entirely possible for us to see a younger and more nuanced Trump-like figure reverse Biden’s gains among crucial groups like college-educated whites and suburbanites. I’m not convinced that the Democratic party has learned its lesson from 2016. We continue to ignore the facts and deny that there is a genuine Trump constituency out there with real and genuine concerns. As a party, we continue the same identity politics driven strategy that we used in 2016 and still lack an economic message that meets the moment and answers the real systemic issues that led millions of Americans to Trump. Unless we solve the real causes of Trumpism, we will continue to mean it when we say that “this is the most important election of our lifetime” every two years.