Against Returning to NormalRoundup
tags: democracy, liberalism, inequality, Joe Biden, 2020 Election
David Austin Walsh is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia. He is currently writing a book on the relationship between the far right and the conservative movement in the United States in the twentieth century. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Dissent, among other publications, and he tweets @DavidAstinWalsh.
Last year Joe Biden began his presidential campaign with a simple premise: “I believe history will look back on four years of this president and all he embraces as an aberrant moment in time.” The question of whether Donald Trump really has been an aberration in U.S. history has dominated political discourse for years, and in the face of both Trump’s incessant antics and the upheavals of the pandemic, Biden positioned himself as the “return to normalcy” candidate. (Before 2020, that political rhetoric was perhaps most closely associated with the presidential campaign of Warren G. Harding a century ago.) Even though Biden himself has walked back some of this language on the campaign trail, it has served as the bedrock of his message. And it worked: it unseated an incumbent president for the first time in nearly three decades, even if with razor-thin margins in some states. But what do these claims of aberration and normalcy actually mean? The simplicity of messaging conceals a multiplicity of interpretations, each with their own implications for politics.
Take the aberration thesis first. Some observers focus on Trump’s personality. New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie, for instance, has wondered whether “there is anyone who can replicate Trumpism”—in particular, whether Trump’s “sui generis celebrity is his special sauce.” Certainly his personal charisma seems unique among high-profile Republicans today: it’s hard to imagine Tom Cotton, Josh Hawley, or Mike Pence working a crowd the same way, and his outsider past—in business and on TV, not in politics—certainly earned him a durable personal brand well before he was elected. But Trump is by no means the first outlandish celebrity to win high political office. There’s B-list movie actor Ronald Reagan, of course—though he also had a long career in Hollywood labor politics before running for governor of California—as well as his successor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Former professional wrestler Jesse Ventura ran a flamboyant and quirky campaign to win the 1998 Minnesota gubernatorial race on the Reform Party ticket. (Trump himself flirted with running for president as the Reform candidate in 2000.) Celebrity has often been a springboard to politics, particularly when it is tied to grossly exaggerated hypermasculinity.
Looking beyond charisma, Trump’s political message in 2016 was not particularly aberrant, either. For one thing, racism and xenophobia are tried and true national campaign strategies—and not just in the distant past. Pat Buchanan ran a similar campaign in 1992, telling reporters that he was “delighted to be proven right” by Trump’s victory four years ago. Nor is Trump’s penchant for conspiracy theorizing all that unusual. Birtherism was widespread among Republicans during Obama’s presidency, a sort of twenty-first-century analogue of John Birch Society conspiracy theories about Dwight Eisenhower being a secret communist. You do not have to agree with every argument in Richard Hofstadter’s famous essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” to acknowledge that the paranoid style really has been a constant in much of political life for a long while.
The truth is that a confluence of factors—slowing economic growth combined with a particularly weak Democratic candidate and racist backlash against the first African American president—helps to explain how Trump was first able to win the Republican Party nomination, then the presidency. And then there are the global trends: criticism of globalization, technocratic expertise, and well-educated elites has also succeeded in installing right-wing leaders in Brazil, India, Poland, and Hungary. Trump may seem to stand out as uniquely toxic, but he was in the right place at the right time for a political breakthrough.
If there is an aberration, then, it was not so much Trump himself, or even his political movement, but rather the inability of U.S. liberalism to offer a winning alternative. This failure strikes to the very core of Democratic political culture, which has prided itself on preventing the real extremists from taking power, on both the right and the left. When Ruth Bader Ginsberg called Trump an “aberration” last year, she also commented that “the pendulum goes too far to the right, it’s going to swing back. The same thing too far to the left.” To centrists, the political implications are obvious: now that liberal institutions have redeemed themselves, major reform is unnecessary—indeed must not be embraced, for fear of appearing too extreme. James Clyburn, the House minority whip, recently suggested that defund-the-police “sloganeering” cost the Democrats congressional seats. West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin blamed “socialism” for his party’s poor showing in the Senate races. The implication is clear: Democrats need to jettison—as Manchin called it—“a radical part of the so-called left.”
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