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How Trump Won

He failed as an autocrat, despite opponents’ overblown fears, but succeeded in breaking the neoliberal consensus of the Beltway. We ignore that at our peril.
President Trump addressing a MAGA rally, 2020

Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

President Trump addressing a MAGA rally, Washington, Michigan, November 1, 2020

With Donald Trump’s electoral loss, the great evasion begins. To put an era of horror and recrimination behind, and embrace a restoration of business as usual, is an inevitable temptation. After the celebration and self-congratulation end, there may be a few fixes to hem in a future leader as openly corrupt as Trump—but not to deal with the larger corruptions his rise presupposed. Or the mixture of opportunity and threat for the future his passing leaves behind.

The close vote that polls once again failed to predict means that no one will forget the electoral forces that Trump conjured, and that candidates will attempt to summon—if not Trump himself in 2024, then other politicians on both sides of the aisle. And Trump’s near-miss, in spite of years of delegitimation and dismissal in mainstream circles, also gives a second lease on life to frameworks and rhetoric that cast America as tottering on the brink of fascism and tyranny. That Trump is leaving the stage not with a bang but a whimper, rather uncharacteristic of foreign despots and madmen of the past, will not matter. Nor will many face the fact that his presidency turned out utterly different to what so many worried it would be, with many lessons to learn about how to counteract the return of the novelty Trump represents in American life.

For Trump, who transmogrified old American pathologies into a new kind of political ascendancy, made most difference where his bitterest enemies were not looking. He was often blocked, or was not interested in treading where they feared, even before his parodic attempt to steal the election that did not even get off the ground. But Trump accelerated the search for a credible policy framework after neoliberalism, even as he swept his declared foes into a new cold war with China that America and the world will now find it very hard to avoid pursuing. For Americans who would like nothing more than to put the charlatan and hatemonger behind them, Trump was both the mirror and the lamp.

Trump initially prevailed in America’s version of democracy because his own strange cunning and that of his advisers allowed him to seize an opportunity that the mainstream of both American political parties had wrapped up with a bow. Decades of failed policy that ravaged America—from devastating economics without a social safety net at home to ruinous wars abroad—were glaring to everyone immune to Beltway self-deception. That Trump chose to buck up his presidency by currying favor with a white nationalist rump does not excuse the Republicans he beat in 2016 for their prior mistakes. Nor does it magically erase Democrats’ policy collusion with them over forty years of economic neoliberalism and endless war.

In office, Trump smashed norm after norm. The truth was, however, that he was successful in exerting dangerous power mainly in two domains. One was when he was fulfilling the long-term Republican agenda of lowering taxes for the rich and stocking the courts with reactionary judges. The other was when he operated in two areas of presidential authority long since rendered untrammeled by Democrats and Republicans alike: immigration policy and national defense.

Otherwise, what was most remarkable was how flimsy Trump’s presidency was, how easily he was obstructed and stalled. From before it began, there is no denying that it elicited more powerful subversion that any bureaucracy and media have ever exerted against a president in history. It turned out that traditional checks, for all their limitations, were not much eroded. (This is different from saying the American system was automatically resilient, or is exempt from dysfunction by its exceptionalism, or is in no need of improvement.) Trump did not succeed in shutting down Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation or quashing his report, and he was a remarkable failure in owning the courts he stocked (his administration lost 83 percent of regulatory challenges, a spectacularly poor record).

And novel checks were invented. Many of Trump’s authoritarian feints were the desperate measures of a man expecting to be the most powerful in the world but reduced to one who could rarely rely for help in achieving his erratic designs—including from his own servants. Trump cleared Lafayette Square near the White House for a photo-op, only to elicit the most extraordinary distancing by, even insubordination from, national security officials since Douglas MacArthur’s defiance of Harry S. Truman during the Korean War. Trump set up a frightening paramilitary force to clear the streets of Portland, Oregon, then removed it in response to popular outcry. Before and after Election Day, he contested the use of mail-in ballots, which not only Democratic but also Republican politicians supported, even as judges—including ones Trump had appointed—turned back challenges to them. He got the Supreme Court to help launder a travel ban, and enforced a pitiless border regime, but the reason for these “successes” is a long-term presidential supremacy that American executives have long enjoyed.

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Most often, Trump failed to pick up the weapons of executive authority prior generations forged for him, and neither started new hot wars nor seized the autocratic opportunities of the pandemic. American democracy was never under systemic threat from so fickle and hamstrung a wannabe authoritarian; but he did inadvertently make millions of people more aware of the systemic limitations of the country’s institutions. American democracy did not come close to dying, yet Trump brought home to more Americans than ever how barely it exists in the first place.

Blocked institutionally on so many fronts, Trump nonetheless scored his most extraordinary victory imaginatively—by inhabiting every crevice of his audience’s consciousness, pursuing them even in their nightmares, and eliciting from them their own share of norm-busting. The consequences were, in part, the obstacles and obstructions placed in the way of his haphazard and ineffectual policymaking. But it is hard to argue that every last bit of Trump’s occupation of the political imagination—an extraordinarily compliant act by those who feigned resistance to him—was required to incite the right response in the right amount. No president has ever combined so much institutional weakness with such imaginative romp.

In case after case, Trump’s mainstream opponents directed their ire more censoriously against policies in which Trump was simpler to forestall, while ignoring ones in which he was making substantial transformations. He controlled and owned them, luring them into drastic mistakes of principle and strategy, like their over-investment in the Mueller Report and the diversion of impeachment. But beyond any specific reaction, what was remarkable was how far Trump created a vast audience in the mainstream media and social media that made a life of hating him, while ignoring the causes of his reign in which they had participated, and the real alterations in American policy he was making, even as they were locked in embrace with him.

What has differed in real terms over four years is the shape of the debate about the American past and future. Closing the false “end of history” in 1989 and opening a new epoch, Trump oversaw a total renovation of our sense of where we stand and what Americans might do in response. His successful work to advance neoliberalism—whatever his protests against it—and stock the courts, especially the highest one, were by no means new as a program. But he took them so far that suddenly both were revealed as fronts on which the American future will be determined. Neoliberalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy are long-term features of American life, but never has opposition to them been as popular in the last half-century as now.

The irony that Trump did more to advance neoliberal policies than arrest them—even in trade, where he promised to end them—cannot distract from the imaginative reset he achieved concerning their legitimacy. No better evidence exists than victorious Democratic Party politician Joe Biden’s campaign promises to make American manufacturing great again, which almost read as if Trump’s disgraced former adviser Stephen Bannon had drafted them. True, Biden could brag that he helped save the automobile industry in 2009, and his successor as Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, had already given up support of the East Asian trade deal under pressure from the Trump campaign in 2016. But nothing like Biden’s current promise to restore the cold war political economy, in which America made things, could have been imagined until Trump came along.

Of course, it is not credible that America can revive its “greatness” through a manufacturing strategy. But this hardly means that neoliberalism can easily return as an open policy orthodoxy under Biden, which is why Trump’s ultimate legacy is to have created a portal for all comers to search for alternatives beyond it, whether a right-wing nationalist one or a progressive internationalist refusal to reduce its creed to free trade and offshoring. The presidency’s most disturbing effect, abetted by how close the election was, is to have opened an even bigger opportunity for Republican Party to become the working-class party that the Democrats once were, before becoming so market-friendly themselves. That the Democrats will dither in pursuing a class agenda means the Republicans may well get there first.

Trump also crystallized a coming cold war with China, as a bequest even more certain than the search for an economic alternative to neoliberalism that both parties will continue to treat as a rhetorical focus more than a real necessity. Many analogies have been sought for him in the American past, but the most plausible for Trump may turn out to be Truman. Much as in the cold war Truman launched, Trump initiated a geopolitical struggle that Democrats may end up pursuing with at least as much enthusiasm as their Republican foes. We will slowly forget, for this reason, that—like his immediate predecessor—Trump came to office promising to end wars, and even tried to draw some down, over the protests of his staff, while escalating the shadow campaign against terrorism and preparing a new era of trans-Pacific confrontation.

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The opportunity Trump crystallized to replace neoliberalism remains open for the moment. Trump’s potential legacy for a future of American peace will probably prove even more evanescent. But compared with both feints, his initiation of a new geopolitical struggle will eclipse and outlive any of his other contributions to world history.

The window of opportunity Trump saw in 2016 will not close by itself. The undercutting of elites in both political parties after decades of domestic and foreign policy failures remains unaddressed. Obama memorably said, in the face of adoring and ebullient crowds in Chicago’s Grant Park the night he was first elected in 2008, that his victory “was not the change we seek, only the chance to make that change.” How much more that applies to Biden’s win, as Obama’s belated successor is now set take the reins of a declining superpower. In the haze of gratitude and relief, we are likely to miss the chance to find the path beyond neoliberalism we glimpsed thanks to Trump, in favor of a new cold war he opened.

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