The doleful lesson of Trump’s mad flitting and strutting on the Washington stage is that it can happen here. Our democracy’s antibodies against demagogues, con artists and conspiracy mongers evidently are weaker than we supposed.

Photo from CNBC.

by Will Marshall, PPI President

If Joe Biden defeats Donald Trump this week, it will begin to repair our country’s badly tarnished image around the world. An even tougher challenge will be reviving Americans’ confidence in their long-running democratic experiment.

Most countries are bound together by ethnicity, language and religion. What makes America exceptional is that it was founded on a set of propositions favoring individual liberty and equality, and the right of self-government. The 2020 election is a test of whether these liberal ideas still hold sway, or whether Trump’s virulent brand of white identity politics and illiberal nationalism will prevail.

A Biden victory naturally will reassure his supporters, who have watched aghast as Trump pollutes public discourse with lies, stokes social conflict and uses the U.S. government to further his political and business interests. But as president, Biden also would need to grapple with the radical alienation that has led white working class voters to entrust the nation’s highest office to a showman with zero political experience.

Central to Biden’s appeal is his promise to unite Americans across a continental red-blue divide. That’s a tall order. The populist right is addicted to its hatreds, and its enemies list is long: the media, liberals, Democrats, globalists, immigrants, black activists, and the “deep state.” The “woke” left likewise seems primed for political retribution, not reconciliation.

Nonetheless, if he wins Biden should take his cue from Abraham Lincoln’s message of magnaminity to the vanquished South. By virtue of his humble origins, pragmatism and empathy, Biden would be uniquely qualified to reach out to working class voters with a message of respect and hope.

Their choice of Trump has been likened to raising a middle finger to a despised governing class. OK, message received.

But what a stiff price we’ve all paid for that angry gesture! After four excruciating years of Trump-generated chaos and conflict, America is diminished in every way. No country has bungled the coronavirus pandemic as badly as ours. Major parts of our economy remain frozen and our society is seething with civil strife. Our standing in the world has sunk low, to the dismay of traditional friends and delight of foreign despots.

The doleful lesson of Trump’s mad flitting and strutting on the Washington stage is that it can happen here. Our democracy’s antibodies against demagogues, con artists and conspiracy mongers evidently are weaker than we supposed.

Having worked in national politics and public policy most of my adult life, I’ve taken the structural integrity of our political system for granted. However convulsive our struggles for civic equality and political power might become, they always seemed bounded by a broad and sturdy consensus around our founding political beliefs.

Trump’s election, however, suggests that consensus may be coming unglued. He’s not moved by abstractions about individual liberty and equality, checks and balances, respect for minority rights, civil and reasoned debate, or a free press. In politics as in business, Trump follows the Lombardi Rule — winning is all that matters.

Although he is chief magistrate of the world’s foremost democracy, Trump evinces no sympathy for pro-democracy activists in repressive states like Belarus and Russia or brutal human rights abuses in friendly countries like Egypt or Saudi Arabia. He has assured Xi Jinping he won’t squawk about China’s horrific ethnic cleansing campaign against the Uighurs. The world’s dictators applaud, because Trump’s conduct vindicates what they’ve told their people: America’s professed devotion to liberal democracy has never been anything more than for a fig leaf for naked self-interest.

As odious as he is, however, it’s a mistake to focus too much on Trump. He’s a human shillelagh wielded by white conservatives in a tribal revolt against what America is becoming — a multi-hued, ethnically diverse, gender-equal, secular and socially liberal society.

This revolt is fed by two streams. One is conservative Christians, who have been steadily losing their culture war against abortion, gay rights and marriage and the secularization of public life. The other is the white working class, which is shrinking as a share of the population and the electorate. These voters feel culturally eclipsed by minorities and immigrants, and economically dispossessed by deindustrialization, the shift to knowledge work and a new class divide between those with and without college degrees.

It’s not hard to understand Trump’s appeal to these voters. They adore him because of his defiantly transgressive behavior, not in spite of it. He’s not a “typical politician,” he doesn’t listen to experts and elites, he’s not afraid to say anything or offend anyone, and he loves to troll the “liberal media.”

Trump’s impersonation of a U.S. president may be entertaining, in the same tawdry way that pro wrestling and midway freak shows are entertaining. But it also subverts what has really made America great — setting up and sustaining the world’s longest experiment in democratic self-rule. Government isn’t a reality show or spectator sport, it’s how Americans tackle common problems and promote the general welfare. Democracy only works if citizens take care to choose their representatives wisely, no matter how pissed off they may be.

Anyone with eyes to see knows that Trump has amply demonstrated his lack of leadership skills and governing competence over the past four years. That around 46 percent of my fellow citizens are prepared to make the same mistake twice is profoundly unsettling. It’s like tossing the car keys to your drunken teenage son on Saturday night.

A thumping Biden victory would force Republicans to confront the reality that they are headed for permanent minority status if they don’t disenthrall their party from Trump, white cultural resentment and illiberal populism. Losing the White House and maybe the Senate too could be just the shock the party needs to cast a wider net and frame new appeals to suburban women, blacks and Hispanics and young voters.

That would make for a healthier partisan competition organized around two heterogeneous political parties that cut across the divides of age, race, gender, and education, instead of just one. It would also weaken the sectarian forces on both sides that demand ideological purity, making both parties less susceptible to extremism.

Biden could reinforce this counter-polarizing dynamic in his own party by avoiding the temptations of political payback and emphasizing at the outset his ambitious offer of “a new deal” for all working class Americans regardless of race, creed or color. It includes a massive domestic rebuilding project centered on public works and clean energy manufacturing. A national commitment to making America, not China, the world’s leading producer of electric cars and trucks could bring high-wage manufacturing jobs back to America’s industrial heartland.

Biden has promised to govern for “everyone who voted for me, as well as against me.” It will take every bit of his fabled empathy, but that’s the way to help all Americans recover their faith in democratic self-government.

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