A common refrain among blue voters in the closing days of the 2020 election has been that “democracy is on the ballot.” From the beginning of Joe Biden’s run, it was understood that he served less as the leader of a political movement and more as the avatar of stability, the man who would reinstate our tarnished norms of government. For once, it was to a candidate’s advantage to be a Washington insider; who else would be able to put the pieces back together?
Trump became the victim of the same nostalgic delusion that propelled him to the White House. If “Make America Great Again” was a promise to turn the clock back to the 1950s, Biden has people fantasizing about a future in which we act like the last four years were an extended collective coma. Should he win, we’ll actually awake to a country still economically ravaged, plagued by a disease and all its corollaries, owned by the ultra-wealthy, increasingly affected by climate change and policed and organized according to racist principles. Those issues would be trouble enough, but whatever happens to Trump himself in the event of a loss, Biden et al will also have to contend with the antidemocratic minority that has vocally encouraged the GOP to jail journalists, crush protests, put migrants in concentration camps and embrace white supremacists as part of the coalition. Trump’s approval rating has held steady at 40ish percent through one calamity after another; this slice of the electorate has absolutely dug its heels in.
In this past week, I’ve started to see Trump’s virus-spreading rallies and the truck parades — including one I witnessed in person, in Beverly Hills — as a fond farewell to something that, for these people, was too good to last: a guy who casually spouted their most hateful and toxic ideas in the seat of power. Sure, they’ll profess confidence in another Red Wave this time around, but I think, deep down, they’ve gotten used to the idea of Trump as a one-term president, whether ousted by the Deep State or mail ballot fraud or any other nefarious scheme. These gatherings are maybe a celebration of the time they had on top, and a reminder that they won’t simply disappear with a Biden win. Unlike ordinary protests, they are characterized by noise without message — the blaring horns of Ford F-150s, the irrelevant chants of “LeBron James sucks!” — as though being loud is the point. Indeed, for a minority, it’s essential.
Regardless of the memes calling for Trump’s third and fourth terms, he was never going to become the god-emperor that so many of his supporters wanted. Which is also why they couldn’t be entirely satisfied by his tenure in office — not unless all their enemies were destroyed, and contemporary liberalism was left a smoking crater. But his real gift to them, and his probable legacy, is how he cracked the dam of neocon civility and euphemism so they could flood the landscape with genuine emotion instead of dry talking points. Suddenly, it was permissible for older, whiter, more rural and less educated voters to explain their ideology in terms of grievance, revenge and a callous belief that only their problems mattered.
Hard as it is to predict the course of the coming weeks and months, we know this: They aren’t giving up that freedom of expression, and they won’t be shoved back into a closet. Republicans will have to court them to retain influence, and they will obstruct or harass anyone who fails in that deference. Their squawking demonstrations will always be protected by sympathetic cops.
The violent extremism of Trump and MAGA nation has arguably solidified the majority it stands against: More Americans now see diversity as a strength, immigrants as essential and a need for racial justice. The electorate is overwhelmingly in favor of leftist proposals like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, while its confidence in the police has hit a record low, and nearly everyone thinks it’s time for serious criminal justice reform.
The minority has clamored to be heard and seen amid these irreversible trends, and they’ve succeeded through their symbiosis with the enabler-in-chief as well as a certain fascist zeal — the guns, the tactical gear, the camo or khaki-and-polo uniform, the flags, the domestic terror attacks and genocidal language. We hear a lot about how Trump’s judicial appointees have reshaped the U.S. already, though not much about the permanent activation of his base, and where they might end up after the final attempts at fake news and voter intimidation fall short. Do they start treating their man like the president in exile? Agitate for a 2024 comeback? Succumb to further radicalization?
If you want proof that this contingent won’t quietly fade away should Biden lock up the Electoral College, look no further than the stories of Trump loyalists traveling great distances and waiting hours to see his events, only to be abandoned on frigid airfields, with no shuttles to take them back to their own vehicles, often parked miles away. Older and disabled attendees have especially suffered in these harsh conditions. The pattern of abandonment has been taken as a metaphor of Trump’s disregard and even contempt for his voters, though I tend to reverse the lesson: They refuse to abandon him.
He keeps stranding people in the middle of nowhere, and the next night, more show up to be abused the same exact way, theoretically aware that their hero has made it standard protocol to fuck them over. And they’ll still vote for him, of course. Many have already sacrificed family and friendships to be there. It’s too late to turn around.
When Trump vacates the Oval Office, they’ll have nothing left to lose — except unswerving faith in the worldview that put him there. Don’t be surprised if they hang onto that for years to come.