More than 200,000 lives lost in the United States, and counting. The worst economic downturn of the century. Armed gunmen invading state legislative sessions. Journalists beaten by police officers. Domestic terrorists coddled by cops. Protesters swooped up by unidentified police forces. A president whose campaign openly stokes chaos and violence while refusing to assure the American people that he would relinquish power should he lose the election.
This is the stuff of disaster movies: the apocalyptic unraveling of a nation nearing the brink, thrown into crisis after crisis while the very worst character imaginable sits in the Oval Office. As drama, it’s a story that should be concluding with a lopsided victory for the not-Trump candidate, yet the fact that there is even a remote possibility Donald Trump may win reelection is what turns this spectacle into horror.
True to the genre, as the bodies pile up, the specter of mistakes, oversights, and outright denial constitutes the cautionary tale of what not to do. The horror is not that its victims are without agency, but that they fail to exercise it responsibly.
The center-left in this 2020 sequel didn’t heed the clear lessons of its cataclysmic defeat in 2016. One would think that strategies to survive this do-over would disarm the racism and misogyny that launched the franchise, but this sequel’s band of would-be survivors seems to have learned little from the shocking origin story.
Much of our avoidance of the severe constraints that white supremacy and patriarchy impose on our “democratic” process comes from a fear that to engage injustice is to reinforce it—that to talk about racism is to be racist, and that to talk about sexism is to be sexist. But to concede that view is to lay down our analytic weapons, and provide an easy route for the horror to prevail again. The perfect storm of denial has gotten us to a point where this election is not the surefire refusal of neo-fascism that it should be. And this gradual unfolding of the story is what has me openly talking back to the unfolding drama on the national stage, as we still do in scary movies at my neighborhood Magic Johnson theater (when we’re not quarantined, I guess). Here’s my list of five features of the 2016 debacle that we should have prepared for, but didn’t.
1. The crisis in voter suppression is a mortal threat to American democracy; it should have been a cornerstone of Democratic mobilization.
Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by over two million votes, and without 80,000 votes split between Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, Trump would not be sitting in the White House. With such thin margins, it’s not surprising that vote suppression, discouragement, and denial—timeworn ploys lifted from the American history of totalitarian rule—became a go-to tactic wielded by Republicans after Obama’s 2008 election and deployed in red and battleground states. Marshaled by the Koch-funded American Legislative Exchange Council in numerous state legislatures, trumped-up allegations of voter fraud were weaponized to gut the electorate, creating rules that disproportionately excluded Democratic-leaning voters. (For a detailed review of the American right’s voter-suppression putsch, see David Daley’s “A Cancer on the Ballot.”) And as Republicans dug up this undying relic of Jim Crow, activists who sought to ring the alarm reported the Democratic-leaning establishment as unresponsive, ignoring its all-consuming stench. It was, they say, a discordant note in the praisesong of post-racialism.
In the 2013 decision Shelby County v. Holder, the U.S. Supreme Court jumped on the post-racial bandwagon, contending that voter turnout and activism measured during Obama’s presidential runs were strong enough to justify overlooking volumes of evidence of voter suppression in the states under the jurisdiction of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Pivoting on a core conception of color blindness that blithely ignores the histories and continuing inequalities of ballot access in many states, the complaints of unfair treatment that state election officials mounted in Shelby reflected the kinds of resentments for being held accountable for past sins that circulate among the purveyors of white racial grievance today. This fusion of racial grievance and post-racialism created a toxic brew, poisonous to the ongoing efforts to contest white supremacy and protective of the invidious status quo that the Voting Rights Act had tried to interrupt.
The deterioration of the right to vote should have prompted a massive media, judicial, and legislative campaign grounded in the celebratory narrative of American democracy. It’s a moral and political issue that might have been won. Instead, it has been an afterthought until now—a missed opportunity that favors Trump.
2. White racial grievance now underwrites a powerful cross-class political coalition, after commentators whitewashed it as a transactional campaign tactic.
The line that emerged almost immediately after the 2016 election was that the working class stood behind Trump because he felt their pain. This would have come as a surprise to the 98 percent of Black women who voted for Clinton, according to the Pew Research Center, as well as to other, disproportionately working-class voters of color who cast their vote for Clinton.
White racial grievance was cloaked with the aura of righteous indignation against the Democratic Party’s alleged fealty to identity politics—a vaporous claim that rendered the Clinton campaign’s simple name-checking of a diverse electorate as a dismissive message to struggling white voters that their plight didn’t matter. In this pundit fable, the excesses of identity politics prompted the working class’s rightward shift—a blunt repudiation of the snobbish designs of a “politically correct” liberal leadership.
In this distorted account of politics as culture-war-by-other-means, Trump’s racism never registered as an altogether more ominous harbinger of what was to come from stoking fear and resentment. Meanwhile, the racist dog whistle has become the neo-fascist bullhorn, and neither the left nor Democrats as a whole have a robust plan to counter the white supremacist messaging that draws so many to the Trumpian cult. Given Trump’s successful deployment of racism and fear to win the White House, resources should have poured into efforts to understand and interrupt the trajectory of white supremacy’s return to the center of American politics. But it wasn’t until George Floyd’s brutal murder that many individuals and organizations felt compelled to substantively attend in some way—rhetorically, financially, or otherwise—to the raw realities of white racial power that continue to stalk Black life.
3. We should have recognized, and confronted, the mounting threat of terrorism and extralegal violence on the right; now alt-right vigilantes are poised to be private enforcers for Trump.
White nationalist violence has been on the rise since Obama’s election, but efforts to sound the alarm have been met with politically driven attempts to change the subject. A Homeland Security report mapping the growth was withdrawn, and the office that produced it was disbanded. Conservatives claimed the report recklessly lumped legitimate politics together with violent threats, and progressives refused to muster a fight with the Obama administration about racist violence during the short reign of post-racialism.
Even as hate crimes spiked 17 percent in 2017 and incidents of physical violence have increased, Trump’s Republican Party focuses on the protests for Black lives and excuses police and vigilante violence against them.
Internal warfare experts such as David Kilcullen describe the present moment as a state of “incipient insurgency” in which counterprotests are becoming increasingly violent, arms sales are at an all-time high, and 24-hour news broadcasts amplify the support that elected officials and pundits have given to alleged killers such as Kyle Rittenhouse.
Despite the clear warning signs, our political mainstream’s notion is that “it can’t happen here.” This willful ignorance stems from our long-standing refusal to see the violent overthrow of Reconstruction governments, the systematic murdering of Black voters, and the century-long terror that kept an entire people under the heel of white tyranny as America’s own history of white dictatorship.
Even a cursory review of the history of racial terror in America reminds us that things could go very badly in November, a risk that grows in magnitude the more we deny the chilling resemblance to times past. There’s no closing our eyes in hopes that if we don’t see the threat, it will pass.
4. We’ve neglected the 2016 cycle’s toxic legacy of misogyny and sexism, which can wreak havoc again in 2020.
Not only did most left-leaning critiques of Clinton’s loss fail to mark structural racism as definitive; they also foregrounded surface-level critiques and ignored a host of sexist tropes that were marshaled against her. We have yet to reckon with the many ways in which those same tropes continue to harm other women in American politics, including Kamala Harris.
Trump’s “Crooked Hillary” caricature of his opponent was effective in part because it relied on the trope of the untrustworthy, lying, scheming woman. Rather than interrogating Trump’s attack on Clinton in light of this misogynist backdrop, the media honored it with earnest probes into every anti-Clinton accusation Trump made. The message in the coverage was clear: A man who had built a career out of false and inflated statements could stand as a credible accuser of his female opponent. We have yet to really begin exploring the political consequences of this credibility asymmetry in national campaigns—and center-left elites and activists have too often dismissed the issue as “playing the gender card.”
Perhaps the only thing less explored than gender in politics is its intersectional dimensions—another omission that may come back to bite. Democratic strategists speculate that Harris will help close the enthusiasm gap, especially among Black voters. Yet, some polls are showing that the level of overwhelming Black support that the ticket needs may not be as easily marshaled among Black men. Trump won 14 percent of the Black male vote against Clinton, according to Pew, and it’s not clear how much Trump’s record or Harris’s presence will change that. As of March 2020, he had an approval rating of more than 20 percent among Black males.
While gender gaps are a stable feature in electoral politics, intra-racial gender gaps in the face of a candidate who has routinely fueled his campaign with white supremacist rhetoric put into question whether anti-racist solidarity with a Black woman will trump strong-man attraction to the president. Even a modest gender effect among a subset of voters may be significant when the margins of victory are as small as they may be.
“For Democrats … the difference between good and great Black voter turnout is often dependent on how many Black men go to the polls,” according to one recent New York Times account by Astead W. Herndon. As Trump himself acknowledged after 2016, “Many Blacks didn’t go out to vote for Hillary ’cause they liked me. That was almost as good as getting the vote, you know, and it was great.”
And this doesn’t scratch the surface of the ways the combination of race and gender may be exploited by Republicans to suppress enthusiasm for Harris.
5. We must face down the right-wing putsch on the Supreme Court.
On September 18, the impossibly bad got far worse: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died of complications from pancreatic cancer. Like civil rights icons before her, Justice Ginsburg worked to wrest some legal victories from a historically oppressive institution. Her calls for justice, consistently thrashed by a conservative majority, seem a harbinger of the scenario that we’re running up against now: that a contested election will be decided by a Supreme Court dead set on a partisan, political directive. Over the past four decades, Democrats have had their lunch handed to them by right-wingers set on turning the judicial branch of our government into a strong arm of plutocratic, identitarian conservatism. And Democrats have been at a loss over all this time to mount any correspondingly impassioned resistance to this right-wing takeover. With a base that’s comparatively deactivated when it comes to a branch of government that can either enable or snuff out mass mobilization, we may find ourselves facing a court of no resort in the fight to save democracy.
Very much by contrast, Republicans have relentlessly pursued their aim of long-term ideological control of the judiciary. Ever since the Federalist Society’s founding in 1982, conservatives have worked unstintingly to monopolize a pivotal check on anti-majoritarian government run amok. In doing so, they’ve unleashed the darkest demons of American conservatism, and bolstered the white supremacist, patriarchal status quo at all costs.
The political asymmetry has meant that the Democrats have essentially been playing on the Republicans’ home court for decades. While right-wingers roll out a vast corps of doctrinaire, strict constructionist, textualist, and originalist nominees to the federal bench, Democrats have relinquished a compelling normative vision, satisfied in their search for the blandest technocratic legal mind they can find to appease a mythical center. Neither a Thurgood Marshall nor a Ruth Bader Ginsburg would likely be nominated by a Democrat today.
To say that liberals should have done more in the battle for the courts is a severe understatement—as witnessed by the party’s swift folding before McConnell’s successful bid to hijack Merrick Garland’s nomination during the past election cycle, on grounds directly counter to the rationale for Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination this time out.
If the ominous scenario that Republicans and Trump have arranged comes to pass—an electoral outcome made possible by a 6–3 Supreme Court decision—the Democrats’ resounding concession of power in the courts may well be the one that takes this country over the brink.
The too-long-invisible and intersecting oppressions of race, class, and gender have enabled a toxic pattern of avoidance and wishful thinking in the house of liberalism. There’s no way to confront our present crisis without taking full stock of the tactics of deferral and denial that have created crucial openings for the forces of racist and authoritarian reaction to take root. Unless and until we learn the hard lessons from our past, we risk falling over the proverbial cliff’s edge.
Frankly, I’m not sure that we’re not already over. But to refrain from pushing back—to bypass a last-ditch swing at the rocky terrain we’ve only let get more hazardous over the past four years—is to let ourselves free-fall into an abyss of unknown depth. America’s promise always resided in the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It has long been true, as Martin Luther King Jr. observed, that America has defaulted on that promissory note. But that doesn’t mean we don’t fight.