President Donald Trump is on his way out of the White House, but not much else seems as certain. If anything, 2020 will be remembered as a year that blurred the lines between fact and fantasy more than any other — and it could be a bipartisan trend.
Sixty-one percent of Americans say they trust the results of the November elections, including two-thirds of independents, according to a November NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, but only 24% of Republicans — compared with 95% of Democrats — believe Democrat Joe Biden won.
Of course, skepticism is hardly limited to one party. For example, a lot of people in both parties questioned the eyelash-close 2000 presidential election, too.
But I’m hard-pressed to find a previous election in which the president so actively has tried to gaslight the public — and had so many of his core supporters play along with it. More than a month after Biden was declared president-elect, Trump continues to allege “widespread voter backlash fraud” without evidence and claim the outcome is still up in the air — even after numerous losses in courts all the way up to the Supremes.
“We’re going to have to see who the next administration is because we won in the swing states,” Trump said earlier this month. No, he didn’t. Yet 62% of Republicans in the poll agreed with his refusal to formally concede.
Such withdrawals from reality no longer shock me, partly because the forces of solidarity among Trump supporters have been strong enough to be labeled a cult — sometimes enviously — by his critics.
Don’t get me wrong (although some undoubtedly will). I’m not here to bash the Grand Old Party’s voters for their earnest choices. Trump’s support from well over 80% of GOP voters is nothing for anyone who believes in our republic’s democracy to demean.
I’ve talked with and listened to enough Republicans to know that many are like a lot of progressive voters I know who held their noses while voting for Biden: Trump’s not their dream candidate, but he’s closer than what the other party is offering.
But I also have to agree with Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, who recently told the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson, “If there’s one thing I think the mainstream press still gets wrong about Trump, it’s that they are comfortable talking about economics and personality, but they don’t give a primacy to feelings.” To understand the GOP’s future, she said, “we have to act like political psychiatrists.”
She’s talking about the politics of feelings and emotions. Journalists often undervalue feelings because they’re hard to measure objectively. But I always keep in mind Maya Angelou’s famous line about how people might forget what you say but they’ll always remember how you made them feel. That’s particularly true of voters.
Trump often distracts from his own charismatic gifts with his acidic attacks at liberals, the media and uncomfortable facts. Like Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama, though, he knows how to touch the hearts of those who are most eager to believe his message.
Where I run into trouble is with his reluctance or outright refusal to repudiate extremist movements such as QAnon or the Proud Boys, among others, as long as they express support for him. As I have said about extreme left-progressive groups as well, sometimes tribal loyalties ask too much.
With Trump’s loss then, what happens to Trumpism? The answer requires an understanding of what Trumpism really is — a combination of realpolitik worthy of Machiavelli and the mix of ideals and fantasy that Joan Didion called “dreampolitik” in “The White Album,” her book of essays about 1960s culture.
I have no doubt that Trumpism as a mix of hard realities and tantalizing populist dreams will outlast Trump, regardless of who is at the wheel of that bus. Democrats face similar prospects in negotiating their own divide between moderates and progressives.
The larger question to me is whether we Americans can pull our politics back to the real world from fantasy while some of us can still tell the difference.