This week’s midterm elections were a boon for Democrats. Subverting a tradition in which the party in power loses a significant number of Congressional seats, Democrats retained power in the Senate and gave up fewer House districts than expected. For many pundits, this unexpected outcome — coming at a time when inflation is the highest it’s been in decades and the perception of rising crime has frightened people across the country — was a symbol of the repudiation of an increasingly right-wing, extremist party.
Many of the Republican candidates that fared poorly were Trump-like and Trump-endorsed, parroting his claims that the 2020 election was stolen and taking hard line stances on culture war issues. As a result, commentators and election strategists alike started considering how the Republican party might distance itself from Trump and become a more moderate, popular party. Ron DeSantis ’01 emerged as frontrunner for the 2024 nomination — a not quite as moderate as Mitt Romney but not quite as depraved as Trump, middleground candidate that could recapture the suburbs and win the Latino vote.
But now, Donald Trump is actually back. On Tuesday evening, he declared his candidacy for the 2024 election, which means we will once again see a racist, sexist and discriminatory campaign, now with openly-anti-democratic proclivities. His decision to run, and his presumed support from tens of millions of Americans, is emblematic of our country’s inability to fully reckon with its inhuman elements. It’s a signal that what we witnessed in the midterms was not a rejection of Trumpism, but rather a confirmation of stasis in our politics, what researchers John Sides, Chris Tausanovitch and Lynn Vaverick might call calcification. It reveals that we are stuck between two conceptions of America which are becoming more dissimilar by the moment. We are still engaged in a fight over what our country ought to stand for.
Since his election in 2016, a deluge of articles have been written about Trump, trying to psychoanalyze him, to explain his political strategy and to define the limits of his power. He was called derranged, cunning, idiotic, genius, reckless, calculating, devious and charismatic. Every ill was attributed to him, every failing of American institutions made his misdeed. He became the catchall for the problems that faced our country, and because of that, the conditions that allowed him to obtain power went under-interrogated. Sure, there were articles written exploring the lives and logic of Trump voters, but not as many about the legacy of grievance politics that Trump tapped into to win power. Sure, the death of George Floyd sparked a reckoning over those grievance politics, and American racism more broadly, but that reckoning was deemed complete with the election of Joe Biden later that year. For those four years, we focused on Trump the man and not what he represented. We collapsed the fight over American values into the fight against Trump, and in doing so we evaded tougher conversations about justice and equality. I fear we may be doing that again.
Elites are summarily rejecting Trump this time around — those on the right are plainly saying that he is unfit to run for president, and those on the left are brushing of the arguments they shelved in 2020. But I don’t think that matters. 6 in 10 Republicans still view Trump warmly, and though the former president’s favorability rating is low, it is still within 2 percentage points of President Biden’s approval rating. Trumpy candidates may have lost several races this election cycle, but many of them did so by narrow margins. That’s the funny thing about the US — we never seem to escape our ghosts.
If we continue ignoring the undercurrent of prejudice and resentment that props up politicians like Donald Trump, we won’t fully resolve the current schism in American politics. We’ll never fully reject the politics that Trump represents, even if his reelection bid fails. What scares me, though, is that Democrats will probably still see Trump as a boogeyman to win power, while avoiding addressing the issues that allowed him to come to power in the first place.
Yes, Trump is back in the political arena, but it should come as no surprise. Not because he refused to concede the 2020 election. Not because he hung around in the shadows of the Republican Party after his electoral defeat. Because America never fully dealt with Trumpism. Until we do, candidates like him will remain relevant, threaten democracy and undermine justice.