We will one day tell our grandchildren stories about living through this era.
About how our country succumbed to electing someone who unapologetically spewed over 250,000 lies — including deadly ones around COVID-19. About a presidential election where a nonsensical lawyer claimed fraud with hair dye dripping down his face. We might tell tales about flirting with fascism and a party whose members mostly found themselves stuck between following the president’s fictional narratives and admitting the truth of reality.
Yet, there is this reality as well: President Trump attracted more than 70 million votes, the second most in history. Our grandchildren may quizzically ask how a president who earned the trifecta of being impeached, losing the popular vote and serving only one term — a hat trick that Trump alone holds — was able to hoodwink half the American people into believing that he was the answer to our deeply seated problems. How did we get here? What on earth happened?
Disclaimer: While I’m not a political analyst, I have a hunch.
When I listen to Trump supporters speaking about their allegiance to our president, they usually mention words about the economy, or being against socialism or something about law and order. But what they fail to mention is what I believe dwells beneath: their despair.
Donald Trump from the beginning connected with people’s despair. He had a knack for naming where Democrats failed to keep their promises, and capitalized on the feeling of abandonment within the working class. He claimed our country was being taken hostage by “nasty liberals” and used the mechanics of division to inflame our already fractured political landscape. It’s what authoritarian populists do quite skillfully: They know despairing emotions override the thinking brain 10 times out of 10. He knew they needed something else to believe in.
And let’s be honest here: the Democratic Party kept living in its own state of denial by believing it could speak the language of blue collar workers, minorities and immigrants while ignoring their real-life grievances. What used to be the party of the people and the working class has over the last several years abandoned them in exchange for the golden carrot of liberal elitism and corporate wealth.
So when an authoritarian populist promises to “drain the swamp,” it rings of good news to listeners whose hopes and patience have dried up. All of Trump’s shady transactions, porn star payoffs, 3 a.m. tweets, encouragement of white supremacist groups and so on does not matter to them. All that matters is that Trump noticed the despairing class and was able to side with them, speaking their language and using their despair for his political and personal advantages.
As fleeting jobs turned thriving communities into ghost towns, as the opioid epidemic ravaged rural areas, as decay set in for small businesses and infrastructures, our counties naturally became overeaters of despair.
Now enter someone who was skillfully able to tap into a victimhood mentality, blame others in contemptuous tones, sow distrust in the institutions that made them empty promises, all while lifting himself up as someone who pays attention to their ideological needs.
While the page has turned on electing a new president, and while the chaotic sideshow of the last four years is hopefully subverted, let’s be clear: The despair, contempt and resentment among half the country will not go away. And neither will Trump, whose authoritarian populism will grow stronger unless the new administration lifts up policies that better the lives of our despairing communities.
The Democratic Party must own how it has abandoned the working class by cozying up to corporate wealth. It must admit that its own racist policies are still damaging communities of color. The new Democratic Party must follow through on its promises if a new day is going to rise.
We the people will also be responsible. We will have to do something the GOP and Trump’s loyal base were unwilling to do for the last four years: Hold our leaders accountable to their words and actions. Then, and perhaps only then, will Trumpism dissipate in the wind.
With hope, one day when our grandchildren ask us about the moment things began to turn around, we can tell them: the day when we realized that we are far more than our despair.
The Rev. Jonathan Gaska is pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Winston-Salem.