By Eddie Wong
When the networks declared Biden the winner in Pennsylvania giving him the 270 electoral college votes needed to become President-elect, joyous crowds danced in the streets. For nearly four years, we suffered on a daily basis as Trump trampled upon civil rights, cancelled international agreements on climate change, and rejected scientific recommendations on the pandemic. We had to get rid of this idiot and we did it. We dumped a bully, racist, misogynist, and xenophobe from office. So why am I still feeling bad?
Like many of you, I wanted a Blue Wave which like The Resistance in Star Wars would blow up the Death Star delivering a triumphant victory. That didn’t happen and we are left with Mitch McConnell in control of the U.S. Senate. Democrats have one narrow and uphill path to replace McConnell via a Ossoff and Warnock victory on January 5, 2021 in Georgia.
We’ll take this victory, but the sobering reality is that one person’s asshole is another person’s angel. Over 74 million people voted for Trump, preferring an authoritarian narcissist to lead the nation. Trump won 11 million more votes than he received in 2016. My first reaction was what the fuck is wrong with these people? Then it hits you that we truly live in a racist nation and though liberals reign on both coasts, conservatives dominate in a sea of red from the northern plains to the deep South. According to The Cook Political Report (Dec. 14, 2018) Trump’s solid base is estimated to between 28% to 35% of the American people. Removing Trump from office does not diminish this bloc from being an obstacle to progressive social change as conservatives retain control of many state legislatures.
Where do we go from here? How can we blunt the rightwing forces?
The Good, Bad and Ugly from the Biden/Trump contest
The best thing about the 2020 elections was the progressive activism. Millions of people participated in protests from the Women’s Marches to the Sunrise Movement to the George Floyd/Breonna Taylor protests. Many of them joined the organizing efforts such as Indivisible, Swing Left, Movement for Black Lives, Seed the Vote, Working Families Party, and many others to register voters and turn out the vote in the midst of a pandemic. The center/left coalition worked hard to achieve 81 million votes for Biden/Harris, which was seven million more votes than Trump.
This was a remarkable achievement, but it did not result in the much hoped for Blue Wave. The election was more of a referendum on Trump than a victory for the moderate Democratic message as people elected Republicans to the U.S. Senate and in some cases like Orange County, California put the GOP back in three Congressional seats.
There were several notable trends that portend well for progressive victories in the future.
Campaign workers in Georgia. Photo by Richard Hall/The Independent
First, the ease of voting by mail and the high stakes in the election propelled a 66.5% turnout of eligible voters. Thus, states with a high number of Democratic voters boosted the popular vote for Biden/Harris tremendously, e.g., 11 million votes for Biden/Harris in California, over 5 million votes for Biden/Harris in Texas (even though Trump carried Texas), and over 5 million Biden/Harris votes in New York. Republicans have not won the popular vote in a presidential election since George Bush beat Democrat John Kerry by three million votes in 2004. With the Republican Party dominated by Trump and increased Democratic voter turnout, a GOP candidate will have a difficult time winning the popular vote.
Second, racial and ethnic minorities moved up to 35% of the electorate from 30% in 2016. Always a bastion of support for the Democrats, African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans and Native Americans supported Biden/Harris with 87%, 65%, 61%, and 55% respectively according to the preliminary exit polls. (Note: Native Americans are lumped into the “others” group.)
In a few states, Asian American and Native American voters, although a small portion of the electorate, were critical to the Biden/Harris victory. In Georgia, Asian American voter turnout increased 91% boosting them to nearly 5% of the electorate. It is estimated that a majority of Asian American voters supported Biden, who won Georgia with less than 1% (14,00 votes). In Nevada, Biden won with 33,596 votes (2.4% margin). Asian Americans are 11% of the electorate and exit polls revealed 58% of them supported Biden vs 40% for Trump. In Arizona, Native Americans voted 80% for Biden giving him 55,000 more votes than Clinton received in tribal areas in 2016. Biden only won Arizona by 10,467 votes.
Third, the youth vote increased from 16% of the total voters in 2016 to 17% in 2020. This was a slight increase, but it went 61% for Biden/Harris nationally. In several swing states, the youth vote boosted Biden/Harris in narrow victories. Lastly, young voters of color supported Biden/Harris at significantly high levels, e.g., African American youth at 87%, Asian American youth at 83%, and Latino youth at 73%.
The importance of minorities and youth becoming an increased share of the electorate was underscored by Ford Fessenden and Lazaro Gamio (“The Relentless Shrinking of Trump’s Base,” NY Times, Oct. 20, 2020): The number of voting-age white Americans without college degrees has dropped by more than five million in the past four years, while the number of minority voters and college-educated white voters has collectively increased by more than 13 million in the same period. In key swing states, the changes far outstrip Mr. Trump’s narrow 2016 margins.
Victory celebration, Nov. 7, 2020, Washington, D.C. Photo by Sdkb/Creative Commons
Finally, Biden increased his vote among white working-class men from 23% in 2016 to 28% in 2020. Similarly, among white working- class women, the Democratic vote increased from 34% to 36%. By cutting into Trump’s support among white working people while increasing the margin of victory in the urban/suburban areas, which have become more ethnically diverse and with a higher education level, Biden won swing states such as Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.
In the coming months, there will be more voter data available from the Pew Research Center but for now the bottom line is that Biden won with a coalition composed of people of color, folks with college education and enough white workers to eke out a victory in several key states and propel him nationally with a 4.45% margin of victory.
Let’s turn to the “bad” and “ugly” aspects of the 2020 election. As I mentioned earlier, 74 million people voted for Trump, which is the second highest vote total ever for a presidential candidate. Just as the liberals, independents (Biden won 54% of independents) and progressives mobilized feverishly, so did the opposition and they are not accepting defeat. Polls estimate that 70% to 80% of Republican voters believe Biden only won because of voter fraud. It only took a handful of influential rightwing commentators to propel thousands of people to “Stop the Steal” rallies. Commentators like Don Bongino, an ex-NYPD cop and Secret Service member who founded his website because he deemed the Drudge Report insufficiently supportive of Trump, has a following of four million people and his website had 7.7 million visitors on the week of Nov. 3. Bongino and others plus Trump keep repeating false narratives to delegitimize Biden’s victory. Several state courts have rejected Trump’s spurious lawsuits because there was no voter fraud. On December 11, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to allow the Texas lawsuit challenging the election results in four swing states to move forward.
The other “bad” outcome from the election is scary realization that the Republican Party under Trump is a cult, i.e., there was no Republican Party platform this year only “support Trump.” Sixty percent of the GOP membership of the U.S. House of Representatives backed Trump’s unproven claims of election fraud in the Texas lawsuit before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Trump knew that he was behind in the polls, so he tried to suppress vote-by-mail by opposing increased funding for the U.S. Postal Service. He called upon the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by,” a move many interpreted as a form of voter intimidation. Under Trump, the GOP will only accept a vote if they are the victors; anything else is fraudulent. Nothing illustrates how much the GOP has become authoritarian and anti-democracy.
Lastly, we are stuck with the undemocratic Electoral College. Biden won with 1% or less in Arizona, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Georgia. Democrats could win the popular vote again in 2024 and still lose the presidency. Just imagine a Kamala Harris vs. Donald Trump match up in 2024 and you will break out in a sweat.
The ugly aftermath of the election is still playing out before us. Trump continues to rally his base with a refusal to concede defeat. Trump raised over $200 million in November for his Save America super PAC which will allow him to hire operatives and continue agitating against the Biden/Harris administration.
After armed protesters screamed outside the home of Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson on Dec. 5, the Washington Post editorial board highlighted the danger of violence: Republicans across the country, from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) down to county GOP chairs, are inflaming them with their encouragement or their acquiescence. Violence seems ever more possible when President-elect Joe Biden’s victory becomes official — if not before. (Dec. 10, 2020 Washington Post). It’s ugly and disgusting when election officials are threatened for doing their jobs.
We leave the 2020 elections with the knowledge that the rightwing opposition is well-funded and organized on many fronts including paramilitary elements. In October, the Department of Homeland Security named white supremacist organizations the “most persistent and lethal threat” to the U.S. The Center for Strategic and International Studies said white supremacist groups committed 41 of 61 terrorist plots and attacks from January to September 2020. The arrest of 13 men, including members of the Wolverine Watchmen, in a kidnapping and terror plot against Michigan Governor Witmer in October is the latest example of paramilitary activities which are intended to foment civil unrest.
Right where they belong, the Wolverine Watchmen jailed on kidnapping, conspiracy and weapons charges.
There’s no getting around it, the U.S. is a hot mess. But anger and despair won’t get us anywhere productive. We have to figure out what motivates rightwing populists and how we can peel some of them away from hate, fear and authoritarianism. In order to find some answers, I reviewed literature on how rightwing populism rose to such heights worldwide and what can be done about it.
What Sustains the Trump Cult?
Before we can blunt the force of rightwing populism, we must understand how and why it takes root. The core of the rightwing populist message is that a global elite has usurped power and caused your standard of living to decline. Their solution is to return the nation to Christian fundamentalism under a strong ruler.
Rising inequality is a real problem that the reactionaries have seized upon. A McKinsey & Company report, “Rethinking the future of American capitalism,” published on Nov. 12, 2020 spelled out the problem: “For workers, average wages in the United States grew by only 0.9 percent annually from 2000 to 2019… one million middle-wage American jobs eliminated… most of the jobs created have been in lower-wage occupations, often in the service sector. Consumers have benefited from improved access and lower prices for discretionary goods, especially traded goods such as electronics, appliances, and furniture. But rising prices of basic goods such as housing, healthcare, and education – which make up a large share of consumption for low-income households – have outpaced inflation, eating up 54% of any gains in come over the last 20 years for the average US household.”
The rightwing poses a false solution to real problems. Immigrants are blamed for taking away American jobs when the truth is that major manufacturing in the US was outsourced by multinational corporations decades ago. Trump didn’t stop jobs from leaving, nor could he bring them back.
Rightwing populists thrive by fostering an atmosphere of fear and anxiety. Trump has built a following by creating scary scenarios of America being invaded by illegal immigrants, Christianity trampled by secularism, and America being taken advantage of by foreign nations.
Abandoned Worumbo Mill, Lisbon Falls, Maine. Photo by Paul VanDerWerf/Creative Commons.
In her book “The Influential Mind,” (Henry Holt & Co, 2017) neuroscientist Tali Sharot explains what happens to minds under threat: “When we are stressed, we become fixated on detecting danger; we focus on what can go wrong. This then creates excessively pessimistic views, which, in turn, can cause us to become overly conservative.” She goes on to explain how this hard-wired sense of fear shuts off much thinking as all energy gets directed at the source of danger. Trump has effectively manipulated the fears and anxiety of people into reliance upon himself as the solution. Perhaps this explains why under the pandemic Trump could gain in support.
Part of the rightwing populism’s appeal is religious fundamentalism. There’s always been a deep vein of religious conservatism in the U.S. According to the Edison Research exit poll, 28% of voters identified as white evangelical or white born-again Christian and 78% of them voted for Trump. One speaker at the November 11 virtual prayer organized by the Family Research Council captured the ethos of Christian nationalism by declaring that the election was a result of “the whole godless ideology that’s wanted to swallow our homes, destroy our marriages, throw our children into rivers of confusion.”
Katherine Stewart’s “Trump or No Trump, Religious Authoritarianism is here to stay” (New York Times, Nov. 11, 2020) points out that a narrow worldview is promoted in the rightwing echo chamber: The second structural reality to consider is that Christian nationalism is a creation of a uniquely isolated messaging sphere. Many members of the rank and file get their main political information not just from messaging platforms that keep their audiences in a world that is divorced from reality, but also from dedicated religious networks and reactionary faith leaders.
The rightwing game plan going forward is to delegitimize Biden, build resentment and undermine him until a “true” leader is in power.
Trump’s message of “Make America Great Again” plays into the narrative that our nation has been “played” by other nations and that only a strong leader and a proven dealmaker, i.e., Trump, can restore the country to glory and worldwide dominance. Trump’s tariff wars have hurt American farmers and a go-it-alone foreign policy has isolated the U.S. internationally. But none of that matters to Trump supporters because he is “standing up” for America. Thus, the emotional charge that Trump elicits with his bravado and bald-faced lies simply strengthens the bond between followers and the leader.
Idolization is what Trump craves and psychologist Robert Jay Lifton points out that much of Trump’s base “can be understood as cultist.” In the Psychology Today article “Donald Trump and His Followers: Are They a Cult? “ (Sept. 27, 2020), John Martin-Joy, M.D. said, “Lifton thinks there is a ‘ritual quality’ to the chants that Trump encourages at his rallies: ‘Lock her up! And “Build that wall.’”
Trump rally, Mesa, AZ. Photo by Gage Skidmore/Flickr
Now the election is over, perhaps the next battleground will be over vaccination against the coronavirus. An active anti-vaccine movement already exists and many Trumpers may jump on board. We need strategies to move us from this dangerous path.
Pushing the Rightwing Out of the Mainstream and Back to the Margins
Even though Trump won’t have the wide coverage afforded presidents, he’ll probably be ranting and raving on rightwing media outlets and Twitter, Parler and other channels. Biden and the Democrats can establish a new normal based on reason, truth, compassion and empathy. Tone matters as much as content and Biden can promote a unifying narrative where common values and aspirations bridge narrow definitions of national identity. The Biden administration can offer a model of competency and hopefully transparency to restore some trust in government. Progressives will need to apply pressure to move the agenda towards full equality, but the improvement in tone will be noticeable and that gives us room to try to persuade people to change their views.
Another lesson learned the hard way is that we cannot as a democratic society allow misinformation and lies to be disseminated unchallenged. Public pressure has moved Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to flag misleading posts. YouTube recently took down 8,000 videos that alleged that voter fraud had occurred in the 2020 election. The more a lie is repeated the more some people believe it to be true. This, too, is part of setting a new normal.
Setting one’s agenda and articulating its principles and goals is the best course of action. That’s partially because refuting people and trying to “educate” them just doesn’t work. Neuroscientist Tali Sharot points out: “Our instinct is to try to alter people’s beliefs and actions by introducing data to prove that we are right, and they are wrong. It often fails, because in face of facts that clash with their prior beliefs, people tend to come up with counter arguments or turn away. Instead, find arguments that rely on common ground. For example, telling parents who refuse to vaccinate their children that science has shown that vaccines do not cause autism did not alter the parents’ behavior. Instead, saying that vaccines would protect their children from deadly diseases was more effective – the argument did not contradict their prior beliefs and was compatible with the common goal of keeping children healthy.”
We will see this dynamic played out on a large scale when we seek to get 80% of the population to take the coronavirus vaccine. Sharot cautions that warning people about the dangers often makes people freeze up and refuse to act. “We can overcome our instinct and instead use positive strategies to change behavior, such as by offering immediate rewards,” writes Sharot. “The anticipation of rewards, even simple positive feedback or an online ‘like,’ can trigger the brain’s ‘go’ response.”
Washington,D.C. rally Nov. 7, 2020. Photo by Elvert Barnes/Flickr.
Positive reinforcement starts with message guidelines authored by Anat Shenker-Osorio (“Message Guidance on Covid-19,” The Forge, March 17, 2020): “We can get through this together,” “We need to come together across differences used to divide us,” and “Protecting our most vulnerable makes us stronger.” These themes need to be articulated by many different people from government officials, health care professionals, and community peers. The repetition of messages goes a long way towards adoption of a common framework. Posting positive results such as the growing adoption rate of vaccines will also encourage a sense of community pride stimulating the “rewards” factor.
Pushing forward a positive agenda is also important because progressives want to enlarge our base at a time when many people, especially young people, are disillusioned with moderate solutions offered by centrist politicians. Although Bernie Sanders did not win the Democratic primary, many of his followers continued to organize at the local level enabling progressive candidates and ballot measures to win.
Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Carisa Nietsche’s essay “Combatting Populism – A Toolkit for Liberal Democratic Actors,” (March 19, 2020 for the Center for A New American Security) emphasize the need for aspirational narratives and real solutions that achieve a better future, noting that rightwing populists “stoke anxiety about the future, emphasizing the risks and challenges ahead, instead of chances and opportunities.” Once again, it’s the left that will be pushing Biden to “go big” and seek more expansive programs to ameliorate deep-seated inequities in jobs, health care, education, housing and social services. Without real change in people’s conditions, rightwing forces can build upon anti-government sentiments.
Kendall-Taylor and Nietsche cited the Ekrem Imamoglu campaign for Mayor of Istanbul in 2019 as an example of positive messaging as an underdog overcame the better-funded establishment AKP candidate with a campaign that addressed urban poverty and “radical love.” Imamogulu positioned himself as a unifying force. “In our square (referencing the public square and the electoral space), there is love, “wrote Imamoglu. “They will want conflict from us, they will want to hear harsh words from us. But we the people who do not want this nation to fight, who want this nation to embrace, we will unrelentingly embrace each other.” The campaign slogan of “kindness is contagious” disarms the opposition by expressing civility towards those who do not share one’s views. Though there were fundamental differences between the two camps, ramping up antagonism benefits the party that thrives on tension and anxiety.
While extending the olive branch really has no downsides, one cannot expect that it alone will move people away from rightwing views. Some elements of the Trump coalition are not moveable, i.e., hard-core white supremacists, neo-Nazis and anti-Semites who are warped by hate. Some of them are domestic terrorists who must be monitored and prosecuted for criminal acts.
But the important thing to remember is that change is possible. Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner’s book “Changing Minds” (Harvard University Press 2004) explores how social behavior has changed over time on many issues such as acceptance of gays and lesbians, adoption of organic foods, and attitudes toward political parties. In each case, the message of change was repeated many times from various angles because people have a variety of modes of comprehension, e.g., linguistic, naturalistic, spatial. The role of trusted sources is also highlighted in Gardner’s work.
Finally, the best way to push the rightwing to the margins is to make their message less appealing. They offer few answers other than a notion that things must return to an ugly past where minorities and women were acquiescent towards white males. There is so much riding on the Biden administration delivering on jobs, income security, housing and health care. These are the issues that affect the material basis for discontent. Giving people immediate relief via income support and offering them concrete aid and promotes hope. Tali Sharot points out that when people are feeling good, they become more optimistic. She points out that the sale of lottery tickets always goes up on sunny days. Good weather instills a sense of well-being and thus people are more willing to take a chance. By organizing for a more equitable society and demanding the broad allocation of resources, we can generate a sense of agency and hope.
Building Upon Progressive Victories
In addition to dumping Trump, progressives organized at the local level to achieve several significant victories. Like the state-wide efforts in Arizona, Georgia, Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and North Carolina, these local efforts were years in the making with community organizations organized into electoral coalitions with allies from labor, environmental movement, LGBTQ, women’s groups and religious communities.
At the state level, Pennsylvania elected Nikil Saval, a South Asian writer and organizer, to the State Senate. He ran on a “housing for all” platform and was endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America.
Ferguson activist and nurse Cori Bush became the first African American women to be elected to Congress from Missouri. She joins Jamaal Bowman, a former middle school principal, who was elected to Congress in New York.
Gabriella Cázares-Kelly, an indigenous woman, became the Pima County Recorder and will oversee elections in Tucson, Arizona.
Keith Higgins, who was fired from the Brunswick Judicial District Attorney’s office for demanding that the officers who killed Ahmad Aubrey be prosecuted, ran as an independent and ousted incumbent Jackie Johnson in south Georgia.
In Los Angeles, George Gascon, backed by a broad coalition, defeated incumbent Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey, who had refused to meet with Black Lives Matter, LA over the 600 police killings that have occurred on the streets and in jails since 2013.
Progressives also upset the Democratic establishment in the LA City Council and LA County Board of Supervisors races. Nithya Ramen, an urban planner and homeless advocate, defeated incumbent David Ryu, who criticized Ramen’s campaign as one led by “divisive radicals.” This thinly veiled form of red baiting did not work. Turnout soared from 25,000 in 2015 when Ryu was first elected to 130,000. Ramen’s 2,000 volunteers met voters at their doors and on the phone to win support.
State Senator Holly Mitchell defeated LA City Councilmember Herb Wesson and now the LA County Board of Supervisors is an all-female legislative body. Lastly, progressives in Los Angeles won passage of Measure J, which dedicates 10% of unrestricted funds in the LA County budget, nearly $400 million, to mental health, housing support, and intervention programs. None of the funds can be used for law enforcement.
In San Francisco, Connie Chan, longtime community activist and legislative aide, won an open seat on the Board of Supervisors. Her victory secures a progressive majority on the board. Voters also approved three tax measures that will generate $400 million to fund affordable housing, homeless assistance, and community services.
In all of these efforts, patient organizing and multiracial coalition building were the keys to victory. More than just electoral efforts, many of these campaigns plan to continue to organize around the recovery and fight for people’s priorities in any new funding that flows from the federal and state levels.
The Battle for a Robust and Equitable Recovery
Democrats will have a much easier time getting approval for Biden’s appointments and for a substantial stimulus package if Ossoff and Warnock can win in the Georgia on January 5. If they don’t win, Sen. Mitch McConnell will us the GOP Senate majority to throttle the Biden administration. They will wage a protracted war to stymie funding proposals and progressive legislation.
As the Biden administration crafts its recovery plans, progressives are urging the adoption of an expansive use of debt funded expenditures through 2024 to create an equitable recovery. Josh Biven’s “Principles for for the relief and recovery phase of rebuilding the U.S. economy,” Economic Policy Institute, Nov. 24, 2020 gives a detailed rationale for a $3 trillion economic stimulus package. Additional funds would be needed to deploy the vaccines and fix the inequities in the health care system.
Biven’s states the case for the prolonged and extensive expenditures: For the sake of future crises, we should also start building automatic triggers in things like unemployment insurance and aid to state and local governments. But, for the coming years, discretionary fiscal support should be continued. Specifically, to avoid tumbling down a fiscal cliff into an economic contraction in 2023, policymakers should ramp up public investments in such public goods as clean energy, energy efficiency, and early childcare and education, and sustain these investments—and their debt-financing—at least through 2024.
The scope of the problem must also be assessed broadly. Heidi Sierholz from the Economic Policy Institute expressed concern that the Bureau of Labor Statistics is undercounting and misclassifying the unemployed. Instead of the published 10.7 million unemployed in November, she said the true figure for workers directly hurt by the pandemic is 26 million workers or 15.5% of the workforce. Some workers may technically still be employed but their hours have been cut.
There are so many moving parts to making the recovery, both on the health front and with the economy, successful. And making the recovery fair, transparent and of benefit to small businesses, family farmers, and working people will go a long way to restoring faith in government and blunting the rightwing attacks.
It will be a long battle to win an equitable recovery. The stakes are very high. We can’t go back to the way it was since it was already taking us down the road of climate change disaster. We won’t have universal agreement as we start on the path to recovery, but under democracy, the majority rules. Due to the undemocratic nature of the Electoral College, what we’ve had four years of minority rule under a cruel, would-be dictator.
Photo by Ricardo Hunis/Flickr.
The Delaney and Bonnie song “When this battle is over, who will wear the crown?” focuses on a struggle between lovers, but this election was similarly riven with betrayal, distrust and wariness. Resentments stirred up by the Tea Party and ratcheted it up to new frenzy by Trump pit the forces for multiracial progress against white supremacy. We’ve been in this battle for decades. The 2022 U.S. Senate races with 21 GOP-held seats and 13 Democratic seats at stake will be another epic battle, followed in 2024 with another knock-down, bare knuckle brawl for power. We have four years to deliver meaningful change and better the lives of working people if we are ever to attain the civility and trust that a democracy needs to flourish. We are in the battle and in the gospel version of the song, the question is answered – “We shall wear a crown.”
Author’s Bio: Eddie Wong is the editor/publisher of East Wind ezine. He was co-editor of Roots: An Asian American Reader (UCLA 1971) and a co-founder of Visual Communications in Los Angeles. He also served as National Field Director for the Jesse Jackson for President campaign in 1988 and Western Regional Director of the National Rainbow Coalition.
Mobilizing volunteers for door-to-door canvassing in the Georgia for the U.S. Senate runoff election on Jan. 5, 2021. Photo courtesy of the Asian American Advocacy Fund.