When He Woke up, Trumpism Was Still There

The president of the United States never loses. Like a good populist, he uses antagonism as one of his communication tools: Everything is everyone else’s fault.

Almost 200 years ago, in the American election of 1824, Andrew Jackson won the popular vote and the electoral vote, but added up it was not enough to win a majority. John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay were even farther behind in terms of votes. Finally, it was going to be Congress that would be the institution to decide the future president, with all the numbers necessary for a Jackson victory. However, a surprise occurred there. Adams would go on to become the White House’s new tenant after getting the majority of votes from states that had supported the actual speaker of the House, and also a former candidate, Clay. Interestingly enough, Clay would be the one chosen by Adams to be his secretary of state.

The scandal was set in motion. Jackson, a war hero considered by many to be obstinate and dim-witted, did not take kindly to it in the least, as was to be expected. As a result, he began a grueling campaign against Adams and the entire establishment at the time, even going so far as to establish his own party — the current Democratic Party (in fact, the symbol of the donkey, first drawn by Thomas Nast, is said to be for him).

For four years he denounced the alleged fraud, which would become known as the “corrupt bargain,” and for four years that was the nationwide and totally polarizing issue for the American people. You were either with Adams or with Jackson, with the political elite or with the common people. And that deafening noise during the legislative session had a clear ultimate winner. In the following election of 1828, Jackson, who prided himself on being a normal person and not a corrupt Washington politician, won the presidency by a landslide.

During those turbulent four years, the public understood that the elites had rigged the election results, and that idea was fed over and over again by Jackson and his supporters, organizing themselves across the country to spread word of the alleged fraud. It didn’t matter what the math said. Simply put, the states that in 1824 voted for Clay, voted for Adams in Congress because he was their second favorite candidate, while Jackson was the third or fourth. What mattered, for the now angry members of the Democratic Party, was that an injustice had been committed. And the outrage that came from this generated so much rage and anger, with a political mobilization never seen before.

Because anger can succeed when it has objective reasons for existing, as Aristotle indicated, and furthermore, as Peter Sloterdijk reaffirms in his book “Rage and Time,” when it comes from outrage over an attack on something that feels like your own (“anger is not a primary feeling, but a reactive one toward wounded pride”). Martha Nussbaum also speaks of the potential political — and revolutionary — success anger will have so long as that anger comes from the attempt to restore justice. That is the most important thing. If citizens feel that an injustice exists, anger can allow them to organize and mobilize for that cause, and to do so with more momentum than ever before. And in the face of an irate part of society, using populism is much simpler, and polarizes and mobilizes much more, which generates a more accurate vote.

Let’s go back to the present day. Donald Trump speaks indignantly of fraud; that indignation is rallying his own, many of those 70 million voters who have been polarized over the last four years, and who are just as outraged at this alleged injustice that was committed, the catalyst for his revolution over the next four years. Trump will certainly try to use this to his advantage, as he is already doing.

That will be his story for the next few months or years: It is a fraud and he is a victim — of the establishment, the elites, the corrupt system in Washington, the press, etc. It is everyone’s fault but his own. Because Trump never loses, and because Trump, being the good populist he is, uses antagonism as one of his tools of communication: Everything is everyone else’s fault.

In any case, until we see how this potential outrage in favor of Trump plays out, I think the kind of anger that should concern the new Biden administration is not so much this one, but rather an earlier one. It is the outraged anger of those who voted for Trump not in 2020, but back in 2016. This is because they saw their situation as unjust, and they saw in Trump a different person, separate from the political elites, a person who did care about their concerns and safety, who was in touch with what the citizens were experiencing, especially the kind of things that weren’t being shown by the media, nor existed in large multiethnic cities.

It’s hard to change the mind of a person who thinks you’re not being fair to them. And even more difficult if almost the entire Democratic political narrative has nothing to do with these people, or their surroundings, or with how they see things, or their daily lives. They are the ones who feel that they are the ordinary people (a healthy society versus a corrupt one, as Pierre Rosanvallon would say), and not Joe Biden or the Democrats, or that multiethnic city life so far out of step with their own.

Trump was in 2016 the angry way to escape a situation of discontent and a feeling of injustice. It was a strong statement of opposition. The polarization seen in these last four years, driven by Trump (but not only by him) has managed to keep it that way, and to divide society even more, making the Republican the clear alternative to the way professional politics and the media see the world.

Polarization has turned this into not an election, but a referendum on Trump, and a referendum on two ways of understanding the present and future of the United States. These two United States are not going to disappear only to become one, no matter how much Biden pleads — and does it well — in his speeches. Trumpism will exist for much longer than the Trump presidency itself because it has become a symbol for a large part of the population.

In 1990, the Guatemalan writer Augusto Monterroso wrote one of the shortest stories in Spanish: “When he awoke, the dinosaur was still there.” When Biden becomes president-elect, even if Trump — to everyone’s surprise — brings himself to accept defeat, even if the anger and outrage over the alleged, unproven election fraud ceases to seem justified and therefore no longer makes sense — even when all this happens, Trumpism will still be there. Because the outrage of many voters was not — and is not — only in favor of Trump or the electoral recount, but against a world they consider unfair to them. When the Biden-Harris administration takes office, the dinosaur will still be there, and it will be hard to send him away.

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