The Democratic Party’s future must be built around class-based issues in order to reach working people.
Donald Trump’s eviction from the White House, thanks to a Joe Biden victory, is cause for jubilation, however much Trump may fuss, drag his feet, and leave wreckage in his trail. But, as progressive historian and author Thomas Frank, argues in his 2020 book, The People, No, Trumpism will continue to cast a huge shadow over U.S. politics for years to come.
“The Republicans will never turn away from Trumpism,” Frank writes. “Either Trump himself, a family member, Ted Cruz, or Marco Rubio will be running in 2024 on Trumpism.”
Frank’s latest book covers the United States’ unsung legacy of progressive populist resistance to economic elites. More than any other Republican leader in the past, Trump used amped-up, phony “populism” to attract voters—and, in many cases, followers. For Republicans, Trumpism represents a chance to expand their base outside of the upper-middle class, and will therefore have a long life in the Republican Party.
Biden decisively beat Trump, who still turned out ten million more votes than he did in 2016. The pro-Trump vote this year underscored how deeply alienated Americans are from established centers of power and, as Frank explored in his 2004 classic What’s the Matter With Kansas?, detached from their own most basic economic interests.
Trumpism, Frank tells The Progressive, “has ironically gotten its hold on the public by offering the Republicans as a kind of fake left, with a theory of how ordinary people are persecuted by the elite, and a kind of [bogus] workerism that constantly salutes working people’s values but doesn’t really understand their true grievances.”
Far from being a disruptive deviation from Republican traditions and policies—as so many pundits and “never-Trump” Republicans have insisted—Trumpism is actually the culmination of a half-century of Republican electoral strategy that targeted Black folks.
Since Nixon’s infamous “southern strategy” aimed at turning voters against the Democrats’ civil-rights advocacy, the Republicans have displayed their willingness to prey upon racial divisions, using dog-whistle practices that trade overt, specific racist terms for coded messages addressed to white people.
As one Republican official admitted back in the 1990s, “Some of us would like to get beyond the business of scaring people and dividing them from blacks, but it’s hard to argue against a formula that’s seen as successful.”
Trump has utilized this formula as never before, with denunciations of Mexican immigrants as rapists and references to white supremacists in Charlottesville as “very good people.”
Under a new and improved Trumpism, the Republican Party will further camouflage as an insurgent force representing working people. The new Trumpists will even suggest, however unconvincingly, that a party rooted in preserving and expanding corporate power is even willing to take on Corporate America itself.
Thus we have Senator Josh Hawley, a Repubican of Missouri and rising star, declaring via tweet: “Republicans in Washington are going to have a very hard time processing this, but the future is clear: We must be a working class party, not a Wall Street party.”
Marco Rubio, too, dreams of a Republican Party that becomes a “’multiethnic, multiracial, working-class” political machine. (In this last election, the Republicans showed signs of breaking out of their virtually all-white political ghetto with significant gains among Latinx voters, particularly in Florida and South Texas.)
Republican leaders outside of Trump’s inner circle are aware that his bone-deep arrogance wreaked much of the havoc that contributed to his 2020 defeat. “They won’t be as stupid as Trump,” Frank says of future GOP contenders. “They won’t do and say things that needlessly offend people, like the vulgarity and personal attacks.”
As Frank sees it, Trump’s strong showing this November, along with the Republicans’ fierce determination to continue building their base among non-college-educated people, should send chills down the spines of Democratic leaders, including President-elect Biden. The Democrats need a decisive return to populist class-based issues, like a $15-an-hour minimum wage and universal health care.
“Biden is more empathetic, and he’s comfortable around working families and union halls,” Frank says. “But the Democratic Party’s future must be built around class-based issues that reach working people. When we have Trump and [his daughter] Ivanka talking about the working class, Biden must recognize there’s a problem and get back to the Democrats’ history as a real working-class party. The middle class—that’s what has disappeared from the definition of what the Democrats are about.”
The Democrats, Frank says, “made Trumpism possible.” They opened up the present vacuum when they abandoned working people in the 1990s. The so-called “New Democrats” were enthralled with high tech industries and “Third Way” theorists seeking bridges to conservatives. It’s what led Democrats under Clinton and Gore to ram through the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has produced massive job losses and is still alienating workers, farmers, and small businesspeople from the party.
If Biden is to lead the nation through the multiple crises with which Trump has left him, he must move boldly away from his centrist past and work toward building the kind of multi-racial, working-class coalition that Franklin Delano Roosevelt triggered to confront the enormous problems of the Great Depression.
This would require transformative, class-based economic programs like universal health care that unsettle the powerful, Frank advises. Implementing such an agenda will require vigorous movements, like the forces inspired by Bernie Sanders.
Inevitably, bold proposals from Biden and grassroots support for them will produce accusations of socialism from the Republicans. “But,” Frank says, “if the Republicans yelling ‘socialism’ stops you in your tracks, you’re in trouble. The Republicans will never stop with that accusation. What I’m talking about is deeply in the American tradition—populism directed against economic elites.”