Anthony Bogues is Professor of Humanities at Brown University and Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.
This is an edited version of a longer article, ‘We captured it by the vote,’ which appeared in the Post and Guardian Thought Leader in South Africa, November 11, 2020
On Saturday, November 7th, as news of Biden’s victory in the polls was announced, the renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington DC became the site for all-night celebrations. Donald Trump, the 45th President of America who had represented some of the deepest conservative political currents in American political thought and American politics had lost the election.
The electoral statistics tell the story, with the largest turnout in American political history for over 120 years. President-elect Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris garnered nearly 78 million of those votes, and President Trump 72 million. The story of voter turnout generally resides in the voter organizing activities of black voter education groups. America has never been a fully representative electoral democracy. As a republic, it was founded with an electoral system based on the unique political equality of white men and property. There have always been fierce political battles over the electoral franchise. Women did not get the right to vote until 1920, with the passing of the 19th amendment. The African American population was brutally denied political equality, first as part of the American racial regime of racial slavery, and then Jim Crow – the American state apartheid system – and subsequently by various voter suppression tactics. The result was that voting had become a central black political activity. In the 1960s one of the most popular campaign buttons of the Student Non-Violence Coordination Committee was, “one man one vote”. Massive voter registration drives were sometimes called “freedom registration”. With this history of deep battles over political equality and voting rights, a key issue that emerged at this election was how would voter suppression be fought?
Trump followed a political line about voter suppression, returning to Ronald Reagan’s political language. In the 1970s, when Carter’s presidency proposed a series of electoral process reforms – which, in his words, prevented “millions of Americans voting in every election by antiquated and overly restrictive voter registration laws” – Ronald Reagan noted that the reforms that created the “Potential for cheating”. The Heritage Foundation noted that the proposed reforms would allow “eight million illegal aliens to vote” and further noted that it was “a mistake to assume that it was desirable to increase turnout”. This election, then, was not just about Trump but American electoral democracy. The political work of expanding American electoral democracy was led by black political figures. Perhaps the most significant example of this was the work of Stacy Abrams. Defended in 2018 in an election contest for Governing Georgia through voter suppression, she and others conducted one of the most formidable voter education campaigns ever witnessed in American history. Recall the Civil Rights Movement and the complex struggles for political equality that ended with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, 100 years after the abolition of racial slavery, and honoring those who died for this right, Abrams along with Project Georgia, and in collaboration with groups such as “The People”, and other organizations including the Movement for Black Lives shifted their political organizing focus to a massive “get the vote” campaign. The success of their efforts highlights the centrality of the political demands and activities of the African American population, and in particular the vital role of black feminist groups. It is not a matter of demographics, as some commentators would have it, but rather how the racial oppression of African Americans, and the fight against this subjugation, remains a fundamental factor in American society and politics. The expansion of America’s democratic democratic process with Biden’s electoral victory marked a relief for many as he thwarted a conservative campaign. In a world where many authoritarian regimes are still rocking, many people felt at least a new liberal.
Donald Trump lost the election, even as he has yet to surrender, but is Trumpism defeated? Over 70 million Americans voted for him, and in any disaggregation of this vote, while his support in the so-called rust belt states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania was reduced, he expanded and deepened his base in the rural areas. The data tells us that, for the most part, Trump carried 15-point white voters. It also managed to carry 12 percent of black male voters, while in some states it won over large parts of the complex Latinx vote block. This did not just happen in south Florida, where this voting block consists largely of Cuban anti-Castro Americans and Venezuelan Americans who think dopically that Biden is a socialist. In provinces like Arizona, where there is a sizeable Mexican American population, there were millions of votes for Trump. As one such voter said, “I’m a Catholic and I don’t believe in abortion, so even though I’m upset about the way it treats immigrants, I don’t think we should have a government that endorses abortion ”. All of this means that one critical political issue in the post-Trump era is the issue of Trumpism itself, and the admiration of social and cultural ideas that compose it. It means that a central political issue is not about healing the nation, and the split between red and blue voters because “we are all Americans”; rather, the central political issue is the political and ideological defeat of Trumpism.
American Studies scholar Donald Pease has made the point that his efforts “at the heart of Trump’s political practice were” to disassociate American democracy from its liberal foundations “. Central to this practice was his animated political discourse, rooted in white colonial language and ideas. Trump’s political project was to remake America as an “irregular democracy”. That is, a state where institutionalized liberal democratic norms are the constitutional frame of mainstream politics, but constantly undermined by daily political practice. This is a core element of authoritarian populism. In a series of essays in the 1980s, recent Jamaican-born British cultural studies theorist Stuart Hall set out how authoritarian populist populated the political ideological dimension in what he called “class democracies.” So what is the character of Trump’s political exercise?
For Trump’s project to at least succeed temporarily, he had to tie himself to white supremacy as American hegemonic common sense. So not only was Trump racist – of course he is – but the issue was how and why he took advantage of it and then laid the foundations for the public resurrection of white supremacy, with its armed militia, even while the FBI recently identified these groups as the most active domestic threat in America? In understanding this, we move from thinking about politics primarily about elections to addressing how political practices operate at the affective level – how political discourse effectively touches individuals and moves them to action . Understanding how capitalist globalization has had a detrimental effect on various social groups, Trump initially seized on a form of American nationalism. “Making America great again” (MAGA) was an imperialist and national project. Drawing from racially imagined nostalgia, Trump forged a coalition with whiteness at the heart of an imaginary community. This is why when white supremacy groups marched in Charlottesville, he said there were “good people on both sides”; why he was in favor of defending confederate monuments, and history projects that confirmed conventional American histories, and made any education to the contrary illegal – or anti-American. To make the irregular project work politically, Trumpism had to create a series of affective ideological fantasies, based on “alternative facts”. In addition, drawing from a long history of American political culture in which theories of paranoia, fear and conspiracy prevailed in American politics (recalling 1950s communist McCarthyism witches), Trump succeeded in creating political sensibilities of white fear, and more, a general virtual feeling among his fans of being outside offensive. Historically, this is how authoritarian regimes operate as they erode liberal democratic norms.
The fact that over 70 million voters voted for the continuation of such a project is worth noting. It highlights the strong social strength of deep conservatism in American society. In this regard, one remembers how the election of President Obama in 2008 prompted American conservatism and led to the rise of the Tea Party, opening a new chapter in the history of American conservatism. American conservatism defines freedom and citizenship in terms of “free white persons”. He argues that the American Naturalization Act of 1790 is the consolidation of this imaginary community of whiteness. American conservative political thought and politics draw on white supremacy as a fundamental precept. It also supports patriarchy and the reinterpretation of some Christian religious ideas. Trump managed to pull all of this together in a political coalition for electoral purposes, making Trumpism a mosaic of social ideas, feelings and feelings, rooted in what many understood as fundamental aspects of the American political tradition . In this way he managed to revive American conservatism, making it a form of authoritarian populism.
It would have been strange, politically and historically, if Trump had won an electoral victory in the wake of the Black Lives Matter uprising, in which 26 million people marched for months. The rebellion punctuated the hegemony of white supremacy. But punctuation is not defeat, and while the celebrations are signs of liberation, the conditions for the return of conservatism remain. When Obama won the elections in 2008, the tone was euphoric, and indeed many commentators began writing for a post-racial moment. The so-called post-racism soon became an illusion. Now, to our relief, we may be tempted to think of a post-Trump moment. In doing so, we make the mistake of mixing figures with historical currents. The figures may represent currents, but they are not the currents themselves. For liberation to become a new political moment the prize needs fresh eyes – how to transform America?