Trump may be gone, but the real fight to change America has just begun, says Patrick Donovan, a young Kiwi American who worked to help get Joe Biden elected.
I watched Donald Trump leave the White House as I hunched over my laptop in an Auckland managed isolation facility. I had arrived in New Zealand a few days earlier after spending months working as a mostly cheerful foot soldier in the broad-based anti-fascist coalition that has returned the Democrats to full power in Washington for the first time in 10 years. In Michigan and then in Georgia for the Senate runoff races, I helped organise the campaign on the ground with the annoying enthusiasm of a missionary. I rallied would-be volunteers in the suburbs of Detroit and chased down voters in labyrinthine apartment complexes in Atlanta.
After months of fast-food dinners and having doors slammed in my face, I expected to feel fist-pumping triumph watching Trump board a helicopter that would take him to his lair in Florida. But on the phone with an old friend from my brief stint at Wellington High School, I could muster only a grim sense of relief.
Later that day, as I walked in meditative circles around the small parking lot with my masked fellows in quarantine, I kept thinking the same thought: Trump would have won the election without Covid. If New York City looked like the Auckland I could see on the other side of the barrier – unmasked, breezy, otherwise seemingly untouched by biological catastrophe – I would be opening up Twitter to the first lies of Donald J Trump’s second term.
Joe Biden’s victory was not the inevitable end to a national nightmare; it was a contingent event made possible by a once-in-a-century catastrophe.
The rush to forget Trump is well under way, and I understand this urge. Trump was an undigested part of daily life for five years. Still, I knew there was no changing the fact that 74 million of my fellow citizens had voted for him. The multiple-alarm fire in the heart of US democracy continues to blaze. What can be done to put it out?
The solution to Trumpism is to address the problems that allowed it to rise. Growing up between New Zealand and the US, I saw the difference between a country that has real social democracy and one that doesn’t. America is facing the consequences of years of rising inequality, stagnating wages and skyrocketing healthcare and education costs. It shouldn’t shock us that a rigged economy and a missing social safety net have provided the environment for proto-fascism.
Speaking with New Zealanders of the baby-boomer generation, I am sometimes asked questions about how Biden will choose between meeting the radical demands of young, leftie Bernie Sanders voters like me while bringing millions of Trump voters back into civic life. My answer is that he does not have to choose, as he can do both by pursuing fundamental change to a broken status quo. If the Democrats can channel the rising populism and anti-Establishment feeling on both left and right into building a social-democratic infrastructure to support working Americans, they could cement a governing coalition that could last for decades. What my friends and I want – universal healthcare, living wages and generously subsidised education – is not radical. It is popular in the US and sounds laughably common sense to most New Zealanders.
I am wary, but hopeful about what we can achieve. After decades of triangulation, corporate alliances and compromise, Biden and Establishment Democrats seem to understand that Americans now face a series of interlocking crises – a health crisis, an economic crisis, a racial justice crisis and a climate crisis – that require bold action in the direction of social democracy. The invocation of these “crises” has become something of a rote incantation for politicians, but it speaks to a broadly shared feeling that the pandemic and Trump’s ejection have afforded an opportunity for real change. To return to an unjust “normal” would be to betray the spirit of the moment.
But it would be a mistake to think Americans can counter Trumpism simply by delivering bold policy. I worked on the campaign in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, called Stone Mountain. It’s famous for a large rock relief of three Confederate leaders from the Civil War.
The community is Black and middle-class. As we worked day after day with veteran community leaders to combat voter suppression, the monument provided an absurdly fitting reminder that the white supremacy that Trump tapped into is an old and powerful force in US life. Save Georgia and Virginia, every state that joined the Confederacy voted for Trump. And although the story is more complicated than some make it out to be – Trump had the second-best performance among non-white voters for a Republican candidate since 1976 – the underlying fuel that drives Trumpism is a belief in the special status of white Americans. I cannot tell you I am hopeful. I know the first step is acknowledging complicity. I have something in in common with the white Trump voter. I have grown up in a society that has conditioned its members, to a greater or lesser degree, to believe white Americans are supreme. Many Black Americans can publicly acknowledge the way bias towards whiteness is conditioned even within them, yet for most white Americans, telling the truth about themselves in private remains too much. They fear it will mark them as guilty. Without confronting the truth about our conditioning, we cannot begin to create a world free of it for our children.
I don’t know how, or if, we will get there. You can change laws, but changing souls is harder. Americans like to tell themselves that our history is one long progression towards realising the ideals laid out in our founding documents.
Politicians like to quote Martin Luther King Jr, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Trump reminded us that there is nothing inevitable about our progress. Visions of an arc toward justice are cold comfort to those who never see it bend.
I left managed isolation early in the morning. After I’d spent almost a year in the midst of the pandemic, Auckland seemed like heaven. In a daze, I sat down and watched the empty streets fill. America seemed far away. Half-seriously, I thought about never going back. I smiled. America needs all the help it can get. Trump is gone, but the real fight has just begun.
Patrick Donovan is a dual citizen of New York and New Zealand. He worked on the Democrat campaign as a field organiser and canvasser.
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