Since the Great Recession, the world has been abandoning the political consensus built by institutional elites — in government, business, and the media — of the previous generation. The spirit of the present age is populist and progressive, as it was in the Arab Spring and during the height of Occupy Wall Street. It’s an era informed by expanding LGBTQ equality, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the increasing role of women in politics.
Where the populists are not progressive, they still organize and vote. Mobs of racists, xenophobes, homophobes, and misogynists have powered the ascendance of demagogues as they did for Brexit and in Bolsonaro’s Brazil.
At the moment, conventional wisdom says that Trumpism cannot survive without Trump. It believes all the low, filthy, disgusting things that define his administration will disappear when he himself leaves Washington. Commentators argue that his removal from office, via impeachment or at the polls in November, will immediately begin to restore the “normalcy” of the status quo.
For the pundits promoting this thinking, the election of 2020 will be a referendum on Trump’s tone, his corruption, and his incompetence. They note that every Democrat running would make a better president, and they try to persuade us from one day to the next which candidate among the lot has the most up-to-date likelihood of replacing him. The candidates themselves tell us the myriad ways they’re different from him. We hear endlessly that beating Trump is all that matters.
But defeating Trumpism will take more than just the ouster of the man. It will require a Democrat who can harness the spirit of the age, leading a coalition both populist and progressive. It is too little for our nominee to be merely smarter, nicer, and more eloquent than the worst president of the past century.
Putting such a Democrat in the White House depends on a communal act of electoral faith. Each of us must choose the candidate whose character and agenda fundamentally moves us. We must trust that when others do likewise our collective mass and momentum — expressed at the ballot — will provide the right champion, armed with a mandate, who can vanquish Trump and Trumpism together.
Trump loyalists will fight ruthlessly for him even while voters who condemn his personal style will nonetheless opt to return him to power to thwart Democrats. As long as Trump voters feel safe from his most hateful policies, they’ll vote for him; and as long as they vote for him, he’ll keep them safe from his policies.
Conceding early to whichever Democratic candidate appears most “electable” in the eyes of the political consensus that brought us three decades of Bushes and Clintons will cost us the general election. Voters left and right who refuse to see the elites of yesteryear rewarded for having simply outlasted the Trump presidency understand that allowing his re-election will, at the very least, keep the old establishment from resuming its authority and influence.
If you’re satisfied to see Blue No Matter Who in the Oval Office, what kind of country have you been hoping for? And if your candidate isn’t one who will work to improve the lives of the poor, people of color, women, youth, members of the LGBTQ community, and others, then how do you expect her, or him, to fight the onslaught of racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and misogyny that Trump will unleash in his attempts to keep the White House?
We need to each of us pick the Democrat who most conforms to our vision for America and who inspires us to donate whatever money we can, to show up at events, to volunteer, to bicker on social media, to pester our family and friends. It’s a long way from the nominating convention to the general election, but voting for a candidate in the primary who feels “safe” because we’re told they’re “safe” is the shortest way to Trump’s second term.
Only a genuinely progressive populist can overcome the demagoguery that fuels Trumpism. Let’s nominate the candidate whose agenda provides a clear, unambiguous path towards a more equitable future for everyone. Then let’s all fight like hell to see her, or him, elected in November.
Brian Gaither (@briangaither) is a gay activist and writer who lives in Maryland.