…But What Comes After?

Jessie Garbeil, Scarlet Staff

Imagine this: It is Wednesday, November 4, 2020. The 2020 presidential election is over. There is a light, bitter rain falling outside; the sun hides behind a sprinkling of gray clouds. Someone walks into their lawn, rain boots sticking in the mud, trampling flowers already frostbitten. They take down a yard sign and pick up the newspaper. Over half of the nation breathes a deep sigh of relief.

It is a dream come true for Democrats across the country. For many, there is no other alternative than Trump’s loss; for others, it is sickening to imagine any other outcome. Yet the problem facing the country did not begin with the election of Donald Trump and it will certainly will not end with his exit of the White House. 

Trump’s legacy is not a pretty one, no matter your political alignment. It is a country more divided, more fearful, and more bitter than before his arrival. This is Trump’s legacy on a poetic, national level, but it can be pinpointed even within the marble jungle of Washington D.C. Trump’s legacy will live on with the Supreme Court, with the casual destruction of environmental regulation, and with the United States Congress. 

It is easy to discount Trump’s ideology, simply because he lacks any whatsoever, but his chaotic presidency has accomplished something – legitimization of conservative populism – and it is this subtle shift within the Republican Party under Trump that will last longest. 

The legacy of Trump’s tendencies towards conservative populism is exemplified through the youngest member of the Senate, a cookie-cutter ad for political ambition and hair gel. Democrats often seemingly forget that amidst the “blue wave” of the 2018 midterm elections, they lost three “red-state Democrats,” or moderate Democratic senators within states that Trump won in 2016. Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri was one such casualty, replaced by a six-point margin by Joshua Hawley, a thirty-nine-year-old constitutional lawyer with an Ivy League education, a multitude of powerful connections, and a tendency to talk about “the great American middle.” At first glance, he is just another Republican political climber relying on blind loyalty to Trump to succeed. In reality, Hawley is unique within the U.S. Senate – a conservative populist whose anti-corporate rhetoric, a powerful vendetta against “big tech,” and criticism of the price of college sounds like something out of an Elizabeth Warren speech. To some Democrats, he is a beacon of hope within a Republican establishment utterly unwilling to compromise with Democrats and a source of a possible middle ground. 

I’ve often advocated for optimism, but, in this case, Josh Hawley should absolutely terrify Democrats. 

Don’t be fooled by his early promise of a willingness to work with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Josh Hawley is a Trumpian conservative with the ability to make a more lasting impact than the current occupant of the White House because he has what Trump fundamentally lacks: legitimacy. He is well-spoken and idealistic, brilliant and easily respected, careful with his words and devoted to his cause. He openly criticizes political climbers and career politicians, but he is a Republican presidential campaign waiting to happen. In reality, he is a crusader against the liberal agenda, a soldier in what he calls the “culture war,” as much as he may masquerade as a charismatic anti-corporation voice against wealth inequality. His criticisms of “big tech” are rooted in their supposed censorship of conservative viewpoints – a largely baseless claim repeated often by Republican politicians – and his criticism of the very private universities where he was educated are, in reality, tied not to their ridiculously high costs but to their generally liberal leanings.

 

Before Trump, it was easy to believe that one person could have little real power in politics, but the Trump administration has turned the status quo upside down and demonstrated that one man can have a profound effect on one of the world’s last true superpowers. Conservatives like Josh Hawley should frighten Democrats – they are powerful enough on their own, and the Trump era has given them a voice louder than ever. If Trump’s last days in office ended with the dawn of a new Republican party, then this should be just as worrisome to Democrats as Trump’s other, more dissipated legacies – those of division, bigotry, and hatred. A more populist, less corporate Republican party will only result in “red waves” and Democratic losses in suburban and rural districts, not some magical turn towards bipartisan compromise. 

 

Trump’s legacy is human, powerful, and absolutely frightening. It exists beyond the Republican Party – it is a Democratic Party deeply divided between centrists and progressives, a loss of faith in the democratic process, and a multitude of questions of “where do we possibly go from here?” It is a nation without a clear sense of direction, a nation that is increasingly fractional and twisted in its political structure, and a nation that has never been great and most certainly is not now.