Thirty-six years ago, Americans elected a president whose victory many liberals found unimaginable. They regarded Ronald Reagan as a cheap entertainer. His not-really concealed race-baiting, from his early campaign appearance in Mississippi, talking of “states’ rights” near the site of an iconic murder of civil-rights workers, to his talk of “welfare queens” and “young bucks” buying steaks with food stamps, seemed a dangerous break with decency. He fed into the country’s fetish for violence and archaic forms of manhood with his cowboy posturing, and he joked about nuclear war with an “evil empire” that he hardly seemed to understand. He was self-assured, incurious, a cocooned narcissist who had unseated his party’s “decent” establishment and brought new radicals into the White House. He pulled in working-class and union voters outside the South—not even a majority of them, but an unsettling measure—and it was hotly disputed whether they were retrograde racists or just felt betrayed by a Carter administration that had already turned its back on unions and gutted American exports and driven up unemployment with deflationary monetary policy.
Sixteen years after Reagan won, Bill Clinton consolidated Reagan’s policy goals with harsher welfare cuts, more aggressive policing initiatives, and a broader neoliberal agenda of trade integration and financial deregulation than Reagan could have achieved. (Reagan confronted a Democratic House of Representatives.) Twelve years after that, Barack Obama praised Reagan as a visionary uniter of Americans. He lives on our civic Olympus now, even though some cranks like me still prefer to ask taxis to take us to “National Airport” outside Washington.
Everyone is wondering whether Trump will govern as a “normal” Republican or a radical. And of course it matters: if he brings us freelance wars, targeted prosecutions, attacks on the media, and incendiary rhetoric, that will be its own kind of catastrophe, alongside the torrent of hate that is surging from the far-right grassroots.
But one of the worst scenarios is one that too many liberals are probably inclined to take as a good one: that Trump’s right-wing economics, his posturing, his cult of personality, his contempt for government and even rationality, and his disdain for marginalized groups and “losers,” all get normalized into a mode of politics that “we” can live with—and then absorbed into a Democratic party that congratulates itself on being better than the alternative.
There are many bad futures with Trump in power. One of the harder to see is that, in thirty years, we will say he was a good man, a great American, who made mistakes but loved his country.
Whether that happens will depend, in good part, on whether the left, as we catch our breath, can keep up and build the pressure, not just on Trump, but on the Democratic party that will be the means of normalization if it happens. We must resist an American Putin or even Berlusconi, of course; but we also must resist a second Reagan, and the subtler danger may be the greater one.
Jedediah Purdy teaches at Duke and is the author, most recently, of After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene (Harvard University Press, 2015). He is a contributing editor at Dissent.
Read more responses to the election results from Dissent editors and contributors.