More than 200,000 lives lost in the United States, and counting. The worst economic downturn of the century. Armed gunmen invading state legislative sessions. Journalists beaten by police officers. Domestic terrorists coddled by cops. Protesters swooped up by unidentified police forces. A president whose campaign openly stokes chaos and violence while refusing to assure the American people that he would relinquish power should he lose the election.
This is the stuff of disaster movies: the apocalyptic unraveling of a nation nearing the brink, thrown into crisis after crisis while the very worst character imaginable sits in the Oval Office. As drama, it’s a story that should be concluding with a lopsided victory for the not-Trump candidate, yet the fact that there is even a remote possibility Donald Trump may win reelection is what turns this spectacle into horror.
True to the genre, as the bodies pile up, the specter of mistakes, oversights, and outright denial constitutes the cautionary tale of what not to do. The horror is not that its victims are without agency, but that they fail to exercise it responsibly.
The center-left in this 2020 sequel didn’t heed the clear lessons of its cataclysmic defeat in 2016. One would think that strategies to survive this do-over would disarm the racism and misogyny that launched the franchise, but this sequel’s band of would-be survivors seems to have learned little from the shocking origin story.
Much of our avoidance of the severe constraints that white supremacy and patriarchy impose on our “democratic” process comes from a fear that to engage injustice is to reinforce it—that to talk about racism is to be racist, and that to talk about sexism is to be sexist. But to concede that view is to lay down our analytic weapons, and provide an easy route for the horror to prevail again. The perfect storm of denial has gotten us to a point where this election is not the surefire refusal of neo-fascism that it should be. And this gradual unfolding of the story is what has me openly talking back to the unfolding drama on the national stage, as we still do in scary movies at my neighborhood Magic Johnson theater (when we’re not quarantined, I guess). Here’s my list of five features of the 2016 debacle that we should have prepared for, but didn’t.
1. The crisis in voter suppression is a mortal threat to American democracy; it should have been a cornerstone of Democratic mobilization.
Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by over two million votes, and without 80,000 votes split between Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, Trump would not be sitting in the White House. With such thin margins, it’s not surprising that vote suppression, discouragement, and denial—timeworn ploys lifted from the American history of totalitarian rule—became a go-to tactic wielded by Republicans after Obama’s 2008 election and deployed in red and battleground states. Marshaled by the Koch-funded American Legislative Exchange Council in numerous state legislatures, trumped-up allegations of voter fraud were weaponized to gut the electorate, creating rules that disproportionately excluded Democratic-leaning voters. (For a detailed review of the American right’s voter-suppression putsch, see David Daley’s “A Cancer on the Ballot.”) And as Republicans dug up this undying relic of Jim Crow, activists who sought to ring the alarm reported the Democratic-leaning establishment as unresponsive, ignoring its all-consuming stench. It was, they say, a discordant note in the praisesong of post-racialism.
In the 2013 decision Shelby County v. Holder, the U.S. Supreme Court jumped on the post-racial bandwagon, contending that voter turnout and activism measured during Obama’s presidential runs were strong enough to justify overlooking volumes of evidence of voter suppression in the states under the jurisdiction of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Pivoting on a core conception of color blindness that blithely ignores the histories and continuing inequalities of ballot access in many states, the complaints of unfair treatment that state election officials mounted in Shelby reflected the kinds of resentments for being held accountable for past sins that circulate among the purveyors of white racial grievance today. This fusion of racial grievance and post-racialism created a toxic brew, poisonous to the ongoing efforts to contest white supremacy and protective of the invidious status quo that the Voting Rights Act had tried to interrupt.
The deterioration of the right to vote should have prompted a massive media, judicial, and legislative campaign grounded in the celebratory narrative of American democracy. It’s a moral and political issue that might have been won. Instead, it has been an afterthought until now—a missed opportunity that favors Trump.
2. White racial grievance now underwrites a powerful cross-class political coalition, after commentators whitewashed it as a transactional campaign tactic.
The line that emerged almost im