The American political system has failed to rid itself of Donald Trump and his ideology. Despite losing the 2020 election to Joe Biden, Trump has not ambled off into the sunlit uplands that other former presidents inhabit.
He has remained a malignant fixture of American politics and a central figure in the political imagination of millions. He has become both bolder and more authoritarian in his outlook.
Trump has begun to disparage his rivals by referring to them as “vermin”. This is, of course, the same language that the Likud party in Israel has used against Palestinians. Trump, though, has broken a central unspoken rule of Euro-American liberalism and used this language against white people. As a result commentators have correctly described his utterances as resonating with that of the fascists of the 1930s in Germany and Italy.
Despite the credibility of the connections drawn between some of Trump’s statements, postures and desires and those of the European fascism of the 1930s he continues to take ever more extreme positions. He has been unapologetic about his disdain for the law and his desire to use state organs for his own ends. He has even openly stated that, should he win the presidential election in 2024, he would use the Justice Department as an instrument of vengeance against political opponents.
In his Veteran’s Day speech last month he promised to “root out communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country”. Again, this is similar language to that used by the Nazis who hounded communists and those on the left.
Not only does Trump see communists as an infection to be excised from society he also wants the “purity” of American blood to be protected from migrants who are “poisoning” American blood, much like the Nazis wanted to protect the “Aryan race” from being “defiled” by Jews, blacks, Romani and others. In Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler said that Germans should “care for the purity of their own blood”. The similarity with Trump’s wording is uncanny.
Trump is able to say and do the things that he does, and to continue to gain support and be the Republican Party’s (GOP) frontrunner, because it seems that at least half of the American populace sees the world much as he does.
America has been becoming more and more authoritarian. In 2018 almost 65% of Floridians voted for an amendment to end the disenfranchisement of people with past convictions who had already served their time. Notwithstanding the people’s choice, Republicans in the state of Florida passed a bill that put up restrictive requirements that basically invalidated the amendment.
Following the 2022 repeal of Roe vs Wade by the US Supreme Court, Ohio recently became the seventh state where voters approved an amendment to their state constitution to protect access to abortion. A day after this vote, four Republican representatives said that they were going to work to quash the amendment and ensure that they, as lawmakers, would have total discretion to ban abortion. This was even though the people who had voted them in, and whom they were sworn to represent, had through their votes clearly made their decision known.
These legislators are some of the people who make up the GOP and who are supporters of Trump. If state legislatures are deliberately usurping the power of the people to impose their will on them, governance and government stop being the rule of the people by the people. It becomes the rule of the elected (probably by gerrymandering and disenfranchisement) to do as they see fit, despite what the people want.
We should therefore not be surprised by the support that Trump continues to enjoy as his supporters see nothing wrong with authoritarianism. On the contrary, they are driven by the same authoritarian impulses.
With just under a year to go before the 2024 US elections a New York Times-Siena College poll indicates that Trump is leading Biden in five out of six battleground states. Even more worrying is that some of the people who put Biden in office are disappointed in him, leading to him being one of the most unpopular incumbents.
This disenchantment with Biden seems to indicate an apparent loss of support among blacks and Hispanics. His complicity with the genocide in Gaza has also alienated from him the left wing of his party and progressive Jews. Without this support, in 2024 Biden will struggle to hold on to the Oval Office.
Trump is a fraudster and racist who is facing 91 counts of felony criminal charges. As president of the US, he subverted the very idea of American democracy by refusing to accept his election defeat and leading an insurrection against the Capitol.
Despite his utterances that continue to indicate that he hankers for complete and total power, as well as the many other crimes that in years gone by would have disqualified him from even trying to run for the White House, Trump remains the GOP’s 2024 elections frontrunner.
It is still a long time before the November 2024 elections and people who might currently not be focused on the shenanigans in Washington and the election might still come around and start paying more attention.
What is clear is that there is a symbiotic relationship between Biden and Trump — Biden needs Trump’s crassness to remind Americans why they should keep him in office and Trump needs Biden to make his martyr complex believable as, in the fevered imagination of his supporters, Biden stands for the leftists who stole the election and are persecuting his family.
Trump is not just an American problem. The old saying that when America sneezes, the world catches a cold is still true and Trump has opened the way for far right-wing figures elsewhere such as Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Javier Milei in Argentina and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands.
When Americans find themselves at the crossroads of the 2024 elections they will need to make a choice for themselves and for the world. They will need to decide who they are and to show the world who they are.
Will America embrace its most ugly self, its long history of racism and intolerance that is driving the white right towards open autocracy as it confronts an ever more diverse future?
Or will it hold to its best self, to the ongoing striving to realise its democratic promise to become, in the words of Walt Whitman, the home of “equal daughters, equal sons”, who are “strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable” and committed to “Freedom, Law and Love”?
Nontobeko Hlela is a research fellow with the Institute for Pan African Thought & Conversation at the University of Johannesburg. She writes in her personal capacity.