To many on the left, Joe Biden’s (now official) victory feels more like a consolation prize than a monumental triumph over the Trump’s administration’s divisive nationalist populism. Having already secured more than 75 million votes, Biden has officially broken the record for the most votes ever received in a presidential election. But sitting in second place on that list is none other than President Trump, who has thus far garnered more than 70 million votes himself.
Progressives are flabbergasted by that result. How could this allegedly racist, misogynistic, Islamophobic, homophobic, and xenophobic president win so much support from so many corners of the country?
In response to that question, plenty of left-wing pundits, commentators, and activists have recycled the same explanations we were given for Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016, almost all of which are rooted in the idea that conservatives are either just plain evil or at least willing to tolerate evil for the sake of preserving their political power. Those explanations are popular among influential left-wing thinkers not because they’re sufficiently accurate—though there certainly is some truth to them, as evidenced by the support Trump has received from the radical right—but because it’s always easier to assume the worst about your opponents than it is to try to understand them.
In reality, most of the roughly 70 million Americans who cast their votes for Trump this year are not now, nor have they ever been, irredeemably evil.
It should be clear by now that many conservatives—white conservatives, especially—severely underestimate the degree to which racism impacts the lives of minorities because it isn’t something that many white people witness or experience in their own daily lives. That said, most conservatives do not hate people of color.
Most of them don’t have anything against the poor, either. Heck, a lot of them are poor. They just don’t believe it should be the government’s job to come to their rescue. They’d prefer to make their own way in the world—to “lift themselves up by the bootstraps,” as they say—because in conservative America, economic independence is worth far more than anything the government is able to provide.
Most Republican voters rallied around Trump not out of spite for minorities, immigrants, the poor, or the liberal elite, but because he was willing to bloody his knuckles on their behalf. They wanted someone who would make their pain a priority, would never apologize for standing up for conservative values or wilt under pressure from left-wing media, and would give rural America a reason to believe that a better, brighter future was still within reach. Even if his motives were insincere and self-serving, Trump fit that bill perfectly.
The problem with so-called alpha males like Trump, however, is that they need to surround themselves with people who are willing to hold them accountable, or else they’ll eventually cross lines that should never be crossed. Trump did the opposite. He was a habitual line-stepper who surrounded himself with loyal acolytes, which meant that there was almost never anyone around to splash some cold water in his face and wake him up to the reality that he had gone way too far.
Some progressives have pointed to that lack of accountability as confirmation that the problem isn’t really Trump; it’s conservatism itself. From their vantage point, Red America’s tolerance for Trump’s obvious moral shortcomings—his hostility towards Muslims, flirtatious interactions with right-wing extremists, boorish attitude towards women, lack of concern for the well-being of children separated from their parents at the southern border, and inability to ever take responsibility for any of his mistakes—is evidence that the conservative philosophy is a morally bankrupt, fundamentally corrupted philosophy.
For their part, Republican leaders haven’t done much to dispel that myth. In fact, most influential Republicans seem hellbent on doing everything they can to validate progressive antipathy towards the conservative movement, most notably by turning a blind eye to the radical right-wing forces that have extended their reach far beyond the online spaces to which they used to be confined.
To be clear, the rise of the radical right didn’t begin with Trump. They existed long before he came along. But when they latched onto his presidency and tried to use him as a conduit for their repulsive ideology, he decided to play along and establish an on-again, off-again alliance with them in exchange for their loyalty and activism. Ever since then, the number of Republican leaders willing to do the right thing—to speak out against the radicals within their own ranks; explicitly condemn dangerous alt-right organizations and militias; and shoot down conspiracy theories like QAnon and Pizzagate—has dwindled to almost zero.
The election of Marjorie Taylor Greene, an unapologetic supporter of the QAnon conspiracy movement, is proof enough of the moral rot that Trump’s unholy alliance with the radical right has allowed into the GOP. If that rot continues to spread, it will eventually infect the broader conservative movement and transform it into the very thing that some progressives claim it has already become—a movement dominated by bigoted, authoritarian, conspiracy-minded extremists. To prevent that from happening, the GOP is going to have to step up and address the absence of moral leadership that put them in this predicament in the first place. And if they’re not willing to do that, Joe Biden should consider doing it for them.
Former Senator John McCain was perhaps the last Republican leader to take seriously the responsibility of policing his party’s ranks. Utah Senator Mitt Romney has to some extent tried to fill McCain’s shoes, but his efforts have mostly been met with a cold silence from his GOP comrades, many of whom fear the potential consequences of alienating their own base. With Trump out of the picture, it is possible that someone will finally step up to act as the party’s conscience, much as McCain did for the bulk of his career, but it’s not at all clear who that person might be.
For Democrats and President-elect Biden, the lack of ethical leadership within the GOP presents a golden opportunity to establish a new, all-inclusive ethos in Washington, D.C. that takes rural America’s problems and concerns seriously but does not do so at the expense of liberal ethics, basic decency, or the health and welfare of marginalized minorities. To accomplish that, the incoming administration will have to wage a two-front battle against both the right-wing radicals trying to push the GOP down a very dark path and the far-left activists clinging to the misconception that the conservative movement has devolved into a one-dimensional bastion of bigotry and bitterness. That’s not a battle that can be won in the next four years, but it’s a battle that must be fought, or else relations between the left and right will continue to degrade to the point where peaceful coexistence may become impossible. Here’s hoping that Biden is up to the task.