Democracy & Government

Unsanitized, Election Edition: Donald Trump Has Been Good for Democracy

Unsanitized, Election Edition: Donald Trump Has Been Good for Democracy

People stand in front of a digital screen displaying election coverage in Black Lives Matter Plaza on November 3, 2020 in Washington DC. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

This article is adapted from Unsanitized: The Election Daily Report put out by The American Prospect. You can find the original publication here.

First Ballot

The week before the inauguration in 2017, a group of women decided to sublimate their agitation into a show of strength. They turned out more people than the president did for his swearing-in. Many of the marchers joined chapters of an organization invented by two former legislative staffers who wrote a guide to using peaceful protest to change Congress. Frustrated with the party who enabled the rise of a demagogue, leftists got serious about electoral politics and started recruiting the first batch of ordinary people who could mount a challenge to the ossified Democratic leadership. A week after the inauguration, they all flocked to airports to demonstrate on behalf of foreigners they did not know, trying just to enter the country and reunite with loved ones.

This movement had many contours, many spokes in the wheel. It had its share of opportunists and grifters, as is par for the course in modern America. (The conservative movement, at its essence, is a sophisticated direct-mail targeting program to bilk nervous seniors so movement leaders can afford mansions in the D.C. suburbs.) But at the root, it had millions of ordinary people, white suburban moms and first-generation immigrants, practiced activists and novices who’d never contacted their member of Congress before, teachers and factory regulars standing up for their rights in the workplace, organizers and the organized, Black people tired of having the color of their skin be a direct threat to their existence, all of them using their voice, shouting, participating.

They would not be in these streets, not in these numbers, not with this intensity, if it weren’t for the occupant of the Oval Office. The rise of Donald Trump had an equal and opposite reaction, and it got millions of people acquainted with their democracy again. Tonight we will get the next set of results of that engagement. The process of not only protecting but improving this democracy doesn’t end, and that’s the next step for the movement sometimes called the Resistance. But I can tell you this: Trump’s presence, what it meant and what it signaled, activated this country, in bad ways but also in good ones. You absolutely can say that it restored our democracy for the challenges ahead.

This movement has already proven victorious. It took the House of Representatives and won 40 seats, the largest gain for the Democratic Party since 1974. It has spilled over into a wave of labor action, awakening from a long slumber. It has turned sports leagues into activist collaboratives, downtowns into zones of defiance, and modest homes in the suburbs into organizing hubs. It finally had the strength to build a climate movement that knows how to energize people. It enabled women to lead and reflected America in all its diversity as well as any political movement in my lifetime.

Am I saying that this work would have been impossible in the absence of Donald Trump? I remember the previous eight years, the loss of thousands of legislative races, the insular way in which the Democratic Party operated. It’s not up to parties to build political movements of course, but the rank and file sleepwalked through the Obama years, assuming that their leaders would take care of things. Progressives couldn’t win a primary. Mainstream Democrats couldn’t win an election. And the culture did not reflect the urgency necessary in our politics, to force governance.

Under Trump, people got to work. It’s been hidden because of the pandemic, but I can confidently say that there was more voter mobilization in this election than there was in the very top-down, highly organized Obama year of 2008. We know that the fundraising at the grassroots level broke all records, in support of someone in Joe Biden who was last considered charismatic in 1973. Take a second today and visit mobilize.us, an aggregator for the digital organizing—virtual phonebanks, textbanks, friendbanks—that we’ve been consigned to this election year. There are hundreds of events, on top of the thousands or tens of thousands over the past couple months.

You don’t get serious about democracy until you get the sense that it can be taken away. Whether you think that Trump represented a bumbling mistake, a rift in the space-time continuum or an approaching fascism, he concentrated the minds of the nation. He generated all the elements of resistance necessary for a show of political force. And it’s been healthy for all aspects of the left. The only way that real governing change will come to America is through a popular movement. And the only way that change will come at the level commensurate to face our challenges is with a vibrant left. Both have been byproducts of the Trump years.

For all the assaults on norms and expectations and the democratic process, ultimately 160 million or more Americans will vote in this election, shattering the old records. Millions more volunteered, marched, protested, organized, and fought for their rights. Democracy needs energy, and American democracy sorely needed it. Trump’s election provided it.

The hope is that once the switch is turned, one people are activated and engaged in democracy, that they don’t walk away. With the treacherous circumstances right now and the need for restoration, we absolutely cannot have an empty playing field left to a few to clean up after the election. Four years have taught us that democracy is worth fighting for. The future must continue that fight every day.

An Election Retrospective

I’m extremely proud of our election coverage this year, and we decided to collect it together in a state-by-state roundup. We covered elections in 37 different states, which is quite incredible given our little staff and tiny budget. You can peruse our state-by-state roundup here, and it will get you up to date before the polls close. Thanks to our superlative writing staff and contributors for all of their work.

Also, the Prospect staff made its predictions on the outcome of the race. You’ll have to go to the link to get mine!

Days Until the Election

It’s today.

Today I Learned, Election Edition

David Dayen

David Dayen is the author of Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street’s Great Foreclosure Fraud, winner of the Studs and Ida Terkel Prize. Follow him on Twitter: @ddayen.

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