It’s not about Trump.
Joe Biden knows that. So do Joe Manchin and Josh Hawley.
It’s about people. Donald Trump exploited the discontent of many Americans for his own political gain. Even as Trump fades, Biden and the two senators understand those Americans remain the critical center of national politics.
In an essay “The Bitter Heartland,” William Galston wrote about the resentment of people who believe they were gradually ignored by the Democratic Party, which had taken their support for granted.
They saw the Democratic Party as turning from them and their bread-and-butter issues to focus on other groups who demanded the same rights and social treatment they had enjoyed. At first they became Reagan Democrats, and they would later be Trump’s loyal supporters.
Galston explored the reasons for their resentment. Socially conservative and often religious, they saw the growth of progressive liberalism that could upset the traditional role of the group that had historically dominated – white men.
“Immigrants, minorities, non-Christians, even atheists have taken center stage, forcing them to the margins of American life,” he wrote. They believe liberals want to dictate how they should behave and “hold them in contempt” for their traditions. They see Democratic liberals upholding a double standard, by only selectively supporting free speech and opposing violence.
Beyond the traditional American way of life being ignored and challenged, they were losing ground in the economy. The need for labor from assembly line manufacturing to coal mining decreased. College-educated technocrats deployed automation and artificial intelligence. New forms of investment created a new wealthy class.
The traditional core voters of the Democratic Party saw their values ignored and the income gap grow between them and those who came to dominate the country, Galston wrote.
Trump sensed the opportunity to take advantage of what might be called “the age of resentment.” He promised to halt or reverse the trends of recent decades by reviving manufacturing, reducing environmental protection and increasing trade protection.
On the social and legal level, he would stem the movements for greater equality for African Americans, women and those seeking sexual freedom.
Even without fully understanding the implications of his promises and actions, those resenting their lost status understood the message. “Make America Great Again” meant a return to the kind of country they knew in the decades before Barack Obama’s presidency.
The 2020 election was a defeat for Donald Trump, but not for the concerns of this core group. Yet he had become so integral to their resentment, they had difficulty separating the two, even though Republican congressional candidates had run well, despite his loss.
There have been three reactions to the resulting situation. The first is the drive to reinstall Trump in the White House by forcefully reversing the election outcome or by the 2024 election. The election deniers cannot separate their hopes for MAGA from the flawed man who led their cause.
The second is Trumpism without Trump, perhaps best embodied by Sen. Hawley (R-MO). Drop Trump and his personal defects but exploit his appeal. At first, that means aligning with the former president and his false election claims. Then, if he continues to fade, loyalist Hawley or another Republican can pick up the MAGA banner.
President Biden actively pursues the third approach. He believes the resentful core must be given the skills and opportunity to catch up with change instead of hopelessly resisting it. At the same time, he acts to protect the environment and enhance the rights of those who have been denied.
MAGA means a return to the past. Biden’s “Build Back Better” means keeping what’s good from the past and improving it. These are both ways to appeal to those resentful of change.
Biden’s policies require more government action. It must improve incomes almost immediately, expand education, and protect civil and social rights. At a time when people have been schooled that taxes are bad and government is too big, he must tax more and grow government’s role.
He faces Republicans who have pledged to block him. Some swing Democrats, like Sen. Manchin (D-W.Va.), worry more about MAGA voters than the need for social and economic changes that could parallel those of the New Deal of the 1930s.
Biden seeks results quickly. The key election ahead is not the 2024 presidential contest but next year’s congressional races. If the Democrats lose their slim majority in Congress, he loses almost any hope for his policies.
To succeed, the Democrats must make gains now among their historic working-class voters while maintaining the momentum of equal rights. Or if blocked this year, Biden needs voters next year to reward him for his efforts by giving him a stronger majority.
An historic struggle – between MAGA and Biden’s Build Back Better – is happening now.