On the American right, Trumpism still rules

And it is down to the left to help the US shrug it off.

President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma in June 2020 [File: Sue Ogrocki/AP Photo]

Voicing racist bombast to single out vulnerable immigrants.

Clearly, losing an election and then repeatedly lying that it was rigged.

Having ties to an insurrection that interrupted America’s long history of peaceful transitions of power.

One would think such matters would drive people away from a political leader.

But no, not when we are dealing with former President Donald Trump.

Even after having been removed from Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, Trump remains popular among Republicans, that is, voters who identify as having views to the right of the political spectrum.

Just as critical for understanding the current dysfunction of American politics – when critical legislation on much-needed infrastructure and immigration reform has stalled as the main parties cannot agree on anything – is how many on the left buried their heads in the sand, so to speak, after Trump was elected back in 2016.

Many expressed their disdain for him by passionately exclaiming “not my president”. Others expressed their disgust by refusing to say Trump’s name, as if it mattered to his administration if someone said “45” instead of “President Trump”.

The reality is that you could turn off the TV when Trump appeared, but you could not turn away from the stark political divisions, inequalities and very real anxieties that have come to determine the American experience.

And that is what we are stuck with, even after Trump has exited the Oval Office – a country with crippling economic inequality, a healthcare system in shambles and the periodic, devastating natural disasters that burn our forests and flood our farms.

All this shows why Trump was – and remains – the driver of American politics.

The reason is that he channels people’s fears while conjuring the hate of detractors, which in the process makes American economic, political and social reality easy to digest.

Think about it.

For some, Trump is a saviour.

For others, he is a traitor.

Many have made him the target of their ire as decades of market deregulation have allowed an oligarchy of financial speculators on Wall Street and billionaire CEOs to run our country’s politics.

Meanwhile, Trump’s supporters defend him to no end, seeing in the mass protests against police brutality and racism following the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, last year a reason to back the police without question.

This panoramic view of the current political scene puts one recent controversy in perspective, that is, when Liz Cheney, the daughter of former President George W Bush’s Vice President Dick Cheney, was voted out of her position of leadership in the Republican party.

Quite simply, she lost because she does not support Trump.

Her replacement, Elise Stefanik, has a voting record that is more moderate than Cheney’s.

This did not matter as Stefanik has publicly and emphatically made her support of Trump well-known, while Cheney, on the contrary, has pledged to do everything in her power to stop the former president from returning to the White House.

A select few others in the Republican party have followed suit.

For instance, we have representative Adam Kinzinger, who has also staked his claim in challenging Trump. There is also Ben Sasse, one of the state of Nebraska’s two senators, who has similarly made it a point to condemn the former president.

These seemingly principled politicians have made it their mission to denounce Trump and the divisiveness that he created for the sake of saving the nation.

But, here is the rub – these few politicians are alone, screaming into the void.

The reason for their political isolation is that they do not speak to people’s anxieties as Trump does.

Let us be clear – Trump did nothing to address the causes of American anxiety when he was in office.

In fact, if there is a genius to his madness, then it is in Trump and his administration’s way of stoking the flames that increased his rise around certain hot-button issues.

Just check it out – his signature piece of legislation was a package of tax cuts. While incomes did marginally improve, corporations really cashed in, dedicating their increased profits to stock buybacks and executive bonuses.

Economic inequality, if anything, worsened.

On immigration, Trump promised a wall between Mexico and the United States that was never built. His demand that the US’s neighbour to the south pay for it, also, was brilliant for simplistically laying blame on one country for the continent’s migration catastrophe.

There have been many components to the border crisis in the US that has been decades in the making.

For starters, there has been no significant immigration reform legislation that has been passed since 1965. This, as NAFTA in the early 1990s drove rural Mexicans by the millions from the countryside and to the US because they could not compete with subsidised US agricultural exports.

Yet, such intricacies were not the concern of “45”.

What mattered was making immigrants into scapegoats for America’s many ills.

Decades of stagnant wages? Blame immigrants for driving them down.

Fear of crime? Blame immigrants, who had no choice when fleeing poverty and violence, about breaking the law when crossing the border without authorisation.

Anxieties concerning the country’s changing demographics? Blame immigrants, most of whom are darker than the average Euro-American citizen.

Immigration became the rhetorical linchpin of America’s current political culture, working to favour the right against the left.

More precisely, Trump managed to make a hyper-nationalist approach to immigration law enforcement central to the Republican party, in effect turning the issue into a cudgel to beat Democrats at whim. This remains the case, especially as networks such as Fox News continue to feature segments such as “Biden’s Border Crisis” to call out the Democrat for failing to curtail the waves of new arrivals who reach the southern border.

Meanwhile, Biden and others in his administration seem weak, inarticulate and lost when it comes to dealing with the ongoing border crisis.

Trump can teach us something here, however unsavoury that idea may seem.

In particular, Trump did not fix immigration but spoke about it in a way that simplified American political life. Until team Biden does the same, figuring out a way to relabel or recharacterise immigration to de-escalate the situation, Trump – or someone just like him – will have ample political capital to work with, moving forward.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.