The Ghosts of the Trump Presidency Will Linger Longer Than We Think

Gabrielle Bellot on the Parallel Victories of the 2020 Election

Last year, one day before Thanksgiving, an extraordinary image appeared on the then-President’s Twitter page. If you only saw a snippet of the picture, you might be forgiven for thinking it was a painting of the cinematic boxer Rocky Balboa, his chest bare and chiseled, gloves bright red, belt the hues of the American flag. Remarkably, however, the head on top of this body—once you enlarged the image to its full size—was none other than a stern-looking Donald Trump’s, as though Sylvester Stallone had been decapitated and had a new head, in some bizarre victory of transhumanism, installed atop his neck.

The image was posted without context, and what made it particularly astonishing was that the President’s actual body looks nothing like Rocky’s; Trump is flabby rather than muscular, an eater of Whoppers rather than a whopper of bodies. Yet the image was hardly the first of its kind. Throughout Trump’s presidency, his most devoted supporters—white males most of all—frequently displayed images of Trump as a stereotypically “macho” man, either by superimposing his head onto muscled bodies entirely unlike his own or painting Trump in positions—riding a bull, flexing biceps, boxing—he had never in real life appeared in.

If it seemed absurd to Trump’s opponents, the trend made sense to his ardent advocates. Trump, for them, was a tough guy, a strongman, a bellicose straight white man who bragged about his sexual conquests and made business deals. It didn’t matter that the real Trump—burger-gutted, beleaguered by bankruptcies—was nothing like the images. It was all about what the images symbolized, which was that a “real” American man was finally—finally—in power.

For some evangelicals, the exaggeratedly macho depictions harkened back to the Muscular Christianity movement, a popular philosophy that had first appeared in the Victorian era. Its core arguments were that the Bible endorsed athleticism and that men had suffered a serious crisis of manliness; the movement sought to toughen them up by claiming that working out was a moral necessity, employing sports imagery in its proselytization. Its imagery sometimes seemed to endorse pugnacity, if not outright violence, which seemed to be proved by a baffling incident in 1861, where one British reverend horsewhipped another reverend for relating a story in which words had been omitted from saying grace, due to a Jewish man being present. Muscular Christianity popularized the image of ripped men with rifles in one hand and Bibles in the other, a depiction that is at once a stereotype of a certain kind of American and of European colonialism.

These new images of Trump, who many evangelicals held up as a kind of anti-progressive messiah, blended all of this together. Later, when the coronavirus pandemic struck and Trump refused to wear a mask against the advice of health experts, Trump was depicted in his admirers’ circles as being a man’s man, not hiding, effetely, behind some facial covering. Trump was tough—and toughness was not just admirable, but moral.

Throughout Trump’s presidency, his most devoted supporters—white males most of all—frequently displayed images of Trump as a stereotypically “macho” man.

All of this came to a head in the 2020 election. Trump, despite his frequent crybaby fits, was the macho man; Joe Biden, who did wear a mask in public and had a woman as his vice-presidential pick, was depicted in the right-wing media as more feminine, a weakling. It was an election pitting starkly different views of the world—gender, race, queerness, the reality of climate change, the severity of the coronavirus pandemic—against each other. It was less a contest between the two actual presidential candidates—Biden, in particular, was hardly someone anyone could be excited about, except that he was not Trump, and even Trump’s fans sometimes admitted he was erratic—than between what each represented. A vote for Biden was, for the most part, a vote against the scattershot ravages of Trumpism; a vote against Biden was a vote against the so-called liberal agenda.

And here’s the thing: Trump lost the election, but he also won.

I can say this unequivocally because the 2016 election, where Trump won more overtly, was no fluke. Far too few Americans actually voted then, but a significant margin still voted for Trump—and, in 2020, an extraordinary number of Americans voted for him again. 2020 saw record voter turnout, and although Biden won both the electoral college and the popular vote, it should be deeply concerning how many people still endorsed what Trump stands for, how many people still believe in the traditionalistic, nationalistic fantasy that that image of Trump as a boxer embodies. The sheer number of votes Trump received—even if it was fewer than those who rejected him—is a testament to how difficult it will be to exorcise his demons from America.

That most Republicans refuse to acknowledge Biden as the President-Elect demonstrates how tight of a grip he has on a party, on swaths of a nation. It was never surprising that Trump might refuse to concede or whine, without evidence, about electoral fraud; sadly, it is no surprise that many other Republicans are either too corrupt or cowardly to accept that Biden legitimately won.

But, then again, this is a partly that, for decades, Trump has openly done things that many Americans would brush off with a shake of the head if they were told that they were the actions of some authoritarian government in another country. The GOP has tried to steal election after election by trying to disenfranchise likely Democrats through redistricting that makes travel to voting areas exorbitantly difficult, unnecessary ID laws, the abrupt shutdown of voting stations, false cries of fraud, and more—all of which Republicans did this year. And thanks to the overwhelming hypocrisy of Republicans—most of all, Mitch McConnell, who I consider one of the most dangerous, amoral people in this country—the Supreme Court, which should never be an overtly partisan body, is now one yet again; it is very possible that abortion access, anti-discrimination laws, and marriage equality, amongst other things, are at risk of being curtailed or eliminated altogether.

Still, liberals have some cause to celebrate. Nothing—not conservative corruption, not wildfires, not a pandemic, not the prosaism of Biden as a candidate—could stop Americans from voting against Trump in droves. The era of waking up in fear of a world war being started via an inexplicable tweet from our president has ended, for now. I no longer have to expect, each day, that the President will roll back trans rights even more, as Trump’s administration, using us to score political points, was fanatically obsessed with doing. Biden has committed to listening to scientists rather than partisans in his viral response, and he will both rejoin the Paris climate accord and put an end to the childish, jingoistic nonsense that was Trump’s “America First” policy. And there is an unimpeachable poetic justice in Biden receiving nearly the same number of electoral votes—if, as seems likely, he wins Arizona and Georgia—as Trump did in 2016, a victory undeniably due to voters of color.

A vote for Biden was, for the most part, a vote against the scattershot ravages of Trumpism; a vote against Biden was a vote against the so-called liberal agenda.

Most excitingly for me, we have the first female vice president in Kamala Harris, whose Black and South-Asian ancestry helps make her a symbol to so many that, for all of America’s bloody racism, we can still look to people of color at some of the highest levels of office for a modicum of spiritual support. (I remain sadly skeptical that a female president—and imagine if she were queer and nonwhite, to boot—could realistically be elected in America, given the widespread casual sexism in this country, but Harris’ victory gives me hope.)

But the America that Biden and Harris inherit is no less divided with them in charge. And the polarization is hardly just between Republicans and Democrats, or between progressives, moderates, Trumpists, and Never-Trumpers; it is, instead, between visions for nothing less than saving the soul of America. It is between systems of reality, between scientific theories and conspiracy theories, between the futures we shall walk through. It is between our stories.

Countries, like all things, are composed of stories. America, in this sense, is no definite thing; it is instead a vast tapestry of tales being rewoven, reworked, reimagined, constant as the Lady of Shalott’s curse in Tennyson’s poem. For her, doomed to weave images on her loom without being allowed to look outside, the pictures she designs are poor substitutes for what she knows must be in the world she cannot visit; like Plato’s cave, the images are “shadows” she is “half-sick of.”

A country’s stories are shadows, too, though they may as likely be shadows of things that exist as of angels and demons that do not. The stories that make America up are not equal in their plausibility or veracity, but convincing someone of this, especially when they feel at home in their own spot of tapestry, is so difficult as to seem impossible.

How do you convince someone their storyteller is wrong, after all, when you are the monster in their tale?

*

“In a war of liberation,” the Martinican writer Frantz Fanon declared in 1959 in A Dying Colonialism, “the colonized people must win, but,” he added sardonically, “they must do so cleanly, without ‘barbarity.’” Fanon, who was writing about Algeria’s years-long struggle for independence from its colonizers, had noticed something curious: that the rules that applied to the colonizers rarely applied equally to the colonized.

Countries, like all things, are composed of stories. America, in this sense, is no definite thing; it is instead a vast tapestry of tales being rewoven, reworked, reimagined.

If a white European colonist did something violent, it might be excused as a temporary lapse in the refinement one nonetheless expected of them; if a nonwhite colonial citizen did the same, however, they would be viewed as exhibiting the dangerous, wild savagery that the colonizers already expected of them. In other words, the colonized person must toe a fine line in their behavior, or they will be judged harshly for the same things that their colonizer might be excused for. The racist implication is clear: behave yourself, even if you are justifiably furious, or you will become the thing they already believe you to be.

While A Dying Colonialism has its flaws, Fanon’s observation about behavioral hypocrisy was spot-on. I can’t help but think of it today, as I reflect on the double standards that fill America’s stories, the way that one group of people can behave with minor, if any, repercussions, and the violent repercussions that another group is faced with for doing the same thing.

In America—itself, of course, an imperial power in all but name—if you are Black and you get enraged, understandably, at yet another unarmed person being executed by the police, you are not supposed to actually show that rage; do so, and you will be attacked as the angry savage, a member of the mobs that, in Trump’s dog-whistling rhetoric, are coming to burn down white Americans’ neighborhoods. Peacefully protest, with no weapons present, to show that anger in the streets, and you have a good chance of being pepper-sprayed, punched, or even put into the back of a van by the police, simply because the police you assume you, being nonwhite, pose such a high threat; by contrast, white Trump supporters can brandish firearms at rallies and scream in police officers’ faces with little to no action from the cops.

This basic dynamic—that the color of your skin determines how much you can get away with, how large of a subconscious threat you presume someone to be—has appeared in America’s tapestries for centuries, and there is little indication it is going anywhere. This is the America that Biden has inherited, the fright he says he will fight to unite. I want to believe in an America that, against all odds, can heal its divisions and follow a path towards something like true, loving justice—but I have lost so much faith in that story that I feel like an atheistic pastor just relaying it.

The truer story, sadly, is that our colonialism will not die. America today is different from America before the Civil War in obvious ways, yet the fundamental racist assumptions that defined and divided the country’s citizens then live on now, subconsciously and consciously. America has been paranoid about race for too long to just let it go. These old racist assumptions are the ghosts that keep roaming the land, and, like some ghosts, they are hungry for blood.

*

America, to be sure, has always had extreme divisions. It is a Boschian garden of a country: chaotic, carnivalesque, equal parts carnality and the clutching of pearls, Eden and the Inferno, beauty and barbarism. If this motley country seems more divided now, it is partly because its divisions are simply returning to the level of starkness they had decades earlier at the height of the Civil Rights movement—a movement that has never stopped, but has simply become more visible once again.

How do you convince someone their storyteller is wrong, after all, when you are the monster in their tale?

With Biden in charge of this messy country, little is clear. It’s not even clear that Trump will ever formally concede the election. But even if those of us who want to fight for a more equitable, just country deserve some moments to bask in the calming light of knowing that Trump will be gone, we cannot get complacent.

Though Biden will likely undo some of the damage that Trump brought upon the world, many of us are still acutely at risk of having our basic rights curtailed, particularly those of us who live in states governed by Trump loyalists who yearn to diminish abortion access, put trans women in men’s prisons, allow LGBTQ people to be fired for being queer. Fixing this is up to us as much as to the people we elect—and, arguably, it is more up to us.

We all have to contend with the movement that Trump helped forge; it will not go anywhere, but will simply evolve once Trump goes, just as it evolved out of a blend of Tea-Party politics, white supremacist paranoias, the anti-feminist and pro-male online crowd that spawned Gamergate, a few international hackers sowing disinformation, and hordes of grinning trolls who cackle, like Bosch’s devils, in the blaze. More than any president before him, Trump has helped to destroy the idea of generally accepted facts; in their place are whatever stories his followers want to believe in, and feel validated by, the most. Tell a story of Trump the manly boxer knocking out the effeminate liberals enough, and it becomes simply an alternative history, even if it was more shadowboxing and wheezing than anything else.

The lifespan of a fact has changed. If Biden hopes to “unite” America, whatever this realistically means, it means doing that biggest of things: making America’s stories align with facts. Until then, all we can do is keep shouting our truths louder than ever, so they do not fade, along with our rights, regardless of who is in the Oval Office.

And we must never forget the unsettling fact that both men won this election, in different ways. If Trump’s body will soon leave the White House, his ghost will remain, haunting the Oval Office, and America at large, for the next four years—and probably more. Trump may very well go to prison after his term is over, but wherever he ends up, his movement will remain, casting doubt on facts, and this is Trump’s victory, his grand old party through America’s night. The movement may change its name, may quiet down for a bit, but it will be there, biding its time. Trump won, in the end, because he will still be with us after his loss—and to forget that is to already concede the next election.

Gabrielle Bellot
Gabrielle Bellot
Gabrielle Bellot is a staff writer for Literary Hub. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The Paris Review Daily, The Cut, Tin House, The Guardian, Guernica, The Normal School, The Poetry Foundation, Lambda Literary, and many other places. She is working on her first novel.





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