Author and radio host Thom Hartmann on the "struggle for democracy" and the road ahead

Biden's presidency could be the "last gasp" of democracy, says Hartmann, unless Democrats dump neoliberal economics

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published November 16, 2020 7:00AM (EST)

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden speaks at a drive-in election night event at the Chase Center in the early morning hours of November 04, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden speaks at a drive-in election night event at the Chase Center in the early morning hours of November 04, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

America is in limbo.

There is the good: Joe Biden is president-elect. He has defeated Donald Trump, winning the highest percentage of eligible voters since Richard Nixon in 1972. Biden also received the highest number of votes in American history — approximately 77 million. It is clear that the American people have given Biden a mandate to lead the country into a better future. 

As expected, Donald Trump continues to claim, against all evidence to the contrary, that the 2020 election was "stolen" from him through "voter fraud" and is attempting to use the courts to overturn the election results. To this point these efforts have completely failed. Biden has announced a committee of esteemed experts who will lead the country's efforts to defeat the coronavirus pandemic. Pfizer recently announced that it has developed a vaccine against the coronavirus which should be ready for mass distribution in 2021. Despite all of Donald Trump and his movement's assaults on the country's democracy, social cohesion and even its future, there is a sense that President Biden could both return the country to "normalcy" and then make it better and stronger.

Then there is the bad. Donald Trump received approximately 72 million votes in the 2020 election, about 10 million more than he did in 2016. The ideology of Trumpism, built on white supremacy, nativism, collective narcissism, misogyny, greed, corruption, right-wing Christian extremism, anti-intellectualism, cruelty and other pathologies were enthusiastically endorsed, rather than rejected, by tens of millions of Americans. 

Trump is also attempting an obvious slow-motion coup, in which he is purging senior national security officials who have shown themselves unwilling to do his bidding, for example, by turning the country's military against the American people. Trump's coup plot is part of a much bigger effort to delegitimize the very idea of democracy and free elections in America. Breaking from centuries of tradition in the United States, Trump has refused to concede defeat or assist in the lawful transfer of power to Biden. Trump's right-wing paramilitaries and other political thugs remain "standing by" to engage in acts of violence against his "enemies." Trump will not surrender his efforts to remain president for life. The coronavirus pandemic continues to spread uncontrollably. The country's economy is still in ruins.

Joe Biden is a much better human being than Donald Trump. That fact is indisputable. But just because Biden is a good person does not mean that he will have any advantage in successfully managing the deeply entrenched forces of social inequality, injustice, societal alienation and loneliness, plutocracy, gangster capitalism, white supremacy and pathocracy.

At the Nation, Tom Engelhardt describes the myriad challenges Biden will soon inherit:

Trumpism has split America in two in a way that hasn't been imaginable since the Civil War. The president and the Senate are likely to be in gridlock, the judicial system a partisan affair of the first order, the national security state a money-gobbling shadow empire, the citizenry armed to the teeth, racism rising, and life everywhere in an increasing state of chaos.

Welcome to the (Dis)United States. Donald Trump led the way and, whatever he does, I suspect that this, for at least the time being, is still in some sense his world, not Joe Biden's. He was the man and, like it or not, we were all his apprentices in a performance of destructive power of the first order that has yet to truly end.

How should the American people navigate such a state of personal and national limbo and the feelings and emotions which come from such a deep lack of certainty about the future of the country?

Thom Hartmann, a radio host, bestselling author, and leading progressive voice counsels that the American people — and liberals and progressives in particular — should be both optimistic and cautious about Joe Biden's presidency.

Hartmann's newest book is "The Hidden History of Monopolies: How Big Business Destroyed the American Dream." The Thom Hartmann Show can be heard from 12 to 3 p.m., Eastern time, via the nonprofit Pacifica Network and on commercial radio stations all across the United States.

In this conversation, Hartmann explains that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have the potential to enact a progressive policy agenda if they are sufficiently pressured and held accountable. Hartmann also explains that the Democratic Party has for too long run away from its winning message on the economy by embracing neoliberalism instead of the history and legacy of the New Deal and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Such bad habits still linger after Biden's victory over Trump, as even now some mainstream Democrats are complaining that the party has gone too far left, which is why it lost seats in the House and failed to win the Senate.

Hartmann also issues an ominous warning: Biden's presidency may be the last opportunity to save American democracy from the Republican Party and a global right-wing authoritarian movement.

You can also listen to my conversation with Thom Hartmann on my podcast "The Truth Report" or through the player embedded below.

As usual, this conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Is this what victory feels like?

This is like a moment when the child in the story says, "But the emperor has no clothes!" We got rid of the emperor, but the empire is still here, in the form of the Republican Party and conservatives.

There is also a worldwide coalition of governments run by strongman leaders who do not like democracy and see it as a threat to their rule, wealth and power. That group will continue to do everything they can to destroy democracy.

Right now, their useful idiots are the Republican Party and particularly these Republican senators who are feeding the whole Trump narrative that "Our democratic institutions have been corrupted" and "You can't trust democratic institutions, you can't trust democracy." These are messages carefully calibrated to destroy our faith in democratic institutions. And yes, it is absolutely true that America is not so much a democracy any longer, we are an oligarchy.

Republican senators represent about 25 percent of the American people. The Electoral College is not reflective of America as a whole. The Supreme Court has handed over to billionaires and big corporations the keys to the kingdom, essentially. They can own and buy and sell politicians and they do so every day..

There is a struggle for democracy in this democratic republic. This is the last gasp of that struggle.

I keep trying to remind people that the 2020 election and Biden's victory was a battle and not a war. Declaring victory is premature. Do you think that the American people are going to stay engaged, or are they so exhausted that they have convinced themselves that they won and Trumpism is defeated?

I suspect that we are going to see the normal drop-off that one sees after a presidential election. The runoff in Georgia is probably going to be more like a midterm. That having been said, people want a return to normalcy, or at the very least not having to compulsively check their news sources five times a day to see what new, fresh hell Donald Trump just rolled out.

I think that all the elections going forward are going to be somewhat different than elections in the past few decades. Up until the 2020 election, the Republican Party had been successful, starting with the Reagan revolution, in arguing that they had new ideas. They knew what would work and what wouldn't work. They were good at governing. They were prepared to take leadership. The Republicans were going to campaign on their ideas. In this election, people figured out that the principal tool that the Republican Party uses to win elections is not ideas, it is voter suppression.

The spectacle of the 24/7 news media and the commentariat is always something to behold. They seemed to be shocked and dismayed at how much support for Donald Trump there is in America. They could not believe how close this election was. One would think that the mainstream news media and its commentators would understand the reality of the sheer amount of rage and white supremacy there is in the country.

I was expecting a tighter race than the polls were predicting, although I was expecting Biden to win. I think that a lot of us, particularly a lot of whites of goodwill, had completely misread the level of malevolence or toxicity of white racism in America. I was guessing that the really hardcore white racist vote in the United States was 10%, 15% or maybe 20%. I am now thinking it is more like 35% or 40%, which horrifies me. I do not know how else to explain this. I understand that Trump's populist economic message was very successful after 40 years of neoliberalism and shipping our jobs to China. The tragedy is that it is a process begun by Reagan and Bush.

Democrats never talk about that because Clinton continued it and nobody wants to trash Bill Clinton. But I believe that it is really time that we trash Bill Clinton and reject the neoliberalism that he introduced into our party. The other issue that must be confronted is how extraordinarily toxic Facebook is. Mark Zuckerberg and his colleagues have used algorithms in a way that has really amplified the hard-right echo chamber and hate message.

Instead of becoming more progressive and forward-thinking, the Democrats over the last few decades have too often retreated from those ideas. I worry that will be the lesson of the 2020 election.

They have to recognize the economic component. And that is the problem: the Democrats have the winning economic message. Consider those places around the country where a $15 minimum wage was on the ballot — it typically won. Economic messages are great for Democrats, but the Democratic Party does not want to run on them because there is this internal debate between the corporate Democrats who want to protect the oil industry and the banking industry and the insurance industry, and the people-funded Democrats, the progressive Democrats, who are perfectly willing to take those industries on because the latter are basically parasites.

We pay twice as much for health care as any other country in the world. That is a $3,000 to $5,000 a year tax on the average American family. We pay more than twice as much than any other country in the developed world for internet, for telephone service, for cable TV, for health insurance, and for airfare.

The average family in America pays $5,000 a year more than in other developed countries just because our business systems have become so monopolized. We are in the grip of this neoliberal corporate monster that has just been draining the wealth out of the middle class, out of working-class people's pockets, and putting it into the top 1%. And Democrats are perfectly positioned to talk about that.

But oddly, Donald Trump has been the one for the last five years talking about that issue. The Democratic Party is leaving so many voters behind by not taking on these economic issues.

I want Joe Biden to succeed and be a great president. How do we hold Joe Biden accountable, given his track record as a corporate Democrat?

The fact that Kamala Harris is his running mate, and that Karine Jean-Pierre is her chief of staff -- she is one of the best progressives out there, and also one of the most well-informed progressives I've ever seen in the media. That gives me a lot of hope.

But Biden did run on a far more progressive platform than Obama or Clinton. We really need to get back to the values of the Great Society and the New Deal. I am not expecting any big initiatives to come until after the inauguration and possibly until after the election in Georgia.

Biden has been openly reaching out to Trumpists and other Republicans with his language about "healing" and saying we are not "enemies" of one another here in America. There are also the persistent discussions of Biden perhaps even including Republicans in his new administration. What about accountability? I am deeply concerned about Biden's temperament and willingness to compromise with Republicans and in doing so betraying the American people and the mandate they have given him.

I suspect that if Joe Biden reaches out to Republicans, he is going to get his hand slapped. And once again, much is going to depend on the election in Georgia. We just have to keep the pressure on him. I am not willing to prejudge Biden on how he is going to govern. I am willing to give it a couple of months and then let us see what happens. We can't just go to sleep. We can't just go on vacation. This is the immediate, small but noisy cancer that may have been excised from our republic or will be hopefully by Jan. 20.

But the metastasis of it, all the thousands of cancer cells throughout the body, they're still there. And we really need the chemotherapy of an aggressive progressive agenda, the Green New Deal, eliminating student debt and Medicare for All, as a starting point.

Will the corporatists and plutocrats and other members of the financial elite have more or less power after Trump?

They are to a certain extent above it all. They are going to continue making their money no matter. The system has been so rigged to the advantage of very wealthy people since the 1980s. They have not seen any real serious challenges to their power.  

For example, with Medicare for All, the only rich people who are going to be hurt are the multi-millionaires in the insurance industry. Good riddance. It's a relatively small number of people.

The Green New Deal is actually going to be a money-making opportunity for people in business.

Eliminating student debt can be done by using government funds. If we can hand a trillion and a half dollars to the top 15% of Americans in a Trump tax cut and the republic survives, there is only a trillion and a half dollars worth of student debt and we could just literally pay it all off and say, "That's it, no more, nor in the future."

And nobody would be hurt. The main battle in that regard is going to be against the libertarian billionaires, the Charles Kochs of the world who are funding all these groups, the state policy groups, ALEC, FreedomWorks and the like in what is an ideological battle between libertarians and people who believe in democracy.

There will be opposition. There will be people screaming, "Socialism!" — but they were screaming "Socialism!" around Medicare. They screamed "Socialism!" around Medicaid. They screamed "Socialism!" around Social Security. I think we can get past that.

What does accountability and reckoning look like for the Trump regime?

I want prosecutions. Kellyanne Conway should be facing jail for breaking the Hatch Act. Ivanka Trump should be facing jail. They knew that what they were doing was illegal. They flaunted it intentionally. The campaign finance violations. I also believe that we really need to be looking into Wilbur Ross playing the stock market with inside information. It is time that the rule of law has to apply to rich white people.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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