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Butler, Pennsylvania, is a small steel mill town north of Pittsburgh, with a population of 13,000 people. Donald Trump is popular there. One of its citizens, Nadine Schoor, 63, expressed her feelings about the president to The New York Times. “I look at President Trump,” she said, “and we’re the family – the country’s the family. … And he’s the parent. He’s got a lot of tough love, and he doesn’t care what anyone thinks to get something done that he knows is right.”

Pollsters, Democrats and liberals in general once again underestimated the enthusiasm and numerical strength of Trump supporters such as Schoor. While Joe Biden squeaked through to victory, there are millions of people who feel — and voted — the same way: Trump is “one of us,” a father and a savior.

The underestimation of such voters, and the complacent belief that a Biden landslide was almost a foregone conclusion, revealed the widening gulf between urban, educated, more or less progressive America and rural and working-class America. Like other progressive parties in the Western world, the Democratic Party once represented the interests of the working class — the white working class above all, but often workers of color, too. Republicans represented the interests of big business and the wealthier classes.

As the role of heavy industry shrank, the class allegiance of both major parties began to shift. Progressives everywhere paid increasing attention to racial, sexual and gender equality. These are laudable and necessary goals, but this form of identity politics appeals more to highly educated urban citizens than to workers, miners or farmers, whose identities are focused less on social justice than on religion and the right to own guns.

The Democratic Party’s repudiation of these voters’ views as “deplorable” or “racist” stoked resentment of urban elites, driving many in search of a new political home. When Donald Trump appeared before workers and farmers in his red baseball cap, he articulated their antipathies coarsely but effectively. A louche product of a milieu in which shady real-estate deals skirted the world of organized crime, Trump shared some of the class resentment of people who could only dream of his wealth. Trump became their savior, and tied the Republican Party firmly to hard-right populism. Even without Trump as president, the GOP will remain his party for a long time.

The question is whether the Republicans would have gone that way anyway. Has Trump been a driver of political and social changes, or was he simply an unscrupulous opportunist who manipulated forces that were ready to be exploited? Is Trump simply the snarling face of a rotten political order stripped of its façade of “decency” and “civility”? Or did he cause a great deal of the rot?

Much has been made by Trump’s critics of his “unprecedented” trampling of norms: declaring anything short of his own victory in an election to be fraudulent and illegitimate; calling journalists “enemies of the people”; threatening violence against political opponents; enriching his family and cronies; and so on.

This behavior is, indeed, a threat to the liberal underpinnings of American democracy. But it is also true that the problems — or the rot, if you prefer — that Trump exploited long preceded him: the increasingly wide gap between rich and poor, the heavy hand of corporate power, the harm to some people from globalization. Would these problems have led to an assault on America’s democratic institutions and the flirtation with authoritarianism, without Trump?

Similar questions have been endlessly debated about other demagogues in history. Trump clearly is not Hitler. He is not even a dictator. But discussions about the impact of authoritarian leaders can be instructive, nonetheless. Some people, often conservatives, subscribe to the “great man” view: history is made by extraordinary leaders. Others, mostly on the left, believe that leaders are products of particular circumstances; history is moved by social, economic, and political forces and structures, not exceptional individuals.

Anti-Semitism, mass poverty, grotesque disparities between rich and poor, a sense of humiliation after defeat in a horrendous world war, a global slump, hideous inflation and roaming bands of brutalized veterans: All these conditions were present in 1920s Germany, Hitler or no Hitler. In this sense, his rise was structural, the result of circumstances.

The same might be said about more salubrious leaders. Winston Churchill would not have become “the Greatest Englishman” were it not for the unique events of May 1940. But this doesn’t mean that history would have taken the same course without Churchill, or indeed Hitler. They reacted to certain conditions, to be sure, but they pushed them in a direction, or to extremes, that other leaders probably would not have done. There is no law of history that made Hitler’s war, let alone the Holocaust, inevitable.

Again, Trump is no Hitler, and even less, despite his pretensions, a Churchill. But he did inflame and incite hatred and resentment that might have been channeled differently by someone else. Unless this is properly understood, the Democrats, and their progressive allies in other countries, will not be able to undo some of the damage done.

Dismissing Trump’s supporters as deluded, deplorable, ignorant racists will solve nothing. Their sometimes-justified fears and resentments must be addressed. People have been shabbily treated by corporate interests that care only about enriching their stockholders. Globalization has left many behind. Urban attitudes about gender and sexuality can be alarming to people with different notions about who they wish to be. Educated elites should not presume that they always know best what is good for other people.

The answer, for Democrats, is not to pander to the prejudices of the least educated citizens. But it will be essential for a progressive party to link itself once more to the underprivileged, and not only on the grounds of racial justice, necessary though that may be.

One way to achieve this is to focus less on matters of sexual or racial identity, and more on the economics of class. Many Trump supporters mentioned the economy as the main reason they backed the president. Democrats should offer better economic opportunities, a new New Deal. Trump promised something like that in 2016, but didn’t deliver, except to the very rich. The Democrats should concentrate their efforts on delivering to the many who are not rich. Only then is there a chance to channel popular rage in ways that strengthen liberal democracy instead of destroying it.

Ian Buruma is the author, most recently, of “A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir.”

© Project Syndicate, 2020.

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