The Great Populist Experiment has come to an end.

Four years ago, Americans decided to throw a bomb into the middle of their national government. They elected a loud-mouthed populist as president.

The 2016 election was a middle-finger to the American government, a government that a huge number of people distrust and disdain.

The 2016 mood was, blow it up — kick'em in the crotch by electing a bellicose personality who would shake up the "Washington establishment."

Well, the anti-government forces got what they wanted — four years of constant turmoil and chaos; four years of dismissing experts in favor of inexperienced "gut feelings;" four years of national and international decline; four years of hell.

But like all populist movements, this one eventually faced a backlash and a reckoning with reality. Facing a worldwide pandemic, experts are suddenly once again in favor.

Last week, a nation weary of a petulant and unstable Donald J. Trump fired him as president of the United States.

Democrat Joe Biden was elected, winning the national popular vote by a large margin and the electoral vote by enough to carry the day.

Even Georgia, a Red state for 30 years, flipped Blue.

"E tu, Georgia?"

The King, it seems, wasn't invincible after all.

•••

I realize that a lot of people don't believe Trump was really defeated. 

I saw some loyal Trump supporters waving their flags on the side of the road over the weekend, as if to say they had won no matter what the vote count really is.

And Trump has thrown his usual Twitter-tantrums over the election's outcome, claiming that the election was "stolen" from him.

But would anyone expect Trump to react any other way than with rage and denial? To lie and deceive? To snarl and growl?

Did anyone really expect Donald Trump to act with grace, humility and in the interest of national unity?

Hell no. We all knew that if he lost, he'd throw a tantrum.

No matter, he was defeated by real votes and there ain't no do-overs.

In 2016, Republicans told Democrats to "get over it."

That advice is moving in reverse.

Facts matter. Trump lost.

•••

But just because Trump went down in flames doesn't mean his ugly brand of populism is over.

During the last four years, Trump unleashed the furies of those who cling to a misplaced sense of victimhood. 

What is really shocking about this election isn't that Biden won; it's that despite the last four years of Trump-inspired chaos and conflict, half the nation still voted for him.

Despite his corruption.

Despite his vanity and preening.

Despite his incessant lying.

Despite promoting conspiracy theories that are pure bunk.

Despite his weaponizing government agencies to go after political enemies.

Despite having done virtually nothing to address a deadly pandemic.

Despite lowering the nation's standing in the world community.

Despite constant attacks on American institutions and democracy.

Despite polarizing the nation along ethnic, racial and social lines.

Half the nation endorsed and approved all of that in this election. Half the nation believes in Trumpist Populism.

Think about that for a moment.

•••

Here in Georgia, Democrat Stacey Abrams is getting credit for her work to flip the state Blue.

Abrams lost the 2018 race for governor and claimed it was due to voter suppression. Since then, she's worked to register new voters and she helped build a grassroots effort to get Democrats out to vote this year.

It worked.

Had she been elected governor in 2018, probably none of that would have happened. 

By winning in 2018, the GOP actually put into motion the dynamics that led to the state voting for Biden this year.

And yet, Abrams and Trump share an ugly link: They have both assailed the legitimacy of Georgia's voting system.

In 2018, Abrams felt like the governor's race had been stolen from her by Republican tactics to suppress votes, although the evidence of widespread voter suppression was suspect. (The main problems in 2018 were in counties that were run by Democrats. The "suppression"  Abrams complained about were more subtle, like the exact-match system and efforts to purge voter rolls.)

Now, Trump is claiming the same thing, that the state was stolen from him through fraud, although the state is run by GOP officials.

While there may be isolated cases of voter suppression or fraud, the overall election system in the state is fair, accessible and legitimate. 

Democrats won in 2020 and can't claim widespread voter suppression was a factor.

Republicans won in 2018 and defended the state's voting system; they can't now say it was illegitimate just because their guy lost.

•••

Trump wasn't the only loser last week.

Locally, Rep. Doug Collins lost his bid for a U.S. Senate seat in a wild scramble of a contest that saw Republicans and Democrats on the same ticket.

Collins is well-known in Jackson County, having spent a lot of time here over the years he served this Congressional district.

And Collins found his 15 minutes of fame as the lead minority member on the House Judiciary Committee during the impeachment hearings on Trump. Collins was one of the House's top Trump defenders during the last four years.

But his embrace of Trumpism corroded his soul. 

Those who know Collins saw him transform from a decent, caring public official into a bitter, divisive member of the Trump Cult. Like Trump, Collins let his ambition for power eclipse his morality.

The final straw was when Collins danced on the grave of former Supreme Court Justice Ruth Ginsburg with a Tweet that all but celebrated her death.

That's not the Doug Collins we used to know.

•••

All of which is an analogy to what Trump did to the nation over the last four years. 

He corroded our soul and appealed to our worst instincts as Americans.

Instead of unifying the nation, he bitterly divided it and did so on purpose.

Instead of celebrating the institutions and traditions that make our nation the greatest on earth, he assailed them and manipulated them for his own political gain.

Instead of making America great, he undermined the very foundations of our democracy with his populist rhetoric.

Donald Trump changed us and not for the better. He made us an angry, scared and insecure nation.

Trump is history, but it remains to be seen what kind of populist movement he leaves behind. 

•••

But before Democrats become too smug, they should realize they are part of the problem, too.

Democrats have allowed the lunatics in their party to define them.

They have spent decades cobbling together a coalition based on group grievances rather than appealing to individuals.

They have become too focused on telling us how we've failed in the past rather than on charting a course into the future. 

They have played divisive politics just as much as Turmp has, but with less effectiveness and without a cult leader around which to rally their extreme sense of victimhood.

Democrats are not saints. Somewhere, there's a Democratic populist, a "Trump on the left" who could, if elected, do just as much damage to the nation as Trump did from the right.

Populism isn't a political party; it's a movement rooted in anger and rage.

Democrats aren't immune from the pull of cult leaders.

•••

The Democratic Party didn't really win the White House.

A majority of people voted for Biden not because of his party, but because he seems like a decent human being. Who wouldn't want to have a beer with "Uncle Joe?"

Put simply, one half of the nation voted to remind the other half that character matters.

Being decent matters.

Being humble matters.

Being honest matters.

Trump was none of those things.

Time to take down those big Trump flags and replace them with the Stars and Stripes.

We're Americans before we're Republicans or Democrats.

Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers. He can be reached at mike@mainstreetnews.com.

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(1) comment

Patricia Armstrong

I don't think we've seen the end of populism ... or at least what they call populism. It just looks to me like the principle of one person's rights end where another's begin is just so much blather to most. I'm an independent voter, 71, and none of this is new. I can say during the past 4 years I've felt like I'm trapped in a badly run day care headed up by an out-of-control 3 year old.

Last Saturday when the election was called for Biden and the reaction started to be heard, I DID have Wizard of OZ flashbacks. Ding, Dong, The Witch is Dead. Actually, that book has a LOT of relevance now.

And much of this just looks and sounds like sour grapes.

Other than the presidential race, it was a great election for Republicans. There was no BLue wave. Republicans picked up several House seats and will probably retain control of the Senate. Had that 5 million plus popular vote edge in the presidential race factor down to all the races, we would have seen something different. It just appears that in the Presidential race, there was a significant number of voters who either didn't make a choice or crossed party lines. But that's me. That's just what the numbers say to me. And here's the funny part. It was the same ballots. If you scream FRAUD about the vote and the ballots, then all of the races on the ballot are to be questioned. I am actually a math and science nerd but this one doesn't really take a lot of number crunching.

Now how far will some go to overturn the results? That's the part that worries me. I'm not surprised at the huge flurry of lawsuits. That's pure Trump for decades. If you lose, you respond by this same tactic and wear them down. In this case, let the process work. With the close margins, I totally get requesting a recount but I do not support interfering with the process BEFORE the main boxes are checked off. And I am concerned by the thought that is actually in some discussion to prevent states in seating their BIden electors and employ the legislatures to seat Trump electors. I am not a conspiracy theorist but do believe there are those that would employ any means to win. And that would be a nuclear bomb to our democratic process and our right to vote without interference. Hopefully there are some stops built in to prevent that one. The fact it's even out there is a little scary.

So not ... populism is just here. We just need to do what we can to keep it from breaking our democratic system of government.

The final thing that makes this so truly idiotic? 4 years. Try it again in 4 years. And midterms in 2. Nothing is ever set in concrete.

And this is no time to be going this route. 150,000 new COVID cases yesterday. Remember when it was only 30,000? I personally am ready for an administration that wants to take it seriously.

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