As the 2020 election winds down and the Democratic Party has, by all reputable accounts, been confirmed as the victor, Op-Eds across the internet have been released mourning the death of the projected Democratic ‘blue wave’. This was the hoped-for upsurge in Democratic support that would show that America had truly rejected Trump. In the aftermath of this failure, it seems as if those who voted for Trump—as one New York Times article put it—are not going anywhere, and “it’s not remotely clear what the rest of us can do about that.” These articles implicitly or explicitly characterize those who voted for Trump in much the same way as Hillary Clinton did in 2016—as “a basket of deplorables”. They are often full of shock, disbelief, and an almost palpable anger that someone could vote for Trump again.
This emotive reaction is understandable, given Donald Trump’s actions during his presidency. However, if we examine this approach from the standpoint of political strategy, articles such as the ones highlighted (and, extending from this, the larger Democratic response to Trump throughout his four years in office) are fundamentally flawed in their approach. They misunderstand the nature of populism, and how it can be combatted.
As identified by both Muller and Cinar et. al., populism is a political strategy built upon a foundation of Manicheanism. This is the ingredient that sets the populist apart from a ‘regular’ politician. What this looks like is best exemplified by a pair of presidents that Cinar et. al. bring up in their paper: Reagan and Trump. On the one hand, Reagan was inclusive towards Democrats, characterizing their leadership as “people whose motives are certainly not in question but whose fundamental understanding of how to lead America is woefully inadequate.”  Reagan painted his opposition as wanting a brighter future, just as incapable of bringing that about.
On the other hand, this is how Trump characterizes the Democratic Party: “Democrats have become the party of crime…The Democrats have truly turned into an angry mob, bent on destroying anything or anyone in their path.”  Trump’s attitude is a clearly Manichean one. As opposed to Reagan’s conciliatory tone, he presents the opposition as a moral enemy—one who is criminal and must be defeated if ‘good’ is to triumph. This Manichean approach will naturally feed into a persecution complex on the part of the populist’s supporters —something that we have seen clearly on the part of Trump’s support base. To them, any attack on Trump is illegitimate (since it comes from ‘the enemy’) and is designed to further unlawfully persecute both him and his supporters.
This is the reason why the Democratic approach to unseating Trump launched from both the government and the media has been a failure. Throughout Trump’s presidency, there have been barrages of attacks against him, including an impeachment. Each of these attacks has only served to strengthen his presidency; by February 6th, 2020—immediately post-impeachment—his approval rate was at 49%, or the highest it had ever been. Why has this happened?
The answer lied in polarization. The increasing political polarization of the United States has only served to intensify the Manichean attitude, and to allow Trump to get away with steps he otherwise may not. As explored in Svolik and Graham’s Democracy in America, polarized voters are fallible as a democratic check. They are willing to trade off democratic principles for partisan objectives, and they employ a double standard when punishing candidates who violate democratic principles.  These observations go hand in hand with the Manichean tendencies of populists like Trump. Supporters are far less likely to accept criticism that is levelled at Trump from the Democrats because they view the Democrats as a morally negative force that is trying to destroy them—only fed by the political gulf between the parties. Supporters will also be far more likely to be comfortable with Trump’s anti-democratic actions and moves against the Democratic party. In essence, the level of polarization in the US has worked in concert with Trump’s Manichean attitudes to create a strain of populism that has proven incredibly resilient—and one that the Democrats have entirely failed to control through their attacks on Trump. All the Democrats—both in politics and in the media—have succeeded in doing has been to feed the notion that Trump and his supporters are fighting a corrupt establishment that wants their movement destroyed.
So, what is to be done? How can Democrats effectively prevent the resurgence of Trumpism, especially as Trump has told aides that he will be running in 2024? The first thing is to stop treating Trump voters like the enemy, and to begin to engage with them. Engagement with a support base has worked to bring down American populists before. For example the segregationist, populist Governor George Wallace of Alabama:
“a significant part of Wallace’s support in his 1968 presidential campaign disappeared after Unions started to bombard their members with information about the actual situation of ‘the working man’ in Alabama, and how little Wallace had done…to improve it.” 
Secondly, engagement would force the Democrats to confront populists on a symbolic level. The Democrats claim to be the party of the worker, yet it is clear with the blue-collar support Trump has enjoyed that this demographic feels excluded. Steps to include sections of Trump’s base may address some of their grievances, and work to bring them back into the fold .
These actions are not a guaranteed fix for the situation the Democrats have found themselves in. However, what is clear is that the current strategy the Democrats are pursuing—that of attacking Trump’s presidency with everything they have—is not functioning as hoped. As the aphorism goes, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. To continue with the current approach would match this definition. The Democrats must change their strategy if they want to truly end the threat of Trump. Çinar, Ipek, et al. “Presidential Rhetoric and Populism.” Presidential Studies Quarterly, vol. 50, no. 2, 2020, pp. 240-263.  “What Populists Say.” What Is Populism?, by Jan-Wener Müller, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016, pp. 32.  Graham, Matthew H., and Milan W. Svolik. “Democracy in America? Partisanship, Polarization, and the Robustness of Support for Democracy in the United States.” American Political Science Review, vol. 114, no. 2, 2020, pp. 392–409.  “How to Deal with Populists.” What Is Populism?, by Jan-Wener Müller, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016, pp. 84-85.
I, too, am frustrated by the Democratic Party’s repeated failure to provoke an overwhelming anti-populist, anti-fascist, and anti-autocratic electoral wave. In my opinion, Democrats need a taste of their own medicine, prescribed by Levitsky and Ziblatt as mutual toleration and forbearance. The left is swift to identify every instance of the right, specifically Trump, delegitimizing political opponents. What is not so often discussed is how the left advances this same rhetoric, calling Trump supporters “deplorables” or pro-Trump African Americans “not black.” As Bermeo discusses, democracy hinges upon understanding rational responses and the now-controversial idea that the other side has a reason for supporting who they support. If the Democratic establishment continues taking the same underwhelming, intolerant approach to corralling a polarized electorate over and over again, the country may miss its window to stop populist rhetoric in its tracks before it’s too late.
I found your post extremely insightful, and I really like your perspective. It’s quite incredible that, after four years of failing to break down Trump’s base, Democrats are still using the same inefficient tactics. I think that both parties need to implement a greater degree of mutual toleration and discontinue the use of aggressive and discrediting rhetoric if we stand any chance of repairing the country. This is also especially important in uniting against any threat to democracy. If the Democrats had campaigned by promoting their actual political ideas and emphasizing exactly how they would benefit the country instead of basing their strategy on hurling insults at the president and his supporters, it’s very possible that they would have attracted more central Republicans who seem to be fed up with Trump and his fans anyway; this base would have probably propelled the anticipated “blue wave” forward had the Democrats tapped into it more effectively and perhaps even sympathetically. It’s vital now that they change their strategy if we are to avoid more populist and democracy threatening leaders in the future.