The “wisdom of the American people” is a horrifying cliché, routinely hauled out every four years as pious pabulum by those whose candidate just won. But the complicated and close election results of 2020, in so far as we can understand them at this point in time, really do seem to capture where America now is, for good and ill, defying the caricatures and wishful thinking of both Republicans and Democrats, revealing a sanity that has helped keep me rather serene in this chaotic week.
The key fact is that Donald J Trump has been decisively defeated. He will be a one-term president. This was by no means inevitable. But in a massive turnout, where both sides mobilized unprecedented hordes of voters, and when the GOP actually made gains in the House, and did much better than expected, Trump lost. A critical mass of swing voters and moderate Republicans picked Biden over him. Our nightmare of four years — an unstable, malignant, delusional maniac at the center of our national life — is over.
Take a moment to feel that relief. Breathe. Rejoice. He’s done.
He will not concede. He cannot concede — because he would suffer a psychic break if he did. And what we witnessed Thursday night, in his drained yet still despicable rant, was a picture of a sad, lost, delusional person, a man utterly unfit to hold the office he holds, lying and lying and lying, spinning paranoid conspiracy theories like a drunk on Tumblr. He said without any basis in fact: “This is a case where they’re trying to steal an election, they’re trying to rig an election, and we can’t let that happen.”
In the early hours of this morning, we got this tweet: “I easily WIN the Presidency of the United States with LEGAL VOTES CAST. The OBSERVERS were not allowed, in any way, shape, or form, to do their job and therefore, votes accepted during this period must be determined to be ILLEGAL VOTES. U.S. Supreme Court should decide!” This, to put it plainly, is a form of mental illness. The idea that election observers have been completely barred from doing their jobs in counts around the country is a fantasy. The notion that vast numbers of votes can suddenly be deemed “illegal” is also bonkers. Ditto the idea that counting votes after election day is somehow “finding” votes. These are absurd, delusional, desperate fantasies, made by someone who has no understanding of the word “responsibility”.
Donald Trump, in other words, is now showing exactly why he had to be defeated. Policy is irrelevant in his singular case. No serious democracy can have a delusional, utterly incompetent, psychologically disturbed madman as president and survive.
But Trumpism? It did far better than anyone expected. Down-ballot, many Republicans out-performed their nominal leader. The GOP made real gains in the House — during a health crisis and a recession — and will probably hold the Senate, effectively checkmating any truly progressive ambitions Biden might have had. The rural turnout was spectacular, responding perhaps to Trump’s incredibly boisterous series of big rallies as the campaign came to a close. This was far from the Biden landslide I had been dreaming about a few weeks back. It was rather the moment that the American people surgically removed an unhinged leader and re-endorsed the gist of his politics. It was the moment that Trump’s core message was seared into one of our major political parties for the foreseeable future, and realigned American politics. If Trump were sane, this is how he would describe his success — and leave office graciously to become the kingmaker in his own party. But he is not sane.
His impact, however, is undeniable. Neoconservatism is over; globalization as some kind of conservative principle is over; a conservatism that allows for or looks away from unrestrained mass immigration is over. What was cemented in place this week is a new GOP, not unlike the new Tories in the UK. They’re nationalist, culturally conservative, geared toward the losers of capitalism as well as its winners, and mildly protectionist and isolationist. It is a natural response to the unintended consequences of neoliberalism’s success under a conservative banner. And it speaks in a language that working class Americans understand, devoid of the woke neologisms of the educated elite. It seems to me that this formula is a far more settled and electorally potent coalition than what we now see among the deeply divided Democrats.
And this is where I think I have been wrong about Trump’s appeal, and where I think I’ve misunderstood why otherwise decent people could support such a foul disrupter of democratic norms. Many of them simply didn’t take Trump’s threat to our system seriously. They took all his assaults on democracy as so much bluster from the kind of car salesman he is. They deal with this kind of bullshit all the time, took liberal democracy for granted and saw little reason to fret about its future. The writer Jamie Kirchick says that everything Trump says makes sense if it is preceded by the following words: “And now, Donnie from Queens, you’re on the air.” Many people heard Trump exactly that way, and couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. They weren’t endorsing his madness. They were looking past it. They were, in my opinion, wrong to be so cavalier. But I don’t think most were malignant extremists of any kind, or unaware of the hideous personal qualities of Trump.
And they enjoyed economic rewards that, absent the Covid19 recession, might well have swept Trump to victory. One of the more revealing results from the polls this year came in the answers to the core question made famous by Reagan: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” In previous campaigns to re-elect the president, Reagan was re-elected in a landslide with only 44 percent saying they were better off, George W. Bush won with 47 percent and Obama succeeded with 45 percent. For Trump, a mighty 56 percent said they were better off now than when he took office — a fundamental along with incumbency that should have led to a landslide re-election — and yet he still lost. That tells you something about Americans’ understanding of how unfit a president Trump turned out to be, even as they felt very good about their own wellbeing.
And this was also clearly and unequivocally a rejection of the woke left. The riots of the summer turned many people off. In exit polls, 88 percent of Trump voters say it was a factor in their choice. On the question of policing and criminal justice, Trump led Biden 46 — 43 percent. For the past five years, Democrats have been telling us that Trump and his supporters were white supremacists, that he was indeed the “First White President” in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ words, that all minorities were under assault by the modern day equivalent of the KKK. And yet, the GOP got the highest proportion of the minority vote since 1960! No wonder Charles Blow’s head exploded.
We may find out more as exit polling is pored over, but in the current stats, Trump measurably increased his black, Latino, gay and Asian support. 12 percent of blacks — and 18 percent of black men — backed someone whom the left has identified as a “white supremacist”, and 32 percent of Latinos voted for the man who put immigrant children in cages, giving Trump Florida and Texas. 31 percent of Asians and 28 percent of the gay, lesbian and transgender population also went for Trump. The gay vote for Trump may have doubled! We’ll see if this pans out. But it’s an astonishing rebuke of identity politics and its crude assumptions about how unique individuals vote.
Why did minorities shift slightly rightward after enduring four years of Trump? First off, many obviously rejected the narrative being pushed out by every elite media source: that the core of Trump’s appeal was racism. They saw a more complicated picture. I suspect that many African-Americans, for example, were terrified of “defunding the police” and pleased to be economically better off, with record low unemployment before Covid19 hit. Many legal Latino citizens, perplexing leftists, do not want continued mass immigration, and are socially conservative. Asians increasingly see the woke as denying their children fair access to education, and many gays just vote on various different issues, now that the civil rights question has been largely resolved by the Supreme Court.
Obviously a big majority of non-white and non-straight voters still backed Democrats. But the emergence of this coalition of minority conservatives is fascinating — and, of course, a complete refutation of what critical race theory tells us how minorities must feel. Ditto the gender gap. It’s there, but not quite the gulf we were led to believe. We have again been told insistently that being female in America today is a constant nightmare of oppression, harassment, violence and misogyny; and that no one represents this more potently than Donald “grab ‘em by the pussy” Trump. And yet white women still voted for Trump 55 to 43 percent. Among white women with no college education, arguably those most vulnerable to the predations of men, Trump got 60 percent support. This is not a wave of rage; and it suggests that the left’s notion of patriarchy is, in 2020, something many, many women just don’t buy, or do not believe should outweigh other, more important issues.
And look at California, one of the most leftist states in the country, and minority-majority. The initiative to allow public institutions to discriminate openly on the basis of race — in order to favor some groups over others on the Ibram X. Kendi model — decisively failed, after months of unceasing propaganda about “white supremacy” and the need to counter it. So did an attempt to regulate the gig economy and to expand rent control. The appeal of assimilation and economic success among Latinos is not, pace the critical race theorists, an attempt to gain the advantages of “white-adjacency”. It’s simply the American way, paved by generations of immigrant groups before them.
And it’s important to acknowledge that almost everyone in the elite and in the polling industry were misled by the polling. I was surprised at the resilience of Trump’s coalition in what was a huge turnout (breaking another paradigm of leftists, that somehow if more people voted, they would always gain). I was less surprised by the politics of Covid19. The idea that Trump’s manifest failures would translate to a major rebuke missed an underlying dynamic. Many Americans want to move on; they’re sick of the shutdowns and restrictions; and they’re more receptive to fake reassurance than we might imagine. Indeed, the counties with the biggest recent surges in Covid cases voted overwhelmingly for Trump. Democrats need to spend less time looking for exogenous factors — like demographic change, or the Covid epidemic — and more time making arguments that capture the country’s move toward more leftist economic policy, while jettisoning woke madness.
Pollsters, despite attempts to fix what they got so wrong last time, also missed a huge swathe of “shy Trump” voters. But why? Why did people not tell the truth to pollsters?Eric Kaufmann, one of the most astute political scientists writing today, notes that the segment of the Trump vote the polling missed was educated white voters. He suspects they were afraid to say out loud to pollsters how they were really going to vote. After all, “45% of Republicans with degrees, compared to 23% of Democrats with degrees, said they feared that their careers could be at risk if their views became known.”
So the polling got the less inhibited white non-college-educated Trump voters right, but the graduates very wrong: “The exit polls show that Trump ran even among white college graduates 49-49, and even had an edge among white female graduates of 50-49! This puts pre-election surveys out by a whopping 26-31 points among white graduates.” The threat of wokeness both alienated educated white voters — and caused more of them to vote Trump than anyone expected. The problem with woke media is that they mislead Democrats who then misread the country.
And that’s what I mean about the clearer air we breathe after surveying what Americans actually believe — in cold hard data. This mass secret vote revealed that the New York Times’ woke narrative of America — the centuries-long suffocating oppression of minorities and women by cis white straight men — is simply a niche elite belief, invented in a bubble academy, and imposed by bullying, shaming and if possible, firing dissenters. Some of us who refused to cower can gain real satisfaction from knowing we were not mad, not evil, not bigots, and that a huge swathe of our fellow citizens agree.
Recall also the huge money advantage the Democrats had in many Senate races they still lost. In California’s Prop 16 vote, for good measure, supporters of bringing back race discrimination by public authorities outspent opponents 14 -1! What this election shows is that leftists cannot bully voters into abandoning core principles of liberal democracy, and they can’t buy their submission either.
The clarifying truth is that we’re a very closely divided country, growing further apart culturally and socially, exploited by extremists on right and left, and yet still, fundamentally, sane. The American people do not want a revolution, but they also realized they do not want Trump as head of state. They removed the nutcase, defanged the woke, showed up to vote in vast numbers, and gave us a constellation of forces in Washington that pleases no one. And that’s ok.
America is a vast and complicated place — and our representatives mirror that rather accurately, it seems. That’s democracy working, not failing. And in such a country, there is a place in the center for compromise if we can unwind the hysteria and polarization that the far left has fueled and Trump has exacerbated. We have now a president-elect with little personal ambition ahead of him, deep relationships with the Senate he will desperately need, elected by the sane center, with a check on his left flank. If we can get pragmatic and less inflamed, we can move forward. Biden won the primary thanks to moderate and realistic black voters; and he has won the election with a broad coalition. There are deals to be done. There is politics to engage. And we’ll get there if we can use this moment to listen to each other, especially those whose opinions we have spurned, and whose identities we have feared.
But the maniac is gone. It will take some serious effort to keep him from inflicting terrible damage on his way out. But he is gone. The republic will survive, battered and bruised, but it will survive. And with a little grace from all of us, it can also begin to heal.
(Note to readers: This is an excerpt of The Weekly Dish. If you’re already a subscriber, click here to read the full version. If you’re not subscribed and want to read the whole thing, and keep independent media thriving on Substack, subscribe now! This week’s issue includes all the usual reader Dissents and my responses, more window views, Quotes for the Week, new Yglesias Award nominees, recommended reading, the Face of the Week, our Mental Health Break video, and, of course, the results of the View From Your Window contest — with a new challenge. Subscribe for the full Dish experience!)
New On The Dishcast: Coleman Hughes
Who better to chew over the election results with than Coleman? He’s a brilliant young writer at Quillette on issues related to race, a contributing editor at City Journal, and the host of the podcast Conversations with Coleman. He famously faced off against Ta-Nehisi Coates at a congressional hearing on reparations. We cover almost every angle and have a lot of fun. Listen here!
(Top photo by Brendan Smialowski /AFP via Getty Images)