Following a Trump-era outrage, liberals have frequently declared, ‘This is not who we are.’ But given the 2020 election results, I’m not so sure that’s true.
First published in November 2020.
Setting aside White House legal chicanery, Joe Biden will become the President-Elect. The Democratic Party retains control of the House of Representatives. When the counting is over, Biden will have won more than 72 million votes – the biggest number in presidential history.
So why has the likely presidential victory left some Democratic supporters despondent?
For a start, the predicted ‘blue wave’ of voters appalled at the antics of the president and the callousness of elected Republicans who prefer to approve unqualified judges for lifetime positions over addressing the economic and public health consequences of the coronavirus, failed to materialize.
Trump improved on his 2016 vote total by more than four million and won at least 68 million votes, slightly more than the victorious President Obama in 2012 (65,915,795 votes). Anticipated Democratic breakthroughs in the Senate and the House did not appear.
The reason for this is simple. The election was a referendum about Trump. In retrospect, this framing was a mistake. As the relatively stable levels of support for Brexit show, people are reluctant to change their mind about how they voted in a referendum-like situation.
In a referendum, people are asked to come to a personal decision about the matter at hand. By contrast, political allegiance is interest driven. Voters support the party that reflects their priorities. This is a changeable factor. To change one’s mind over a referendum matter requires an individual to admit that they made a personal error of judgment. This is not to say that opinion cannot change, just that it is unusual. In Scotland, it took the twin blows of Brexit and the mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic by the UK government for people to reconsider independence.
This is how we should view what has happened in the United States. Donald Trump is loathed by many Americans; however plenty of others love him. Put simply, he is a giant tub of Marmite. You aren’t likely to change your mind about him.
It is possible that not enough has happened to change political gravity in the United States.
This opinion might seem odd, when you consider the botched response to the coronavirus. But exit polls taken on November 3 suggest that 48% of Americans somewhat approve of Trump’s management of the crisis.
Why is this? The real dangers of the coronavirus are still unclear to many. Most people have not had the virus. Most who do recover – outwardly at least. While almost a quarter of a million people have died, these lonely, atomized deaths occurred in bedrooms and hospital wards scattered across a continent-sized country of 330 million people. Nor have the economic consequences of the pandemic hit home. Protections for workers and supplemental unemployment insurance has kept many families afloat. Job protections for furloughed workers only ended a month or so ago. The economy is sinking, but people are yet to notice.
But there is another reason many Democrats are despairing. The Trump-era has highlighted the sickly condition of American institutions.
Elected Republicans spent four years abetting a nativist, fascistic president as he suborned government offices and the justice department to his whim in order to secure federal justices – many of whom, including the recently appointed Supreme Court justices Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh, have no qualification for their position beyond political loyalty – that will shred the creaking American welfare state and eradicate the reproductive rights of women across the nation.
Republicans, many of whom claim to be guardians of constitutional propriety, stood idly by during the 2020 summer of Black Lives Matter uprisings as Trump attempted to turn the US Border Patrol and the National Guard into his personal goon squad. Even now, as Trump proclaims that he was cheated out of an election win and sends his acolytes to intimidate officials counting votes in Pennsylvania and Michigan, Republicans of national standing remain mute.
But the problem goes beyond day-to-day politics.
Donald Trump, the loser of the popular vote in a 2016 election marked by foreign interference, has appointed three of the justices currently sitting on the Supreme Court and more than 200 justices on the lower courts. The effects of these appointments will be felt for decades.
As Ezra Klein, editor-in-chief of Vox has pointed out, the Democratic Party consistently wins a majority of votes for the Senate, but has spent much of the 21st century out of power. The fact that each state receives two senators means that 53 Republican senators currently represent 153 million Americans, while the 47 Democrats represent 168 million. By 2040, two-thirds of the US will be represented by just 30 senators.
The roots of this discrepancy lie in the desire to protect pro-slavery interests by the founders of the American republic. But the effects are felt keenly today. Republicans representing a minority can prevent Democratic presidents from making cabinet appointments or filling judicial seats. This problem bedeviled the Obama presidency after 2014 and will likely disrupt Biden once he enters the White House. Failure to capture the Senate means Democratic hopes of updating American constitutional arrangements for the 21st century remain unfulfilled.
Trump is hopefully gone. But the divisions he exposed are clear. 68 million Americans set Covid-19 and the economy beside the racism and cruelty of Trump-era policies, the thuggery of his most devoted supporters, particularly the ISIS cosplayers touring the country in pick-up trucks brimming with military-grade weaponry and Trump flags, the shameless corruption of the first family and their ghoulish entourage of ghouls and said meh!
But if Trump is gone, Trumpism remains. Figures like Joshua Hawley and Tom Cotton, Republican senators for Missouri and Arkansas respectively, or even Donald Trump Jr., have shown that they can manage the populism exploited by the 45th president in a more disciplined way.🔷
Luke Reader, Teaching Fellow, Department of History, Case Western Reserve University.
Check their Voting Record:
🗳️ Donald Trump
🗳️ Joe Biden
🗳️ Barack Obama
🗳️ Tom Cotton