Beaten... but why did Trump perform so well?

Despite Covid and his many faults, Donald Trump still got more than 71 million votes in last week’s election. NEVIN POWER analyses why he confounded his many critics
Beaten... but why did Trump perform so well?

ENERGISED: A Trump supporter rails against Joe Biden’s win

THE outcome of the US election was never meant to be as close as it has been. Following the Democrats’ mid-term Congressional trouncing of the Republicans in 2018, this was supposed to be the dawn of a new era for the party of FDR and JFK.

Those 2018 races saw a massive Democratic turn-out as the party mobilised the electorate’s anger at Trump’s bigoted rhetoric and chaotic governance. This blue wave was supposed to surge through to 2020, helping the Dems take the White House and both houses of Congress, so a newly-empowered President could make America recognisable to the world again.

Instead, that blue wave crashed against seemingly unsighted red Republican rocks, denying the Democrats the immediate overall majority they wanted. Here are four reasons why that may have happened:

Fissures in the Democratic Party

Barack Obama’s two terms in office masked fissures in the Democratic Party that have yet to heal. The voters he so excited in 2008 were not persuaded to come to the polls for the Congressional mid-terms in 2010, and too many stayed at home when Hillary Clinton needed them in 2016.

Obama has admitted he had little interest in party politics during his presidency, failing to use the platform to build and consolidate the Democratics by finding good, young, and representative election candidates at all levels.

Meanwhile, across the aisle, the Republican Tea Party Movement was busy preparing and selecting candidates for Congress who would go on to serve as loyal Trump acolytes.

As is well documented, the Democratic National Committee suppressed the more left-leaning Bernie Sanders wing of the party to shore up support for Hillary in 2016. Many of the most fervent Sanders supporters felt betrayed and did not show up to vote for Clinton.

However, they did organise and vote in the 2018 Congressional elections, where more left-leaning Democrats, such as ‘The Squad’, four women of colour under 50, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, were elected.

While this was a win for the Dems, nominating a candidate for president from such a split party was always going to be bruising and Biden’s nomination as an electable, but unexciting, centrist may not have done much to close the fissures opened some years ago.

Indeed, the Trump campaign used the splits in the Democratic Party to good effect, claiming Biden was a mere figurehead for more left-leaning, so-called ‘radical’ party members, and this certainly had an effect on swing-voters.

Trump used the presidency as a permanent campaign event

Unlike the Democratics, Republicans united behind Trump with a mixture of zeal and outright dependency as he used the presidency as a permanent campaign event.

The rallies throughout his presidency underscored just how he would be a president for Republicans, not one for all US citizens, and made some commentators feel we were seeing the emergence of a dictator.

The rallies ensured his base of supporters was energized and motivated going into this election, and ensured even sceptical Republicans rowed in behind the president for fear he would publicly criticise them and cost them vital votes. Indeed, it has been stunning to see how far some Republican figures have gone to ensure they gain Trump’s endorsement.

Ultimately, Trump’s base didn’t care that he probably should have spent more time plotting a direction for the country on areas such as race relations or on combating Covid, than on holding rallies or practicing his golf game.

His supporters called Covid a hoax and blamed China, reflecting Trump’s skill at amplifying an aspect of American consciousness which thrives on conspiracy theories and fear about the “other”. To his supporters, only Trump could assuage those fears.

Anger about ‘the other’

America has always required an “other” to direct anger and deflect blame from internal issues. It is a tendency no modern president has been able to change and fatally derailed Jimmy Carter in the 1970s when he implored Americans to grapple with their own “crisis of confidence” in relation to energy shortage issues rather than blame and threaten others.

The US has plenty of complicated internal issues, from systemic racism to economic inequality, which stokes anger amongst various groups and it is far easier to blame the “other” for these issues.

Trump has used this concept as a release valve for his supporters, encouraging them to direct anger and blame at the “other” in the form of the media, countries such as China, fellow politicians, and the media.

By ensuring the “others” were portrayed as being actively against his supporters, Trump cast himself as the last bastion between his base and whatever he had labelled to be a threat through his Twitter feed.

While his use of the concept of the “other” in racist means disgusted some supporters, it energised more and saw to it that every single one of them came out to vote.

It’s the economy, stupid

In 1992, Bill Clinton’s chief election strategist coined the phrase “it’s the economy, stupid”. No analysis of this election could be complete without mentioning how the US public have felt buoyant about the US economy under Trump’s presidency. Before the pandemic, the University of Michigan’s Consumer Sentiment Index was hitting its highest levels since 2000.

Essentially, Trump benefited from the economic improvements started under Obama and hasn’t had to do much to keep it moving. However, voters don’t particularly care about forensic economic data and many, including members of LGBT communities and people of colour who would not traditionally vote Republican, did so on the basis that their pay packets were bigger.

Many voters don’t particularly care if these pay rises are the result of city, state, or federal minimum wage hikes, but they do know a self-styled successful businessman is in the White House, forget correlation is not causation, and Trump isn’t going to turn down the credit.

The strong economy also ensured Trump’s labelling of the Biden-Harris ticket as “socialist, communist, and high-tax” hit home. They made it clear taxes won’t rise for Americans earning less than $400,000, but this didn’t necessarily matter in the post-truth age.

Ultimately, these reasons don’t matter immediately for the presidential race, with Biden reaching the White House on his third attempt. However, they matter a great deal for Congressional races, and if the Democratic Party are to prolong their time in power and better serve their constituents, they have some work to do.

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