Over 70 million votes went to Donald Trump, the second highest number in American history. He has more than a 47% share of his vote nationally, and looks like he’s won 24 states, including his beloved Florida and Texas.
He has an incredible grip on large swaths of this nation, a visceral bond that has brought a near-cult-like devotion to thousands of supporters. His followers read the fine print of his presidency and clicked enthusiastically on the terms and conditions after four years in the White House.
Any evaluation of his political vulnerability in 2020 must also consider his political strength. He was defeated, however, becoming one of only four incumbents not to get another four years in the modern age. He also became the first president in consecutive elections to lose the popular vote.
In 2016, Donald Trump won the presidency partially because he was a standard-busting political outsider who was willing to say what was previously unsayable.
But in 2020, Donald Trump also lost the presidency, partially because he was a norm-busting political outsider who was willing to say what was previously unspeakable.
Though most of Trump’s base could well have voted for him if he had shot somebody on Fifth Avenue, his notorious boast of four years ago, his violent actions put off those who supported him four years ago.
In the suburbs, this was particularly true. In 373 suburban counties, Joe Biden increased the success of Hillary Clinton, helping him claw back Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin’s Rust Belt states and allowing him to gain Georgia and Arizona. With suburban people, Donald Trump has a specific issue.
We again saw what we had seen in the 2018 mid-term election in the 2020 presidential election – more highly educated Republicans, some of whom voted for Trump four years ago willing to give him a chance, felt his presidency was too unpresidential. Although they recognised he would be unorthodox, many considered the manner in which he challenged so many off-putting and sometimes insulting customs and behavioural norms.
By his aggressiveness, they were put off. His invigoration of ethnic tensions. His use of derogatory words to malign people of colour in tweets. His inability to properly denounce, on occasion, white supremacy. His shredding of the conventional allies of America and his admiration for authoritarian strongmen like Vladimir Putin.
His use of a lingua franca made him sound more like a crime lord occasionally, such as when he identified his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, as a rat” who signed a plea bargain with federal prosecutors.
Then there was what critics derided as his creeping authoritarianism, seen in his failure to acknowledge the results following the referendum.
“People are tired,” They want to see normalcy back in this country. They want to see decency. They want to see this hatred stop. They want to see this country united. And that together is going to bring Joe Biden the presidency.”In this country, they want to see normalcy back. They want to see decency. They want to stop this hatred. They want to see this country united. And the presidency will be brought together by Joe Biden.
A political challenge for Trump was that, outside his core Trump base, he struggled to broaden his popularity. He did not try hard to do so either. He won 30 states in 2016 and sometimes ruled as if he were merely the president of a populist, red America. He has made no effort to court blue America, the 20 states that voted for Hillary Clinton, as the most intentionally divisive president of the past 100 years.
Many people, after four stressful years, just wanted a presidency they might have in the background — a White House occupant who might act more conventionally. The infantile name-calling, the ugly words and the ceaseless confrontation had tired of them. They wanted a return to normalcy of some kind.
But the election in 2020 was not a re-run of the election in 2016. He was the incumbent this time, not the revolutionary. He had a record to protect, including his mishandling of an epidemic of coronavirus that had killed more than 230,000 Americans by Election Day. He was not pitted against a hate figure like Hillary Clinton in this period of negative partisanship, where politics is mostly guided by the opposition’s loathing.
The question of why Trump lost the presidency also turns to a question that is more important and arguable – when did he lose the presidency?
It was obvious at the sunset of his first full day that Trump would want to change his presidency more than the presidency would change him.
Was it in the immediate aftermath of his win in 2016 that there were instant misgivings among people who had voted for Trump partly as a protest vote against the Washington political establishment? Many of those voters never expected him to win at all.
It was hard to demonise Joe Biden in the first 24 hours of his presidency, which is partly why the Democratic establishment was so intent on getting him as its presidential candidate. This 77-year-old centrist, who was to claw back white working class voters in the Rust Belt, also undertook the job he was hired to do.
Were there instant misgivings among people who had voted for Trump partly as a protest vote against the Washington political establishment in the immediate aftermath of his win in 2016? Many of those voters never expected that he would win at all. Before he ran about the crowd size and promised to continue using Twitter, he delivered his “American Carnage” inaugural address, which portrayed the country as a near dystopia of shuttered factories, left-behind workers and wealth “ripped” from middle-class homes. It had become clear at the sundown of his first full day in office that Donald Trump would seek to change the presidency more than he had been changed by the presidency.
Was it more cumulative, the effect of so many scandals on the snowball, so many slurs, so much turn-over of personnel, and so much chaos?
Or was it the major crisis that engulfed his presidency as a result of the coronavirus? Trump’s critical political signs were high before the virus arrived on these shores. He survived the impeachment hearings. His approval ratings matched the highest level of 49%. He could boast of a healthy economy and the power of incumbency: the twin factors that typically guarantee a second term for a sitting president. Presidential elections are always based on a single question: is the nation better off now than it was four years ago? It became virtually impossible to make the case after Covid struck, and the economic crisis that ensued.
But it is incorrect to assume that the coronavirus has ultimately doomed the Trump presidency. Sometimes, Presidents emerge stronger from national convulsions. Sometimes, disasters will bring forth excellence. That was true of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose Great Depression rescue of America made him politically unassailable. The initial response of George W Bush to the September 11 attacks also boosted his popularity, and helped him secure a second term. But it was by no means preordained that Donald Trump will be done with Covid. It was his botched handling of the crisis that led to his decline.
Once again, it should be noted that Donald Trump remained politically viable until the end, facing the nation’s greatest public health crisis in more than a hundred years, the largest economic crisis since the 1930s, and also the most intense ethnic turmoil since the late 1960s.
Most of Red America will yearn for his return, and much of the conservative movement he has come to control. For years to come, he will continue to be the dominating figure of the conservative movement. Trumpism might end up having the same transformative impact as Reaganism on American conservatism.
A highly polarising figure will remain the outgoing president, and may run again in 2024. These disunited states have not unexpectedly become united again not least because so many Americans, ranging from loyalty to abject hatred, would harbour such distinct feelings towards Trump.
The nation has definitely not heard or seen the last of its history’s most unorthodox leaders.