Churchill’s famous aphorism about democracy is worth keeping top of mind when we see that in practice it can and sometimes does take a nation towards disaster. Where they are is where they chose to be. And when any of us chooses to repeat mistakes, no matter how venal they turned out to be, we have nobody to blame but ourselves. Adolf Hitler won power in January 1933 with if not a totally clear electoral mandate certainly a democratic legitimacy.
In celebrating Joe Biden’s ultimate comfortable victory we should not take our eyes off the fact that it was actually much closer than it might seem. The Washington Post analysed the vote and found just three States Biden won narrowly made the difference:
- Arizona: 10,457
- Georgia: 14,028
- Wisconsin: 20,565
- Total: 45,050
If Trump had managed to get those 45,000 votes, he would have won 37 more electoral votes, making the electoral college a 269-to-269 tie!
So Donald Trump, a man who had proved himself to be totally unsuited to high office, won over 70 million votes in the 2020 US Presidential election and came agonisingly close to being re-elected.
That the election was nearly a repeat of 2016 tells us that each of the two Americas is not going to be told what to do by anybody in the other one. Many thought that Hillary Clinton was so flawed that it was she who was the main cause of the election of Donald Trump. We can now see that wasn’t the case. Then, as now, the tribe of which Trump is the personification polled strongly.
The two American tribes are separate in virtually all the key demographics. They do not overlap at all – there is no common ground. Even their patriotisms are different – as well as that other American touchstone their religiosity. The one Tribe is evangelical, tub-thumping, flag-waving and raucous. The other tribe is traditional, cerebral and measured. Their homelands are utterly different, even though in some cases they may be physically close, and so are their attitudes.
When Trump spoke to his tribe he did so in their language – he is the quintessential populist politician. He did not talk down to them or patronise them – that much of the time he talked arrant nonsense doesn’t matter. A Trump rally is not intellectually robust political argument. It’s rabble rousing. He keeps the message simple and instinctively knows who to blame, true or not – and it works. He never minds adopting the blame culture or the language of the trailer park.
Victory is everything in politics and that is why very few Republicans broke ranks and turned against Trump in 2020 as in 2016. The “Lincoln Project”, noble though it was, probably made very little difference. The rich families of Palm Beach benefited from the votes of the much poorer voters of West Palm Beach. Trump got many of the votes of poor white America despite his personally being of and for Wall Street and the millionaires.
Polls have indicated that the economy was the voters’ main preoccupation – “It’s the economy stupid” was on Bill Clinton’s study wall – it worked for him – it also almost worked for Trump. Changing the distribution of national wealth is a noble aspiration but to the poor white in the trailer park it is incomprehensible theorising and when Trump calls it “Socialist” he agrees. Many of those who could have benefited from the fairer tax and spend policies that Biden offered voted against him, and Wall Street rubbed its hands, prematurely, in glee.
Perceptions are reality because people believe them to be true. And if Trump voters perceived that Donald Trump was more in their interests than Joe Biden they voted accordingly. You could argue that after four years there was ample evidence to dissuade them but this would have required them to move tribes. So they didn’t do it.