As Democrats’ colossal collective sigh of relief drives wind turbines even over in Britain, let’s not lose sight of the big story. However welcome, Joe Biden’s win was supposedly a dead cert. Even conservative commentators like Andrew Sullivan were hoping for a landslide. The real big story is that Donald Trump came within about 73,000 votes of winning the Electoral College. Democrats have celebrated the fact that their man got more votes than any other presidential candidate in history. But who got the second largest number of votes in history? Donald Trump. Of all people. And a 77 million vs 72 million popular vote gap is hardly yawning. Had a Libertarian candidate not ‘stolen’ votes from Trump in key swing states, he’d have sailed across the finish line with electoral votes to spare.
Much like the UK’s general election last year, America’s this year revealed a public that’s surprisingly conservative, even among minorities. Remember, too, that during the primaries Biden was a rare moderate who emerged from a crowd of wannabes who leaned hard left. (In hindsight, Trump would have hammered Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.) Even Democratic voters, then, prefer a centrist.
How many of those 72 million Americans who plumped for Trump voted because of Trump, and how many in spite of him? We can only suppose. Given the many star-struck vox pops, a fair chunk — a statistically imprecise unit, true — love Trump qua Trump. They quite fancy his braggadocio and vulgarity. They admire his showmanship and actively relish the fact that their guy breaks the rules.
I wager that another fair chunk finds Trump qua Trump distasteful. Though often driven to make strained excuses for the erratic monomaniac, they still cringed when he lied about the size of his visibly sparse inauguration crowd and shuddered when he commended injecting disinfectant to cure COVID. They secretly despair when he reaches for yet another boastful superlative, best, greatest, most beautiful, describes phone calls incongruously as ‘perfect’ and incessantly demonstrates that he misunderstands the meaning of the word ‘hoax’. But for reasons of conviction and perceived self-interest, they voted to give this dismal excuse for a president a second term anyway.
But let’s address another fair chunk: voters who endorse any number of Trump’s policies but could not conscionably back Trump the man. These are reluctant Biden voters, and I reckon they number in the millions. Like, more than four million, that popular vote differential. In sum, however progressive the platform on which Biden was elected, a majority of Americans hew center to right-of-center.
What does that mean in brass tacks? There’s much talk now about whether ‘Trumpism’ will survive Trump, but it does a disservice to folks who share some of this sore loser’s objectives to forever saddle their beliefs with his tarnished brand. Among those beliefs (to gleefully overgeneralize): even if we aim to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, fracking has hiked US energy independence and generated jobs. Some immigration is healthy, but the mass immigration of the past few decades is culturally destabilizing and economically damaging to lower-income Americans. The three ‘fair chunks’ I’ve identified do not, on the whole, like free stuff given willy-nilly to people who didn’t earn it. They don’t like affirmative action (even California’s Election Day referendum to bring back racial preferences in public institutions failed resoundingly). They resist the hard left’s obsession with race. They have an allergic reaction to identity politics once you explain to them clearly what the expression means. Any attempt at wholesale slavery reparations would go down with these folks like a sack of sick.
Many of these people are genuinely concerned about climate change, but they’ll get edgy if a ‘Green New Deal’ spending trillions of dollars starts to smack of national self-destruction. They denounce police brutality — directed at any race — but they want their police departments properly funded, thank you, and they are horrified by droves of rampaging protesters who, in the pursuit of virtue, burn down private properties and loot shops. Innocently, they believe that black lives matter because all American lives matter. Some passively, some passionately, they’re patriotic. They reject a national mythology built on shame. But yes: they do want affordable healthcare (and in the US, good luck with that, whoever’s president).
As for COVID, they’re as anxious as anyone. Perhaps too anxious — because no one ever points out to them that during the eight months in which 237,000 of their compatriots have died of (or with) COVID-19, two million Americans would have been routinely expected to die of something. No one points out that a goodly whack of those COVID fatalities, absent the pandemic, would probably have occurred this year due to other ailments.
Still, most of these Americans would be open to a sense of proportion and could weigh up competing economic and health risks. They might wear masks, but only for evidentially supported epidemiological reasons, and not in order to banner their righteousness and party affiliation. They would resist ineffective lockdowns that further suffocate commerce.
I seldom defend Donald Trump, but it’s worth noting in passing that Democrats having blamed all those deaths on the President’s poor crisis management is medically absurd and morally unfair. Public health policy is a matter for the states. Trump’s failing was largely rhetorical. He didn’t assume a grave enough posture, and his briefings were dumb. Had he sonorously addressed the nation and emphasized the perilousness of the virus rather than promising it would go away, it’s hard to imagine that many lives would have been saved — any more than Boris Johnson’s posturing at the podium has saved lives in Britain.
Between Trump and Brexit, disobedient electorates in the US and UK have been portrayed as deranged. And yeah, any number of Americans and Britons are out of their tiny minds. But for the most part, the political mainstream of both our publics is still reasonable, moderate and sane. Biden needs to check his left flank and govern in the same spirit. That impressive victory speech was an auspicious start.