How is it possible that Donald Trump, with all his personal and character faults, gross mismanagement of the Covid 19 pandemic and the beginning of what may be a prolonged economic crisis, still manages to secure over 72 million votes, the second largest popular vote in the history of the American republic? This is the burning question that has been on my mind as I watched with numb fascination the ceaseless and ever so slow intricate complexities around the ballot counting in last week’s American elections. We were kept glued to our seats as if it were the latest Hollywood blockbuster thriller, while mail-in ballots and improper ballots (there is a difference!) were counted, recounts carried out and judicial appeals lodged in several states.
Joe Biden has won, and perhaps we can now all sleep a bit better at night and forget about politics made-on-twitter for a while. So why am I impressed with Trump’s performance in this election? Because, as one newspaper put it: Trump is the man we were all meant to hate. He has been raged against ceaselessly by the cultural elites for the past four years. Hardly any of the American media backed him. Globalist institutions loath him; foreign leaders, even traditional allies, laugh at him. Academia, the media elites, the social-media oligarchies, celebrities and all other forms of opinion makers branded him the 21st century Hitler.
Political analysts told us Trump was the worst thing to happen to Western politics in decades. He would destroy the American democratic system of checks and balances, so meticulously devised by the Founding Fathers, that has arguably served America, and the world, well for over two centuries. Some pundits claimed he would start WWIII, leaving us with an uneasy feeling that if Trump won our world would be destroyed. And yet Mr. Biden, with his almost unrivalled political experience, and a party machine that spent more money than anyone in history ever has on an election campaign, failed to deliver a landslide victory. America was not hit by the proverbial “blue wave”.
How do we explain Trump’s appeal? Future historians will have had the benefit of time to answer this question in a more comprehensive and dispassionate way. Complex phenomena like Trumpism require well thought out and detailed explanations. There is no one simple answer, and those who attempt to provide one are either simplistic or delusional. No answer I give you today could possibly be complete. Yet it is imperative we begin to understand the appeal that Trump has. Half of the American electorate, chose to leave their homes in the middle of a pandemic, to vote Trump. Whilst Biden supporters mostly voted to oust Trump; Trump supporters voted to keep him in power. Either way you look at it, this election was all about Trump. This was well understood by the Biden campaign when they sought to make this election a referendum on Trump’s personality and character, offering to restore “the soul of the nation.”
On a very superficial level, there is the allure of the Trump narrative: a multibillionaire businessman who could get the job done, an outsider to the ruling establishment who would “drain the swamp” in Washington of all its corruption and self-serving bureaucrats. The glamour of someone with a sequence of beautiful wives, properties, iconic buildings in the city of all cities, and who was the host of one of America’s most popular reality shows. On closer inspection most of this was nothing but fantasy. But America loves fantasy, and was ripe ground for an artful spin-doctor whom Americans could idolise. Donald Trump was no fool. He had carefully built his brand over decades and this paid off in 2016 and again in 2020.
But the explanation for his success goes much deeper. If money and business acumen is all that is required, then Michael Bloomberg and other incredibly wealthy and truly seasoned businessmen would have made a successful bid for the highest office in the land.
Trump emerged in a profoundly divided America. In many ways the Trump phenomenon represents a revolt against the cultural supremacy of political correctness and its “cancellation culture”, where any views or beliefs that were judged to be inappropriate where to be permanently banished from people’s lexicon. Trump became a vehicle for those who felt disenfranchised, for those who did not agree that America is broken or racist or that identity politics is more important than the economy and jobs.
How Trump, a multibillionaire, who decreased taxes for the rich, and hoped to destroy Obamacare that had helped millions of Americans obtain health insurance, became the beacon of hope for the working man, is truly masterful. But the champion of the working man he became.
The Democrats have been playing the wrong game and have lost touch with their bases, and Trump was able to exploit this. What counted for your average American was not race, or climate change; it was the economy and bringing back manufacturing jobs. Democrats failed to understand this in 2016, and made the same colossal mistake in 2020. It is notable that even though the left pushed the line that Trump was a white supremacist, Trump was still able to make electoral gains in the Latino (more specifically Cubans and Venezuelans in Florida and Rio Grande Texas) and black populations in this last election, whilst overall losing some support among white males. Instead of party support being sharply divided by race, class was still the big issue.
Finally, and I left the most intricate argument for last, I believe that Trump is supported because of his flaws rather than in spite of them. How on earth is this possible the reader may rightfully ask? After all we are talking of a man that probably lacks every virtue we tend to admire and is a paragon of greed, narcissism, malice, pettiness and disloyalty. He never even attempts to aspire to be anything more. With Trump you know what you are getting and more importantly you are never made to feel” less than” or judged. As Sam Harris, the host of a centrist, left leaning well known podcast “Making Sense” stated: “Trump offers a truly safe space for human frailty, hypocrisy and self-doubt. Because of his personal shamelessness, he offers an expiation of shame, providing a kind of spiritual balm.”
Consider for a moment, if you will, the other half of this image. From the Left, the message is the pure opposite: sanctimonious and judgemental. Americans, or for that matter, white Americans are made to feel guilty not only for their sins but the sins of their fathers. America was born in sin, on the back of slavery and colonialism. If you happen to find yourself belonging to the tribe of white heterosexual males – the core of Trump’s support – you are most probably a racist, homophobic, transphobic, Islamophobic, sexist, barbarian. Tear down the statues and bend the knee!
Two juxtaposed positions. Which is the more appealing? I would imagine the one that does not make you feel unvalued, that doesn’t attempt to restrict freedom of speech, and attempt to tell you at all times what to say and how to look at the world. After decades of political correctness build up in all American institutions from the media, to universities, to entertainment and the work place, Trump provided a welcome respite from this grand racial and identity politics narrative, where your race, sex or sexual preference should determine your world view and give you a right to speak up, now being denied to others.
In conclusion, I pray that Biden will begin to heal the wounds in American society, govern from the centre, be able to build bridges with moderate Republicans to resolve pressing issues and leave the country that bit better off, where a populist, con artist like Donald Trump can never hope to be reelected. If Biden becomes captive of the more radical Left elements in the Democratic party, we will continue to see a divided America, ripe for another Trump-like, populist figure in four years’ time.