The 2020 Election Results: Trump vs. Trumpism

The good news from this election…and it is IMMENSELY good news…is that Trump is on his way out. Barring an unlikely shift in voting trends in the remaining states, or a Trump success in the courts, Biden is headed towards victory. Trump will no longer be POTUS! The Trump administration is over!!

The bad news…and it is very bad news…is that Trumpism is still very much alive and well. And it’s not going away. Biden’s margin of victory (or in some cases, loss) in all the battle-ground states turned out to be much smaller than we had anticipated. Disappointingly close. Incredibly, more people voted for Trump in 2020 than did in 2016. The Trump vote out-performed his lower approval rating. The Democrats’ dream of a repudiation of Trump did not happen.

It gets worse. Instead of a gain of seats in the House, we had a net loss. And our hoped-for Senate majority is very much in doubt — after key races in Maine and North Carolina failed to flip. We also failed to flip any state legislatures — a critical loss in a census year. That’s why, even with the glow of a Biden victory, I feel less than victorious.

Amidst all of this, a key question keeps nagging at me: After the catastrophe that is the Trump presidency, how can there be so many people who voted for him?

What is going on? Who are these people?

When I calm down and reflect on this, my best answer is that there is more than one answer. Trump voters are not a unified monolith. In fact, there are at least three broad categories of Trump (and Trumpism) voters.

The first are the die-hard supporters. These are the people who love Trump for precisely the reasons we despise him. In fact, our outrage at Trump is part of what delights them. We are the “coastal elites.” And, despite being a pseudo-billionaire con artist, they view Trump as the hero of the working man. To them, Trump is close to god-like. If Trump says something, no matter how delusional and obviously false the statement, it is taken as gospel. It is both true and morally right, by definition. This is equivalent to a cult.

While I obviously oppose this cult, I can understand it. If I could accept their ill-founded assumptions, their support of Trump would make sense.

The second category are the duped. These are the people who have been fed a steady diet of disinformation and lies — and have come to believe it is all true. They aren’t members of a Trump cult, but they have become convinced Trump is their best option. These are the people who believe, for example, that if Biden becomes President, America will become a Socialist country. Or that antifa anarchists are destroying our cities.

This is the by-product of Trump’s assault on truth. The duped get their news primarily from Fox. They live in a separate universe from the rest of us — with their separate “alternative facts.” There is overlap with the die-hards here. The difference is that the duped could be “persuadable” if only they could break out of their bubble. As such, I have some sympathy for them. 

The third category are the “transactionalists.” They are the ones that trouble me the most. I have no understanding or sympathy here. Just disgust. To understand why, I need to back up a bit and define what I mean by a “transactionalist.”

Once you get past policy differences (where there can be legitimate disagreements), my overwhelmingly biggest objection to Trump is his “character.” This is an umbrella term meant to cover a host of sins: his lack of empathy, his narcissism, his ignorance, his bullying, his racism, his misogyny, his mistreatment of immigrants, his assault on science, his constant lying, his autocratic behavior, his destruction of almost all norms and institutions of our democracy, his crass politicizing of even the most non-partisan departments of our government. Added to this are his multitude of borderline or outright criminal actions: his obstruction of justice, his strange tolerance of all things Russia, the actions that led to his impeachment, his payoffs to porn stars, his fraudulent Foundation and University, his taxes, and his abuse of presidential powers to enrich himself and his friends at the expense of the interest of the country. And on and on. Add them all together and you get disasters such as Trump’s gross mishandling of the pandemic.

You would think we could all agree that such a person is unfit to hold any public office. But no. The transactional supporters of Trump attempt to minimize just how bad all of this is.

Their key attribute, however, is that they accept Trump’s transgressions as the bargain they strike in exchange for the one or two things they expect to get in return. They say: “I’m fine with Trump’s lies and crimes. Why? Because Trump lowered my taxes.” End of story. Nothing else matters. Or “Because he’s against abortion.” Or “Because he supports Israel.” Or “Because of the Supreme Court.”

Unlike the Republicans in The Lincoln Project who could rise above their political party preferences to see Trump as the existential threat he is — the transactionalists remain blissfully unconcerned. They turn a blind eye as Trump sets America’s house on fire. As the saying goes: “You don’t have to be a racist to support Trump, but you do have to say Trump’s racism is not a deal-breaker.” I have no tolerance for the people who have made this sort of deal.

What all three groups share…and what I find ultimately the most disturbing…is the apparent willingness of a large segment of our country to acquiesce to (even welcome) the rise of autocracy and the destruction of our democracy…in the name of supporting Trump. I thought America was better than this. Clearly, I was wrong.

[A postscript: Even if you accept that we (Progressives/Democrats) are not the cause of how we wound up where we are today, we still need to share responsibility for where we go from here. We can’t easily dismiss the fact that tens of millions of people voted for Trump — whatever the reason. But that’s a subject for another day.]

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[Update (November 6): “All you offer are critical explanations for why people support Trump. Can’t there be positive reasons — such as the pre-COVID economy?” On balance, no. Sometimes the scales tip too far in one direction to allow for consideration of the other side. This is one of those times. As it turns out, Trump himself just offered further proof of this — at a news briefing of “historic dishonesty.” His remarks were so egregious that the major networks cut their coverage of it. It is beyond me how anyone can listen to this and conclude: “Yes, this is the person I want to vote for.”]

[Update (November 8): New York Times columnist Frank Bruni (whom I greatly admire) recently tackled the same basic question I asked above: “Why were so many of my fellow citizens so content {to vote for Trump}?” He offers answers that are more generous to Trump voters than I was: “That Democrats didn’t triumph even bigger in 2020 seems impossible — unless and until you…re-examine your assumptions through a lens other than the one you’re partial to. Those of us obsessed with what a miserable person Trump is lost sight of what a mighty candidate he is.” Perhaps. But even if there are separate lenses, it doesn’t mean they represent equally valid views. For example, if you’re attracted to Trump’s “we’re rounding the corner” assessment of the pandemic, you’re supporting Trump because of a lie – a complete fiction and a dangerous one. There is no equivalence of views here. Regardless, the article is definitely worth a read. And it forced me to continue to re-examine my own thinking — which is always a good thing.]

[Update (November 9): I have received feedback that I did not go far enough in my condemnation of Trump voters. Trump has openly stoked our country’s long standing undercurrents of racism and xenophobia — encouraging divisiveness, grievance, and anger. And many Trump voters have sadly responded by saying “Yes. I’m on board.” Numerous articles I have read, such as this one, similarly support a sense of grief at the extent of Trump’s support.

On the other side, several post-election articles I’ve read suggest a greater legitimacy to Trump’s support than I have been willing to admit. For example,  a column in the New York Times explores the depth of evangelicals’ support for Trump. While it remains transactional — it is perhaps not as hypocritical as I have implied. More generally, conservatives can have justifiable concerns about a leftist agenda (even though it’s not Biden’s agenda) focusing on Medicare for all, a Green New Deal, defunding the police and open borders.

Regardless, the bottom line for me remains that Trump himself should be an unacceptable choice for everyone — no matter what concerns one has. It’s like the famous (actually false) claim about Mussolini and trains: “Rather than serving as a fictitious symbol of the benefits of fascism, it is now offered as a sardonic example that something good can result even from the worst of circumstances. As Montagu and Darling wrote: Mussolini may have done many brutal and tyrannical things; he may have destroyed human freedom in Italy; but ‘one had to admit’ one thing about the Dictator: he ‘made the trains run on time.’”

I continue to struggle with the yin and yang of this difficult and complicated question. I could post further updates indefinitely. I have to draw the line at some point. This is the point.]

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9 Responses to The 2020 Election Results: Trump vs. Trumpism

  1. MDS. says:

    Extraordinarily well-thought out and well-said. Couldn’t agree more. Can’t wait to see what you have to say about that other subject (“where we go from here”).

  2. Priya Singh says:

    Very well said! Thank you for your explanation. I too grasp at explanations for why so many support him and this helps soothe some of the sting. If we can at least understand it, even though we don’t agree with it, it gives some ease to our frustration.

  3. Marian Shapiro says:

    WOW! This is so true and so well said. Thanks Ted. It’s a treat to get things explained so clearly, brilliantly and understandably. Greatly appreciate my wise, articulate brother-in-law! Looking forward to the next chapter on where we go from here!!!

  4. Al Varnell says:

    As a moderate, slightly conservative, registered Republican for six decades, I find myself in complete agreement with your analysis and conclusions here and have said many of these same things, myself.

  5. Marian Cohen says:

    This is a brilliant analysis. Thank you – and thanks to Marian Shapiro (dedicated and inspiring activist, educator, and disseminator of important information) for forwarding this to me and many others!

  6. Leslie Potter says:

    Living in a family with transactionalist members, I agree this is right on. They also watch FOX News, but I think their main reason for supporting Trump is the stock market and (some of them) their status as members of the 1%, so the tax “reforms” really benefited them. Thank you, Marian Shapiro, for sending me to your blog!

  7. D. L. Fuller says:

    Considered and insightful, then logically presented. Thank you. It clarifies the situation.

  8. Frank Jones says:

    A thoughtful analysis. We all would benefit if we perceive the election results as an opportunity to learn what we did not know pre-November 3rd. I think this happened in 2016 when I was a stroung Hillary supporter. People vote, it seems ,from emotional influences. A white voter with material advantages may have underlying fear/concern with the demographic shift taking place today in the US. Many besides the one percenters bow to trumpism because under Trump they made lots of money. We had more people vote in 2020 than any previous election. A good thing and a sign we have a thriving democracy. Let’s get ready for the next election!!

  9. Joel S says:

    Sharp analysis. It was very sobering that we overestimated the number of Americans who would reject Trumpism (and especially the Trump-ist Senate candidates). And scary that the polls got it so wrong too. There’s a lot to be upset and depressed about, despite the recapturing of the presidency, which is huge. I definitely agree that as progressive, we have to do a lot of listening, understanding, thinking, and strategizing. There’s a path to broader electoral success, but it sure doesn’t seem like we have the wisdom and discipline to pursue it. Rather than a clean break, it’s seems like we’re headed for further gridlock and mire.

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