Jean Monnet Chair, Associate Professor, Department of International Relations, Blikent University, and Visiting Fellow, Georgetown University, Washington D.C.

The 2020 election has now confirmed beyond doubt that Trump’s victory four years earlier was much more than an aberration, a mere rejection of the ‘Washington establishment’ and the result of Hillary Clinton’s inability to mobilise the Democratic base. Over the last four years, President Trump has been scolded for his style, his rhetoric and inability to honour the high office of the President. There was an impeachment process launched against him, a stream of accusations against his public (and private) conduct as well as countless instances when his behaviour drew national and international criticism. His treatment of erstwhile-allies-turned foes oozed inappropriate contempt, and rumours of chaos in the White House were never far from hitting the next headline. His constantly repeated mantra of ‘fake news’ has become the fodder of populists and conspiracy theorists around the world, while his cavalier attitude to instances of blatant racism and white supremacy further polarised an already divided nation. And yet nothing, not even the death of hundreds of thousands of Americans during the Covid-19 pandemic, has deterred millions of Americans from casting their ballots for him up and down the country.

When all votes are counted and the seemingly inevitable court cases in tightly contested states conclude, it is fair to assume that Joe Biden will be the 46th President of the United States. This is no mean feat. Biden has mobilised the Democratic voter base to an unprecedented degree, breaking the record of votes cast for any US presidential candidate that Barack Obama held since 2008. Although Democratic hopes of a breakthrough in Texas and winning back Florida proved elusive, Biden flipped states that went for Trump in 2016, such as Arizona, and rebuilt the ‘blue wall’ in the rustbelt to a degree that allowed him to make it to the magic number of 270 electoral votes. His conduct on election night, patiently awaiting the election result and boosting morale among his rather subdued followers, was equal to a man with decades-long public service whose time to claim the highest office of the land had finally come. His message of unity was sorely needed and could go a long way towards healing some of the wounds opened during an ugly and anxious pre-election campaign.

Yet the last thing Democrats can now afford is to celebrate victory. The evidence on election night, even before key states were declared, is unambiguous. The anticipated ‘blue wave’ never materialised: the Democrats have underperformed in the House race and end up with a thin majority, with a number of races turning unexpectedly red. The Senate will likely remain in Republican hands, making legislative progress along the lines envisaged by the Biden-Harris ticket a Herculean task. Meanwhile, Trump’s mobilisation of his base has exceeded expectations – and partly accounts for Biden’s numbers too, since most Biden supporters were mostly motivated by a desire to get Trump out of office. The Republican Party is as firmly controlled by Trump today as it ever was, and old-school Republicans leaving the tent have been replaced by die-hard Trump supporters backing their man hell or high water.

Trump was not simply able to hang on to crucial states, such as Florida, Ohio, and Iowa. A record turnout meant that in counties up and down the country, voters were mobilised by the Trump campaign and enthusiastically backed the President’s anti-immigration, socially conservative agenda

Violating unwritten norms of the US Constitution made little difference, as Trump managed to appeal to a diverse range of constituents, from white non-college educated voters (as in 2016) to Latino voters in Florida (a sharp contrast to 2016). Exit polls show that except for white men and white voters without a degree, Trump’s share of the vote was up compared to four years ago. Given his rhetoric and practice, the fact that Trump got a higher share of the vote from black and Latino voters, both men and women, points to a sobering fact for Democrats.

The Democratic assumption that long-term trends of a more diverse and pluralistic voter base will enhance the party’s ability to win the White House race, as the Republicans increasingly rely on the shrinking demographic of white voters, is a dangerous illusion. Democrats can no longer afford to treat African Americans, Latinos, or women voters as ‘in the bag’. The party’s tall order now consists of building back better: address real grievances of systemic racism and injustice while making sure that voters of all backgrounds and diverse value systems trust the party to deliver for them and their families. 

Rampant inequality and the dangerous echo-chambers of social media have polarised and divided the United States. Trump may be out of office by January. But Trumpism’s enduring influence, and the attention that the media and the public will continue paying to it, is a testimony to its success.

Related articles:
The dangers for democracy from America’s populist drift, by Vivien A. Schmidt.
Trump is gone and Trumpism is here to stay, by Rick Smith.
Time for Democrats to join forces across the Atlantic, by Knut Dethlefsen.
Inclusive nationalism wins in America, by John Halpin.
The cultural politics defining the 2020 election, by Michael Kennedy.
Young voters and the 2020 election, by Layla Zaidane. Elections in the United States: their meaning and impact on Latin America, by José Moreno Santos.

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