In anticipation of some judicial challenges and possible recounts, it appears that Joe Biden will win the presidency. But that is not the story of this election. The far greater win for both sides is that President Donald Trump has far exceeded most predictions – even more than 2016.
Even if Trump loses in the end, his performance should make the Democrats, who expected Biden’s landslide victory, examine their consciences; this election was not a resounding national rejection of what Trump was running for. But it should raise more questions for the conservatives who supported him in the hope of moving the GOP in a more “Trumpist”, i.e., populist or nationalist, direction.
Many center-right writers and thinkers spent Trump’s term in office interpreting 2016 as a new model for conservative politics. The old “fusionism” (the combination of free market economy, traditional social ethics and militant foreign policy that defines American conservatism) was supposedly on its way out. Many saw Trump as a “realignment” in which the GOP would move to the left on economic issues, with a new emphasis on supporting families and creating jobs in industry, rather than assuming that – based on GDP and stock market growth – rising tides would lift all boats. The religious conservatives, in particular, saw Trump as an improvement over the usual deal they got from the GOP (nomination of originalist judges who may or may not decide on issues important to religious conservatives in exchange for votes).
But while these writers and thinkers tried to push conservatism in a better direction, Trump himself ruled like a conventional Republican, albeit a crude and haphazard one. Instead of caring about the economic prospects of working class families, the administration pursued corporate tax cuts and deregulation. Instead of turning away from the fundamentalism of the free market economy, the president became obsessed with the performance of the stock markets. And just last summer, Senator Josh Hawley (a postfusionist favorite) gave a fiery speech about how the religious conservatives were doing the same raw deal as usual. Without the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the subsequent nomination of Amy Coney Barrett (which Trump had previously passed over in favor of Brett Kavanaugh), the pro-life and religious conservatives might have felt as ignored in the election as they did before.
And then there was the 2020 election campaign itself. The Donald Trump who ran this year was not the Donald Trump who ran in 2016. Gone were the criticisms of globalism and free trade. Gone were the promises about immigration and infrastructure. Gone was the talk of opioids or the forgotten America. In this cycle Trump relied on a handful of shockingly conventional GOP trophies: law and order, job creation, socialism and 1776.
In recent weeks Trump did not even show his characteristic bombast. He didn’t pepper Biden on the campaign trail with nicknames and didn’t drop one-liners in the debate in the style of “You’d be in prison”. In interviews he was defensive. In key moments he seemed boring and tired. His speech at Barrett’s swearing-in ceremony and his post-election day speech boosted him with what his former self could only have described as “low energy”.
The 2020 election campaign was, in short, trump without a trump.
Nevertheless, he almost won. The nationalist political message and populist iconoclasm had disappeared, but he achieved almost exactly the same election results as in 2016.
This should bother conservative populists. Trump’s relative success in the 2020 elections was not a victory for the much (and rightly) hoped-for multiethnic coalition of the working class, but for the more pro-location Trump, who actually ran this time. And the fact that he came so close to repeating his 2016 victory raises the question whether the last election was initially really about populism.
Yes, Trump won 3 to 4 percentage points among the non-white men and women, but he lost by a larger margin among voters with household incomes of less than $100,000 than he lost the entire electorate, and split voters without college degrees in the middle with Biden. Whatever these black and Latin American Trump voters signed, it was not a working class coalition. Their support for Trump wa