America’s election night four years ago was a resounding slap in the face. Democrats were horrified, pollsters were revealed in all their nakedness and even Republicans were dumbstruck. And the most surprised of all was President-elect Donald Trump.
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Over the next four years, hordes of journalists, scholars, politicians and ordinary people tried to understand what exactly happened in 2016. The first shock was over the polls, almost all of which had predicated a decisive victory for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Later, rivers of ink were spilled about Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania; about white men with no college education; and about the phenomenon known as Trumpism.
The Democrats obsessed over the battle they lost, and especially over the hearts of the unionized workers who switched sides. Liberals sought ways to regain the trust of white men.
And all this new thinking obscured a hidden but crucial assumption that never changed at all. Democrats, and to a large extent establishment Republicans as well, continued to see Trump as an accident of history – something that happened by mistake.
According to this narrative, Trump simply identified a breach in the American system and slipped through it without understanding it. That’s what happened in the Republican primaries, in which he won just 30 to 40 percent of the votes in a multi-candidate race; in a winner-take-all system, even 30 percent can bring victory. Then, after becoming the Republican candidate, he found himself going head to head with a rival who was no less hated.
Next, Trump leveraged both the establishment media and social media with the skill of a veteran of reality TV. With their help, he got attention. His scandalous behavior won headlines – and also angry supporters from segments of society that the pollsters had missed.
Ever since, the question that has preoccupied scholars, pollsters, journalists and both parties is “what happened to the white men who voted twice for Barack Obama and then for Trump?” According to the accepted narrative, the answer is that had the Democrats picked a less disliked candidate in 2016, Trump would have lost.
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But Tuesday’s election requires this narrative to be revised. It’s not yet clear whether the winner was Trump or Joe Biden, but one thing is clear: Trump has proven that he was no accident. Faced with a white male rival, an establishment politician from Pennsylvania, Trump showed that he could keep his supporters behind him. He replicated many of his 2016 victories, and this time in an even more convincing fashion.
His crucial victory in Ohio in 2016 was considered an anomaly, a kind of protest vote against Washington that wasn’t expected to recur. But on Tuesday, he won Ohio by at least the same margin as he did four years ago, and perhaps even a larger one.
In 2016, Florida was a nail-biter, with the candidates separated by less than a percentage point. Trump’s victory there was considered a death blow to Clinton’s hopes, and since then, the Democrats have invested enormous effort in wooing Florida voters.
But four years later, running a candidate who doesn’t arouse the same antagonism as Clinton did, the Democrats did even worse. Trump beat Biden by around four percentage points, making it clear to the skeptics that the state is solidly behind him.
The 2020 campaign was waged from start to finish as the left against Trump. The main question in the Democratic primaries was who could beat Trump, and this consideration led to Biden winning the nomination over more popular and exciting candidates like senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
The argument was that he was the one who could win back white centrists, especially in Midwestern states like Pennsylvania. Biden promised to turn the clock backward and restore the pre-Trump calm.
But even as America tensely awaits the final vote counts that will decide the election, and perhaps intervention by the Supreme Court as well, the Democrats seem to have found themselves back in the same place. Once again, they lost Florida. Once again, they are at the mercy of Midwestern whites, especially in Pennsylvania.
With all the votes yet to be counted, Biden is still favored to win. But it might entail a legal battle against Trump’s lawyers in front of Supreme Court justices Trump appointed. And it’s still too soon to rule out the possibility of Trump winning the election with no help from the courts, although that is less likely.
Nevertheless, one thing is clear. Trump has proven that he heads a movement that isn’t going anywhere. He is no accident of history.
When Obama won in 2012, he said he preferred that victory to his 2008 victory, because he won not on the basis of speeches and symbolism, but on the basis of a proven record. Trump, whether he wins or loses the election, has already won a similar referendum.
An entire political bloc stood solidly behind him even now that they know who he is. Not even his failed handling of the coronavirus was enough to sway them.
From now on, there’s a Democratic Party and a Trump party. There are no other Republicans.