Donald Trump lost the U.S. presidential election, but despite all the debate on what he did or did not achieve in his four-year term, there is one contribution to politics no one can take away from him: expanding the circle of participants in America’s democracy, and giving hitherto unheard voters a voice. That achievement will influence the American and global political systems for many generations to come.
His critics like to call Trump a dictator; that by not respecting the results of the election, he is weakening democracy. But Trump is the first politician in a generation to successfully restore trust in the political system on the part of marginalized citizens, particularly white uneducated non-voters. His current tweets about the "stolen election" track more attention, but they can’t change the historic movement of enfranchisement he has built.
As an advisor to Israel’s Likud party, I’m more than familiar with the constant critique of a leader who is actually strengthening democracy by winning it more participants. Benjamin Netanyahu pioneered this kind of outreach; Trump is the latest expression of this worldview.
Israel went through three general elections in 2019-2020. The turnout in cities whose populations traditionally voted Likud was far lower than cities that leaned center or left. For example, Bat Yam, south of Tel Aviv, leant right; but the Likud had only previously managed a 51 percent turnout, whereas in Herzliya, which leans left, 67 percent of voters turned out.
So during Netanyahu’s last election campaign, our goal was to maximize our vote by reaching every potential voter, the disappointed and the forgotten, to show that their vote had meaning. We went family by family, home by home. The prime minister sat with them, heard them, all around the country. We didn’t "reach out" using online ads or press conferences, we went face-to-face. The result: an all-time record high vote for any single political party in Israel’s history.
The 2020 U.S. presidential elections can boast the highest turnout of any presidential election in the past century. Biden won the largest popular mandate in U.S. history, with over 79 million votes. But amid the Democratic celebrations, something else huge happened for U.S. democracy – thanks to Trump.
Since the 1990s, popular confidence in democratic systems has gone down. It doesn’t even matter if those democratic institutions have actually become less accountable or not. The feeling that they had become mired in self-dealing and self-enrichment, that politics have become a game of the elite, alienated from a popular mandate, caused a wave of distrust in the West.
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This was the winning argument of the pro-Brexit camp in the UK: the electorate voted in national elections, but policy was set in a bureaucratically alienated and unaccountable EU.
Even as a losing candidate, Trump won 73 million votes, four million more than Obama’s stunning 2008 result. In fact, he brought in 10 million more voters than any previous GOP presidential candidate.
Trump had connected with an uneducated public that that had not been part of the democratic game, who lived on the outskirts of cities and on the fringes of society, in small towns, in agricultural areas, forgotten by politicians in Washington DC and television networks in New York. The New York Times’ exit poll showed a huge surge of 5 percent in voter participation among white uneducated voters in deep red states like West Virginia and Wyoming.
Accustomed to working hard for limited pay, they didn’t believe politicians would ever bother to reach out to them and represent them. Then came the billionaire from Fifth Avenue and Mar-A-Lago, and he spoke to them eye-to-eye. They realized that there was, now, a reason to participate in the political game. And they went out to vote in unprecedented numbers.
True, Joe Biden also succeeded in turning out voters, and that’s just as laudable. But look at the difference in the media narrative: When Biden turns out Black voters, he is a popular, even redemptive, leader; when Trump turns out white uneducated voters, he’s contemptible.
The left-leaning media mocks him, and his people. The right-wing media ecosystem, though highly developed and pervasive, doesn’t set the public agenda in the same way. Trump voters are called crazy, cult believers, conspirators.
In a democracy every voice is equal. The university professor is equal to the sanitary worker, and the famed chef to the last of the dishwashers.
But we’re witnessing ever more frequent attempts, in the U.S. and elsewhere, to deny that equality. Uneducated voters attract less legitimacy and more hostility than educated voters in the Democrat-friendly mainstream media. Their vote is not "cool." In 2016, Clinton called them "deplorables." In 2020, the media called them "QAnon."
In Israel, there was the same media dynamic in regard to Netanyahu’s supporters. The media slammed them as cult members, or bot networks. I found myself wondering whether all the fine people who speak in such elevated tones about democracy really believe that every vote is equal. This is exactly what democracy means: Every vote. Jewish and Arab, rich and poor, parochial and cosmopolitan.
We’ll see more politicians, on the right and the left, treading Netanyahu and Trump’s path. You won’t gauge what’s going on by swallowing the opinion polls that the media likes so much. Go to the forgotten, hidden voters, waiting for someone to hear them.
People mistakenly call it populism. It’s not populism, it is an expression of the highest values of democracy. Trump managed to get a lot more voters out than in 2016, but that was not enough in the presidential election. But he began a new political movement, of the forgotten voters, the ones the mainstream media never even saw. In this way, Trumpism is here to stay.
Srulik Einhorn is the founder of perception.media, a strategic consultant and creative director to leaders including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Serbia’s President Aleksander Vucic. Twitter: @SrulikEinhorn