For right-wingers unwilling to embrace conspiracy theories and promote the narrative that Trump was robbed, there’s much solace-seeking in the narrative that Trump is some sort of political genius who tapped something “liberal elites” don’t understand.
That’s despite Trump losing the popular vote (for the second time) bigly, by over 4 million votes, and Biden heading for a convincing 300-plus electoral college vote.
The mood was summed up by reactionary Australian op-ed columnist Greg Sheridan, who claimed Trump had won a “moral victory”. “More people voted for Trump than ever voted for Barack Obama, the previous record holder, or for Hillary Clinton last time, or for any other president,” he wrote.
“The result,” Sheridan thought, “is a shocking repudiation of the American liberal establishment.”
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You reckon a Democrat losing the popular vote by 4 million and getting soundly beaten in the electoral college would ever be a “moral victory” and a shocking repudiation of conservatism for Greg?
Far from being some sort of instinctual political chess grandmaster, Trump made fundamental, almost amateur errors. His campaign to demonise mail-in voting turns out to have been a disaster, deterring Republican turnout. In Pennsylvania, local Republicans specifically complained in June that Trump was hurting their efforts to maximise turnout. His refusal to take the pandemic seriously removed a huge opportunity to display the sort of leadership that might have attracted independent voters. Despite publicly warning he would litigate the result if he lost, he failed to put together a legal team, leading to the high comedy of the Four Seasons carpark media conference.
Most of all, Trump turned off American women — despite a clumsy last-minute pitch to suburban women to “like him” because he’d been so good for them. Women voted at higher rates than men, and more strongly for Biden than Trump (56% to 48%). The accused rapist and self-admitted sexual harasser failed during his four years to convince white college-educated women to back him again.
But while progressives and centrists pop the champagne to toast the end of Trump — for now — many are also consoling themselves with their own narrative that, as Foreign Affairs put it, “the system worked”. A would-be authoritarian who sought to derail the democratic outcome of an election had lost.
But what if Trump and his campaign team hadn’t been incompetent?
What if his voter suppression campaign and that of his party had been better targeted, not at mail-in ballots but at areas where Republicans have had much more success — purging voter rolls and making voting more difficult in the name of electoral fraud?
For that matter, what if Trump had taken the pandemic seriously and portrayed himself as the caring father of his nation? What if his behaviour wasn’t so repugnant to women?
The US electoral system is theoretically designed to prevent the emergence of a would-be tyrant — feared by the founding fathers to come from the military, not a bankrupt property empire — but with a partisan-stacked Supreme Court there is no check on a populist demagogue with a decent political strategy and the money to implement it.