The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Yes, Trumpism was repudiated

Supporters of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris gathered at BLM Plaza in Washington, D.C., to celebrate after an anxious week. (Video: The Washington Post)

From the first reporting of the election returns Tuesday, a narrative took hold among commentators and disappointed liberals: Win or lose, they said, the electorate hadn’t repudiated President Trump and his party in the way he deserved.

As the scope of Joe Biden’s win becomes clear, however, that narrative should be revised. Because if this election wasn’t the categorical repudiation a lot of us expected (and badly wanted), then it was an emphatic rejection nonetheless.

When all the votes are finally counted and recounted, when all the president’s craven lawyers have finally sued themselves out, Biden will likely end up with 306 electoral votes — slightly more than Trump won four years ago. He will have close to 51 percent of the popular vote, making him only the fifth Democrat in the past century to break 50 percent.

That’s not a landslide, but it’s more, in terms of both electoral and popular votes, than Jimmy Carter managed when he ousted Gerald Ford in 1976. And we remember that election as a reckoning for the sins of Watergate and Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon.

If the exit polls are even in the vicinity of accurate, Biden carried independent voters by double digits. And while Biden’s margins in key states might have been close, he appears to have carried five states that Trump won four years ago, while ceding none.

He seems likely to score victories in Arizona and Georgia, two states that hadn’t gone Democratic in more than two decades.

Believe me, I get it: After all the lies and mismanagement, after the transformation of the Republican Party into a family-run syndicate, it’s staggering to think that some 70 million people cast their votes for Trump. That’s roughly equivalent to the number of Americans who voted for Barack Obama in 2008.

Sure, it would have been reaffirming for the battered institutions of democracy if Trump had gone down to an ignominious, Barry Goldwater-type defeat, taking his party’s spineless slate of candidates with him.

But let’s put this in much-needed perspective.

History tells us that an incumbent president has to work pretty hard to lose a reelection campaign, let alone lose it by a significant margin.

Three first-term presidents before Trump have lost in the past 44 years: Ford, Carter and George H.W. Bush. All of them had to fend off serious primary challenges first, which left them weakened with their bases and presiding over divided parties. The past two losing presidents also had to contend with serious third-party challengers.

Trump drew no primary or credible third-party candidate; he was in total control of his party, which laid itself down at his feet like a moldy rug. You have to go back to Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression to find an incumbent in that position who bungled things badly enough to lose.

That Trump’s unraveling didn’t translate into massive losses for Republican House and Senate candidates had little to do with the enduring appeal of Trumpism, and everything to do with an opposition party that spent the past year arguing about socialism and defunding police.

In Colorado and Arizona, where Democrats ran well-known, pragmatic candidates who couldn’t be lashed to their party’s cultural left, Republican senators who had cowered before Trump were decisively kicked to the curb.

Had this week’s results been accurately forecast and tallied like in any other year, I suspect the perception of Trump’s defeat would be very different.

But because our expectations were set by a raft of overheated polling — and because the initial count of same-day ballots, minus the largely Democratic mail-in vote, created the illusion of an election that was too close to call — the idea took hold that Trump’s mean brand of nativism hadn’t repulsed a clear majority of Americans.

In fact, it had. There was a clear message that what we think of as Trumpism — the cult of personality, the white nostalgia, the contempt for all institutions and rule of law — isn’t a viable national strategy, and will only become less so.

As a friend of mine put it, the repudiation wasn’t really overwhelming or underwhelming. It was just whelming enough.

And maybe that’s all it was ever going to be. The truth is that we don’t live in a world of Goldwater-like implosions anymore.

Our politics now feels tribal and existential more than ideological, a matter of preserving one culture at the expense of the other. It’s impossible to dominate closely divided states or an electoral map the way Lyndon Johnson or Ronald Reagan once did.

Against that backdrop, the resounding defeat of an incumbent president with a unified party shouldn’t be seen as somehow ambiguous.

It’s probably as much repudiation as a fractured country can give.

Read more:

Leana S. Wen: President-elect Biden needs get to work on the covid-19 pandemic. Today.

Alexandra Petri: Donald Trump’s concession speech

E.J. Dionne: President-elect Biden has what America needs

Karen Attiah: An ailing and polarized America calls on Kamala Harris — and Black women — to clean up its mess

Jennifer Rubin: Biden wins, and Republicans are left in a miserable state