“Figuring out how Trump won an additional 10 million votes,” argues my Post colleague E.J. Dionne Jr., “is one of the most important questions in politics.” His theory? “Given Trump’s intemperate and often wild ranting in the campaign’s final weeks and the growing public role in GOP politics of QAnon conspiracists, the Proud Boys and other previously marginal extremist groups, these voters may well be more radical than the party as a whole.”
I am not usually the person others rely upon to cheer up a party. The bright side, in my view, is often the glow of an approaching meteor. In this case, the political party of George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney does seem well and truly gone. More than 73 million Americans voted for a presidential candidate excited by exclusion, attracted to authoritarianism and prone to conspiracy theories. Doesn’t that indicate a party driven by prejudice and illiberalism?
It does, in part. Every Republican who did not support Trump because of his bigotry supported him in spite of it. But this is an incomplete picture of our politics: The facts do not refute Republican blame, but they do complicate it.
Complication No. 1: According to the 2020 exit polls, 35 percent of voters said that the economy was their most important issue. Of this group, the overwhelming majority — 83 percent — voted for Trump.
This may strike us as absurd, since Trump’s failed management of the covid-19 pandemic is what deepened the recession. But a large number of voters in 2020 disagreed with this assessment. Plenty of Americans seemed to like Trump’s economic management before the pandemic, didn’t blame him for the pandemic itself, and believed he would do a better job after the pandemic lifted.
It is true that the overwhelming majority of voters — 81 percent — who saw the pandemic as their largest issue voted for Democrat Joe Biden. But this group constituted just 17 percent of voters — less than half the number citing the economy. And Biden never even made much of a case against Trump’s management of the economy during the pandemic. Trump won the economic argument against him largely because it was more assumed than made.
Complication No. 2: Trump did modify his 2020 message in a significant way. Except for absurdly claiming that his border wall was near completion, he did not focus on immigration as he had previously. During the 2016 presidential election and the 2018 midterms, Trump’s final appeal was to stop an imaginary flood of Hispanic drug dealers, gang members and rapists from entering the country. In 2020, Trump’s main appeal was fighting socialism and maintaining law and order.
The president’s record on immigration is brutal and horrendous. But in the relative absence of anti-immigrant messaging, Trump made direct appeals to Latino voters across the country. And it turns out that a good number of Latino voters like border security, hate socialism and are vulnerable (like others) to populist demagoguery. In Latino-majority Miami-Dade County, Trump went from roughly 333,666 votes in 2016 to about 532,833 votes in 2020.
Complication No. 3: Some of the most respected voices in Democratic politics have located significant image and policy problems on the Democratic side. House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (S.C.) has warned that Democrats lose electoral momentum when they are associated with issues such as socialized medicine and defunding police departments. Calls to defund the police, he argues, have the possibility of “doing to the Black Lives Matter movement and current movements across the country what ‘Burn, baby, burn’ did to us back in 1960s. We lost that movement over that slogan.”
When intemperate activists control the image of the Democratic Party, it puts needless distance between Democrats and the political center of the country.
None of this justifies or excuses Trump’s extremism or Republican cowardice. The GOP deserved to lose even worse than it did. But it would help in this cause if the Democratic Party had a more compelling economic message, didn’t take Hispanic voters for granted and avoided being defined by its own excesses.