I feel like I’ve heard a million campaign speeches over the years, but that was the first time a candidate didn’t pretend to be thrilled to be here — wherever “here” might be. People a generation from now might say, “Oh yeah, 2020. The year Trump said he was only in Erie because he was losing.”
It’s a standout moment because it captures the two gaudy sides of Donald Trump, political original. The Too-Muchness of Trump. You can’t explain Trump’s ability to galvanize more votes than any Republican in U.S. history — likely north of 70 million by the time the counting ends — without noting the weird authenticity he projects to a certain (large) group of Americans. When he tells a bunch of people who’ve waited hours to see him that he doesn’t want to be there, he proves he’s not an ordinary oily, by-the-numbers politician. That was far from the most offensive thing Trump has said, but it is emblematic of a man who understands the appetite for a politics of confrontation.
The other side of the story is all the people repelled by Trump’s Too-Muchness. That turned out to be an even larger group, indeed the largest group of voters ever amassed in the United States. Only Trump’s Trumpiness can explain the otherwise amazing fact that Joe Biden — political plodder and perennial presidential also-ran — enters the history books as the greatest vote-getter we’ve ever seen.
Erie tells the story. Trump’s voters weren’t turned off by his apparent insult — quite the opposite. His 57,168 votes in Erie County four years ago became more than 65,000 votes this time. That’s the sort of magic that normally reelects an incumbent in a landslide. But Trump repelled more Erie County voters than he attracted, helping to turn a win into a loss. The insult did not cause that repudiation, but it was emblematic of the cause.
In 2016, writer Salena Zito had the insight that Trump supporters took their candidate seriously but not literally, while his opponents failed by taking him literally but not seriously. Biden’s massive anti-Trump vote represents a majority of Americans who reject the either-or. They expected their president to be both serious and literal — especially when events turned literally serious.
Biden’s total is likely to be more than 80 million when the election is certified; before this year, no candidate had amassed even 70 million. This groundswell wasn’t a blue wave, because it left down-ballot Democrats worse off than before. It wasn’t a red wave, because it washed a Republican out of the Oval Office. It was all about Trump, which means he has only himself to blame.
There was a moment when Trump might have calmed the storm. It was mid-March; his efforts to talk the novel coronavirus away had failed. So he told the country what he had told his youngest son when Barron asked, “How bad is it?”
“It’s bad,” Trump said — but with effort and hope we’ll get through it. Had he followed through on that, in substance and in tone, I think he would have won reelection. Instead, his need for confrontation compelled him to make a wedge issue of the pandemic.
“It’s bad.” Two words an American majority was looking to hear. But having said it, he spent the rest of the campaign unsaying it. Americans needed to hear not as a matter of elitist courtesy or political correctness, but as confirmation that he took them seriously. People have been dying, hundreds per day for nearly nine months now, and the fact that many of those people (but far from all) have been old doesn’t make their deaths irrelevant.
“It affects elderly people, elderly people with heart problems, if they have other problems, that’s what it really affects,” Trump said of the virus at a rally on Sept. 21. “It affects virtually nobody,” he added. “It’s an amazing thing.”
No ordinary politician talks like that, it’s true. But no responsible leader, no accountable executive, no president talks like that, either. The Too-Muchness of Trump won him a lot of votes, for sure. But it appears to have cost him too much.
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