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No matter what the outcome of the presidential race, one thing is clear. Donald Trump’s hold on the American voter’s psyche is exceptional.

It’s hard to imagine many other advanced countries electing or coming within a hair of electing a president like Donald Trump. But Americans have done it again.

This is a president who was impeached in the House of Representatives to start the year, who faltered terribly in his handling of the coronavirus epidemic, whose economy fell into a deep pit, who faced accusations of race-baiting, whose ignorance was revealed in books by former administration insiders like John Bolton, and who came across as an unhinged psychotic in the first televised debate.

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By all rights, the election should not have been close. At this writing, Democrat Joe Biden was the likely winner but the margins in the battleground states were extremely thin.

Mr. Trump defied the odds and the elites once again. He turned logic on its head. The worse he acts – and so much of what he said in the campaign bore little resemblance to the truth – the more he connects.

His showing will be seen in many quarters as a shameful statement on the American condition. A punishing defeat, a clear-cut rejection of his demagoguery would have signalled to the world that his authoritarian, xenophobic, polarizing impulses were in no way emblematic of the American way. It would have signalled a wish for a course correction, a desire to make America normal again.

But it is clear now that Donald Trump was no outlier. Even with an election loss, he surpassed expectations and Trumpism – he could run again in 2024 – will live on. And even though he was facing a loss, he was prepared, given his utter lack of respect for democracy, to try and prevent it from happening. He made a premature claim of victory, baselessly alleging election fraud and threatening legal action to get his way.

It’s the nightmare scenario that many feared. The demagogue is in full flight. The country could be plunged into chaos and turmoil for weeks to come.

Should he win the White House again, Mr. Trump will be emboldened to wield power in a manner even more ruthless and autocratic than before. He will see the result as vindication for all his excesses. He will see himself as invincible.

In 2016, he famously said that “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”

The statement resonates. He has been blamed, given his cavalier attitude to the pandemic and his failure to take stronger action to contain it, for many of the deaths that have resulted from it. But it appears he didn’t lose many votes on that account. In exit polls, Republican voters placed the virus low on their list of important issues facing the country.

Armchair quarterbacks questioned Mr. Trump’s strategy of relentlessly appealing to his base instead of reaching out to moderate voters. His speeches were full of red meat for his base. He made outrageous charges. “If Biden wins, this country is gone,” he hollered. He and his surrogates at Fox News portrayed the Democrat as a doddering old fool who would turn the country, as Sean Hannity stated, into “a socialist hellhole.”

The strategy worried Republicans but Mr. Trump’s way struck a chord, as it did in the 2016 election, with the public.

In his campaign he drew on his tremendous energy, outworking Mr. Biden by holding a dozen or so rallies over the past couple of days and picking up all-important 11th-hour momentum in so doing.

Pollsters blew it again. They thought they had learned from their errors in underestimating Mr. Trump’s strength in the 2016 election. They had Mr. Biden winning the popular vote by 7 or 8 per cent. It’s nowhere near that. They projected the Democrats were in position to steal several states from Republicans like Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Ohio. At the time of this writing, they had lost Florida and Ohio, and were likely to lose Georgia and North Carolina.

Given his presumed lead and respecting pandemic protocols, Mr. Biden ran a restrained campaign, seeking to make it a referendum on Mr. Trump.

He stuck to the high road, saying about his opponent’s character, “It’s not who we are, not what America is.”

But the result, as close as it was, showed that the United States is no longer a high-road country. It showed that about half the population is prepared to take it as low as Mr. Trump wishes.

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