Of course a U.S. presidential election held in 2020 would turn out to be a mess. Everything 2020 has touched has pretty much been a disaster.
That U.S. President Donald Trump would attempt to delegitimize the results if he found himself in trouble by the end of election night may have been one of the few things the media predicted correctly about this election. No surprise there: Mr. Trump had been making unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud for months. With ballot totals being challenged by the President’s campaign, it could be weeks before we have an official outcome – although things do look good for Joe Biden and the Democrats.
The story of the election, it seems, is the degree to which the pollsters, many of whom were pointing toward a Democratic landslide, got it so wrong. It was 2016 all over again – but worse. The media have also come in for their share of condemnation for the extent to which they misunderstood or underestimated the level of support Mr. Trump continued to enjoy across the country.
I’m not going to defend the pollsters or the media here. If U.S. commentators conveyed the impression that Mr. Biden appeared destined for a pretty easy night, it was based largely on those same polls that got it so wrong. But it also rested, I think, on the false assumption that a majority of fair-minded Americans would never mark their ballots for someone who had demonstrated such open contempt and malice for the norms of the presidency.
In the end, it will likely be that a majority of Americans did, in fact, vote in favour of the return of decency and honour to the White House. Still, more people than ever voted for someone routinely depicted as evil incarnate, a person considered a serial liar and flighty demagogue who delighted in fomenting hate and sowing division.
The media certainly did nothing wrong in cataloguing Mr. Trump’s various untruths and misdeeds. They weren’t wrong to investigate his tax returns or his proclivity for extending a warm hand to dictators while often treating long-time allies with disdain. Nor were the media off-beam for chronicling his disastrous handling of the pandemic. What they failed to recognize, however, was that almost half the country would be prepared to endorse Mr. Trump’s decision to put the health of the economy ahead of the health of individual citizens.
There is a temptation, even a tendency, among cultural elites, which would include columnists with The New York Times and other news organizations, to caricature Trump supporters as flag-waving rubes. But the populist coalition he built in 2016 – and continued to build while in office – was always much, much broader than that. And this group holds a starkly different view of America and its future than probably half of their fellow citizens.
One of the more popular refrains on social media whenever Mr. Trump would do something particularly egregious was “This is not who we are.” No one wanted to even consider the notion that, in fact, that’s exactly who America is. Or at least a broad swath of it. This election has laid bare America’s white identity politics and what they have done to the conservative movement in the country.
It turns out there are many white Americans who yearn for a version of their country that existed many, many years ago. And any huckster selling them on that dream will be given much leeway and forgiven a million sins. Mr. Trump tapped into that zeitgeist four years ago and was still exploiting that phenomenon in this election. (“I am happy to inform all of the people living their suburban lifestyle dream that you will no longer be bothered … by having low-income housing built in your neighborhood,” the President tweeted during the campaign.)
That doesn’t sum up precisely what happened this week. There are perfectly normal, upstanding American citizens who also voted for Mr. Trump because they place a priority on the economy – and the health of their 401(k) retirement plans – above all else. Many believed Mr. Trump was better for jobs and investment than Mr. Biden. The factors underlying the overall results of this election are many and complex and, from where I sit, also pretty disturbing.
Hopefully, if Mr. Biden is declared the victor and is sworn into office, the U.S. media will get a respite from the firehose-gushing velocity of the news cycle that has existed since 2016. Maybe then they can devote more time to better understanding their own country.
What this election showed above all else is that the U.S. is not the place many thought it was. Maybe this is the year America finally comes face to face with itself.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.