by Neil H. Buchanan
This past Saturday and Sunday, when it briefly appeared that President-Elect Biden and Vice President-Elect Harris were going to be widely and quickly accepted as the legitimate victors in the election, I considered writing a column this week in which I would eat a considerable amount of crow -- and because I am a vegan, that would have been an especially repellent prospect.
I have, after all, been loudly and consistently saying for years that Donald Trump would bring the end of the rule of law in America, that he would never leave office, and that we might even be a "dead democracy walking." Saturday's celebrations seemed to have proven me wrong. Delightfully, deliciously, deliriously wrong, but wrong. Would that it were so.
My new Verdict column (to be published tomorrow) instead suggests that the Republicans are very likely now in the process of going through the mental gymnastics needed to support Trump's outlandish claim to being the rightful winner of the election. Just as Republicans have been horrified, then resigned, then willing to ignore things like the "Access Hollywood" tape, the Charlottesville equivalence, the Ukraine extortion attempt, and on and on, I argue that the current cover story about Trump needing time to accept reality is instead time being spent getting Republicans to adjust to his alternative reality.
I do admit that there are still plenty of barriers to preventing the coup, but I continue to have much less confidence than others that those barriers will hold. And even if the legal barriers are not breached, Trump still has the military (which he is in the process of corrupting) and his "Second Amendment people" on speed dial.
All of that is plenty scary, but I will use this column to discuss the election from a much more mundane perspective. That is, I want to discuss votes as if they actually matter. Yes, it is prosaic of me to continue to think of elections as the core of democracy, but bear with me. I want to discuss why Trump received so many more votes than I thought he would. It is an important question, and the logical mistake that I have been making until now is especially fascinating.
In 2016, the final popular vote totals were: 65,845,063 for Hillary Clinton, 62,980,160 for Trump. I have been arguing ever since November 2016 that that latter total was the upper limit for Trump in 2020. (I normally try to provide links to my previous columns, but this is a situation in which it hardly seems necessary to cite myself.) That did not, however mean that he could not win in 2020. He could either draw another inside straight in the Electoral College, or Republicans could suppress so many votes that the Democratic nominee would he held under 62,980,160. Indeed, the Democrats' total would have to be lower than that, because so many of Trump's supporters have died (given the demographics of his base) since 2016.
Why should Trump's vote be capped? Because everything he did was designed to make his existing supporters happy and to give the finger to everyone else. Why the child-separation policy? Why attack journalists (especially female journalist, especially female journalists of color)? Why support a 17-year-old White kid who gunned down three people in Wisconsin (two of whom died)? For that matter, why continue to say that the Central Park Five are guilty and deserved the death penalty?
Indeed, why do any of that? The popular theory was that he needed to keep his supporters fired up, but it was nearly impossible to imagine that they needed anything to keep them amped -- certainly, not enough of them that it was worth losing everyone else. The only possible explanation seemed to be that he simply believed that he could win the Electoral College (and maybe the popular vote, but that would have been gravy) with only his 62,980,160 (and declining) voters, or that he was planning to stage a coup if he lost.
Final counts are not in for the 2020 elections, but the current running totals (as of shortly after noon EST on Thursday) are: 77,681,733 for Biden, 72,413,260 for Trump. The difference of 5.27 million is much larger than Clinton's 2.86 million, but I am interested instead in the difference between Trump's 72,413,260 this year and his 62,980,160 four years ago. That is 9,433,100 voters who did not vote for him last time -- and again, taking into account death rates (and nonvoters and expatriates), that means that we are talking probably 11 million voters who decided in 2020 to vote for Trump for the first time.
There are some partial and straightforward explanations. Some people came of age in the last four years, although given the overwhelmingly anti-Trump attitudes among young people, it is difficult to imagine that this is a source of a large number of new Trump voters. Perhaps, contrary to my belief, there truly were committed Trumpists in 2016 who did not bother to vote -- perhaps because they thought it was pointless (just as millions of people allowed Trump to win by not bothering to get out and vote for Clinton). Republicans "coming home" -- even if reluctantly -- in response to tribal pressures surely played a role, too.
I now, however, have a much better hypothesis -- surprising, perhaps, but better. My mistake was in thinking that non-Trump voters were repulsed by Trump in an irreversible way, which would combine with his ongoing efforts to play only to his base to keep every non-Trumper a non-Trumper. The logic of this is still clear to me, of course, given that I believed it for so long. But it turns out that it is not necessarily so.
Why not? What I was essentially doing was to concede that some voters are immune to logic and decency but that the rest would look at Trump and say, "Never!" The problem is that some people who voted against Trump in 2016 might be illogical or indecent enough to have seen something that they liked since then, flipping them to Trump.
What might they have liked? The point is that it is impossible to know -- and it is impossible to know for the same reason that Trump's 2016 voters are impossible to understand. All of the explanations for their votes -- feeling disrespected by coastal elites, wanting manufacturing jobs to come back, and so on -- were more than made up for by counter-arguments (Trump and the Republicans have no respect for their voters, manufacturing jobs are not coming back) and by additional arguments (Trump and the Republicans will always shovel money upward, make jobs more dangerous, and so forth).
How does one look at the Triumpian stew in 2016 and say, "Yes, I want that"? I still do not get it, but because of that, I should not have imagined that other people would be incapable of looking at something even worse in 2020 and saying, "You know, I voted for Hillary or Jill Stein or stayed home four years ago, but now I'm all in with Trump."
Sound unlikely? It does indeed, but apparently Trump just won the highest percentage of non-White votes for a Republican presidential candidate since 1960. Armchair sociologists are now offering surmises about why non-White men might have been drawn to Trump this year, focusing on stereotypical (but perhaps statistically explanatory) concepts like machismo. Maybe.
Again, however, it truly does not matter for my now-dead hypothesis why certain people were newly drawn to Trump. It only matters that they were. Even when I was willing to concede that certain voters are post-rational, I assumed that other voters had reached their 2016 conclusions rationally and would continue to do so. That is apparently not true. What I once called the group of "reachable" voters was, in my mind, tiny because they presumably could only be reached by Trump doing something especially appealing (appealing enough to negate everything else); and given that Trump was doing nothing appealing, I thought that none of them would be reached.
As in most such situations, the error in logic -- my assumption that there is a logical way to track and predict illogic -- is obvious in hindsight. In any event, I can only say that this realization gives me even less faith in the future of America than I had before now.
If the country contains not just a large group of Trump-from-the-beginning voters but 10 or 11 million new Trump voters, what can we say about the nearly 78 million Biden voters or the tens of millions of non-voters in 2020? How many of them might have gone for Trump if, I don't know, he had literally punched Biden during one of the non-debates? It does not, after all, take something good on Trump's part to win votes, so almost anything now seems possible. And that is terrifying.