I reacted to the election results with a strange mix of elation and foreboding. Elation, of course, because American voters came through and rejected Donald Trump. Our country and our planet will no longer be exposed to the danger of having its most powerful person a megalomaniacal, delusional ignoramus. I wrote when he was elected that we would not get through four years of a Trump presidency without many people dying unnecessarily; so it has been. My relief at having him gone cannot be overstated. The prospect of four more years of his misrule was terrifying, and I don’t think American democracy would have survived in any recognizable form.
Still, there was the disturbing fact that 74 million people voted to continue his reign of racism, corruption and ineptitude. Under normal conditions, a 7-million vote, 4-percent margin of victory would be considered a decisive victory and cause for partisan satisfaction. But this was not a normal election. Never before was a person so manifestly unfit for the presidency, so blatantly corrupt, and so transparently making decisions according to self-serving political calculus running for re-election. Nothing short of an historically lopsided landslide would have proved that a fluke had occurred in 2016, but that American democracy is still fundamentally healthy. That landslide did not occur; our democracy is not healthy.
One thing that puzzled me throughout the Trump years was the response of informed, responsible, allegedly principled conservatives. Through a professional career in Manhattan, my associations have skewed liberal but I have known, worked with, respected and befriended many such conservatives. They might have more faith in market outcomes, put more emphasis on personal responsibility than structural impediments, and have less confidence in government efficacy than I do, but I thought we shared the same basic analytical and ethical frameworks. I always assumed that many millions of such people constituted the backbone of the Republican Party.
So as I watched conservative intellectuals from George Will to Jennifer Rubin to Bret Stephens to William Kristol recoil from Trump, form the Lincoln Project and even leave the Republican Party altogether, I wondered if there was similar movement among their non-famous counterparts. Surely those smart, decent conservatives with business school and law degrees, who form the middle-ranks of Fortune 500 companies and law firms, who have been taught to value scientific management and the rule of law, could similarly see through Trump’s incompetence and narcissism– and could not possibly be comfortable with him in the Oval Office. The 2018 mid-term elections gave me hope that they were out there, but yet….Trump’s approval ratings remained stubbornly stable.
After each of Trump’s violations of decency, rationality or the law– colluding with Russians, obstructing justice, 30,000 lies, extorting Ukraine, weaponizing the Post Office, injecting bleach, mismanaging the pandemic– I checked those approval ratings. Stable. What was going on? Where were all those rational, decent conservatives willing to put country over party?
The 2020 presidential election provided a definitive answer; they were virtually nonexistent. According to the NEP/Edison Research exit poll, a smaller percentage of Republicans voted for Joe Biden than did for Hillary Clinton (6% vs 7%) and a higher percentage voted for Donald Trump in 2020 than in 2016 (94% vs 90%). Trump’s four years of chaotic ineptitude actually won over Republican voters. Is that an illusion created by declining voter identification with the Republican Party? Nope. According to Gallup tracking polls, the number of voters identifying with the Republican Party grew slightly from 2016 to 2020 (43.5% vs 42.6%). Granted, exit polls are in general suspect and the 2020 polls especially so. But their findings are supported by the actual elections results: Trump’s share of all votes cast actually went up, from 46.1% to 46.9%. Biden won the 2020 election because he got a larger share of Democrats’ and independents’ votes, not because Republicans crossed over.
In 2016, Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, Evan McMullin and other third-party and independent candidates won almost 8 million votes, or 5.7% of all votes cast. In 2020, third-party candidates received less than 3 million votes, or 1.8% of votes cast. The net drop in third-party votes went nearly all to Biden; his 3-percentage point gain, and 4-million increase in popular vote margin, compared to Clinton, was almost exactly matched by the decline in third-party votes. That pattern holds at the national level, the state level, the county level and (according to my sampling) even at the precinct level .
Take, for example, the Buckhead section of Atlanta, encompassing one of the most affluent zip codes in Georgia. It’s a favored residential location of Atlanta’s corporate managers, lawyers and members of the professional class. There are four core election districts there, bounded roughly by I-75 and Roswell Road. Collectively the districts are about 95% white and 3% Asian, and Trump carried each of them in both 2016 and 2020. With turnout up by over 25% in 2020, Biden improved by about six percentage points over Clinton’s performance, but Trump lost only three percentage points. The other three percentage points in the Democrats’ improvement came out of the third-party candidate share, which declined from 4 percent to 1 percent. Without actually knowing how individual voters voted, it’s impossible to say how many 2016 Trump voters switched to the Democratic candidate in 2020, but the overall pattern of the numbers suggests it was at most 3%, and probably less. The largely white, largely affluent, and largely educated Trump voters of Buckhead saw little reason in his presidential performance to change their minds about him.
Similarly, one could look further north to the Bryn Mawr suburb of Philadelphia. Situated between Bryn Mawr College, Haverford College and Villanova University, the area leans much more Democrat than does Atlanta’s Buckhead, but in other respects it’s similar, especially the portion lying north of Lancaster Avenue and the Main Line tracks. With a population that is 85% white, 8% Asian and 3% black, it’s also a favored suburb of city professionals as well as of the more prosperous academics. Each of the three election districts at the heart of the area went for the Democratic candidate by sizable margins in the past two presidential elections, with both Clinton and Biden capturing 77% of the combined vote. But Trump’s share actually increased by one percentage point from 2016 to 2020, as the third-party candidate share declined by the same. Although there are fewer of them, the affluent and educated Republicans of Bryn Mawr apparently saw as little in Trump’s performance to alienate them as did their counterparts in Buckhead.
Much has been made of the appeal of Trump’s brand of demagoguery to the white working class, as well it should. I’m not one who thinks too much attention has been paid to the study of white working class voters–in fact, I devour those proverbial diner-in-Iowa interviews with a morbid fascination. In order to combat the appeal of demagoguery we have to understand it, and I think we’re far from fully understanding Trump’s bizarre appeal. At the same time, I think Trump’s educated, white-collar supporters have gotten a free ride; either they saw Trump’s bigotry and incompetence and accepted it, or they were unable to see it. Either way, it’s terrifying. Authoritarianism needs more than foot soldiers– it also needs a compliant administrative class to keep the trains running on time. Nothing I saw during the Trump years suggests to me that an American authoritarian wouldn’t find compliant administrators of his Reich.
Of course, the willingness of a significant plurality of Americans to accept–and even welcome–an anti-democratic, authoritarian government on the Russian model was made crystal clear by the events of January 6th and the reaction to it. Trump tried to overturn the results of a decisive election with a combination of political pressure and mob violence. It failed at a number of points: the unwillingness of several Republican state election officials to cooperate; Pence’s reluctance to bend the constitution in electoral vote-counting; and the failure of the Capitol insurrectionists to apprehend and execute the Vice President and members of Congress. I don’t believe that the Trumpist crowd as a whole intended to murder public officials, but I do think there were agents within it who were willing to do just that. Had they actually captured and killed Pence, Pelosi or any other Representatives or Senators, Trump’s half-baked plan to forcibly retain power would have been more overt. As it was, the mayhem fell just short of what he needed and, I believe, was hoping for.
But still, “good Republicans” stayed loyal to him. According to one representative poll taken about a week after the insurrection, 78% of Republicans did not believe that the results of the 2020 election were accurate and 80% believed Trump was not very much to blame or not at all to blame for the events of January 6th. Moreover, over 40% of independents shared those views. Considering the structural imbalance Republicans enjoy in the Senate and electoral college, there remains a very plausible coalition to restore Trumpism to power, with or without Trump. Moreover, given the Democrats’ narrow majority in the House and uphill challenge to retain control of the Senate in 2022, the conclusion that liberal democracy in America hangs by a precarious thread is inescapable.