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Win or lose, Trump was the mirror America needed

Andre M. Perry

Senior Fellow – Metropolitan Policy Program

A day after Election Day 2020, the presidential race between Donald Trump and Joe Biden is still too close to call. As states continue to count ballots, the potential for recounts and litigation to affect the final outcome remains. Viable routes to victory remain for both candidates, even in the midst of several colossal failures that should have resulted in a trouncing of the incumbent Trump.

At various points during the campaign, both Trump and Biden referred to this election as a fight for the “soul” of America. If that is the case, Trump’s better-than-expected performance should hold a mirror up for Americans to see what that soul truly looks like.

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After downplaying the COVID-19 pandemic that has taken more than 200,000 American lives, Trump still has rock solid support, even after contracting the illness himself. In the past four years, he has openly fawned vicious dictators such as Russian president Vladimir Putin, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un. He inappropriately deployed the military on American citizens during a moment of social unrest. He has failed to denounce white supremacy, separated immigrant parents from their children, consistently deployed racist rhetoric, and banned residents of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. None of this seems to have eroded his base, even voters of color—exit polls show that Trump support from Black and Latino or Hispanic voters is up from 2016.

Meanwhile, California’s raging wildfires highlight Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement. His lack of transparency and demonization of the press can only be considered acceptable under an authoritarian regime. He regularly flaunts undemocratic values, and his narcissism seemingly knows no bounds. He has converted press briefings into a stage for his personal political reality show. In spite all of this, during his term in office, Trump still retained the backing of roughly half of the electorate.

Trump isn’t the cause; he is a reflection of past policymakers, values, and practices.

To be clear, most Americans recognize the danger Trump poses to democracy—he lost the popular vote in 2016, and all signs point to the same outcome for 2020. More voters than not understand the pain and suffering his quest to make America “great” has caused for women, immigrants, people of color, the poor, and the working class.

Still, the outsized support Trump has continued to receive exposes America’s “soul” for what it is. Trump’s racist rhetoric isn’t novel or unique. He isn’t the only billionaire that dodges millions in taxes. And, tragically, immigrants of color have always been treated worse than their white, Western European counterparts. With that in mind, historians won’t reference the day Trump took office when writing about the erosion of democratic traditions. Trump isn’t the cause; he is a reflection of past policymakers, values, and practices.

Trump’s now-predictable behavior will continue. In line with his values, he falsely declared victory in the middle of the night, essentially inviting violence, political and legal turmoil, and a horrible expectation that he won’t leave office peacefully if he loses now or even after a potential second term. These undemocratic pronouncements should not surprise us, nor should the seemingly undiminished support for those pronouncements—after all, this is the man who said, at a 2016 rally, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” America has proved him right.

If this election is about the “soul” of America, then even voting Donald Trump out of office is not enough.

Biden’s potential victory, meanwhile, will be made possible by America’s cities, populated by people of color. Trump has referred to these Black and brown neighborhoods as places infested by crime and rodents. They are not; these communities are places that elevate integrity, hope, hard work, and determination—values that the country must build upon.

If this election is about the “soul” of America, then even voting Donald Trump out of office is not enough. The president’s sustained support demonstrates that the mirror we hold up to America’s soul should force us to reflect on the beliefs, the systems, and the political practices that elected him. Biden’s support is enough evidence to say that America isn’t Trump, but Trump still represents a good part of America’s soul. Confronting that part means confronting the nation’s racism, xenophobia, and classism. If, someday, we prove successful in battling those demons, then Trump was the mirror America needed.

The outsized support Trump has continued to receive exposes America’s “soul” for what it is. Trump isn’t the cause; he is a reflection of past policymakers, values, and practices.

As Democracy Holds, Trump Finds Himself Increasingly Isolated

President-elect Joe Biden speaks after the Electoral College formally elected him president Monday. Patrick Semansky/AP hide caption

President-elect Joe Biden speaks after the Electoral College formally elected him president Monday.

Updated 10:41 a.m. ET

What a day Monday was.

The Electoral College affirmed what was already known — that Democrat Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election.

Biden officially got the votes of 306 electors, exactly what he was supposed to get based on the popular vote from each state. It was 36 electoral votes more than the 270 needed to become president.

So, it’s yet another step showing that Biden is president-elect and that he will be sworn in as president on Jan. 20, 2021.

And yet there’s still the lingering question of when or if President Trump will ever accept the results.

Like in any good reality show, there was the kind of drama Monday that everyone has become accustomed to in the Trump presidency. Minutes after enough electors voted to put Biden over the top (again) — remember, states already certified results, and Monday was a mere formality — Trump announced via Twitter that Attorney General William Barr was stepping down.

In any other administration, people might say it was stunning, if not shocking, that one of the president’s closest allies was leaving just weeks before his term would be up.

In the Trump era, though, it’s just another day.

In the last four years, America has become inured to things that would otherwise be surprising.

Taking Russian President Vladimir Putin at his word over U.S. intelligence agencies’ regarding election interference. Firing an FBI director. Children separated from their parents, many of whom still can’t be found. Declaring there were good people on both sides of a white supremacist march and protests against them. Being impeached. Tear-gassing peaceful protesters for a photo op. Three hundred thousand Americans dead from the worst pandemic in a century.

All this might affect that president’s base of supporters.

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It’s not clear he really meant it when he said during the 2016 campaign that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose any of his supporters.

After four years of this presidency, it’s uncertain he would lose anyone if he actually did.

Conservative media would likely amplify Trump’s reasoning and make it acceptable for his base to rationalize it.

After all, two people died at a protest in Wisconsin when a minor with a right-wing ideology, with a gun he shouldn’t have had and in a state he wasn’t from showed up.

And then he was turned into a hero by conservative media.

Given the intense feelings Trump inspired, he won even more votes this year than in 2016, but not more than Biden. Biden won the most votes ever, in part, because of the strong opposition to the sitting president.

Trump and his supporters can’t see how that’s possible. On Monday, Trump didn’t so much as publicly acknowledge the step the electors took. Instead, he was again baselessly tweeting about nonexistent fraud.

Voting machines are a “disaster,” swing states — “all of them” — have found “massive voter fraud” (they haven’t), states “cannot legally certify” (they already have).

Trump also tweeted about the first vaccine being administered in the U.S. on Monday, undoubtedly a significant scientific achievement.

“Congratulations USA! Congratulations WORLD!” he tweeted.

Never mind that the U.K. administered vaccines earlier than the U.S. — or the celebratory tone of the tweet on a day the U.S. crossed 300,000 deaths from the coronavirus, something seen as unfathomable months ago.

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For his part, the man who beat Trump seemed to have had enough.

“Our democracy — pushed, tested, threatened — proved to be resilient, true and strong,” President-elect Biden said.

He defended election workers, calling pressure put on them, abuse they faced and threats on their lives “unconscionable.”

“We owe these public servants a debt of gratitude,” Biden said. “They didn’t seek the spotlight, and our democracy survived because of them.”

Biden noted that Trump had every opportunity to have his allegations heard in courts of law.

“They were heard,” he said. “And they were found to be without merit.”

He added, “Every avenue was made available to President Trump to contest the results. He took full advantage of each and every one of these avenues. President Trump was denied no course of action he wanted to take.”

And Trump lost, fair and square. Time to move on, “turn the page,” as Biden said.

In addition to lauding democratic institutions held up in the face of political pressure, Biden seemed to want to get another message across to his former Senate colleagues — it’s over, you know it, say it.

“I am pleased — but not surprised — that a number of my former Republican colleagues in the Senate have acknowledged the results of the Electoral College,” Biden said. “I thank them. I am convinced we can work together for the good of the nation.”

And several Republicans acknowledged — some grudgingly — that Biden will be president.

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“It doesn’t matter what Chuck Grassley thinks, the Constitution has answered that question for you,” said Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa after being asked whether he considered Biden president-elect. “That’s all I can say on it.”

“He’s presumptive president,” North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis said, “but I don’t want to discount valid, legal disputes that’ll be settled over the next couple weeks.”

“I guess if that’s what you officially call somebody after the Electoral College, I’m fine with that,” said North Dakota Sen. Kevin Cramer, who couldn’t seem to say the words “president-elect.”

“I’d call him Joe until he gets sworn in,” said South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham.

“Not yet,” said Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe, asked whether he recognized Biden as president-elect. That came despite Inhofe’s sparring with Trump over the defense authorization act.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declined to respond Monday to repeated questions from reporters. McConnell, however, recognized Biden’s win on the Senate floor Tuesday morning.

“The Electoral College has spoken,” McConnell said. “So today I want to congratulate President-elect Joe Biden.”

The spell was been broken for others, as well.

Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and John Thune of South Dakota were clear in stating that they recognized Biden had won the election.

“At some point, you have to face the music,” Thune told reporters Monday before it became official. “And I think once the Electoral College settles the issue today, it’s time for everybody to move on.”

But tens and tens of millions of Trump supporters and rank-and-file Republicans these legislators represent are juiced up by Trump and conservative media and aren’t ready to move on.

They’re locked in for partisan warfare, standing at the ready for the next fight, the next legislation to knock down, the next regulation to be outraged by, the next presidential primary when they can “take the country back.”

And in the meantime, there’s a vaccine to distribute, a pandemic to recover from, regular people and businesses that need help from a cratered economy — and that’s to say nothing of societal inequities that remain unaddressed.

Asked on Fox News this past weekend whether he is concerned that his actions and rhetoric after the election has done more to divide the country, Trump said, “No.”

And then he went on to sow doubt. “I worry about the country having an illegitimate president,” he said. “That’s what I worry about. A president that lost and lost badly. This wasn’t, like, a close election. . I didn’t lose. The election was rigged.”

Democracy may have tenuously held, but almost half the country will continue to believe Trump’s debunked claims — and, Trump hopes, keep adding to the more than $200 million that he has raised from his supporters since Election Day.

The Electoral College reaffirmed that Joe Biden is president-elect, but the current president continues to not accept it, threatening to undermine Biden’s legitimacy.