Reflections on American democracy’s near-death experience

by Emrys Westacott

Like millions of others, my reaction to the result of the US presidential election was primarily relief. Relief at the prospect of an end to the ghastly display of narcissism, dishonesty, callousness, corruption, and general moral indecency (a.k.a. Donald Trump) that has dominated media attention in the US for the past four years. Also, relief that American democracy, very imperfect though it is, appears to be coming off the ventilator after what many consider a near death experience. The reaction of Trump and the Republicans, trying every conceivable gambit to thwart the will of the people, indicates just how uninterested they are in upholding democratic norms and how contentious things would have become had everything hinged on the outcome in one state, as it did in the 2000 election.

And let’s be honest: Biden’s electoral college victory was frighteningly close. He won Pennsylvania by 0.7%, Wisconsin by 0.4%,a and Georgia by 0.3%. Had fewer than 0.5 % of Biden voters gone for Trump in these three states, he would have been re-elected. Moreover, in each of these states the votes received by the Libertarian candidate was greater than Biden’s margin of victory. Who knows how things might have gone had there been no Libertarian candidate.

And let’s keep being honest. But for the covid pandemic, Trump would quite likely have won. Indeed, had he been a more intelligent populist demagogue he might have raised his popularity prior to the election by embracing the role of national champion leading the fight against the virus.

So, like millions of others, after breathing a few sighs of relief and drinking a few celebratory toasts, I find myself asking: How is it possible? Why did over 70 million people vote for a man who to so many of us appears quite obviously to be a pathologically self-centered con man who is callously indifferent to the well-being of others, and who spews an almost continuous stream of barefaced and often quite absurd lies. And I charitably forbear from mentioning his ignorance, his incompetence, his laziness, his bigotry, his sexism, his bullying, his corrupt dealings…

Sometimes one hears even people who heartily detest Trump say, grudgingly, that he does actually get done what he says he says he’s going to do. But this is hardly the case. Yes, he signed a tax cut (which mainly benefits the rich), reduced immigration, and seated conservative judges. But the list of promises he utterly failed to fulfill is much longer. Only about 15 miles of new wall has been bult on the US-Mexico border, and Mexico didn’t pay for it. The Affordable Care Act has been neither scrapped nor replaced. The federal deficit has not been reduced but has increased by 60%. The coal industry has not been revived but continues to decline. Hilary Clinton was not tried or locked up. He never released his tax returns. North Korea is still a nuclear power. The swamp was not drained (unless you count the indicting and imprisoning of Trump aides and associates as a sort of draining).

The standard leftist view is that many working class people are drawn towards Trump because the Democrats fail to offer a sufficiently appealing and energizing progressive alternative. Biden, even apart from any individual shortcomings, such as his weakness as a speaker, is a bland centrist. Had Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren been at the top of the ticket urging a more inspiring, comprehensive raft of progressive policies clearly aimed at helping working people, things could have gone much better. The Dems thus have only themselves to blame for the fact that they didn’t do better, and that they in fact lost quite a few seats in the House. Thus Mike Davis writes:

Mainstream Democrats have had more than a generation to respond to the simple question: what will you do to increase job opportunities in Eerie (or Warren, Dubuque, Lorain, Wilkes-Barre and so on)? They have never offered a serious response. Concrete solutions would involve geographically targeted public assessment, control over capital flight, and financial outflows, and, above all, a massive expansion of public employment. These are avenues most Democrats are too terrified to go down.[1]

I, too, would certainly like to see the Democrats energetically pushing a progressive agenda. But it isn’t at all obvious that the lack of a sufficiently progressive platform addressed to the needs of working people does much to explain the extraordinary level of support for Trump. I wish it did! But in actual fact, as Davis himself acknowledges, the Dems did pass a 2.2 trillion dollar relief bill in the House, which Republicans in the Senate blocked; they also proposed to improve workers’ rights, raise the minimum wage, and expand Medicare. All the same, lots of people who stood to benefit from such policies, in voting for Trump, essentially voted against them. Why?

There is no single answer. Some are disillusioned with the Dems. Some despise the educated elite. Some just want to “shake up” the system. Some prioritize the prospect of a Supreme Court allowing states to outlaw abortion. Some prioritize some other issue–guns, immigration, deregulation–and view Trump as their guy. Some, consciously or unconsciously, endorse his racism or his attitude to women. Some find him entertaining. Some just identify in a general way with the way he talks and the whole attitude he projects.

But try this thought experiment. Imagine that the Democratic candidate had been a populist with most of Trump’s personal failings on display–the narcissism, the conceitedness, the incessant lying, the callousness, the rejection of science, the vulgarity, the sexism, the bullying, the corruption, the contempt for democracy–but who promised a few progressive victories: say, seating some left-leaning judges; Medicare for all; passing the DREAM Act; a gun control bill. How would the election have gone? I strongly suspect that in that circumstance a common or garden GOP candidate (Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush) would win in a landslide. Obviously, counterfactual speculation of this kind cannot prove anything. But if the speculation is plausible, it may, perhaps, help us view the election from a slightly different angle and bring certain factors into sharper relief.

Why do I think a Democratic version of Trump would go down in flames? The answer is simple. Most people who identify as Republicans would express disgust for his moral character and despise him at least as much as they despised the Clintons; and many who normally vote for the Democrat–perhaps not a majority, but enough–would be so turned off by the spectacle of a candidate embodying everything they dislike that they would, at the very least, withhold support.

What does this prove? It doesn’t prove anything. But it reminds us of an easily forgotten truth. The main reason why most of those who voted for Trump did so was simply that he was the Republican candidate. This is easily forgotten because is an election, relatively small shifts in voter preference can produce dramatically different outcomes. Had Biden done a few percentage points better in Florida and North Carolina, Trump’s electoral college count would have dropped below 200 and analysts would be writing obituary notices on Trumpism, even though the total number of people who voted for Trump would have been reduced by only a little.

The question, again, is: Why did so many people vote for someone like Trump. One kind of explanation cites economic factors such as the decline of manufacturing, the consequences of free trade, and so on. In my view that can help to explain the sort of relatively small shifts in votes that determine electoral outcomes. But it doesn’t really explain why most people in deep red states vote Republican. Nor does it explain the unprecedented, almost cult-like enthusiasm for Trump among some of his supporters. It doesn’t get inside people’s heads.

I live in Trump country. The small college town in Western New York where I live is a little oasis of blue in a sea of red. It almost certainly has a higher density of Biden signs per acre than anywhere else in the county. On some days I’ve even seen more Biden signs on our street than deer, and that’s saying something. But if I walk to the end of the street, out of the village and up a country lane, I immediately encounter a large Trump flag flying alongside the stars and stripes. And if you drive around rural parts of Western New York or Northern Pennsylvania during election season, the political signs you see are overwhelmingly for Republicans.

My neighbours who, I assume, typically vote Republican are decent, friendly people. Many of them belong to a church that is very welcoming to foreign students and immigrants. With respect to personality and personal values, it’s hard to imagine people who are further removed from someone like Trump. They vote Republican, I believe, primarily because in their particular community, among the people they live, work, socialize and pray with, that is the default option, just as voting Labour was the default option in the coal mining towns in the North of England where I grew up.

But why is the Republican party the default option across most of rural America? (This pattern–urban = Democrat; rural = Republican–has become increasingly pronounced over the past few decades. As Derek Thompson put it in The Atlantic, “density is destiny.”[2]) Again, there is no single or simple answer. But I believe an important part of the explanation involves cultural identity. That is a somewhat catch-all term that comprises a cluster of things such as ethnicity, language, traditions, rituals, kinds of work, recreational pastimes, food, music, humour, entertainment, clothes, aesthetic taste, religious faith, basic beliefs and fundamental values. Over time, certain configurations of these become common, recognizable, and carry political associations. In the North of England, coal mining, beer, football, flat caps, brass band music, and strongly pro-union attitudes used to signify Labour. In Western New York, working outside, pick-up trucks, hunting, country music, valuing self-sufficiency and respecting patriotic symbols are associated with a certain conservatism that sees the Republican party as its natural home. And just as industrial workers in Northern England saw the Labour Party as representing their values and interests, so rural communities across much of America view the GOP in a similar way.

One can always dig deeper, of course, and ask why rural communities embrace the values they do? A good chunk of the answer, I believe, is simply that, except in unusual circumstances, people everywhere naturally do identify with, enjoy, and take pride in the community to which they belong–especially if it is the one in which they were raised–and they cherish the form of life to be found there. And there usually is much to enjoy and appreciate. Moreover, cultural identities and loyalties are usually entangled with clusters of beliefs and values. And the GOP does an effective job of marketing itself as the protector of these forms of life. That’s the point of the ad showing the politician entering the gun shop.

For all that, I still find it mysterious that so many people apparently believe Trump’s astounding lies, or at least seem not to mind his mendacity. It might be easier to understand if his supporters were driven by desperation to put their faith in him as a sort of saviour. Certainly, the cult of Trump sometimes seems to approach the messianic. And some people who vote for him doubtless are desperate. Poverty in America is widespread and harsh. But as has often been pointed out, the typical Trump supporter is not especially poor. A 2016 study revealed that a third of them made over $100,000 a year, and another third made over $50,000 a year.[3]

One can hope of course, that this episode in American political history will one day soon be viewed as an aberration. Unfortunately, thanks to the explosion of social media along with rapid advances in technology, we may be falling into an epistemological abyss where we are all in danger of becoming more gullible while those we watch, read, and listen to become less accountable. I am reminded of G.K. Chesterton’s observation that when people no longer believe in God, the problem isn’t that they won’t believe anything, but that they’ll believe anything.




[1] Mike Davis, “Rio Grande Valley Republicans,” London Review of Books, Vol. 42, No. 22, Nov. 2020.

[2] Derek Thompson, “The Most Important Divide in American Politics Isn’t Race,” The Atlantic, Nov. 7, 2020.

[3] Nicholas Carnes and Noam Lupu, “Why Trump’s appeal is wider than you might think,” MSNBC, April 8, 2016.