The greatness and dignity of the electoral process as observed in liberal democracies are that it respects the freedom of the people to make their own choices on who shall govern them. The system is extraordinary albeit its rules, particularly in the United States where federal, state, and local institutions at times complicate the process. And although too often victorious candidates leave much to be desired, as judged by personal scandals or political and legal corruption, the benefit of elections is that when the time comes the people get to choose to remove those in office they do not like from power.
The credibility of liberal democracies in the eyes of the world lies precisely, not only in how they conduct their elections but on whether they respect the results both at home and in other countries (provided they are honestly held) even when those results are averse to their national interests. If at times we lack credibility we only have to look at ourselves and the instances in which we have failed to uphold the sacredness of the electoral process in other countries.
This preface brings me to the 2020 election, which standing President Donald Trump lost by a significant popular margin (over 7 million votes). In retrospect, Trump’s victory in 2016 was not surprising, at least to me. Both Democrats and Republicans had disregarded a large portion of the white population showing that both parties were less than caring for the plight of those who had been left behind by the same economic and political system that in the past had favored them. Democrats had much more to regret since many of these votes had gone to them in the past.
In 2016, Trump had surprising advantages. Democrats relied on identity politics strategies (that are not always bad) that probably backfired at a time of a surge in illegal immigration; a shift in public outcries against Muslims, Blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities that Trump used as part of his strategy; and Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, whose name, gender, controversial past, and her staff’s strategic mistakes gave him an unexpected edge despite losing the popular vote. This is to say that another woman would have been a better choice except there was no one who rose to the challenge. The electoral results in 2016 accounted for Trump gaining nearly 63 million votes, an incredible number if we take into account he was an apprentice in national and international politics, something that played to his disadvantage throughout his four years as president.
Despite losing the House, in 2018 Republicans kept a majority in the Senate and Trump rewarded his voters by naming three conservative Supreme Court Justices. His tax reform legislation in 2017 that favored the wealthy end of his base and increased the Federal Budget deficit by over a trillion dollars (a Republican political sin) was approved by Congress. Nonetheless, strengthening the conservative majority in the Supreme Court and remaking the judiciary by appointing more than two hundred judges to the federal bench would have been enough for a seating president to have a decent shot at a second term. Explaining how Trump lost the 2020 election to a less than stellar candidate by a whopping 7 million votes as well as the electoral count opens the door to different explanations each of which provides a more ample picture. To begin with, Joe Biden looked old and he was famous for the gaffes that often got him into trouble. But while he seemed to have a clean record (whatever his son did, well, parents cannot always be held responsible for the misdeeds of their children) and had accumulated enormous political experience, it does not appear that his resume won the election.
Biden’s greatest advantage was that he was running as a down-to-earth Joe who promised to create a less polarizing environment that Trump had helped to create. Biden’s major advantage seems to have been Trump’s biggest weakness: himself, or rather his personality. No one simply loses an election by such great margins because of his policies. Trump’s policies, many through executive privilege, and his failures, namely in foreign affairs, were not necessarily a great detriment to his reelection. Even George W. Bush had won reelection after inventing a war that found no weapons of mass destruction. Being impeached twice may have hurt Trump a bit, but these were seen by many as partisan-driven impeachments (irrespective of their merits), so his followers could still regard them as revengeful tactics by his opponents. In the end, in 2020 it came down to Biden being liked far more than Trump.
Donald Trump initiated his political career believing that his ability to divide the nation further would work. At the time, in an already polarized electorate, a sizable number of voters tired of being guided by professional politicians decided to give the controls of the nation to someone who claimed he could fly a 747 Boeing by the seat of his pants. He indicated numerous times that only he could fix all the problems the country was facing. In effect, Trump created a new electoral base that liked what he was selling. His insults and his attacks against specific groups were seen by his base as appealing to traditional forms of patriotism. Although he never indicated what he meant by his slogan, “Making America Great Again,” it appeared he was subtly referring to the 1950s and White baby boomers.
Trump’s willingness and ability to drive his crowds into a frenzy with a combination of anger and divisiveness paid off, and to a large extent his followers embraced his personality traits as indicated by posters and slogans seen at his rallies: Drain the swamp, referred to a desire to ‘exterminate’ his opponents; Build the Wall, indicated his wish to stop South of the Border migrants from ‘barging’ into the country illegally; Guilty of Loving America, reflected patriotism suggesting that those who oppose Trump do not; Q, standing for QAnon conspiracies, attributed to opponents of Trump the Deep State and Pizzagate; Stop the Steal, still an attempt to rewrite the 2020 electoral results; Don’t Tread on Me banners, i.e., the Gadsden Flag, suggest resistance to government controls and the type of rebellious individualism that was observed by rioters and militia movements during the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the US Capitol. Other signs and slogans were successfully used to indicate that Trump’s opponents were socialists and communists; Thank you Jesus’s posters were meant to align Trump with the faith suggesting that his opponents are not Christians. And, there was also the Confederacy Banner, which has become a symbol of white supremacy.
Signs and slogans also surged that reflected anti-Trump sentiments: No Human Being is Illegal, Education not Deportation, Immigrants Make America Great, all of which favor immigration; Pro-American & Anti-Trump, a reversal of what it means to be American; All I Want for Christmas is Impeachment, Lock Him in the Tower, Dump Trump, denoting anger bordering on hatred; or the most hyperbolic of these signs, Not My President along with a crossed line over a Nazi symbol painting Trump as a Nazi sympathizer.
Signs and slogans are important to the extent they reveal the candidate’s personality; they do not erupt out of nothingness but tend to be images of how voters read a candidate’s beliefs. Amid all political sloganeering I paid attention to one poster that best reveals Trump’s personality as it displays a combination of gratuitous petulance and arrogance that probably drove away voters. I found the poster (seen below) intriguing because it is contradictory and counterproductive to Trump’s efforts to ad voters to his side.
The poster is pegged to a small wooden piling next to the sidewalk in a wealthy neighborhood. All types of passersby can see it. Yards away, one sees the American Flag being displayed along with the Don’t Tread on Me flag, and the Stop the Steal banner. The poster’s message, however, reveals the disconnection between Trump’s rhetoric and what occurred in the 2020 presidential election. The sign reading NOTICE, all capitalized, calls attention to specific values that supposedly only those who support Trump adhere to. The values enshrined in the notice, We Say Merry Christmas; One Nation Under God; We Salute Our Flag & Give Thanks to Our Troops, are shared by millions who nonetheless voted for Biden in 2020 since these are nationwide-held values. I, like millions of others, say Merry Christmas; believe we are a nation under God although divided; have great respect for the flag, so I salute it, as millions of Biden voters do too. And, I certainly give thanks to our troops for their service to the nation as millions of anti-Trump voters also do.
I found myself agreeing with every single value that appeared on the sign! None of those statements would necessarily offend me or the millions who voted for Biden. It is, however, the last statement, If This Offends You, LEAVE (in large capitalized red letters) that contradicts the previous ones. I realized that the purpose the sign may serve is not only to irk people who might be offended by the first four statements (likely not too many) but to upset others by asking them with an in-your-face rudeness and arrogance style to leave the area.
The absurdity of the last line is that the poster was asking people to leave a sidewalk that is meant to be used by everyone since it is a public area. It is telling people (in the land of the free) they should ‘either accept what we believe or else leave’ the people’s space.
There is also a banner being publicly displayed prior to the 2024 elections that would help rate the above poster PG-13. It relies on the F word and reads: Trump in 2024 – F— Your Feelings! except that the term is spelled out clearly for everyone to see. So much for new methods to educate one’s children. One might expect this type of language from the Robert de Niro’s of this world, not from voters who adhere to family-oriented Conservative values.
Both the poster and the banner are clearly projecting Trump’s divisive, I-don’t-care personality thereby inducing middle ground voters, including evangelicals, to stay away from Trump’s agenda. These people do not realize the messages are politically counterproductive since many would be outraged and repulsed by the use of authoritarian and crude language.
Granted, there is always the risk of inferring from the particular to the general (induction). Not everyone who voted for Trump behaved according to these messages. However, they reflect Trump’s personality so accurately that it may have been a disincentive to vote for him in 2020. Trump still garnered 74 million votes, but how many of those 7 million voters who chose Biden voted simply as an expression of revulsion toward a self-destructive and narcissistic personality that does not mind dividing the nation even more?
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