Why Didn’t America’s Worst President Lose in a Landslide?

Chalk it up to lack of policies camouflaged by lies and backed up by right-wing news outlets that spread propaganda.

We don’t know much about this election beyond the fact that Joe Biden is likely to be declared the winner. But we know that it wasn’t a landslide against a lying, narcissistic bully who is terrified of losing because it probably means that he’ll face the criminal charges he’s avoided while occupying the White House. Nevertheless, over 67 million Americans voted for the guy. 

While data eventually showed Trump’s 2016 win in the Electoral College was fueled by xenophobia, there was at least the specter of crediting the president’s so-called “populism” as a factor. But none of that materialized once he got into office. The majority of working Americans disapproved of his tax cuts aimed primarily at the wealthy. The president never got around to infrastructure, and his trade war left most farmers in a state of uncertainty. Biden was right when he said that Trump would be “the first president of the United States to leave office, having fewer jobs in his administration than when he became president.” To cap that off, the president basically ignored a pandemic that has so far resulted in the death of over 230,000 Americans.

That summarizes Trump’s first-term. What did he promise to do in a second term? Nothing. The GOP didn’t even propose a platform, and the only thing the president released was a three-page document full of vague statements—most of which he’s been promising to do but never accomplished. 

Economic historian Brad DeLong reminded us that in 2020, there are no more excuses.

What were those 67 million Americans voting for in this election? In states where Trump won (some by large margins), voters passed referendums mirroring the Democratic platform. For example, in Florida, they approved a $15 minimum wage, while South Dakota voted for legal marijuana. Also confounding is what Fox News found in their poll of 100,000 voters in the days just before the election: 

(1) 71 percent favor changing the healthcare system so that any American can buy into a government-run health care plan if they want to.
(2) 71 percent think that most immigrants living in the United States illegally should be offered a chance to apply for legal status.
(3) 68 percent favor increased federal spending on green and renewable energy.
(4) 71 percent are against overturning Roe v Wade.
(5) 77 percent say that racism is a serious problem in the U.S. and 72 percent say racism is a serious problem in policing.

Those numbers indicate that the party supporting those positions—the Democrats, of course—should win roughly 70 percent of the vote. But even in deeply blue states, Biden’s margin wasn’t that large.

Writers at the New York Times’ Upshot blog addressed this dilemma in September—specifically on the candidates’ proposals for dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.

Voters appear not to know Mr. Trump’s and Biden’s stances…It’s not just that people don’t know. When people don’t have a sense for party or candidate platforms, they tend to assume that their preferred party or candidate agrees with them on the issues. This phenomenon, which political scientists call projection, appears to be operating here. People’s perceptions appear strongly influenced by which candidate they like.

On Twitter, Rev. Andy Karlson summed it up by writing that, “If policies made a goddamn ounce of difference, then the president whose failed pandemic response killed hundreds of thousands wouldn’t have won a single vote.”

If not based on the issues, how do voters decide which candidate they like? That is where right-wing news comes into play. Conservative voters hear a daily recitation of how Democrats are evil. While major news organizations ignored the disinformation campaign about Joe and Hunter Biden in the weeks before the election, it dominated right-wing outlets. Since Trump supporters had already decided that the former vice president is evil, it didn’t take much to convince them that he’s also corrupt. 

Even when right-wing news outlets talk about issues, they don’t offer an honest assessment. As we saw throughout this campaign, Joe Biden was portrayed as a socialist—even as he was accused of trying to dismantle Medicare and Social Security. Trump’s enablers in the media can say anything—it doesn’t have to be logical—because their purpose is not to enlighten or inform. It is to inflame. 

In the coming weeks, we’re going to hear a lot of pontificating about what the Biden campaign should or shouldn’t have done. Every nuance of the Democratic Party’s strategy will be put under a microscope. The process will be painful and somewhat divisive. But perhaps some adjustments need to be made in the future. 

But in the end, reporter Zack Beauchamp summarized why this country’s worst president didn’t suffer a landslide defeat.

We are polarized because one party embraces lies and disinformation, backed up by an array of right-wing news outlets that spread its propaganda. We’re never going to heal the nation as long as that is the case.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.