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Ideology over Humanity: Why many Americans voted for Trump

President Trump’s disastrous mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic probably cost him re-election. Yet it seems mind-boggling that he still won more votes than any incumbent president in American history despite his dereliction of responsibility at a time of a once-in-a-century health crisis and economic devastation.

Ideology over Humanity: Why many Americans voted for Trump
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Supporters of President Trump gathered outside the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center

Chennai

Why are President-elect Joe Biden’s margins so thin in the states that clinched his victory? And why did the president’s down-ticket enablers flourish in the turbulent, plague-torn conditions they helped bring about?

Democrats, struggling to make sense of it all, are locked in yet another round of mutual recrimination: They were either too progressive for swing voters — too socialist or aggressive with ambitious policies like the Green New Deal — or not progressive enough to inspire potential Democratic voters to show up or cross over. But they should understand that there was really no way to avoid disappointment. Three factors — the logic of partisan polarization, which inaccurate polling obscured; the strength of the juiced pre-Covid-19 economy; and the success of Trump’s denialist, open-everything-up non-response to the pandemic — mostly explain why Democrats didn’t fare better.

This shocking strategy worked for Republicans, even if it didn’t pan out for the president himself. Moreover, it laid a trap that Democrats walked into — something they should understand and adjust for, as best they can, as they look ahead. How could a president responsible for one of the gravest failures of governance in American history nevertheless maintain such rock-solid support? Democracy’s throw-the-bums-out feedback mechanism gets gummed up when the electorate disagrees about the identity of the bums, what did and didn’t occur on their watch and who deserves what share of the credit or blame.

When party affiliation becomes a central source of meaning and self-definition, reality itself becomes contested and verifiable facts turn into hot-button controversies. Elections can’t render an authoritative verdict on the performance of incumbents when partisans in a closely divided electorate tell wildly inconsistent stories about one another and the world they share. Trump has a knack for leveraging the animosities of polarised partisanship to cleave his supporters from sources of credible information and inflame them with vilifying lies. This time, it wasn’t enough to save his bacon, which suggests that polarization hasn’t completely wrecked our democracy’s capacity for self-correction: Sweeping a medium-size city’s worth of dead Americans under the rug turned out to be too tall an order. However, Trump’s relentless campaign to goose the economy by cutting taxes, running up enormous deficits and debt, and hectoring the Fed into not raising rates was working for millions of Americans. We tend to notice when we’re personally more prosperous than we were a few years before.

The Republican message couldn’t have been clearer: Workers should be able to show up, clock in, earn a normal paycheck, pay the rent and feed their kids. Democrats were telling the same workers that we need to listen to science, reopening is premature, and the economy can’t be fully restored until we beat the virus. Correct! But how does that help when rent was due last week?

Make no mistake, it was unforgivably cruel of Republicans to force blue-collar and service workers to risk death for grocery money. Yet their disinformation campaign persuaded many millions of Americans that the risk was minimal and that Democrats were keeping their workplaces and schools closed, their customers and kids at home, and their wallets empty and cupboards bare for bogus reasons.

The president’s mendacious push to hastily reopen everything was less compelling to college-educated suburbanites, who tend to trust experts and can work from home, watch their kids and spare a laptop for online kindergarten. Trump lost the election mainly because he lost enough of these voters, including some moderate Republicans who otherwise voted straight Republican tickets.

Will Wilkinson is a Contributing Opinion Writer with NYT©2020

The New York Times

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