A defeat for Trump, but perhaps not for Trumpism

Dr Eric Crampton
Insights Newsletter
6 November, 2020

A Joe Biden Presidency looks increasingly likely.

But the election was nail-bitingly close. And that narrowness is a substantial concern.

Four years ago, this column was not overly worried about a Donald Trump Presidency. The entire Republican establishment seemed to hate Trump. I expected that political norms that seemed still to hold among more senior Republicans, combined with the normal checks and balances in the American system, would mute the harm of an erratic President.

I was wrong.

The Republican establishment quickly reoriented itself in a populist direction. What support the Republicans had for free markets, less government spending, free trade and rules-based international order evaporated.

The rule of law seemed less important than humiliating adversaries.

Those who did not like the pivot chose to leave the Republican Party. But others were attracted by the Party’s new brand.

And, for many people, preferences over policy matter far less than identification with the Party. Sometimes, their policy preferences change as the Party’s position changes. Other times, they simply assume their Party shares their policy preference: in August, 81% of Trump voters who said masks should be required believed Trump agreed with their position.

So, by mid-October, 31% of Americans identified as Republican, 36% as Independents and 31% as Democrats – numbers that would not have been out of place fifteen years ago. But the constituencies of the two main parties continued to shift. In 1996, 72% of Republicans and 78% of Democrats had less than a college degree. Educational attainment increased over the next two decades. But by 2019, 70% of Republicans and only 59% of Democrats had less than a college degree. A final tallying of the 2020 election demographics remains months away.

The Republican Party deserved, and needed, a substantial defeat this year. It needed to learn that Trump’s style of politics and policy did not find a receptive audience, and that the long-term interest of the Party lay in abandoning the populist turn and its corrosion of democratic norms.

Instead, for substantial periods on election day, it looked like Trump might win. There is a slim chance he might yet do so. And almost half of American voters were prepared to buy what Trump had to sell, if only, for some, because they judged Biden as even worse.

In the short-term, a Biden Presidency and a Republican senate will put the brakes on the silliest excesses of either. But reconstructing the Grand Old Party to recover the support of principled advocates of limited government and of the rule of law will not be a small job.

It might not even be a job the Republicans want. How the Party deals with a Trump loss will matter and hopefully will provide reasons for optimism.

Biden likely has won the election. But if Trumpism has won the soul of the Republican Party, American politics will be toxic for a long time.

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