Ultimately, Biden’s election was less about what he’ll do than who he isn’t. Trump summed up the race at one of his final rallies, when he started reading some self-deprecating political boilerplate that had been written for him, then made it clear that he didn’t believe a word of it: “This isn’t about — well, yeah, it is about me, I guess, when you think about it.”
Trump’s approach was always about Trump, ever since the reality-TV star descended that golden escalator to announce his first political campaign in June 2015. He quickly learned that he could dominate the political landscape just by launching politically incorrect outrages: calling Mexicans rapists, fat-shaming a Miss Universe, pledging to ban Muslim immigration. His rants sucked all the oxygen out of a huge Republican primary, drawing eyeballs and clicks every time he suggested Justice Antonin Scalia had been murdered or accused Ted Cruz’s father of participating in the Kennedy assassination. Jeb Bush complained that Trump was a chaos candidate, but that sounded just fine to Republican voters.
Hillary Clinton then provided Trump with the perfect foil for his attacks on scripted Beltway politicians who parroted dull talking points. He promised something different, like ass-kicking and fun. He refused to kowtow to the gatekeepers who enforced Washington’s traditional rules, who insisted a candidate couldn’t refuse to release his tax returns or mock his opponent’s health. He made it clear he could do and say whatever he wanted, which to his fans felt daring and thrilling. And many voters who weren’t fans but shared his disdain for Clinton figured he’d pivot to a more sober and “presidential” approach in the White House.
Trump never pivoted, of course, but he was the president, so he got to decide what was presidential. And that meant four years of unrelenting middle-finger politics — a style that had been growing at the edges of Republican politics, but which Trump took to a new extreme, with all the power of the White House to amplify it. He trashed popular enemies like John McCain and John Lewis while pardoning extremist supporters like Dinesh D’Souza and Joe Arpaio; he bashed democratic allies like Canada and Germany, while embracing monstrous dictators in North Korea and Russia. He defied the scientific warnings about climate change and the coronavirus and looking directly at an eclipse. He got impeached for trying to get Ukraine to dig up dirt on Biden, then publicly urged China to dig up dirt on Biden. When his former aides got indicted, which happened often, he defended them; when his former aides denounced him as unfit to lead, which happened even more often, he bullied them. When fact-checkers called out his fictions, which happened daily, he unapologetically repeated the fictions, over and over.
Through it all, his loyal supporters remained loyal. They loved how he skewered the liberals and immigrants and condescending eggheads they resented. They love his unrestrained war on Blue America, his portrayal of Democrats as effete traitors and Democratic states as foreign adversaries. They didn’t mind his brazen flip-flops and swashbuckling lies — claiming credit for laws passed before his presidency, libeling bureaucrats who testified about his transgressions, calling all kinds of real things hoaxes — because they believed he spoke a larger truth, or at least that he was lying on their behalf.
And he continued to expose the pretenses of conventional politics, the fibs that vote-hungry suck-ups routinely tell. Part of Trump’s closing message in Iowa and Michigan was that he’d never return to those states if they didn’t break his way. He inverted the disingenuous candidate trope about the importance of voting no matter whom you support. He urged voters who didn’t support him to stay home.
That one didn’t work. As it turns out, they voted.
Biden had no army of die-hard fans, and no talent for monopolizing the nation’s attention. But he had a secret weapon: the unpopularity of the incumbent.
Trump is the first modern president whose approval rating never topped 50 percent. And if his daily servings of what-did-he-do-now alienated voters while the economy remained strong, helping the Democrats take back the House in 2018, his provocations became especially annoying as the country became mired in a pandemic, a recession and a fraught racial and social reckoning. It was notable that Trump’s “all about me” observation was delivered at a packed rally in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the flashpoint where a police shooting had inspired social unrest that had in turn inspired a Trump supporter to shoot protesters. It symbolized the chaos of the Trump era — and so did the president’s mockery of public health restrictions at a moment when Wisconsin’s Covid-19 hospitalizations had reached a new high.
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