Because he's worked harder to lose in 2020 than democrats did to win in 2016
I was one of those who was sure Donald Trump would lose in November 2016. For me, the idea of anyone voting for him after the infamous ‘bus video’ seemed so remote that it was obvious he was not going to win. But that was the big mistake I and tens of millions of Americans made in the run-up to the election. We were only considering why he should lose, not how he could win. It was a mistake that left many reevaluating their perspectives and the very nature of politics in America.
For months after the election Democrats were in a state of bewildered depression and anger, symbolized most directly by Hillary’s recollection of the loss in saying, “There are times when all I want to do is scream into a pillow.” The recriminations came from far and wide. Clinton did not have a clear message and she should have campaigned in Wisconsin. Her misuse of a personal server doomed her, and Jim Comey’s letter nailed the coffin shut. And of course, the Russians and WikiLeaks destroyed the Clinton campaign through social media and “fake news”.
But in the end, the only thing that matters is most of the pundits, especially those on the left, were wrong in 2016. The results and the three and half years since Trump’s victory have made many wary of 2020 election predictions. The first conclusion was to not rely on polls in the same way as 2016. Most also understand Trump’s base much better than four years ago, are more aware of the pivotal issues affecting the upcoming election, and most importantly… they now fully understand that he can win. So as much as signals again point to a Trump loss, few are being as vocal in their predictions in order to avoid the embarrassment of four years ago.
So with that said, I am more convinced of a Trump loss in 2020 than I was in 2016. In 2016 my heart convinced me that there was simply no way he should be the president of the United States. More directly, I was sure that others around the country felt the same way, regardless of whether they were Republicans or Democrats. In 2020 I am using my head and no matter how I look at things relative to his victory in 2016 I see no direct path to a second term for Donald Trump. Of course, I remember Comey’s bombshell so I understand things can happen to turn everything upside down. But barring any significant wildcards (e.g. a terrorist attack, war with another country, etc.) Donald Trump will lose this November and be a one-term president.
The Exposed Core
One of the absolute truths of the 2016 election, and reconfirmed for the last three and half years, is that Donald Trump’s core of base supporters is impenetrable and immovable. Their loyalty to him is unwavering regardless of his violations of the ethical and legal frameworks surrounding the office of the president. Trump’s base was an essential component in his victory in 2016 and it has shielded him from accountability in numerous situations that would have doomed any other president in history.
But it wasn’t Trump’s core that put him over the top in 2016, it was the outer layers of Republican and conservative voters who voted for him despite reservations. His base is cemented in place by absolute interpretations of the Second Amendment, disdain for the media, anti-immigration, and anti-intellectualism driven by evangelicalism. But it is the outer layers of his support that have begun to flake away because of his acceptance of some of the more destructive narratives in his base. Coronavirus and the protests surrounding the killing of George Floyd have exposed the racist and antigovernment narratives that have dwelled in the dark recesses of American conservatism since segregation and Jim Crow. Along with an increasing number of other issues these narratives have caused more and more moderate Republicans to reconsider support for Trump.
Trump’s record on race was established long before 2016, and so there is certainly an argument to be made that it was not an issue then, so it will not be now. But that would also assume that the national environment regarding race in America is the same now as it was four years ago, and that simply is not the case. It has yet to be seen just how much progress in race relations will come from the increased scrutiny of police brutality and systemic racism against African-Americans. But America, and white America in particular, is at a crossroads of racial consciousness that the country has not seen since the 1960s. While implicit racism in the form of repudiating Obama’s legacy may have served him well in 2016, the increasingly explicit forms of racism he is currently engaging will be a disadvantage for him in 2020.
From his blind support of law enforcement during the George Floyd protests to his defense of Confederate statues, Trump has fully engaged the law and order narratives that have been used to hide systemic racism in America since the end of segregation. The result is the fringe supporters who were ignorant of, ignored, or even partially embraced Trump’s racist undertones in 2016 are in a significant moral dilemma in 2020. In 2016 they voted for him primarily because they hated Hillary, Obamacare, the media, or government regulation. But now that Trump has unequivocally aligned with the racist minority at the heart of his base, he has forced moderate Republicans to defend them as part of defending him. This will be a bridge too far for a significant number of Republicans in the fall.
It also cannot be underestimated how important the personality of Hillary Clinton was in helping Trump get elected. Quite simply, people on the right hated Hillary Clinton in 2016 as much as people on the left hate Donald Trump in 2020. The primary difference now is that for better or for worse, Joe Biden simply is not close to the polarizing figure that Hillary Clinton was. Although conservatives are trying hard to argue that Biden’s “gaffes” are way more concerning than Trump’s behavior, it is a narrative that is gaining little traction. In the end, he is the only personality that matters in the 2020 election because he does not have either Obama or Clinton to use as deflections for his own character flaws. And it is that dynamic that will push yet more wavering Republicans away from supporting him in November.
Layers of the Onion
The key mistake in assuming Trump would not win in 2016 was the application of a broad moral compass across a variety of Trump supporters to whom it didn’t apply. To avoid this mistake, it is important to look more specifically at the groups beyond his base that supported him in 2016, and who now have become disenchanted with Trump. It begins with the “Never Trumper’s” which ironically is a dedicated ‘core of Republican support’ aligned against the president. While they have failed over the last three and a half years to fundamentally alter conservative support for Trump, they have built a political machine that may play a central role in his defeat in November.
The paradox of his law and order response to the George Floyd protests is that while it emboldened his core, it has also isolated some of his most important fringe supporters. His misuse of the military, engagement with segregation-era policing narratives, and overall combative tone have forced members at the highest levels of America’s Armed Forces to take unprecedented steps in rebuking the president. Simultaneously, since the failure of impeachment, he has pursued a crusade against anyone within the Department of Justice who acted against him. The result has been a series of high-profile firings and resignations forcing some of his staunchest allies to consider the potential damage Trump is doing to America’s frameworks of justice. The impact of losing support amongst members of the military and law enforcement establishments may not be significant by itself. But it will become more so as the election nears and news of other transgressions such as overlooking Russian bounties on American soldiers in Afghanistan continues to progress.
Trump’s response to coronavirus has also impacted a critical part of his support. In 2016 he enjoyed significant advantages in support from senior citizens, especially in conservative rural areas. In 2020 those same areas are being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic with all evidence suggesting that impact is at least partly due to Trump’s poor leadership. The result is that even amongst Trump’s core supporters, seniors are beginning to question the overall value of his leadership. For most Americans leadership during a crisis is a key measure of the overall quality of the president. And for many older conservative Americans in particular, their loyalty to Trump is no longer outweighing their fears over his role in the growing threat the pandemic represents to them.
There is one group of fringe Trump supporters who have not yet turned on him, business elites. Despite the unprecedented levels of economic, social, and political turmoil in the country today, Wall Street has continued to post record gains and this alone is enough for them to remain committed to a Trump presidency. But that commitment is tied directly to their belief that as long as he’s president he will continue to prioritize corporations over employees, thus ensuring their time of plenty. Once it becomes apparent however that he will not win in November, the contraction within Wall Street will be immediate and pronounced. And with the loss of corporate confidence, the ‘Trump Bubble’ will finally burst, taking from him the most important part of the MAGA narrative, a strong economy.
Perhaps the most important layer of support to consider, and one that is closest to the core, are evangelicals. In many ways, it was the support of this group in particular that most surprised election observers (me included) in 2016. The thinking was that Trump was so morally reprehensible that his promises about the Supreme Court and reversing abortion laws would not be enough to get their support. The reality however was that they were most concerned with the economy and immigration, issues that brought them even closer to his base of supporters. What is different this time is the perception by an increasing number of evangelicals that Trump is simply using religion for his own political goals. And as much as evangelicalism will always be a part of his base, considering he is trailing Biden significantly in every national poll he cannot afford any defections.
Trumps One-Term Presidency
In 2016 I fully believed Trump would lose; I was wrong. As a result, I learned that polls are simply a description, not an explanation… and certainly not a prediction. I learned that conservatives are as varied a group as liberals, with a collection of potential voting motivations and behaviors just as dynamic. I figured out that Trump’s genius in 2016 was his ability to create a vague and amorphous political platform that left room for all of those groups to shape his message in whatever way they needed to justify voting for him. I was reminded to engage multiple sources with competing hypotheses and to consider all the alternatives no matter how much they might disagree with my own perspectives.
But the most important lesson I learned was to do my homework, and not let others do it for me. And after reading dozens of articles, watching countless hours of media coverage, and speaking with voters on both the left and the right, my only conclusion is that Donald Trump will lose in 2020. Not because I want him to, but because he has committed irreversible mistakes in relation to his own base of support. But it is not just that he has lost supporters, he has done nothing but further alienate many of the groups in America that could conceivably have offered new layers to his core. From his immigration policies and response to the Black Lives Matter movement to positions he has taken on health safety, the LGBTQ community, and environmentalism, he has assured there are no reinforcements on the horizon.
Trump won in 2016 because people hated Hillary Clinton, questioned Obamacare, were ignoring systemic racism, and believed that despite his lack of experience and skills that having a non-politician as president might be a good thing for the country. The first three components have been fundamentally altered as we approach the 2020 election, leaving America to consider Trump’s leadership on its own merits. In 2016 I believed enough people would see the dangers of his leadership that it was no question he would never be president. In 2020 I believe enough people have seen the dangers of his leadership and it is no question that he will not be president again.