Donald J. Trump was fond of saying the 2020 presidential election was the most important election of our lifetimes. Presumably he meant that it would determine the direction of the country for a generation. That remains to be seen, but perhaps he was wrong.
Although about 70 percent of Republicans believe that Joe Biden didn’t win fair and square, those issues are wending their way through the courts so let’s leave them for another day. Assume for the moment that Biden really did win. What does that mean for our country? Maybe not that much. It turns out that the election wasn’t about policies but personalities.
Donald Trump is a larger-than-life character who delights in offending. You either love him or you hate him, and by a narrow margin in the swing states, more voters apparently hated him. Joe Biden made the election a referendum on Donald Trump’s personality, not his policies. Only 56 percent of Biden voters said they were voting for Biden; almost a third (29 percent) said they were voting against Trump. Apparently a majority of the American people cared more about Trump’s rude, irritating personal style than weightier things such as a successful foreign policy and a booming economy that benefitted everyone — until the coronavirus struck.
Those who are offended by Trump’s personality cannot separate the deeply flawed human being from his successful policies. They are so outraged by his behavior that they literally don’t see the Trump administration’s many historic accomplishments.
There were so many that I hardly know where to begin. I came of age during the Vietnam war, so I’ll begin with not starting any new wars, an issue that mattered a lot in prior elections but not in this one. Woodrow Wilson was elected in 1916 based largely on the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” Stupid wars also used to be enough to oust a sitting president; ask Lyndon Johnson’s ghost about 1968.
By contrast, the fact that President Trump kept us out of wars was hardly mentioned during the recent campaign. It did not garner a word in the debates. Maybe the American people just don’t care anymore about staying out of “endless wars” now that we have replaced the draft with an all-volunteer army and other people’s sons and daughters, mostly poor or patriotic, go off to fight and die or lose their limbs in countries that many of us haven’t heard of.
My point is not that the American people were right in caring very little that Trump kept us out of wars. My point is only that as a matter of hard historical fact, unlike in 1916 or 1968, this time around a majority of the voters cared very little that Donald Trump was one of the few presidents in the last half century who kept us out of new wars. What his detractors saw instead was a liar because he wasn’t literally the only president since Eisenhower who didn’t start a war.
I wouldn’t expect the average voter to connect that the fracking that Biden and Harris want to restrict created the energy independence that in combination with the annihilation of ISIS on Trump’s watch enabled us to bring our troops home. That’s a subtle linkage that most don’t comprehend. As Milton Friedman wrote in a different but related context:
The argument for collectivism is simple if false; it is an immediate emotional argument. The argument for individualism is subtle and sophisticated; it is an indirect rational argument. And the emotional facilities are more highly developed in most men than the rational, paradoxically or especially even in those who regard themselves as intellectuals.
Of course the coronavirus changed everything. Biden succeeded in blaming Trump for every single U.S. death from a worldwide pandemic set loose on us by China. The Trump administration’s crash program to develop a vaccine in 11 months rather than the eight years that it has typically taken in the past will ultimately vanquish the virus and allow normal life to return. How unlucky for Trump’s re-election bid that effective vaccines were not announced until a week after the election; I wonder if we will ever know why that happened.
History isn’t fair, and Biden will get the credit for beating the virus as most people will get vaccinated after January 20 and infection rates will then decline. History probably will not record that the Trump administration’s “operation warp speed” spent $2 billion to develop a vaccine that is 94.5 percent effective against the virus in record time. What is clear, however, is that the voters in the last election didn’t care much that a vaccine was on the way. To paraphrase Milton Friedman, a vaccine just around the corner is indirect and subtle, whereas not wearing a mask today is immediate and obvious. To remind the voters, Joe Biden showed up for the second debate mask in hand while Trump had none.
That image was seen by 69 million people, and it mattered more than all the arguments about policy or vaccine development. You’d think Biden had been the TV star.
Then there is that little matter that Donald Trump and Jared Kushner brought about a peace treaty between Israel and three Arab states, something no one thought possible. They devised a brilliant strategy to outflank the corrupt Palestinian authority that has been profiting for years off the victimhood of the Palestinian people.
Biden served in an administration that was overtly hostile to Israel, while Trump advanced the cause of peace in the Middle East and enhanced Israel’s security. Nonetheless, American Jews voted by a margin of three out of four for Biden. Some even claim that their votes cost Trump the crucial swing states of Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Georgia and gave Biden the presidency, but as votes are fungible, it is hard to say that any particular voters made the difference.
Another inconvenient fact is that Trump contained both North Korea and Iran without getting into a nuclear war. And he replaced the NAFTA trade deal with our largest trading partners, Canada and Mexico, with a new deal that even Biden concedes is better. Not to mention the historically low unemployment and booming stock market on his watch until the coronavirus struck, and then a rapid recovery as the country reopened.
I won’t try to recite all the Trump administration’s historic accomplishments. You get the idea, but here is a list as reminder.
What’s more important now is not what didn’t matter in the recent election but what did. In summary, it was personal style over substance. Donald Trump lost the election — assuming he really did — because a majority of voters cared more about his obnoxious and impolite personal style than about substance. Our mothers and kindergarten teachers taught us not to interrupt. Trump’s rude performance in the first debate sealed his fate. It encapsulated the last four years of his belligerent personality.
In addition, Trump made a fatal strategic mistake: you can’t pick a fight with everyone at once. Most professional politicians learn to divide to conquer. Trump also overlooked the fact that not every enemy is created equal. “Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel,” wrote Mark Twain. That needs to be updated to people who buy electrons by the gigawatt, but the point remains valid. Trump took on “the fake news” as well as Big Tech — and he lost. Many voters believed the terrible things that the media said about him, like “all Mexicans are rapists.” Of course, that’s not what he said. He said some people coming across the border illegally were criminals but quickly added in the next sentence, “And some, I assume, are good people.”
The American people supposedly vote for the person they’d like to have a beer with. George W. Bush, scion of old New England money, graduate of Yale and its elite Skull and Bones secret society and the Harvard Business School, understood that and morphed into just a regular guy from Texas who drove a pickup truck. But as an insecure nouveau riche from Queens, Donald Trump never let the voters forget that he was a billionaire and married to a model.
On the other hand, Joe Biden from Scranton came across as a regular guy. “Do I look like a socialist”? he asked rhetorically. No, Bernie looks like a socialist; you don’t.
Many voters also sympathized with Biden over the loss of his first wife and their baby daughter in an automobile accident and later the death of his son Beau from cancer. He reminds us of those personal tragedies just often enough so that his personal suffering is a powerful part of his public persona.
There will be time to assess what a Biden–Harris administration means for the future of national policy after inauguration day. If the Republicans retain control of the Senate, perhaps not so much. That’s part of the genius of the American system: the framers made it hard to make radical changes without a strong consensus over an extended period of time. Lacking the ability to legislate except on a bipartisan basis, the Biden–Harris administration will probably revoke some of the executive actions by the Trump administration, but leave others in place. That too is part of the genius of the American system: parties come and go in office and what survives is only what is at least marginally acceptable to one’s successors. For example, Biden has pledged not to build “one more foot” of the wall on the Mexican border, but he has not said, at least not yet, that he would tear down any of the 400 miles that Trump has already built. Let’s hope that is a symbol of what lies ahead.
It is disheartening that the American people apparently cared more about boorish behavior than historic accomplishments. But it was ever so — at least in the television era — that personality matters more than policy in presidential elections.