As I write, the outcome of the 2020 presidential race remains in doubt, though it seems very likely that Joe Biden will squeeze out a victory. This is a stunning departure from the resounding repudiation of Trump that we had been hoping for. Here are a few groggy, morning-after reflections.
1) There is something wrong with polling in this country. The errors of 2016, underweighting white, non-college-educated whites in the likely voter category, were fixed by 2018—or so we thought. And yet, here we are. No blue wave. No gain of 10 seats for Democrats in the House. A loss of about five seats instead. No flip of Senate control. And no lope to victory for Joe Biden. A scratch and claw fight for the last few swing states instead.
Seeing these results throws past polling into doubt as well. How many times have we consulted surveys and noted that Trump has never cracked a 50 percent approval rating? Perhaps that was wrong, too. How about polling showing the popularity of the Affordable Care Act or the Trump tax cuts? Who knows?
There are lots of theories—people don’t answer their phones, people distrust callers even when they do answer, people don’t tell pollsters their true views. Whatever is happening, we need to figure out a system for gauging public opinion that is more accurate because you can’t rely on gut feelings or lawn signs.
2) Trump voters are not unaware of who he is. Throughout these soul-crushing four years, it was possible to believe that most Trump supporters weren’t seeing the same president we were seeing. They were getting a steady diet of agitprop from Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, social media, and the rest of Conservatism Inc. Their propaganda diet presented a successful president. Brash? Sure, but isn’t that refreshing after the blow-dried phonies? Impolitic? All the better. Not a politician. He tells it like it is. He took on China, boosted the economy, and kept out criminal aliens swamping our borders.
But when the crisis came, everyone, no matter how cocooned, saw the president unvarnished and unedited. They watched those daily coronavirus press conferences and saw him both claim total power and disclaim all responsibility. They watched him accuse doctors and nurses of stealing equipment he was generous enough to provide, while insulting governors who were pleading for help. And they saw him boast of his amazing medical aptitude and then ask, straight-faced, whether injecting disinfectant and inserting ultraviolet light into body cavities might be effective against the virus.
The debates were another opportunity for voters to see Trump in the raw. They watched him in the first debate make a mockery of the word debate, using his mouth not to express ideas but as a machine gun to prevent ideas from raising their heads above the parapet. They knew that he refused to take a COVID test (as had been prearranged) and that he was himself, in fact, infected with the virus whose virulence he has so consistently downplayed. Americans knew that contrary to the most elemental rules of decent behavior, he purposely put others, including his opponent who is a few years older than he, at risk of a deadly pathogen.
There was a dip in the polls after the first debate (if we can believe the polls!), but the sticky loyalty of Trump fans bounced back. So even with the most generous interpretations about how people are getting their information, we must grapple with the fact that about 70 million Americans know that Trump is a malignant fool and wanted to give him four more years.
3) There is a problem with masculinity in this country. The gender gap is now a chasm, and speaking as someone who, until Trump, was more politically in line with men than women, this difference is becoming one of the defining facts of political affiliation. This is a big subject, one I’ve begun exploring in a recent book about feminism, but we need to think more deeply about how we’re raising boys. America leads the world in unstable families, with significant numbers of children growing up without the steady presence of two parents. And there is lots of research suggesting that fractured families are more damaging to boys than girls. Boys are coming of age without good male role models to teach them that masculinity means being strong, not whiny, leading by example, being responsible for others, truthful, loyal to spouses and children, protective of the weak and vulnerable, reliable, and competitive in an honorable way.
One instance of Donald Trump receiving tens of millions of votes could have been considered a quirk—and attributed to his TV stardom, Hillary Clinton’s unpopularity, Jim Comey’s misplaced interference. But two elections that give such a person scores of millions of votes suggest a deeper disorder.