November 13, 2020
by Caroline Frederickson, Law Professor at Georgetown University Law Center, Fellow at Brennan Center, member of the American Law Institute and former President of the American Constitution Society. Watch the 2019 interview done at the 2019 Institut des Amériques conference.
What this election reveals so far about the United States is that, despite his divisiveness, his failure according to many critics to handle the COVID virus responsibly, despite his failure to pay taxes as recently revealed by The New York Times -- or perhaps because of all that – Americans came close to reelecting Donald Trump.
We are a deeply divided nation, with some Americans clinging to an imaginary past summed up by Trump’s slogan of “Make America Great Again.” Somehow, Donald Trump, the failed Park Avenue New York businessman, has come to symbolize an America with a strong economy for working class white men; Donald Trump, with his multiple marriages and many accusations of sexual harassment and abuse, is somehow seen as supporting the traditional family; Donald Trump, with his well-documented disinterest in religion, is called the last bulwark against a secularizing America with reproductive freedom for women and marriage for everyone; and Donald Trump, who questioned whether President Barack Obama was in fact born in the United States and called African countries “shithole nations” credits himself as having done more for Blacks than any other president, including Abraham Lincoln; having married a foreigner and helped bring over her whole family, he seems to be the paragon of a policy destined to block immigration to the United States, separating kids from their parents as needed in order to discourage them from coming and asking for political asylum. For others, “Make America Great Again” is ironic at best and at worst calls up images of Jim Crow America where Blacks were denied civil rights and women could not participate fully in society.
Many across the political spectrum, from liberal to moderate conservative, are asking themselves how a president with this kind of record – one that has been criticized as racist, corrupt, and now, with the pandemic, inept, could have come close to being reelected. The day after an election that polls had predicted would be an overwhelming vote for Joe Biden, the anti-Trump voters could not fathom what had happened and whether the United States has been changed for the worse. Instead of seeing the White House comfortably in the hands of the former Vice President and the Senate controlled by Democrats, they awoke to a hotly contested race, which still remains unsettled a week later as well as a much less positive outcome in Congress than expected. But those moderate and liberal voters did not anticipate the ferocious loyalty of the Trump base.
The truth is that so many Americans have swallowed a false myth about the country – that we are the land of opportunity and that all people have the same chances in life if they work hard and play fair. But many rural and working class White Americans, in particular, have lost the trust that American prosperity will provide them a decent life and anticipate that for their children it will only get worse. Instead, formerly industrial areas have been hollowed out and wages have sunk, leaving boarded up downtowns and a harsh legacy of opioid addiction and joblessness. It is this narrative, told in books like Hillbilly Elegy and Strangers in Their Own Land, that has given Donald Trump his appeal to voters who used to be a reliable source of Democratic support. Rather than embrace a view that broader global forces have wrecked these communities, Trump has provided a counter-narrative that sees immigrants and elites as the enemy because they have stolen jobs either by working for less money (the immigrants) or by shipping jobs overseas (the elite). It was a potent appeal that continues to keep his base in line.
Many thought that the pandemic would have alienated even the hardcore Trump base from a president who showed no sympathy for those who have died or become ill from COVID nor to those who lost jobs and health care benefits during the economic turmoil. It has not. The Trump base hasn’t deviated from fierce, unwavering support even as Trump has denied the severity of the illness, despite early briefings about the outbreak in China and reporting that he in fact was well aware from the beginning of how harmful the virus could be. Ridiculing his own health care advisors and laughing at efforts to encourage mask wearing, Trump even used his own experience contracting COVID to spread more lies and harmful inaccuracies about it. Instead of limiting the exposure of his followers by switching from in-person to virtual campaign rallies, Trump held multiple rallies, allegedly causing 30,000 additional Americans to contract the virus. Yet his supporters did not consider voting for Biden. And while some of his 2016 voters – primarily White suburban women did switch to Biden – those same voters stood by the Republican candidates in congressional races, allowing the GOP to pick up seats in the House of Representatives and deflect a possible loss of control in the Senate. Those voters didn’t like Trump’s personality but they didn’t reject his platform.
While many feared that COVID would expose how weak our election process is with its great variation between states and our lack of national regulation, the truth is that the system has borne up better than expected in the face of the pandemic. We did not experience record long lines or massive errors in mail ballots. Instead of a shortage of election officials, new people stepped up to fill in – especially younger people. Rather than staying home because of fear of illness, people worked to ensure they could vote by using early voting opportunities and dropping off ballots in drop boxes where possible.
But what this election has exposed is that we have a political problem that is deep and seemingly unbridgeable. As Trump continues to litigate to overturn his loss – against great odds – he is digging an even deeper gulf between the factions in American society, the aggrieved White working class and rural population and the rapidly diversifying urban and suburban voters. The Trump presidency has ripped a bandage off a still festering wound in the United States – we have not overcome our deep polarization and even a pandemic has not been able to unify the population or help cure the real illness that plagues the nation.
Caroline Frederickson is a Law Professor at Georgetown University Law Center, Fellow at Brennan Center, member of the American Law Institute and former President of the American Constitution Society. She is the author of numerous articles and three books: The Democracy Fix, Under the Bus, and The AOC Way. She is an alumni of Yale University and Columbia Law School.