Democrats have yet to figure out why President Donald Trump did so well in the 2020 Presidential election.
Despite a COVID-19 performance breathtakingly indifferent to the carnage, despite a divisive and erratic personal style, despite a almost total lack of legislative accomplishment and despite failure on many—though not all—foreign fronts, Trump came within 45,000 votes, in three states, of a tie in the Electoral College.
That’s pretty close.
It is true that Trump had a lot of advantages going into the election: It is hard to beat an incumbent President; he had delivered real results for his base on judicial and religious matters; and he benefited from the peculiar state-oriented nature of the Electoral College, which magnified his electoral strengths.
And it is also true that Trump did not do that well nationally. He lost the national election by more than 7 million votes and President-elect Joe Biden won a majority — 51.4 percent –of the vote.
But Democrats cannot take much comfort in those facts because nationally the Republican Party also did surprisingly well. Democrats lost seats in the House and, pending the runoffs in Georgia, have not gained a majority the Senate.
Even in states such as Pennsylvania that Biden won, Republicans made gains at the state government level. Voters did not commit to the Democratic Party.
So, what was Trump’s secret?
Trump understood his appeal, as his tweets endorsing the slogan showed, to be expressed in the ubiquitous Internet meme “Jobs not mobs,” which was invented for the 2018 election but experienced a surprising resurgence during 2020, despite the effect of the pandemic shutdown on employment and the economy.
Apparently, as Gerald Seib wrote in the Wall Street Journal, voters did not blame the president for the economic downturn and remembered the good times before the virus hit.
For the Democrats, the slogan brought to light two political problems: one serious, but temporary, and one much more serious and long-term.
The short-term problem, expressed by the term “mobs,” is that Democrats failed to push back effectively against the sporadic looting and arson that occurred during demonstrations last spring and summer.
That is when “defund the police” went from being an inartful way of proposing the decriminalization of emergency social services — why should calling the police always be the first response to every problem? — to an absolutely toxic albatross.
This is not a long-term problem for Democrats, however, because, aside from author Vicky Osterweil in her book, “In Defense of Looting,” no one actually approves of looting and arson. And even she presumably doesn’t defend looting in the case of her own property.
As soon as Biden is sworn into office, he will be in position to actually respond to any serious law violations that take place during protests. No one who knows Biden’s record on crime can have much doubt that he will respond vigorously. At that point, this particular issue will just disappear. In fact, Biden will be criticized as overly tough.
The other issue, expressed by the term “jobs” is much more difficult for Democrats to deal with.
Trump was elected in large part because of popular dissatisfaction with sluggish economic growth under President Barack Obama, especially the anemic 1.7 percent growth rate in 2016. That economic performance was clearly on the minds of voters when they went to the polls that year.
In contrast, under Trump, economic growth averaged 2.5 percent before the pandemic—not great, historically speaking, but a real improvement. Plus, unemployment continued the decline it began under Obama, reaching a low of 3.5 percent in early 2020. That is when Americans rated the economy the best since the 1990s.
The pressure of low unemployment on wages led to average wage growth under Trump of more than 3 percent per year, a rate never achieved under Obama. That was significant improvement for ordinary people. Undoubtedly that wage growth was part of the reason for Trump’s surprisingly strong election performance among non-white voters.
The 2020 election really was still, “the economy, stupid,” in Clinton campaign aide James Carville’s immortal words.
Trump performed no magic with regard to economic growth. It was not deregulation or business investment that sustained growth, but simple Keynesian deficit spending. The 2017 tax cut and increased government expenditures led to trillion-dollar deficits even before temporary pandemic spending pushed the deficits far higher.
The economic problem for Democrats is two-fold. First, and correctible, Democrats have practically stopped talking about prosperity. The party has seemingly forgotten that economic inequality is most effectively addressed by broad-based economic growth and not by any combination of government programs.
The same is true of all sorts of issues of justice. The best way to help marginalized communities is to make everybody better off. During the Trump administration, the rising tide really did lift all boats.
Presumably, Democrats will relearn this lesson. Indeed, some proponents of The Green New Deal, and other climate change initiatives, already are casting these policies as ways to promote economic growth.
The bigger economic problem is how to sustain growth in the long-term. Economists such as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who urge us to learn to “love debt,” are playing a shell game. Already by early 2020, the stimulus effect of the 2017 tax cut was wearing off. Was the answer then to increase the annual deficit to $2 trillion? And then to $5 trillion? Or $10 trillion?
Eventually it will occur to investors that no one is going to pay off these government bonds with real dollars. There will have to be default, devaluation or inflation. These government bonds in some way are going to become worthless.
Democrats will not have to address this problem before the 2022 election—more borrowing to dig ourselves out of the pandemic abyss is inevitable—but the problem will have to be faced at some point.
Simply put, the fundamental lessons to learn from Trump’s election performance are that voters want order and prosperity. Both are necessary starting points for any kind of social progress. Both are political imperatives.
Opinion contributor Bruce Ledewitz teaches constitutional law at Duquesne University Law School in Pittsburgh. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Listen to his podcast, “Bends Toward Justice” here.