On January 20, 2020, Joe Biden will take office as the 46th President of the United States of America. But for all its talk of unity and depolarization, the election also showed Republicans that Trumpism is the party’s path forward. Whatever groups such as the Lincoln Project may say, there will not be a return to the “compassionate conservatism” of the 2000s. The full picture of the election gave populism a clear victory, pushing the right-wing to realign itself to meet the interests of the working class.
The first thing to note is that in electoral terms, Joe Biden won the election by a hair’s breadth. He won Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin by a combined 44,000 votes or so. If half +1 of them in each state had flipped the other way, there would have been a 269-269 tie in the Electoral College, which the majority Republican state delegations in the House would have decided in the President’s favor. Flip 16,000 votes in Nevada as well and Trump wins outright. For context, in 2016 Hillary Clinton lost the Presidency by 80,000 votes in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Considering the projections of a landslide, and the fact the President sought reelection after presiding over the deaths of 250,000 Americans from a global pandemic and a historic recession, he clearly outperformed all expectations. It’s debatable if the Democrats would have had a chance without the black swan event of COVID-19, not to mention the George Floyd killing and subsequent events.
Diving deeper into the exit polls, the President seems to have done surprisingly well with all racial and gender groups. With regards to Hispanics, Republicans drove a wedge in the Latino vote, pushing Tejanos, those who have lived on the border for generations, to throw their lot in with Trump. He was the first Republican to win Zapata county, on the Mexican border, in 100 years, and he performed similarly in every other border county that is majority-Hispanic. Republicans also drew Cuban-Americans back into the fold and thereby won Florida by nearly 400,000 votes. Overall, the President won ⅓ of the Latino vote, up from 28% four years ago. The story is similar, though to a lesser extent, with black voters, specifically black men, with the President garnering nearly ⅕ of their vote. He even expanded his share of the white female vote, from 53% to 55%. Funnily enough, the only demographic that Mr. Trump did worse with than in 2016 was white men. Apparently, “building the wall” and enforcing “law and order” were not the foils Democrats hoped they would be. And it’s an open question if the Democrats can come up with someone who appeals to blue collar white males as Joe Biden does after he leaves office. If Republicans can keep up this trend of gains among working class minorities, they can avoid the demographic decline Democrats have been cheering for the past few decades and even command an enduring majority.
Down ballot, the results were also rosy for the GOP. Republicans held 50 seats in the Senate, and are favored to win two more in Georgia, securing them the majority, and making Joe Biden the first president in 30 years to come into office without unified control of government. In the House, Republicans defied odds and gained more than a dozen seats and, if the current trends hold, will reduce the Democratic majority to just 4 seats in 2021, the slimmest House majority of either party since World War 2. And in state legislatures, Republicans won control of nearly every chamber that mattered, letting them gerrymander around 188 House seats once the Census reapportions seats, compared to 73 seats Democrats will control (the rest are decided by nonpartisan commission). Though the voters rejected President Trump himself, the party he reshaped will continue to have a vast amount of influence in American politics.
Already, Republicans are pushing to consolidate this newfound coalition. Right around the time when the networks were calling the election for Biden, Senators Josh Hawley of Missouri and Marco Rubio of Florida were proclaiming that a realignment has occurred in American politics, with the GOP becoming “a party built on a multi-ethnic multi-racial coalition of working AMERICANS.”
But what does that actually look like? Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University, thought the working class was very clear with what they want from the GOP in exchange for joining this coalition: “Uphold our moral and religious values; protect our industries against unfair practices and unfair competition, thus securing our jobs and reasonable prospects for real wage growth; and protect and improve programs that we rely on such as Social Security and Medicare.” A lot of these economic policies seem anathema to Republicans, the so-called party of Big Business. But in a world where a Republican Senator goes on Tucker Carlson Tonight and argues for more vigorous antitrust legislation in an election year, anything is possible.
The GOP is slowly waking up to the fact that their patronage of the largest corporations and the financial elites is not in their interests. This election cycle, Wall Street gave $74 million to Joe Biden’s campaign, while only $18 million went to President Trump. Corporate and wealthy donations as a whole also favored Democrats, leading to questions about what the point of all those tax cuts was. The tendency of large corporations to pack up and move jobs overseas whenever possible is likewise hurting their influence in the Republican Party, with the President’s aversion to free trade and tariff policies being the most prominent example of it. A good portion of Republican politicians, and right-wing think tanks such as American Compass, are pushing to divorce the libertarian and corporate wing of the party altogether in exchange for full-throated support of the working class. One wonders, for example, what the electoral map would have looked like if instead of passing a tax cut for the wealthy when the Republicans were in control from 2016-2018, they had passed an infrastructure bill or invested in American industries.
Social conservatism and economic nationalism are the order of the day in the GOP. The 2020 election proved that the Trump coalition was not a fluke, but rather an enduring and potentially potent force in the United States. If Republicans can somehow get over their reflexive need to cut the taxes of people who finance their opponents and instead invest in the wellbeing of average Americans, whether white, black, Hispanic, or Asian, they can once again (perhaps for the 20th time or so, I’ve lost count) defy their critics and wrest back control of the American government.