Downfall: inside the last days of Trump

As the counts began to look dicey for the President, he reacted like he was always going to. But the election confirmed that his rage and defiance are shared across great swathes of American society
November 6, 2020

The endgame when it came could not have been blander: teams of volunteers seated at long tables, opening great stacks of envelopes. Inside each was a mail-in ballot, and the sorting and counting went on for long hours after the polls closed on Tuesday 3rd November: hours and then days. By dawn on Thursday, the outcome was still unknown, though Joe Biden appeared to be inching towards the 270 Electoral College votes that he needed to unseat the President and bring to an end the chaotic presidency of Donald Trump. The votes had come in places—Maricopa County, Arizona; Wayne County, Michigan; Washoe County, Nevada; Door County, Wisconsin—remote from the minds of virtually all Americans other than those who had been closely following the election and the strategies of the two campaigns.

Trump made the pretence of protest, a seditionist speech or effusion at 2.30am on Wednesday morning—blustering to a cheering crowd at the White House (150 supporters, few or none wearing masks). “Frankly, we did win this election,” Trump declared—another first. No serious candidate for president, much less an incumbent, had ever declared victory so far in front of the actual results. Then again, who but Trump would call the election in which he was claiming victory “a major fraud on our nation,” having earlier tweeted that his opponent Joe Biden and the Democrats were “trying to STEAL the election.”

The teams of lawyers were soon unleashed—in Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—alleging “irregularities” and “fraud.” At a press conference in Philadelphia, the President’s younger son, Eric, let rip in the aggrieved tone that has become the soundtrack of the Trump years: “We are going to file a suit in Pennsylvania… It is the last thing that we wanted to do, it’s the last thing my father wanted to do. But this is rampant corruption. It can’t happen. It’s not fair. This isn’t democracy.”

Of course the opposite was true. It was his father who had threatened: “We’ll be going to the US Supreme Court—we want all voting to stop.” He meant to say vote-counting. But the error conveyed the actual truth—not only on election night but for the whole of his presidency. Of all Trump’s many grievances—the litany of affronts and grudges, the scores in need of settling—none gnaws so deeply as the knowledge that the majority of his fellow citizens have always opposed him.

“He’s still worried about his inauguration crowd being smaller than mine,” said his prime needler, Barack Obama, in the buoyant speeches he gave in the last days of the campaign in support of Biden, his vice-president for eight years. “It really bugs him. He’s still talking about that. Does he have nothing better to worry about? Did no one come to his birthday party as a kid? Was he traumatised?”

It was funny, vicious—and accurate. What Trump craved but could never get was acceptance. “Suburban women, will you please like me?” Trump beseeched in the waning days of the campaign to the crucial bloc who had helped elect him in 2016.

It will take some sifting before we know how many of them voted for him a second time. But the results as they came in—those early-filed, late-counted mail-in ballots, a precaution against the hazard of standing in line during the Covid resurgence—indicated that Trump had not drummed up enough support to repeat the implausible thread-the-needle victory of four years ago, not in this year’s contest with passions running so high and turnout rising in tandem. Cities and suburbs were Biden’s strength, and they gave him the most votes of any presidential candidate in American history. His pile ended up surpassing, by some way, that of Barack Obama in 2008.


But even if the position logically suggested by all the votes counted holds, with the legal challenges beaten back or abandoned, and Trump giving up and going home to Mar-a-Lago—to the waiting room for potential criminal proceedings in New York, and into an outside world where he may have to contend with debts and overdue loans totalling, the Financial Times has estimated, some $900m—other large facts overhang the result. Trump may not have won re-election, but he did achieve a very large absolute vote, at least 5m above his total in 2016. And, more pertinently still for the immediate future, the party that has stood solidly—and often shamefully—by him over the last four years did not merely survive, but in important respects prevailed.

For Biden to win alone was not enough. A Democratic victory, to be meaningful, had to be complete—a presidential landslide, with the sort of truly crushing popular vote lead that translated into the capture of several Republican citadels and a rout in the electoral college plus, and of far greater practical importance, a regained majority in the Senate. Only then might they draw up in bold outline and vivid colour the programmes they envisioned and excitedly whispered about: universal health care, a much higher minimum wage, reduced or even free college tuition, racial justice (including, possibly, some form of reparations for African Americans), science-driven climate policy. This was the “new” New Deal that Biden was said to be ready to enact, drawing on the most innovative ideas circulating on his party’s progressive wing. Biden would be the “old guy” bipartisan compromiser in a restored world of “who cares who gets the credit” concord—the inverse of the transactional deal-making huckster Trump—while the youthful advance guard, including Congressional stars like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, would sweep the country onto a bold new path.

And there was more—the dream of making America a bigger and more genuine democracy through structural changes: admitting Puerto Rico and Washington, DC to the Union as full states with Senate seats; eliminating the notorious Senate filibuster (to end Republican obstructionism); and doing away with the electoral college and its over-representation of sparsely populated hinterland states. All this was not likely to happen under Biden, but could under his anointed successor. Vice President Kamala Harris is 56, and with her degree from Howard, the crown of America’s “historically black” universities, and her wardrobe of Spandex leggings and Converse sneakers, is the charismatic new face and voice of a party whose future lies in commanding the loyalty of Millennials and Generation Z.

The November result ended that dream. Biden’s victory was too slight, too piecemeal and too similar to what a Hillary Clinton victory might have looked like if only “40,000 people had changed their minds” in 2016. The 40,000, that is, who made up Trump’s majority in the three Rust Belt states that gave him his win in the electoral college last time around, and people who had very likely voted for Obama in 2012 before switching in 2016. Biden’s campaign, in its infancy back in the ancient pre-pandemic days of 2019, was premised—and precision-targeted—on changing exactly those minds. And he achieved it. His campaign was well executed and he showed exceptional discipline. Most of the strategies and tactics worked. But what it gave him was a narrow victory and, in a country where checks and balances have long since warped into a “vetocracy,” no hint of a mandate to govern. Even as the balance tipped in his favour with those late-tallied votes, the Republican legislators were steadily winning. Those Republican senators who were said to be choice targets ripe for toppling—Lindsey Graham in South Carolina, Joni Ernst in Iowa, Susan Collins in Maine, Steve Daines in Montana—survived. All this despite vast donations from out-of-state Democrats repeatedly told (by polling experts, among others) that the country was ready to be reinvented into a progressive nation. It wasn’t so—or even close. Republicans made gains in the House as well. Speaker Nancy Pelosi had confidently predicted an enlarged majority. She has been vindicated many times in her long, admirable career, but not this time. Against all odds and reason—despite the impeachment, the pandemic and the associated economic depression—the GOP actually picked up seats. The anti-Trump “blue wave” of the 2018 midterms was revealed not so much as the crest of a deep and progressive sea change, but as the usual back-and-forth of the political tide.

“In America’s domestic cold war,” the Atlantic’s astute political observer Ronald Brownstein wrote the morning after election day, “this election was more like Antietam, a brutally bloody stalemate that wounded both sides, than a Gettysburg or Vicksburg, which pointed to a decisive victory for one side over the other. The election did more to underscore the impermeability of the nation’s divisions than to offer a path toward the reconciliation and unity that Biden has promised.”

The election has, in other words, left us where we have been for many years, the Divided States of America—separated by region and locality, partitioned by our habits of cable-TV watching and radio station listening, suspicious of one another’s word choices and drink preferences, at odds, all too predictably, over our opinions on every subject from immigration and abortion to trade and taxes and on to science and religion, even on the facts of the nation’s founding and history.

All this reasserted itself—grimly, exhaustingly—as the vote-counting ground on over hours and then days. Once again we found ourselves excavating the wreckage of the last four years, and the grey truth dawned: Trump never was the author of our divisions, but the product of them.


The story of the Trump era will be with us for many years to come. It begins of course with Donald Trump himself, his improbable rise from washed-up second-rate real estate developer and TV celebrity to the Oval Office. But the subject that will engage politicians and political scientists, not to mention students of mass psychology, is that of his followers and their passionate devotion.

America has had beloved presidents. Grown men wept when the caskets of slain Abraham Lincoln and John F Kennedy rolled past, felt a hole in their lives when Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan died. There are those for whom the brightest moment in the past year was the return of Barack Obama, with his piercing wit and flashes of humor, his manner that mingles the wisdom of the college professor with the joy of the pulpit orator.

But even now, we have to reckon with the reality of a large army of unwavering Trumpists. For weeks, thousands of maskless fans jubilantly crowded together at his rallies as the virus resurged at record numbers—with 100,000 infections in a single day and total deaths approaching a quarter of a million. Stanford University researchers studying the effects of Trump campaign gatherings concluded “these 18 rallies ultimately resulted in more than 30,000 incremental confirmed cases of Covid-19… and likely led to more than 700 deaths.”

At one “super-spreader event” in Omaha, “long lines of MAGA-clad attendees queued up for buses to take them to distant parking lots,” the Washington Post reported, to find that the buses “couldn’t navigate the jammed airport roads. For hours, attendees—including many elderly Trump supporters—stood in the cold as police scrambled to help those most at risk get to warmth, and some were taken to hospitals.”

Trump himself has notoriously called US soldiers killed in war “suckers” and “losers.” Yet tens of thousands of Americans risked as much for him. In return, they were required to sign liability waivers: “you understand and expressly acknowledge that an inherent risk of exposure to Covid-19 exists in any public place where people are present.”

Thus has this singular president, this PT Barnum figure who exceeds any Mark Twain invention, achieved charismatic heights unmatched in modern American politics. “Trump’s losing,” read a headline in Politico. “He also won again.” And once again the truly vanquished are us, his fellow citizens.