Andre M. Perry
A day after Election Day 2020, the presidential race between Donald Trump and Joe Biden is still too close to call. As states continue to count ballots, the potential for recounts and litigation to affect the final outcome remains. Viable routes to victory remain for both candidates, even in the midst of several colossal failures that should have resulted in a trouncing of the incumbent Trump.
At various points during the campaign, both Trump and Biden referred to this election as a fight for the “soul” of America. If that is the case, Trump’s better-than-expected performance should hold a mirror up for Americans to see what that soul truly looks like.
After downplaying the COVID-19 pandemic that has taken more than 200,000 American lives, Trump still has rock solid support, even after contracting the illness himself. In the past four years, he has openly fawned vicious dictators such as Russian president Vladimir Putin, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un. He inappropriately deployed the military on American citizens during a moment of social unrest. He has failed to denounce white supremacy, separated immigrant parents from their children, consistently deployed racist rhetoric, and banned residents of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. None of this seems to have eroded his base, even voters of color—exit polls show that Trump support from Black and Latino or Hispanic voters is up from 2016.
Meanwhile, California’s raging wildfires highlight Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement. His lack of transparency and demonization of the press can only be considered acceptable under an authoritarian regime. He regularly flaunts undemocratic values, and his narcissism seemingly knows no bounds. He has converted press briefings into a stage for his personal political reality show. In spite all of this, during his term in office, Trump still retained the backing of roughly half of the electorate.
Trump isn’t the cause; he is a reflection of past policymakers, values, and practices.
To be clear, most Americans recognize the danger Trump poses to democracy—he lost the popular vote in 2016, and all signs point to the same outcome for 2020. More voters than not understand the pain and suffering his quest to make America “great” has caused for women, immigrants, people of color, the poor, and the working class.
Still, the outsized support Trump has continued to receive exposes America’s “soul” for what it is. Trump’s racist rhetoric isn’t novel or unique. He isn’t the only billionaire that dodges millions in taxes. And, tragically, immigrants of color have always been treated worse than their white, Western European counterparts. With that in mind, historians won’t reference the day Trump took office when writing about the erosion of democratic traditions. Trump isn’t the cause; he is a reflection of past policymakers, values, and practices.
Trump’s now-predictable behavior will continue. In line with his values, he falsely declared victory in the middle of the night, essentially inviting violence, political and legal turmoil, and a horrible expectation that he won’t leave office peacefully if he loses now or even after a potential second term. These undemocratic pronouncements should not surprise us, nor should the seemingly undiminished support for those pronouncements—after all, this is the man who said, at a 2016 rally, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” America has proved him right.
If this election is about the “soul” of America, then even voting Donald Trump out of office is not enough.
Biden’s potential victory, meanwhile, will be made possible by America’s cities, populated by people of color. Trump has referred to these Black and brown neighborhoods as places infested by crime and rodents. They are not; these communities are places that elevate integrity, hope, hard work, and determination—values that the country must build upon.
If this election is about the “soul” of America, then even voting Donald Trump out of office is not enough. The president’s sustained support demonstrates that the mirror we hold up to America’s soul should force us to reflect on the beliefs, the systems, and the political practices that elected him. Biden’s support is enough evidence to say that America isn’t Trump, but Trump still represents a good part of America’s soul. Confronting that part means confronting the nation’s racism, xenophobia, and classism. If, someday, we prove successful in battling those demons, then Trump was the mirror America needed.
2020 The Brookings Institution