Trump’s Culture Wars Were Meant to Distract From the Crisis. It Didn’t Work.

If Joe Biden managed to pull off a victory despite his lackluster campaign, it’s in part because the electorate felt the urgent need for a president who would focus on the coronavirus crisis instead of railing against a series of cultural bogeymen. No wonder: most people care more about their material conditions than the partisan culture wars.

A Donald Trump supporter holding a QAnon flag visits Mount Rushmore National Monument in South Dakota. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)

If indeed Donald Trump’s presidency has been cut short after just one term, then the next several months will be devoted to defining Trumpism and interpreting the country’s repudiation of it.

The theories will be diverse, but one to anticipate is that Joe Biden’s victory suggests the rehabilitation of political centrism, which has sustained challenges by perceived outsiders of all stripes over the last decade. The window for experimental alternatives to sanctioned establishment politics — represented in the minds of many moderates by Trump and Bernie Sanders alike, never mind the diametrically opposite politics of the Right and the Left — will be declared closed.

That explanation is attractive in its simplicity, and especially seductive for anyone with a major stake in restoring popular confidence in the existing political elite. But it doesn’t accurately reflect the nature of the race. Biden as the establishment versus Trump as the gate-crasher is a throwback to the last election, when Trump was a real estate mogul and reality television star with no political experience, not the incumbent presiding over a nightmarish series of interlocking crises.

This election was different. It was chiefly a referendum on which menace the American people wanted their leaders to focus on: the coronavirus and its associated economic catastrophe, or an assortment of left-wing bogeymen. In other words, it was less a contest between political insiders and outsiders than between main attractions and sideshows. The politically vacuous Biden campaign certainly failed to do justice to the main attractions, but when American voters chose him by a fraction they also chose to elect a leader who at least gave the impression of focusing on ending the pandemic rather than, say, alleged roaming bands of Antifa.

Reality in the United States is exceedingly grim, so Trump’s primary campaign strategy was to deflect it. In particular, he sought to rile up his base about the fabricated threats of Democrat-run cities falling to anarchists and looters, cancel-culture totalitarianism perpetrated by “evil people,” and imaginary large-scale voter fraud, all while flattering fringe elements of his coalition like the Proud Boys, QAnon, and the right-wing militia movement. Biden’s strategy, on the other hand, was to lay low, keep things simple and vague, and passively absorb support from anyone more concerned about the coronavirus pandemic and economic recession than Trump’s culture-war melodrama.

On many questions, from climate to health care, Biden’s ambitious promises regarding the crisis and recovery were not very specific and his specific promises were not very ambitious. But he at least cleared the low bar by acknowledging the severity of the nation’s situation, in which 230,000 have died, twelve million have lost their employer-sponsored health insurance, eight million have been pushed into poverty, and so on. That acknowledgment appears to have been sufficient to distinguish him from Trump, who routinely downplayed both the public health and economic dimensions of the present catastrophe.

Trump’s apparent disregard for the gravity of the pandemic left plenty of people cold, including elements of his own base. Take the example of Arizona seniors, a crucial demographic in this race. In 2016, Trump won Arizona voters over the age of sixty-five by 13 percentage points, a level that he will not even come close to matching this time.

Why the reversal? One profile of voters in Maricopa County featured a steadfast Trump supporter living in a retirement community outside Phoenix who fretted about distant Black Lives Matter protests and the need to restore “law and order,” despite the fact that her own suburb of Peoria recently made a list of the fifteen safest cities in America. Another profile of Arizona seniors featured a man who had voted Republican all his life, but who was switching to Biden because Trump is “not accepting responsibility” for the coronavirus pandemic and “doesn’t talk about the vulnerability of people in our age, 65 and older, group, even though he is part of that group.”

All evidence points to a situation in which those who abandoned the president were concerned about things that concretely threaten them, while the Trump holdouts were preoccupied with the phantasmic picture of apocalypse the president spent the campaign painting. In other words, those who stayed with Trump were stubbornly attached to a fantasy, while those who abandoned him were lured away by reality.

There’s an important lesson here, and it isn’t that the path to electoral victory runs through centrism. It’s that when push comes to shove, more people care about their material conditions than cultural shadowboxing.

Increasingly Americans are the captives of sprawling, convoluted, perpetually-evolving partisan storylines — conservatives and liberals alike — which colonize their minds and feed an intense political tribalism that disables all other modes of reasoning. Trump placed his bet on the idea that this type of cultural bogeyman politics would always be stronger than the allure of, for example, not dying of a deadly virus or not filing for bankruptcy after months of unemployment without relief. Yes, it was too close for comfort, and clearly plenty of people still bought what Trump was selling, but in the end Trump’s instinct was wrong.

The crisis heightened people’s attention to their own uncertain well-being. Biden did the minimum required to take advantage of this. He predictably refused, for example, to run on a broad expansion of public health insurance, even during a public health crisis and when a supermajority of the nation supports it. Nor would it be accurate to suggest that the Democrats this time were never guilty of hysterically demonizing their opponents; per usual, there was plenty of paranoia and vilification to go around. But what mattered was that in the end, the pandemic was Biden’s issue. Voters associated him, and not Trump, with attention to the crisis at hand.

On some level, this should encourage an otherwise fairly demoralized American left. After all, we’re the ones whose program consists of securing good health care, housing, education, infrastructure, and employment for everyone. While we didn’t have a candidate in the race this week, we should interpret the result as smuggling in a small affirmation of the basic premise animating our political approach: that while ordinary people may have all kinds of perverse ideas and reactionary attitudes, direct appeals to what people need to survive and live decently have the power, on occasion, to dislodge delusions.

Now, imagine the kinds of margins we’d have seen if Trump’s opponent had actually campaigned on an ambitious platform that connected politics directly to people’s material conditions. Whatever else it accomplished, such a campaign would have helped to snap millions of people out of the fog of political hypnosis. For the Left, that is the first step toward victory.