The only surprise was that we were shocked.
Donald Trump had long signalled his intention to both pre-emptively claim victory, and to denounce the election as a fraudulent, corrupted process, just as soon as it looked like he would lose it.
Yet still, it was shocking to see the leader of the free world make baseless claims that undermined the democracy he claims to champion. It was shocking to see his supporters marching on polling venues with a chant, not just of “Stop the count”, but in some cases, “Stop the vote”.
The situation was so changeable that much of what I read this week contained the caveat “at the time of writing”. Now I need to deploy it myself – at the time of writing, Trump had resoundingly lost the popular vote and it was virtually impossible for him to win the electoral college vote. Which turns the transfer of power into a game of chicken.
The other theory cleaves close to Harris’ – that Trumpism is an identity marker, a protest against the social forces of liberalism. It is about identity and feeling, having little to do with rational economic forces.
Joe Biden has character – he has devoted his life to public service and it is generally agreed he is a man of decency and integrity. But Trump has something better, in the eyes of his supporters – he has style.
It is a style they enjoy watching – bombastic, iconoclastic, a f–k you to the morals and niceties of the liberal middle class. In Freudian terms, Trump is the ultimate id – all instinct and impulse, unchecked by any real controls.
It is mesmerising to watch, and perhaps many millions of people who are happy for him to be that way, because they feel they can’t be that way themselves. Research this year from the Cato Institute found 62 per cent of Americans felt the contemporary political climate prevented them from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive. The fear was stronger in Republicans than others.
When you remember Trump’s route to the White House was via the yellow brick road of American celebrity, the passionate support of his followers makes even more sense. We need our celebrities to live large and be outrageous, and we forgive them everything if we like their style.
We don’t need them to be perfect, on the contrary, we actively want them to be kind-of terrible. When Mariah Carey demands a room-full of puppies on her show rider, it reinforces the essence of her Mariah-ness. If you accept who Trump is, and don’t take everything he says terribly seriously, you might find his blustering messages on the “Chinese flu” pleasing, and enjoy it when he denounces progressive elites.
It is performative, and perhaps you believe that, putting aside the showmanship, he gets the major calls right – the economy has done well (exit polls show 76 per cent of Trump voters think the economy is “excellent or good”, while 81 per cent of Biden voters think it’s “not so good or poor”). He has also “stood up to China”, and been “tough” on borders – an appeal Australian voters know well.
The only upside of Trump’s enormous personal celebrity appeal is it will be impossible to recapture when he goes. But his indelible mark on American democracy means plenty of others will try, both in the United States and abroad.