Progressive policies, the pandemic, the police — the 2020 election at one point or another was supposed to be about a dozen different things in the last 12 months. But in the end, it was what it always was going to be: A referendum on President Donald Trump. It couldn’t have been anything else, because he wouldn't let it be.
“This isn’t about – yeah, it is about me, I guess, when you think about it,” Trump told voters in Kenosha, Wisconsin on Monday night, less than 24 hours before the polls opened. He’d spent the rest of the day much as he had the week before — barreling into swing states to tell his fans not about his legislative victories, or the judges he'd placed on the bench, like vulnerable Republicans down-ticket would want. Nothing so unimportant. No, he was there how poorly he’d been treated since the day he announced his candidacy in 2015.
It was a vibe that he carried with him into his early Election Day morning appearance on his favorite Fox News show, “Fox and Friends,” where even the hosts' most ingratiating methods couldn’t do enough to assuage his bruised feelings.
This has been his shtick for months, even as advisors and journalists and pollsters have pointed out the flaws in his methods. But Trump bet big that with his return to the top of the ticket, his voters would turn out in enough numbers to keep him in the White House. As day turned to night and the results began to be tabulated, we got our first real look at whether his hold over large swathes of the U.S. population would be as high as they were in 2016. The race remained — as we've been warned would be the case for weeks now — too close to call as Tuesday ebbed. And Trump has been performing extremely well in the day-of vote — again as we've been warned would happen for weeks — and over performing in some areas.
So, without a decisive victory on either side, the question still hangs over the country: If this really is a referendum on Trump, what does it mean if the American people give him their seal of approval — and what will he do with that injection of pure, uncut validation straight to his already aggrandized sense of self?
In his 2016 acceptance of the Republican nomination, Trump said of all the problems the U.S. faced, “I alone can fix it.” The next four years have shown that through scandal and disaster and impeachment, he has kept the focus on himself, on Trump the man, to the detriment of Trump the president. His tweets, his whims, his moodiness. How he’s reacted to Congress. How the press reacted to him. Those trivialities have been center stage in this consolidation of the nation into one man.
Trump’s niece, psychiatrist Mary L. Trump, wrote in her tell-all book released in July that it’s clear that Trump is a narcissist, one who’s been handed everything but remains in constant need of outsized approval. “Nothing is ever enough,” she wrote. “This is far beyond garden-variety narcissism; Donald is not simply weak, his ego is a fragile thing that must be bolstered every moment because he knows deep down that he is nothing of what he claims to be.”
That’s the exact opposite of the sort of personality that the modern presidency was designed around. It’s meant even in the worst of his moods, when he had hit seeming political rock bottom when became just the third president to be impeached, he has refused to let the spotlight off of him for longer than he could bear. It’s meant taking every perceived slight against him as grounds for a tirade, firing, arrest, or prosecution. It’s meant four years of the world waiting with bated breath to see what would come out of his mouth next as he delighted in the attention.
As improbable as it sounds now, for a minute there, there might have been a world where we’d be talking about something, anything, beyond what Trump is like as a person as Election Day approached. The Democratic candidates in the primaries, all nearly two dozen of them, lined up their best ideas for the country moving forward. Sens. Bernie Sanders, attempting to harness the movement he’d built four years ago in pursuit of a revolution, and Elizabeth Warren, making the case for an aggressive progressivism, battled it out for the love of the party’s left-wing.
A tier below, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Housing Secretary Julián Castro, Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker, hammered away at each other, all trying to stake their claim on what they saw as their portion of the party. Once they’d locked that in, then they could turn their attention to the general election, they and their campaigns believed.
And then there was former Vice President Joe Biden. A relic of Democrats’ past, it was his third time running for president. Biden’s pitch to the electorate was clear: He presented the best chance to beat Donald Trump. It was a theory that he rode to victory in South Carolina, a moment that he and his campaign had bet heavily on, and the state’s Black voters, ever pragmatic, helped him win the state. The delegates piled up as Biden rolled on through the primaries as his competitors dropped out. In the end, he and Sanders, the last standing opponent, opted for party unity rather than a contested convention.
It was impossible for this race to come down to anything but Trump’s need for approval, the same thing that first compelled him to run for president
Early on in campaigning nobody, except Trump himself it seemed, believed it would be the 78-year-old man from Scranton on the ticket. Trump had gone as far as attempting to bribe Ukraine’s president to handicap Biden, an act that got him impeached. But Biden pulled it off. The general election was set in a showdown between two extremely different men (despite their similar ages.)
Then in March, the pandemic hit, upending the race, and the country. Trump quickly determined that this was an opportunity to get back into the spotlight. His daily press briefings quickly morphed from a way to present updates to a scared populace, then a substitute for the massive rallies he could no longer hold. On a particularly bad day, when he suggested potentially injecting bleach into Covid patients, put an end to that practice.
This summer’s protests against systemic racism and police brutality gave Trump a new issue to focus on, similar to his 2016 campaign. His paternalistic message to voters: The world is dangerous; but I can keep you safe. He’s held up the endorsements of law enforcement unions. He’s basked in the support of the far-right, caring little about their beliefs or alleged crimes so long as it’s him they back.
As the pandemic has raged on, Biden adapted to a world with the virus, to his political benefit. For all of Trump’s mocking of his “basement strategy,” it’s worked. The Biden campaign has been more than happy to let this election become a referendum on the Trump presidency, given the president’s unprecedentedly low approval numbers for an incumbent heading into an election year.
Trump, on the other hand, hasn’t changed, even after contracting the virus himself. He went right back to drawing crowds as large as possible, his campaign duping local officials when necessary and literally abandoning his supporters as he flew off in Air Force One. Former President Barack Obama, the antagonist who has lived in Trump’s head rent-free since 2013, mocked him about his seeming jealousy of the virus’s press coverage in the final stretch.
In Trump’s debates against Biden, it was clear that the issues that divided the two candidates were never going to be as prominent as the gulf between their characters. In the second and final debate, Biden leaned into that gap. “You know who I am. You know who he is. You know his character. You know my character,” he said, looking straight into the camera. It’s a distinction that Trump never bothered to correct.
Just as it’s always been, with the president using the language of the abuser, convincing his captive that it’s fortunate that he’d ever deigned to look at someone so inconsequential.
And so, we arrived at Monday night, just as the east coast rolled over into Election Day. "You are so lucky I have agreed to be your president," Trump told the crowd in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It’s a line he’s trotted out several times in the closing months of the campaign. Just as it’s always been, with the president using the language of the abuser, convincing his captive that it’s fortunate that he’d ever deigned to look at someone so inconsequential. Be grateful I’m here to love you, he whispers. Because he knows he is nothing if he is not looked upon.
It was impossible for this race to come down to anything but Trump’s need for approval, the same thing that first compelled him finally actually run for president, especially after Obama’s mocking 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner speech. Trump is a shell composed of greed and ego, the latter compelling his political bid, the former his need to stay atop his perch lest he face the consequences of decades of misdeeds. And yet there's still a chance that after four years of overwhelming evidence that Trump is unfit to lead, he gains a new term and even fewer constraints on his authoritarian tendencies.
The votes are still being tabulated, but it looks as of in the wee hours of Wednesday morning like the race is coming down to Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, all of which are states where the Trump campaign is trying to halt late-arriving ballots from being counted.
No matter what happens next, the country has spoken in its referendum of Donald Trump. Whatever happens next — in the next weeks, months, and potentially four years — will revolve around what he does with their message.