It was not a blue political tsunami giving the Democrats control of both houses of Congress with large majorities, nor the presidency with a decisive popular and Electoral College mandate.
It was not even a large blue wave as the Democrats lost seats in the House of Representatives and — pending the outcome of two run-off elections in Georgia — the Republicans may maintain control of the Senate.
Still, the blue wave was more than a ripple, elevating Democratic candidate Joe Biden to the presidency and thereby preserving the U.S. democracy.
Return to Rust Belt
As in 2016, the polls predicting a large Democratic victory were wrong, although with votes still being counted, Biden was leading President Donald Trump by more than four million votes in the popular vote contest. That is a million more votes than Hillary Clinton beat Trump by in 2016.
Perhaps the most significant achievement of the Biden campaign was to win back the so-called “Rust Belt’ states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania as his image as a moderate withstood the Trump campaign’s assertions that Biden was a socialist.
By contrast, these charges seemed to have more resonance in Florida where refugees from Cuba and Venezuela appeared to take to heart Trump’s accusations that Biden would turn the U.S. into a socialist replica of the countries they fled from.
Also helping Trump in Florida, if the exit polls are to be believed, were the votes of older Jews who appreciated all that Trump did for Israel during his presidency.
Most Jews, however, according to the National Jewish Population Survey, ranked Israel much lower on their list of priorities, placing COVID-19 (and Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic), climate change and health care at the top of their priority list.
Only within America’s Orthodox Jewish community were concerns about Israel ranked highly, second only to the economy (which topped the Orthodox priority list). The end result was that an estimated 68 percent of American Jews voted for Biden, according to the Associated Press voter survey, and only 30 percent for Trump.
Given the importance of the Jewish vote in swing states like Michigan and Pennsylvania, the Jewish vote (along with the Black vote) turned out to be a significant factor in the 2020 election.
So, too, in a state like Michigan was the Arab vote (divided between Muslims and Catholics). Arabs form 5 percent of the population of Michigan and they voted 64 to 35 percent in favor of Biden. Like the Jews, issues relating to Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict were low on their priority list, as only 5 percent of the Arabs polled listed the conflict as an issue of primary importance.
Topping the Arab-American priority list was racial discrimination (40 percent). Indeed, Trump’s anti-Muslim immigration policies, as well as his anti-Semitic rhetoric after the neo-Nazi protest march in Charlottesville , Va., in 2017 may well have cost him Michigan.
The two communities with the strongest vote for a candidate were Blacks, who voted 90 percent for Biden, and the Evangelical Christians, who voted 80 percent for Trump.
The Catholic and Latino voters were more evenly divided. The Catholic vote split almost 50-50, despite the fact that Biden is a practicing Catholic. This was due, in part, to his political stand favoring a woman’s right to choose, a central tenet of the Democratic Party but one opposed by the Catholic Church.
Nonetheless, the attempt by right-wing Catholics to delegitimize Biden because of his abortion position did not seem to work too well, and he will be the second Catholic (after John F. Kennedy) to become commander-in-chief.
Mapping the Latino vote is a more difficult challenge because Latinos are split into a number of groups, from those having their origins in Cuba and Venezuela to those who came from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.
In Florida, many voted for Trump, while in Arizona, the predominantly Mexican-American vote, reacting to discriminatory state legislation, supported Biden and helped the Democrats win two Senate seats.
In Georgia, another state like Arizona that appears to have shifted from red to blue (depending on final vote tallies), Latinos, along with Blacks, were instrumental in giving Biden his narrow lead.
Given the fact that Latinos are now America’s second largest voting bloc and gave Trump almost one-third of its vote — helping him win both Florida and Texas – and despite the president’s anti-Mexican and anti-immigrant rhetoric, one can be sure Republicans and Democrats will rethink their strategies as to how to win over this diverse group of voters in 2024.
Rejection of Authoritarianism
While in many ways, the 2020 election was one of the most significant in U.S. history, its importance in stopping America’s slide into authoritarianism was perhaps its most important result.
This is because Donald Trump not only displayed a preference for such authoritarian leaders as Viktor Orban of Hungary, Recip Tayip Erdogan of Turkey, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and above all Vladimir Putin of Russia, but also because his tweets, public comments and actions posed a genuine threat to American democracy.
From the beginning of his presidency, he attacked the American justice system and the media, and throughout his presidency he told one lie after another, exceeding some 20,000 according to the Washington Post.
He also called on U.S. troops to disperse peaceful protesters (Defense Secretary Mark Esper prevented this from happening and was fired after the election); interfered with the U.S. Postal Service to prevent mail ballots from arriving in time for the election; and even demanded that his attorney general indict his rival, Joe Biden.
Then, when he had clearly lost the election, Trump claimed voter fraud and sought to overturn the results.
Literally, from his first day in office, Trump began to undermine American democracy. After claiming his inauguration drew more people than that of his predecessor, Barack Obama, Trump’s statement was shown to be false by the media.
Rather than admit his error, Trump attacked the press. His attacks on the media were to intensify during his presidency.
When he called the press “the enemy of the people,” he was attacking the very foundation of American democracy that requires a free press to keep government officials honest.
His enemies were the Washington Post and the New York Times, along with CNN, CBS, ABC, NBC and MSNBC. In attacking the media, Trump sought to delegitimize their criticism of his presidency and fire up his political base to only follow the news on Fox, which during the Trump years — especially in its commentaries — came close to being the administration’s house organ.
In addition, when U.S. courts ruled that his ban on Muslim immigration to be illegal, he sought to delegitimize the courts as well, calling them “Democratic courts” as if they were controlled by the Democratic Party.
In addition, Trump further undermined democracy by embracing the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville, as well the QAnon far-right conspiracy theory which attacked his enemies.
In Charlottesville in August of 2017, clashes ensued between a group of neo-Nazis and white supremacists — who came to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee — and counter-demonstrators. This led to the death of counter-protestor Heather Heyer. During the demonstration, far-right protesters carried torches in a neo-Nazi like parade, shouting “Jews will not replace us.”
Nonetheless, Trump’s comment about the incident — “There were very fine people on both sides” — seemed to indicate his support for the far right-wing protesters. Ironically, it was these comments by Trump that reportedly persuaded Biden to enter the 2020 Presidential campaign.
In yet another effort to gain the support of the far right, Trump appeared to embrace the QAnon theory, which states that a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles are running a global sex trafficking ring that was plotting against the president. When given the opportunity to denounce QAnon, Trump merely said that all he knew about the adherents of the theory was that they liked him very much and he appreciated it.
The next anti-democratic move of Trump was using the police and security officials to clear peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square, across the street from the White House. The demonstrators were protesting the police killing last May of George Floyd, an African-American living in Minneapolis.
The square was cleared through the use of teargas and rubber bullets, and police mounted on horses to enable Trump to walk across the square to St. John’s Church to hold up a bible. This was a deliberate effort to show that he was a “Law and Order” president, a theme Trump would continue throughout the rest of the election campaign as demonstrations over Floyd’s death continued to take place across the nation.
Attacks on Elections
Perhaps the most egregious attack Trump made on American democracy was his effort to delegitimate and weaken the election system. Elections are the bedrock of a democracy, and Trump’s efforts to interfere in them are inexcusable.
First, as the polls showed Biden was well in the lead — and that Americans, because of COVID-19, preferred to vote by mail rather than in a polling place on Election Day — Trump sought to delegitimate mail-in ballots.
He urged his followers to go to the polls on Election Day rather than mail in ballots, and most did. The end result was that the vast majority of mail-in voters were Democrats who, sensibly, wanted to avoid exposing themselves to the virus in a polling site.
Trump then claimed that mail-in ballots were fraudulent and asserted that they should not be counted. To make mail-in balloting more difficult, Trump’s new postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, allegedly to “save money,” ended employee overtime and changed other postal procedures to make on-time mail delivery more difficult, thereby preventing the votes of Democrats from arriving on Election Day.
This was too much even for Trump’s GOP allies, however, and DeJoy was forced to restore the old postal procedures and the vast majority of votes arrived on time.
Finally, as Election Day neared, Trump called on his attorney general, William Barr, to indict the president’s opponent, Biden, for alleged crimes. This is something that might happen in a third-world dictatorship, but until now not in the U.S.
To his credit, Barr — who hitherto had seemed to act more as Trump’s personal lawyer than as attorney general of the U.S. — refused.
In sum, the 2020 U.S. presidential election will go down in history as one of the nation’s most important contests, primarily because it stopped Donald Trump’s efforts to destroy the American fabric of democracy.
Dr. Robert O. Freedman is a visiting professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins University. He is the author or editor of 23 books, including “Israel and the United States: Six Decade of Relations” (Westview Press).