The media convinced themselves that their foamy-mouthed anger with Donald J. Trump was shared by the American people as a whole. The people responded with a giant nuh-uh. President Trump will not go in the books as a Jimmy Carter or even as a George H.W. Bush: Despite his having presided over perhaps the bleakest American year in my lifetime, his reelection was an attractive proposition for a massive slice of voters. Even assuming the narrow Joe Biden victory that now appears likely, the media should prepare themselves a shame sandwich for lunch and devour every bite.
But will they? After Trump’s global shocker of a victory in 2016, the media should have reckoned with his popularity. Instead, they and their friends in the Democratic Party manufactured some scandals (the nonexistent collusion with Russia) and exaggerated others (Trump’s ridiculous but not terribly meaningful tweeting habits), whipping themselves into frenzy upon frenzy upon frenzy. When you live in New York and work at a place such as CNN, everyone thinks the way you do. Everyone talks about Trump incessantly, and the only register is outrage.
As anyone who has written publicly about Trump can tell you, though, the president’s supporters identify with him to an extent that mirrors the way Democrats identified with his predecessor. Yes, Trump fans love him as much as Obama voters loved their guy. Insult Trump — call him, on thin evidence, a white supremacist or a fascist or even the new Hitler, as the media have been doing for five years — and you’re insulting his voters. Those voters won’t necessarily show up for any other candidate, because they’re not normally political creatures. The turnout was an astonishing 66.8 percent, the highest on record since 1900, and yet the “turnout favors Democrats” model was turned on its ear. Trump obviously drove people to the polls who normally don’t bother. As pollster Robert Cahaly of the Trafalgar Group kept saying, there was a mother lode of hidden Trump support. He slightly overestimated its strength, but he was far closer to the mark than conventional pollsters who had Biden winning Michigan by 7 (CNBC/Change Research, November 2) or Wisconsin by 11 (New York Times/Siena Research, November 1.)
Trump changed the shape of the electorate: His fans would have voted for him ten times, barefoot, in a blizzard, if they could have. And when they did show up, there were enough of them so that, combined with the Republican Party’s usual base, they were able to stun the pollsters in the House (where the party appears to have added seats) and the Senate (where the party did better than even its most optimistic partisans dared hope, and will likely retain a majority). Everyone, including in the GOP, underestimated Trump.
The Democratic Party, reports Politico, is in a dizzy state of morning-after soul-searching right now. Some partisans are excoriating the party for choosing a lackluster, tired, don’t-scare-the-livestock presidential candidate based solely on a concept of “electability” that proved true only in the barest, most humiliating sense. Others note that Joe Biden was the quintessential Washington hack, hardly the embodiment of an Obama-like fresh start. Influential members of the party will give a sharp tug in the general direction of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. They’ll say climate change or inequality or racism should have been central to the party’s pitch. Instead, the offer the Biden campaign made was: vote for the boring old geezer, at least he’s not Trump. It was as if an entire football game was played with the prevent defense.
The media will be tempted to follow that storyline, and their frustration with Biden as he settles into a caretaker presidency that is probably ideal for him will be evident. They should resist the temptation. What the leading news outlets should do instead is take a long look in the mirror while they contemplate why Trump proved so difficult to defeat: It was because he ran against the media, the one institution that is hated almost as widely as he is. As Rich Lowry eloquently put it, Trump was “the only middle finger available.” Will the media respond by being less hysterical, less partisan, more measured and reasonable and fair? Of course not. The media have many characteristics in common with Trump, and one of them is: They never change.