A divided America guarantees the longevity of Trumpism?

Dr Panos Koliastasis

PhD in Political Communication from Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), currently works as a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration of the University of Athens.

Email: pkoliastasis@gmail.com

Prof Darren Lilleker

Professor of Political Communication at Bournemouth University

Email: dlilleker@bournemouth.ac.uk

Twitter: @drdgl

Section 2: Voters

There are many reasons this election is historical, two being the high turnout and the close result. Joe Biden has won the popular vote, by a narrow margin, and the Electoral College to become the 46th President of the U.S.. However, and independent of the final outcome, it is clear that Trump performed better than opinion polls expected and won more votes in 2020 than in 2016. The projected widespread rejection of his presidency has hardly taken place. Providing Trump departs the White House with a degree of credibility intact, it is probable that him and his America first vision will remain a strong force in the American political scene.

So, why didn’t voters reject Trump heavily? Permanent campaigning literature suggests newly elected governments and particularly newly elected presidents strive to retain the support of their electoral base, while building trust with the wider electorate, in order to secure a second term. Thus, from a political branding perspective, they tend to employ a communication strategy aiming to promote an effective brand consisting of six elements: values, reassurance, aspiration, uniqueness, simplicity and credibility. The latter seems to be of crucial importance since it requires that a president’s credibility depends heavily on the capacity to deliver on pre-election promises. As Trump failed to be re-elected, it would appear he failed to promote and protect his brand completely. However, this is not the whole story, examining his tenure from a political branding perspective allows us to better understand his political and electoral resilience.

In 2016, Donald Trump came to office on the back of campaign which made key pledges including large tax cuts; implementing protectionist trade policies by imposing tariffs, mainly on China; limiting immigration by building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border; and repealing the Obamacare Act. Four years later, there is evidence that he managed to keep a great deal of these promises. The Trump administration cut taxes for most American businesses bringing the top corporate income tax rate down from 35% to 21%, though it had pledged a 15% tax rate. Moreover, although the rich seem to have benefited the most by receiving over 50% of the total tax savings, most Americans saw their taxes burden reduced. Furthermore, Trump delivered on his promise to engage in a trade war with China, imposing tariffs on several products, withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and renegotiating other trade agreements. In addition, he has so far constructed approximately 400 miles of border barriers, thought this falls short of the promise to close the entire 1000 miles of border. Lastly, even though he failed to dismantle the Obamacare, he never stopped trying to undermine it.

In any case and independent of his actual governing record, most of his supporters share the view that Trump delivered on his pledges. According to a pre-election opinion survey of the New York University conducted by YouGov, the great majority of those who voted for Trump in 2016 believed that the president broke fewer than on one in five pre-election pledges. Most importantly, this notion appeared to be strongly associated with their tendency to vote again for Trump in 2020.

Hence there is evidence Trump seems to have retained the trust of most of his support base. It is indicative that, as the exit poll suggests, from those who voted for Trump in 2016, 92% said they remained loyal in 2020. Therefore, we can safely claim that Trump managed to retain his credibility in the eyes of the great majority of his backers and hence turn, to some extent, the public agenda in his favor. The same exit poll showed that when given the choice of five issues, only 17% of the electorate prioritized the coronavirus pandemic as the most important issue facing the country. By focusing on the economy, Trump managed to control what factors were considered by his supporters when they cast their ballots.

Trump voters were most concerned with the economy (82%) and rebuilding the economy ‘even if it hurts efforts to contain coronavirus’ (76%), as well as law and order (71%). Biden supporters prioritized racial inequalities (91%), coronavirus (82%), containing the virus even if it hurts the economy (80%) and health care (63%). With extreme polarization regarding the record and style of the candidates across their supporters it is difficult to see how a Biden presidency can reconcile the differences. Trump’s strategy proved insufficient to secure him a second term. But it reflects two different visions for America, one of economic protectionism and closed borders, the other protecting the health of the people and promoting social unity. The latter may prove the biggest challenge given that just under half the electorate support Trumpism and so those ideas will likely remain a powerful force in the American politics.