The media's obsession with Trump voters is missing the obvious, dangerous truth about them


The election in November was a lot of things, but it was not normal. Over 157 million votes have been tallied so far, and Joe Biden became the first presidential candidate in history to win over 80 million votes. But Donald Trump, the first incumbent president to be defeated for re-election in almost 30 years, has mustered nearly 74 million, proving that he is a formidable turnout machine for the Republican vote and raising questions about how an incumbent who is objective a disaster for the country still pulled off that many votes.

I have pointed out before that the task of defeating an incumbent president is monumentally difficult, and in fact, Joe Biden is the only candidate in modern history to defeat an incumbent president who did not face a credible primary challenge or a significant third party headwind in the general election ballot. Unsurprisingly, however, the press has been fascinated with the voters of the defeated incumbent than the tide of Biden voters who caused Trump's loss.

One such 'analysis' was penned by William Wilkinson of the Niskanen Center in the pages of the New York Times this morning. Wilkinson - like many of his mainstream media peers - makes a valid case about Trump's appeal, and also like most of his colleagues in the mainstream press, entirely misses the mark. Wilkinson points to the success of Donald Trump and the political right in defining an alternate reality, and he raises the possibility that Trump's catastrophic focus on insisting that states open their economies in the midst of a raging pandemic helped his electoral case. Yet, he fails to get to the core issue that is at the root of both and has always been Donald Trump's calling card: Trump's amped up racism and bigotry.

Plenty has been discussed about how a lot of Biden voters weren't voting for Joe Biden per se but rather against Donald Trump, but almost no analysis has focused on the fact that a large swath of Trump voters don't vote for Trump, either. They voted their bigotry. They voted Trump because he makes no bones about making them feel good about their racism and bigotry. They are not voting for Trump because they think Trump is going to help them; they are voting for Trump because they believe - and see - that Donald Trump will hurt the people they don't like, be they immigrants, Black people, religious minorities, or those who have a stake in equality. It is that specific strand of bigotry that is the ugly underbelly of American body politic, and efforts by the mainstream press to dress it up in neutral language needs to stop.

Wilkinson's column in the New York Times centers around two key arguments: first, partisan identities are defining people's realities to such an extent now that it is making it difficult for people to step out of their partisan realities when they vote. Second, he argues in the column, Trump's irresponsible opposition to and ridicule of COVID-related public health restrictions - in the context of an economy that, juiced by tax cuts, fared better before the pandemic hit - helped his case with a large voting base.

Both arguments diagnose the symptom, not the root disease of American body politic.

It's certainly true that truth, science, and reality have become partisan. An alternate reality has taken shape on the right to the extent that those who believe in it are denying COVID even as they lay dying alone in a hospital bed from COVID. But the effect of the right wing partisan reality bubble, while significant, can be overstated. Fox News, even after its recent ratings decline, remains the 4,000 pound gorilla of right wing reality, and Trump sycophants Tucker Carlson's and Sean Hannity remains the most popular shows on Fox. At the height of the campaign, Carlson averaged 5.4 million nightly viewers; while Hannity came in a respectable second at 5.1 million. Double it, triple it to adjust for the fact that households tend to have more than one set of eyeballs, and it reaches nowhere near 74 million people who ended up casting their ballots for Trump.

Just as many are fond of saying that Donald Trump is but a symptom of a deep-seated problem that has been brewing in American politics, so too is the right wing media bubble. It may capture a great deal of people, but their captive audience alone is not close to being sufficient to explain these kinds of numbers. What is likely sufficient, however, is the racism and bigotry that's evident by the voting patterns of much of the electorate, especially the rural electorate.

White supremacy - and to a lesser extent, Christianist and traditionalist dogma - feel threatened by both an increasingly interconnected world and a multicultural America. The widening gap between how population centers vote vs. how rural, white America votes is evidence of this rift. The partisan reality is a result of the rift, not the cause of it. The more people feel that their place in society - bestowed on them mostly by their heritage but also by their subscription to a certain religion and resistance to rethinking of traditional gender roles (and indeed, of traditional genders) - the more they cling to a party that tells them their bigotry is right.

The resistance to public health regulations comes from much the same place - ideologically, geographically, and demographically. The resistance is, in good part, confined among rural, white folks who believe - egged on by the president they consider to be a messiah, if not the second coming - that regulations designed to contain the pandemic are a form of left wing control over their lives. Heck, they believe that science itself is an evil, liberal plot to keep the white man down.

And why not? It's always been a science based, fact-based appeal to human dignity that has robbed them of their supremacy. Science dismantled the myth that Black people were less capable (and therefore less worthy) than whites. Science showed that homosexuality is as natural as left-handedness, and their religion-coated denial of rights to LGBT people was nothing more than an expression of bigotry. Science is responsible for ripping off every veil they believe gave their bigotry cover.

Much remains to be analyzed about the unique election of 2020, but no analysis can be worth the digital ink it's written in without a recognition of the dangerously simple but powerful truth about who and what created and carries Trump.