Worse than we knew: How the populist left almost got Donald Trump re-elected

Donald Trump

By the time the 2020 elections rolled around, Donald Trump had proven a disaster by every measure. He had first ignored, then badly mismanaged a public health crisis, and then botched the economic response to the crisis. Even before that, Trump was a scandal ridden president who displayed gross contempt for America's fallen soldiers, blatantly attempted to coerce an American ally into smearing the family of his political opponent by holding US assistance as ransom, and tried to strip health care coverage for tens of millions. Trump and GOP's push to dismantle the Affordable Care Act sparked a massive electoral backlash in the midterms, earning Nancy Pelosi back the Speaker's gavel that she had lost eight years earlier, ironically, from public backlash after the passage of that very health care law. Trump was the only modern president who had never polled above a 50% approval rating throughout his presidency in reputable polls.

Before 2020, Donald Trump had looked like an albatross around the neck of the Republican party poised to take them down to a glorious defeat in a loud repudiation of not just Trump but Trumpism. And in the final math, Trump did lose, becoming the first president since 1932 to lose the House, the Senate and the White House for their party in the space of just four years.

But make no mistake: Trump lost only because Democrats stepped over landmines in the primary to choose perhaps the only candidate who could have defeated Trump, and while the presidential election wasn't particularly close, the races for the control of Congress sure were. In the House, the Democratic majority was reduced by 10 seats, and in the Senate, control remained uncertain until two January runoffs in Georgia were concluded. And let's face it: the polls had shown the presidential election to be a much larger landslide than it turned out to be.

That was particularly surprising given Joe Biden's record-breaking performance in the popular vote. 81.3 million Americans voted for Biden, and according to some reports, a quiet bloc of Biden Republicans are rising akin to Reagan Democrats in the 1980s, but the 74 million votes that Trump mustered were nothing to sneeze at.

Yes, Trump's appeal to white supremacy brought scores of disaffected rural white voters. Yes, Trump's constant barrage of messages from the presidential bully pulpit announcing that COVID was nothing to worry about demanding that governors open up their states gave a boost to his vote totals from chunks of this country weary of lockdowns and restrictions. Yes, far too many of our fellow citizens found Trump's toxic mix of anti-intellectualism and anti-democratic populism powerfully seductive.

But that wasn't enough for 74 million votes. It is undeniable that a good chunk of Trump's votes in 2020 came from traditionally Democratic constituencies, especially from Hispanic Americans. David Shor, a self-described socialist number-cruncher, broke the bad news in a conversation with Eric Levitz of New York Magazine.

Non-college educated white voters swung Democratic (compared to 2016) by just two points, but Joe Biden outperformed Hillary Clinton among college-educated white voters by 7 points. Donald Trump, though, made gains among people of color, particularly among certain Hispanic and Asian constituencies.

The most striking gain for Trump, given his virulent rhetorical and policy attacks on immigrants who track their families south of the border, came among Hispanic voters, and this gain was both large and broad. Trump's gain wasn't just among the Cuban American vote, which was principally responsible for swinging the Florida Latin American vote to Trump by an astonishing 14-15 points. Trump gained 8-9 points among Hispanics nationally.

Some will try to credit Trump's success with Hispanic voters to Biden's lack of outreach. They'll say that Nevada caucuses during the primary proved that a socialist like Bernie Sanders could break through among Hispanic voters in a general election and defeat Trump more soundly than Biden did.

The evidence, though, says just the opposite. In fact, it is the association with socialism and the far left's sloganeering about defunding the police - things the Trump campaign and Republicans messaged heavily around - that were key to the erosion of Hispanic support for Democrats (not just Biden). According to individual and precinct level data Shor crunched, one out of 10 Hispanic voters who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 switched to Trump in 2020 in one of the most stunning counternarratives of last year's election.

The biggest rightward swings among Hispanic voters, apart from Cuban Americans, came from voters of Venezuelan and Colombian descent. Venezuelan Americans are familiar with experience with the socialist Maduro regime, and Colombian Americans are scarred by the country's long history with cold-war era Marxist-Leninist militant-terrorist organization FARC, which only signed a cease-fire deal with the Colombian government in 2016. These experiences define in the eyes of these voters a very vivid and bloody picture of socialist ideology and revolutionary rhetoric, something that cannot be overcome with soothing bedtime stories about free college in Denmark.

Bernie Sanders' 2016 and 2020 runs and especially the media coverage of early primary season, which often anointed Sanders as the presumptive nominee, in the minds of these voters, associated the salience of socialism with the Democratic party in a way that only an explicit, continuous, and wholehearted rebuke of Sanders could have extricated the party from.

In 2016, the electoral as well as personal acrimony between Sanders and our party's eventual nominee, Hillary Clinton, was palpable, obvious, and on display almost daily on the campaign trail. Joe Biden, in what I stated was one of the very, very few mistakes of the campaign did not so explicitly extricate himself from association with Bernie Sanders and his socialist followers.

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders's open animus toward each other was the source of much media intrigue even in the 2020 season, when clips from the 4-part Hulu documentary Hillary were released in which Clinton famously beats up on Sanders, saying "No one likes him," and "He got nothing done."

By contrast, although Biden himself effectively countered direct attacks suggesting he may be a socialist by pointing out, early and often, that he "beat the socialist", the Biden campaign made nice with Sanders, AOC, and others on the reactionary socialist left, giving them important and highly visible roles writing the party's platform. It was also well known that, for what it's worth, Bernie "personally" likes Biden. Hindsight is 20/20, sure, but in hindsight and given the size of the Hispanic electorate in 2020, it sure looks like Biden could have bagged between 2 and 3 million extra votes by snubbing, rather than embracing, Bernie Sanders. That may have been enough to stave off the large shifts among Hispanic voters, led by Cuban, Venezuelan, and Colombian American voters - groups with specific antipathy towards socialism That could have netted him Florida, and maybe a few other states. More importantly, it may have given more comfortable Congressional majorities.

Even for many voters who were satisfied with Biden's anti-socialist credentials, the impression of the Democratic party itself suffered by association with Sanders's movement. If Republicans had less success than they would have liked in pinning socialism on Biden himself, they made great inroads in establishing the narrative that Biden could be pushed too far left by the likes of AOC and Sanders. Republicans won nearly every closely contested House seat in swing districts.

The damage wasn't limited to Hispanic voters, either. As a confirmation of the deep wound highly visible association with the socialist left did the Democratic party, the Asian American vote nationwide appears to have swung Republican as well (though Trump didn't win the Asian American vote). The 5-point swing among Asian voters is led predominantly by Vietnamese American voters, another group strongly set against socialism. In 2016, Hillary Clinton had won the Vietnamese American vote by a two-to-one, 65-32 margin, while some pre-election polls indicated that Trump beat Biden by double-digit margins among this group.

The Democratic electorate, as Shore says, is not an ideological coalition, and making it one will cause conservative voters of color to align with the Republicans. If enough of them do - given the heavy Democratic reliance on voters of color - the electoral landscape will become irrecoverably punishing for Democrats.

In the rancor about Republican stronghold on conservative voters, we often forget that Democrats rely on a very strong contingent of moderate and conservative voters who just happen to be non-white. Black voters self-identify as more moderate than white progressives, Hispanic voters are not as anti-deportation as some activists would have us believe, and ideological diversity among non-white ethnic groups are just as strong as among whites. The difference is that the ideological divides among voters of color is not observed nearly as sharply in their partisan voting patterns as those among white voters.

There is a core reason for that: Democrats are the party of equality, and in a country that will soon have only racial minorities, equal treatment before the law, equal opportunity to succeed, and equity in resources and systems are seen as paramount. Democrats' commitment to these issues , contrasted with the GOP's servility to structural racism in voting, education, health care, and a number of other issues that are existential to minority voters has traditionally earned the party a lot of loyalty from people of color.

But that - the aura of the Democratic party being the party of equity and equality - can start to erode if we are seen as enamored with far-left, socialist ideologies rooted in class warfare rather than racial justice.

The Democratic party's popularity among people of color is not rooted in fantasizing about a European-style welfare state, or in ideological sloganeering about how "all cops are bastards," or in the romantic lectures about labor ownership of means of production. Most immigrants - especially immigrants from former Soviet-influenced countries - do not come to America to live in a society where the concepts of profit and private ownership have been abolished. Most people of color - whose communities are the first targets of crime when police are underfunded - believe that policing should be reformed, not defunded.

The fact that white progressives loudly demanded defunding of the police - while white, far-left, violent agitators hijacked peaceful Black Lives Matters protests to break into and set on fire businesses, police precincts, and government buildings - only reminded voters of color, whose communities had to suffer the aftermath of the damage while the window-smashers went home to their gated communities, just how much they - not white progressives - had to lose from chaos and anarchy.

It is not surprising that Americans who - or whose families - fled their home countries because of breakdowns in law and order - think Venezuela and Colombia - would find the rhetoric around defunding the police as especially abhorrent, especially with the backdrop of anarchist takeovers in Portland and Seattle.

Even on the economic side, the white-centered progressive priorities - even when their faces are people of color - differ significantly from those of people of color.

White-centered progressivism sees $50,000 in student debt forgiveness as sacrosanct, but people of color are far more worried about making it to college in the first place, after they or their children are forced to navigate a systematically underfunded and effectively re-segregated primary education system.

Ironically, more often than not, the same left-populists who can tear up Twitter threads about free college and canceling rent are the ones keeping non-white children in underfunded schools. The NIMBY progressive - those who act woke about all the social ills in the country until there is a suggestion that a homeless shelter may go up in their beautifully pruned, immaculately cleaned (probably by people of color) neighborhood - often becomes very concerned about protecting the "character of [their] neighborhood" when their city councils take up measures to build high-density, multifamily, mixed-income housing units so that the children of people of color too can experience the best-resourced public schools in the country.

As recently as August, Bernie Sanders's vocal supporter and UC Berkeley professor Robert Reich was caught doing exactly this - urging the leftwing mecca of Berkeley to reject housing development to preserve a 'landmark.' Even after being exposed as a NIMBY socialist, Reich continues to occupy a prominent space among leftists, proving that supporting de-facto segregation is no barrier socialist stardom.

Likewise, government-payer dogmatism continues to be a focus of lefitsts when it comes to health care, while people who are actually on Medicare are choosing private plans in droves and most Medicaid benefits are provided through private insurers even in bluest of blue states like California. Needless to say, in California, the vast majority of Medicaid enrollees are people of color.

And while the likes of Robert Reich are worried about how Black and brown working class families in high-density housing in his line of sight is an eyesore, tactics like his are keeping Black and brown people from accumulating wealth, even when they can afford homeownership. We may be living a half a century past legal redlining, but the identical homes in predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods are worth just a fraction of their counterparts in predominantly white neighborhoods.

Compounding the racial wealth accumulation gap is access to banking. 41 financial institutions for every 100,000 people, on average, serve white majority counties. Just 27 per 100,000 residents is the lot for non-white majority counties, which also  see a much larger prevalence of predatory financiers like payday lenders. A big national debate about whether big banks should be broken up is meaningless if you haven't got a checking account.

These are the economic and social issues at the forefront for people of color, but they at best get lip-service from the loudest of left-populist voices, and at worst, left-populists like Robert Reich actively oppose economic advancement and integration of people of color. There are more Robert Reichs than we like to think.

So for one thing, left-populists who fancy themselves gatekeepers of progressivism are badly disconnected from the bread-and-butter priorities of people of color if not the issues themselves, and on top of it they have decided to apply feel-good vanity labels (like socialism) that are mere academic exercises for them but hold real-life, lived-experience meaning for millions of people of color. And that real-life, lived-experience with socialism is anything but feel-good.

No wonder many people of color ran the other way, and no wonder that Donald Trump, horrifying a figure that he is, was able to capture many of their votes.

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