With the Electoral College officially affirming Joe Biden as the president-elect this week, it also officially confirmed President Donald Trump’s loss in his bid for a second term, unable to defy the political odds again as he did in 2016.
After over six weeks of legal challenges and unfounded allegations of “rigged” votes and wild electoral conspiracies, the Electoral College this week cast 306 votes for Biden and 232 for Trump. The US Congress is now set to certify these results on January 6, paving the way for Biden’s inauguration on January 20.
In the weeks after Election Day, as the presidency hung in the balance, Trump and his backers repeatedly criticized the election process, making baseless accusations of voter fraud. And even after the Electoral College affirmed Biden’s victory, Trump and his supporters continue to deny the reality of a President-elect Biden, with more lawsuits threatened and Trump still fanning the flames via his Twitter feed.
Tremendous evidence pouring in on voter fraud. There has never been anything like this in our Country!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 15, 2020
From a political victory in 2016 that even his own allies did not think possible, to four years of partisan division, Trump now joins history as only the 11th incumbent American president to lose an attempt at a second term, and the first one to do so in the 21st Century. The 45th president leaves office much the way he came in, in a contentious election surrounded by misinformation.
Yet in an election that shattered turnout records, more than 75 million voters endorsed another four years of an establishment-bucking, norm-shattering Trump presidency.
“The voters wanted an outsider, they wanted real change, and what more could you ask for in change than a guy like Donald Trump?” said Henry Barbour, a longtime Republican official and operative from Mississippi. “I mean, he turned Washington upside down. He was far from conventional. He did and said things that no other politician could get away with, and he got a lot accomplished.”
Indeed, Trump was a contradiction from the outset. A Manhattan billionaire who became the hero of working-class Southerners. A one-time pro-choice Democrat who sought justices for the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade. The champion of Evangelical Christians despite his several highly publicized affairs, divorces and accusations of sexual misconduct. A man who ran on draining the swamp, but filled his administration with lobbyists.
Despite those contradictions, he was able to attract large swaths of fervent supporters in areas that had historically voted for Democrats. Trump was seen by millions, including those across the Rust Belt states – Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin – who were fed up with Washington politics, as someone who would go to battle for their concerns. He tapped into a growing sense among working-class whites, older voters and independents that politicians and the media had other priorities that were, in their view extreme or, at the very least, out of step from their beliefs.
Unlike the polished, prepared politicians that predated him, Trump was largely unfiltered and changed how politicians can use mass communication. In his raw Tweets and rambling press conferences and rallies, his followers saw someone who would tell it like it is. But the trust he earned with them also enabled him to spread unprecedented amounts of misinformation, down to the unfounded claims the 2020 election had been stolen.
After taking office in 2016, Trump found himself leading a sharply polarized country and settled in with a governing strategy of instigation instead of unity. That approach was a smashing success with his passionate supporters, but was considered an unmitigated disaster by roughly half of the country that deeply disliked him.
His backers loved his unwavering vows to “Make America Great Again” by tearing up trade deals that he believed were bad for US workers, building a wall along the US-Mexico border and tightening immigration restrictions, calling to repeal President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, and implementing an “America First” philosophy when dealing with foreign policy.
While controversy and chaos will forever define Trump’s term as president, his impact will not dissipate any time soon. He was able to appoint three justices to the US Supreme Court and hundreds of conservative judges to US courts, shifting the federal judiciary to the right for years to come. Trump and his fellow Republicans passed a tax cut bill, which was the biggest tax code overhaul in decades. And Trump also signed a landmark criminal justice reform bill that was passed by the US Congress with bipartisan support.
Trump was a phenomenon decades in the making: The rise of television and a celebrity-obsessed culture of the 1960s, the loss of faith in government in the 1970s, the hyper-capitalism of the 1980s and the populist conservatism of the 1990s all formed a platform upon which he built his candidacy.
Trump was already well versed in the first three, as a celebrity businessman, performing for 14 seasons from 2003 to 2015 on the wildly successful US reality television show, The Apprentice. Yet he later added the fourth to his bailiwick, especially during the presidency of Barack Obama. Trump’s frequent appearances on Fox News and his role spearheading the right-wing conspiracy celebre that Obama was born in Kenya established him as a fixture in conservative politics.
The reality TV show stardom directly enabled his success in politics, University of Western Ontario media scholar Alison Hearn said. His name recognition, penchant for self-promotion, and knack for television spectacle all helped him seize the spotlight next to relatively milquetoast figures he derided as career politicians.
“He understood that it’s all about visibility, and a potent, compelling, spectacular performance that people can’t look away from,” Hearn said. “He used reality television to get into office, and then he turned the office into reality TV, and the country into reality TV, you know, the large use of spectacle, constant conflict, a kind of train wreck experience that you can’t look away from.”
The abrasive style may have also been his undoing. Across the country, pockets of voters who had histories of backing Republicans voted instead for Biden, ultimately giving the former vice president the electoral edge Hillary Clinton had lacked four years earlier.
“His late night tweets, his calling people out, he was his own worst enemy in that regard,” said ex-Representative Dennis Ross of Florida, an early Republican backer of Trump. “It was Trump’s to lose because of that.”
One of the biggest questions is what Trump will do next and what it means for the Republican Party. Some close to him are already teasing a 2024 Trump presidential run, an improbable political comeback that would make him the only president to serve nonconsecutive terms other than Grover Cleveland, who did so in the late 1800s.
But even if it’s not Trump himself, observers of politics are certain whatever comes next for the Republican Party will incorporate some aspect of Trump. He so thoroughly violated the norms of the presidency that he changed what it means to be presidential, and the effects may linger in his party, O’Mara said.
“I don’t think they’re going to abandon it. Populism has been good politics in America since Thomas Jefferson,” O’Mara said. “I don’t think we’re going to say Trump didn’t leave his mark on history, he certainly has. But this is a repudiation.”
Doug Heye, a longtime Republican aide and commentator, said that Trump’s lasting legacy will be less about any individual policies, and more about a pugilistic tone. Others will follow in his wake, knowing now that his message connected with voters, even if it did so for a time that was ultimately fleeting.
Even without Trump, he said, “Trumpism remains.”