At a rally in Wisconsin the day before the election, President Trump was talking about the choice between him and Joe Biden. He started to say, “This isn’t about …” and then stopped himself and said, “Yeah, it is about me.”
He was right. The election was about him.
As of this writing, it isn’t assured that Joe Biden will win, but it seems likely. Regardless, one result is clear. Republicans did very, very well in this election despite the fact that the party-defining person at the top of the ticket was extremely unpopular. Republicans gained seats in the House when every pundit (including yours truly) and almost every pollster said they would lose seats. In Texas, which many thought might actually go blue for the first time since dinosaurs roamed the earth (measured in political time at least), the Democrats failed to flip a single House seat.
As for the U.S. Senate, as of this writing, with the exception of Colorado’s Cory Gardner, every Republican senator who wasn’t appointed to a seat appears to have survived. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was easily reelected despite massive spending by Democrats to unseat him. Maine Sen. Susan Collins, who never led in a poll going into the home stretch, was also reelected.
At the state level, the GOP gained control of two state legislatures (the Alaska House and the New Hampshire Senate), and as of this writing, it doesn’t appear that they lost control anywhere (though that could change when all the votes are counted).
Meanwhile, Trump underperformed his party. He lost states he won in 2016, and he lost the popular vote by a wider margin than he did in 2016.
This is baffling to many of the president’s most committed supporters. For them, Donald Trump is bigger and better than the GOP. How could Republicans survive when he didn’t? Some even think this is proof the election was “stolen” from him. (This dangerous and deceitful conspiracy theory would have to explain, among other things, why Democrats would manufacture ballots for Biden but didn’t check the boxes for the down-ticket Democrats). How could Republicans do so well when Trump didn’t?
Because the election was about him.
One reason many of Trump’s biggest fans love him is that he “owns the libs.” As Donald Trump Jr. said on Election Night, “We cannot only keep making America great again, but we can make liberals cry again!”
Among the myriad problems with this juvenile attitude: It invites a backlash. Democrats turned out in massive numbers not to vote for Joe Biden but to vote against Donald Trump. Trump, not Biden and not Kamala Harris, energized the Democratic base.
Just as important, Trump gave Republicans and independents who prefer Republican policies (or who dislike extreme Democratic policies that have tainted the Democratic brand) an excuse not to vote for him. The fact that Republicans weren’t sent packing along with Trump demonstrates this.
One of the defining features of pro-Trump apologetics is to hold everybody but Trump to standards of decorum, honesty, and good character. If you complain about Trump’s unreasonableness, you’re the one being unreasonable. “Get over it. That’s just who he is.”
One problem with this argument is that it assumes Trump is owed loyalty from those who don’t like his behavior or many of his policies, while Trump owes nothing to them. As with a king, fealty should run only one way, and he shouldn’t have to do anything he doesn’t want to do to earn the support of those who find his schtick tiresome or odious. Trump said many times that he could act presidential if he wanted to, but that would be “so boring.” Heaven forbid a president be forced to do something boring for the good of the country or his party.
This attitude, both on Trump’s part and among his boosters, served him better than many of us expected. He attracted new voters to the GOP and kept most of the party with him. But it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough to counteract the backlash from Democrats and independents, and it wasn’t enough to hold on to the Republicans who were happy to vote for other Republicans but not for four more years of a president who believed that the presidency was only about him.
The lesson of this election: Americans just weren’t that into him.
Photograph by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images.