America is therefore the land of the future, where, in the ages that lie before us, the burden of the World’s History shall reveal itself.
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
To the extent that watching the USA allows us to see what may await us, the 2020 presidential election revealed a hope that the future of the Western world is more Florida and Texas than California. That is, the trajectory of Western democracies, including Australia, is towards the aspirations of multiracial, multiethnic, working and middle-class voters who reject divisive identity politics, celebrate their nation, along with its values and history and freedom, and believe all work—whether in a coalmine or as hairdresser—has dignity and meaning. California, by contrast, is governed by a version of the Democrats entirely committed to ruling by the nostrums of identity politics, while having its engine oiled by lubrication from the professional and creative elites in tech and Hollywood. Whatever its local success, this model cannot be spread across the country, as shown by the red-stained (Republican Party) electoral map of the USA.
The 2020 US Presidential election was unusual in many ways. Even in defeat, Trump’s performance in winning 73 million voters drawn widely from across demographics suggests the continued realignment of the United States’ political parties. Mainstream media organisations and their associated pollsters looked at the demographics and predicted Florida would fall to Biden; but instead Trump at a national level and in that State received an increase in the vote from all so-called minority groups, including African Americans, women, Hispanics and Latinos. In 2016 Trump won Florida narrowly by just over one point, but managed to extend that margin to a comfortable three points in 2020. Later we will look at the real economic policies and outcomes that mattered to mainstream Americans, but it is worth further analysing the election itself: its patterns and the media environment in which it took place.
Trump became the first candidate since Richard Nixon in 1960 to win Ohio and Florida, two large states with a history of swinging between parties, and yet lose the Electoral College. Trump won Ohio by eight points—that is, it wasn’t even close—and yet narrowly lost the neighbouring state of Pennsylvania, where turnout in its two large cities, both Democrat strongholds, swamped Trump’s victory in regional areas culturally contiguous with Ohio. In winning Florida by a comfortable 3.5 points, Trump has perhaps finally put to rest the idea that it will some day ‘revert’ to being a natural Democrat state; it voted for Trump in 2016, has two Republican senators, and has had Republican governors since 1999.
Yet Trump also became the first Republican candidate to lose Florida’s northern neighbour state Georgia since George H W Bush in 1992. Again, Trump’s vote in the parts of that state culturally similar to Florida was outmatched by his Democrat opponent’s strength in the city and surrounds of Atlanta. Joe Biden fulfilled a long-held hope among Democrats that the growth of the Atlanta metropolitan area (the city has doubled in population in the past 30 years) would eventually deliver Georgia to the Democrats.
Trump appealed to Latino voters.
That Trump lost Arizona was highly unusual, being only the second Republican candidate since 1948 to do so. In an extremely tight race, Trump lost by just 11,000 votes, despite making gains among the state’s sizable Latino population. Exit polls suggest that in Arizona, and along the Mexican border, Trump’s illegal immigration policy and support for the oil industry appealed to Latino voters. This has been interpreted as a sign that appeals to working class voters can cut across demographic lines. The deciding factor—against demographics—may well have been President Trump’s dismissive attitude towards local hero, the late Senator John McCain, and the efforts of his widow to encourage votes for the Democrats.
Zapata County in Texas provides a terrific microcosm of how politics is changing for the better, outside of conurbations like Atlanta and the coastal cities. It sits on the Texas-Mexico border and has an 85 per cent Hispanic or Latino population which Trump won in 2020 by five points, having achieved a remarkable 33-point swing compared to 2016. This made Trump the first Republican to win the county in a presidential election since 1920.
The only demographic where Trump shed votes was among white men, perhaps attracted by Biden’s lingering association with the old blue-collar, pro-America Democratic Party. Identitarians would assume Trump could never win Zapata County, but it is one of Texas’ largest producers of oil and gas, and while the size of those industries has declined over recent years the ‘extractive and construction’ sectors remain the largest employers in the area. In the second presidential debate Trump pushed Biden on the issue of emissions reduction policies, asking “would you close down the oil industry?”, to which Biden responded, “Yes. I would transition.”
Hopefully, the 2020 election will deconstruct the very idea that intersectionality rules and Latino voters should all be unthinkingly grouped together (and taken for granted as voters). Even local Democrat leaders believe the left’s stupid word games, like the neologism ‘Latinx’ (because the use of gender in the Spanish language is supposedly offensive) made Biden’s task harder.
What 2020 shows is the fundamental principles of freedom, the dignity of work, the centrality of the nation-state, economic opportunity, and reverence for the traditions of Western Civilisation continue to have broad appeal, including among immigrant populations who had largely hitherto been monopolised by the political left.
The broader election result suggests that while Trump was the great disrupter, accelerating the realignment of politics and the Republican party, he will have a lasting legacy on the latter. While Trump enjoys an extremely high approval rate among Republican voters (90-95 per cent, according to most polls) the Republican Party actually outperformed Trump across the country, picking up 19 seats in the House of Representatives. Maintaining alignment between the Trumpian political framework and the man himself will no doubt be the immediate concern of the Republican Party. Indeed, the performance of the Republicans supports the idea that Trump’s defeat could be attributed to the relentlessly negative and deceptive manipulation of public debate orchestrated by legacy media and the tech oligarchy that controls social media.
Russian collusion was all a lie.
The actual record of the Trump presidency revealed the media narrative that he was an existential threat to America as baseless hysteria, but that did not prevent it being recycled ad nauseam. In reality Trump was an existential threat, not to America, but to Washington politics-as-usual of which the traditional media played a central role. Hence that media engaged in a long-running disinformation campaign to assert the Trump campaign had colluded with the Russian government to be elected in 2016, culminating in the House of Representatives approving articles of impeachment.
Only it was all a lie. Documents released by a congressional committee revealed Adam Schiff, the Democrat congressman leading the charge against Trump, knew all along there was no evidence of Russian collusion. Despite the parade of former Obama officials who testified under oath that they had no evidence of collusion or conspiracy, Schiff continued for years to claim he had ‘ample’ proof of collusion. The media enthusiastically spread Schiff and Clapper’s claims for years without any proof or even demands for evidence.
Trump may have lost simply because the election was in a plague year.
Meanwhile the big-tech and privileged social media platforms took measures to ensure the Democrats were successful in 2020. After the 2016 election, ‘impartial’ algorithms of online social media companies were weaponised to disproportionately impact (and retard) the distribution of conservative material. Community management and terms of service policies at sites such as YouTube frequently see conservative material demonetised or shadowbanned, and Facebook rewrote its algorithm to downgrade ‘partisan’ news sources, while leaving traditional, but no less partisan, news sources untouched. It was also illustrative that social media platforms successfully buried a report by the New York Post detailing how in 2015, Joe Biden’s son and board member at Ukrainian energy company Burisma, Hunter Biden, introduced his father, then-Vice President Joe Biden, to a fellow executive. This was less than a year before the Vice President pressured the Ukraine government into firing a prosecutor who was investigating Burisma and despite the elder Biden previously claiming he had never spoken to his son about his overseas business dealings.
The confounding factor, in this and in all the other pieces of analysis above, was the arrival of coronavirus: its effect on Trump’s economic narrative (see more below) and also how an already negative media chose to portray his handling of it. A recent study (Sacerdote et al) showed 91 per cent of stories about coronavirus by major media outlets in the USA were negative in tone, compared to 54 per cent for those in other countries. According to the abstract:
Stories discussing President Donald Trump and hydroxychloroquine (were) more numerous than all stories combined that cover companies and individual researchers working on COVID-19 vaccines.
Playing into this was the expansion of early voting, justified by many states as a necessary part of their COVID responses. Hence many voted in September and October, before Trump’s barnstorming finish to his campaign. Trump may have lost not because of any underlying trends, but simply because the election took place in a plague year.
THE ECONOMIC AGENDA
The Trump presidency delivered one of the largest tax cuts in US history. The corporate tax rate was cut by a record 14 percentage points from 35 per cent to 21 per cent, and federal income tax was heavily slashed with five of the seven marginal income tax rates reduced by one to three percentage points. The tax cuts improved America’s economic competitiveness and delivered a tax cut to an estimated 80 per cent of US households.
After his inauguration, one of President Trump’s first actions was to sign Executive Order (EO) 13771, Reducing Regulation and Controlling Regulatory Costs. The EO did two important things to pursue Trump’s promised deregulatory agenda: first, it established a 2-in-1-out rule, whereby two regulations had to be removed for each new one introduced; second, it established a regulatory budget which set a cap on the level of regulatory costs that agencies could impose.
That said, the bureaucracy resisted change. National Review policy writer Robert VerBruggen summarised the Trump administration’s efforts to cut red tape: “He slammed on the brakes, but never got the car into reverse.” According to the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, there were 1,074,637 federal regulatory restrictions in 2016, compared to 1,078,213 in 2019. The Mercatus measurement, using their tool RegData, provides quantitative evidence which supports VerBruggen’s analogy.
However, Trump’s efforts demonstrate the awesome power of even attempting to halt the regulatory state. According to a Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances, between 2016 and 2019 median family incomes increased by almost six per cent in real terms, but the average family income decreased by three per cent. Additionally, median family net worth grew by around 18 per cent, while average family net worth grew by around two per cent. Put simply, this means the bottom-half of families gained the most from the Trump Administration’s policies, while families at the top of the distribution saw negative income growth and very slow net-worth growth. This was a complete reversal of the Obama-era trends, and marks Trump as a President who reduced inequality and delivered for middle America.
Trump argued that China, among others, was taking advantage of America through monetary manipulation and trade agreements that undermined America’s economic interests. The trade war with China has had mixed results, while the full effect of growing tensions with the rival economic power remains to be seen. The promise of a return of manufacturing jobs was partially realised with solid growth in the early part of Trump’s first term, before flatlining in 2019, and ultimately collapsing due to the COVID-19 recession.
The US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord was a key part of the Trump’s America First agenda. Trump argued the Accord “was not designed to save the environment, it was designed to kill the American economy”. The combination of tax cuts, deregulation, and a pro-jobs agenda saw the US become energy independent for the first time since the 1950s. The US is now the number one producer of oil and natural gas in the world, and as a result is less reliant on the politically tumultuous Middle East.
RESTRAINING JUDICIAL ACTIVISM
On 13 February 2016 news came in, right before the night’s Republican presidential primary debate, that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia had passed away. Scalia was a larger-than-life figure and the gold standard for conservative (or originalist, as his judicial philosophy became known) judges. His vacancy on the land’s highest court was to become a deciding factor in the 2016 election, and estimated to have been the primary driver for somewhere between one-in-10 and one-in-four votes for Trump.
Far from being erratic in his judicial appointments, when the Trump box was opened up it did just what it said on the package. He came to office with a list of potential Supreme Court Justices pre-screened for their originalist credentials which he promised to select from if vacancies arose (see also Morgan Begg’s Courting Calamity in the Winter 2020 edition of IPA Review).
Trump also had sheer luck on his side—well, luck, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Judiciary Committee member Ted Cruz. Not many one-term presidents get to select three Supreme Court Justices (Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney-Barrett), let alone replace the most liberal justice (Ruth Bader-Ginsburg) with one likely to carry Scalia’s legacy (Coney-Barrett). In addition, one-third of federal lower-court positions were filled during his one term in office.
Trump drew attention to the existential threat facing the West.
It is too early to say what the legacy will be, but the new justices have solid records when it comes to the separation of powers, and could oversee a return of powers that have been centralised in the federal government back to the states where they belong. Likewise, powers accrued to the executive (and the courts) may be deferred to the legislative branch.
DEFENDING WESTERN CIVILISATION’S LEGACY
In the last four years, Trump has publicly drawn the world’s attention to the existential threat facing the West, and pushed back against the tyranny of cancel culture, critical race theory, and the Black Lives Matter movement. This, of course, earned him the ire of mainstream media, the political class, universities, and other members of the new woke elite. Among the many speeches Trump gave during his presidency, two stand out. The first was delivered in 2017 in Warsaw’s Krasiński Square. Amid spontaneous applause the president told the assembled Poles: “Your oppressors tried to break you, but Poland could not be broken.” He posed the following question:
The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive. Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilisation in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?
Three years later, Trump gave a second astonishing speech to mark Independence Day. As he stood in front of Mount Rushmore, the president referred to the cult of wokeness and cancel culture:
If you do not speak its language, perform its rituals, recite its mantras, and follow its commandments then you will be censored, banished, blacklisted, persecuted and punished.
Trump was particularly concerned with attempts by the radical elements of American society to rewrite history through such projects as the New York Times’ ‘1619 Project’, which claims protecting slavery was a primary motive of the American revolutionaries when they broke away from Britain in 1776. Trump believed critical race theory had corrupted history, civic education courses in schools, the corporate world, and the military, and in 2019 he signed an Executive Order banning executive departments and agencies and Federal contractors from teaching critical race theory.
Trump’s legacy also extends to free speech at American universities. In 2019, he signed an executive order buttressing freedom of speech on college campuses, surrounded by student activists who claimed conservative views are suppressed at universities. Trump said he was taking “historic action to defend American students and American values that have been under siege.”
The tone of Trump’s foreign policy was set within the first two minutes of his political career. “The US has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems,” the then-candidate declared in the lobby of New York’s Trump Tower. Four years later, President Trump would tell the United Nations that:
The future does not belong to globalists. The future belongs to patriots. The future belongs to sovereign and independent nations who protect their citizens, respect their neighbours, and honour the differences that make each country special and unique.
It was an approach that bamboozled the foreign policy establishment, but one that millions of Americans understood, loud and clear, belted out at campaign rallies from coast to coast: America First. The Trump doctrine, such as it was, tore through the polite multilateralist world like a hurricane. Trump tore up the Paris agreement, signalling America would not allow itself to be deindustrialised. The Iran nuclear deal that saw pallets of cash delivered to the Islamic Republic was torn up. Through the agency of NATO, Western Europe was forced to at last take responsibility for its own defence as Trump made clear that America’s allies would no longer enjoy a free ride on the American taxpayers’ dime.
In Trump, they had a president who gave peace a chance.
Another culture shock for the right was Trump’s abrasive break from neoconservative orthodoxy. Decrying the “extraordinary sacrifice of blood and treasure”, Trump promised to steer clear of “endless foreign wars” while making good on campaign promises, including bringing down the ISIS caliphate. Like many of Trump’s achievements, the due credit owed by his opponents was never paid. The same constituency that had rallied against ‘blood for oil’ never accepted that in Trump, they had a president who gave peace a chance. Maybe that’s because Trump’s approach to military conflict was, in its way, a 21st century revival of Ronald Reagan’s axiom of ‘peace through strength’. As American troops arrived home, Trump increased defence spending and launched the Space Force, a new arm of the military.
When it came to America’s enemies, Trump embraced brinkmanship, taunting rogue dictators with promises of brutal retribution for any attacks on the US. This strategy brought North Korea to the bargaining table. Not much ultimately came of it, but Trump’s gamble on dealing with Kim Jong-Un directly was probably no less effective than the fruitless multilateral negotiations with which previous administrations of both parties persisted. But Trump did succeed where almost every other president since Harry Truman had failed. For the author of The Art of the Deal, Middle East peace would be the ultimate win. Unsurprisingly, the Palestinians were no more amenable to Trump’s plan for a workable two-state solution than they had been to any others that had been offered. The difference is that this time, they were rendered almost irrelevant by the many Arab countries rushing to sign Trump-brokered peace deals that saw the Israeli national anthem played on the streets of Abu Dhabi.
If nothing else, Trump proved the better part of the foreign policy club wrong as his decision to relocate the US embassy to Jerusalem did not in fact alienate the Arab world. Yes, the embassy move was a mere gesture, and admittedly a provocative one. But it was a case of values in action: what better way to show a commitment to sovereignty than allow another country to select its own capital city?
These key economic achievements of the Trump administration are under threat from a Biden presidency. Biden’s tax plan involves increasing the corporate tax rate back up to 28 per cent, increasing the top marginal tax rate, and decreasing deductions for higher income earners. Biden will rejoin the Paris Climate Accord and other globalist initiatives that fail to put America first. Biden and Kamala Harris have repeatedly proposed banning fracking, enacting a carbon tax, and getting rid of fossil fuels. These actions would destroy US energy independence, undermine jobs, and increase energy prices. Similarly, the Biden administration has said one of their first actions will be reversing the Executive Order defending free speech on college campuses.
Such reversals, inevitable in a democratic system, make it doubly important to ponder the legacy of the Trump administration. First, what is gained can be lost, but what was lost can be regained. After years of inertia, the centre-right has seen that with political will elected representatives can push back against the swamp and the corrosive effects on national culture of radical politics.
Second, it can create winning electoral coalitions with policies that appeal to and provide real rewards for hard-working citizens everywhere, delivering dignity, self-reliance, and the capacity to take care of themselves, their families, and communities. In it is in this sense that localities such as the small Texan county of Zapata (population about 14,000) and indeed Florida and Texas more generally provide a promising glimpse into the future.
The Editor gratefully acknowledges the contributions to this article by Daniel Wild, Gideon Rozner, Dara Mcdonald, Bella d’Abrera, Andrew Bushnell, Kurt Wallace, Cian Hussey and Morgan Begg.