An UnHerd archive piece, first published in September.
It is entirely plausible — likely even — that Donald Trump will win a second term in the White House. Readers who are following the election through the polls will likely disagree. According to the latest snapshots the race is still Joe Biden’s to lose. The Democratic challenger is enjoying average leads of more than six points in the national polls and four points across the all-important battleground states. Today, Trump leads in just three crunch states: Georgia, Iowa and Texas. If the polls are correct, then the path that Trump took to victory four years ago is simply no longer available.
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Biden can also point to other strengths: he remains in a stronger position than Hillary Clinton was four years ago; his ratings have been higher and more durable; he is routinely hitting or surpassing the 50% mark while in the latest polls he leads Trump by an impressive 16-points among women, 20-points among graduates, 20-points among Millennials, 23-points among the slightly younger Zoomers, 39-points among Hispanics and Latinos and 67-points among African Americans.
While there is evidence to suggest that Biden is failing to inspire strong support among the latter two groups, this should be seen alongside the fact that he is polling significantly stronger than recent Democratic challengers among pensioners who, crucially, are more likely to vote. Look at all of this and you might conclude that Trump, rather than winning four more years in power, is actually on course to become the first one-term President since George H.W. Bush lost to Bill Clinton in 1992.
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But what if the polls are wrong? What if people are lying? And what if Trump’s voters are more committed to this election than their opponents? The fact that the polls give Biden a strong chance of victory but the bookies give him only a 54% chance suggests that I am not the only one pondering these questions.
Indeed, it is not hard to tell a different story. One reason why I went against the grain four years ago by warning that Trump would pull off a surprise was because of a collective failure to interrogate groupthink, question the polls and ignore his in-built advantages, including strong support for his national populist message among key groups of voters who had been cut adrift by the liberal consensus that had ruled America for decades, irrespective of whether there was a Democrat or a Republican in the White House.
Today, it is similarly not hard to spot Trump’s strengths. On the economy, jobs and other issues his numbers are good if not impressive. Take this week’s poll by NBC and the Wall Street Journal: Trump leads Biden by 16 points on immigration, 10 points on the economy, 9 points on dealing with China and 2 points on crime and violence. Biden leads on healthcare, coronavirus and race relations but when Americans are asked to choose the issue that will decide their vote, they choose the economy by a country mile (16-points ahead of coronavirus). The number of Americans who think the economy would get better under Biden are outnumbered by those who think it would get worse.
And the jobs are coming back. Signs continue to emerge that the U.S. economy is past the worst of the pandemic. Last week, the unemployment rate dropped to 8.4%, well below market expectations and the lowest rate since the Great Lockdown began, and considerably down from the 15% rate in April. Positive economic news could now continue until the election and this will inevitably be jumped on by Trump as he heads into the presidential debates in little over a week. “The economy is coming back,” he will say: “don’t let Biden ruin it.”
And then comes the question of enthusiasm or, more accurately, the lack of it. Just one in five Americans feels enthusiastic about Biden. This figure does rise to 40% among his own supporters but even that raises an awkward point — not even a majority in Biden’s own camp feel enthused about his candidacy. This should ring alarm bells.
For one thing, these are eerily similar to Clinton’s numbers in the final polls four years ago, when just 19% of voters and 41% of her voters felt this way. And for another they contrast sharply with Trump; while closer to one in three Americans feel enthused about the incumbent this rockets to nearly three-quarters of his own supporters.
Biden and the Democrats are clearly working on the assumption that their anti-Trump message will be just as potent as a pro-Biden message, because the latter is sorely lacking. Ask Americans whether they are voting for or against the respective candidates, and while 40% of Biden voters say they are voting for the Democratic candidate a much larger 58% say they are voting against Trump. Now look at the opposing camp, where a remarkable 78% are voting for Trump.
This, I think, speaks to a wider failure and one that could yet confront not just Democrats but liberals more generally should the nightmare of “Trump 2” come true. Since the revolts of 2016, liberalism has essentially had two opportunities to reply to the new alliance of cultural conservatives and national populists: the first was through the Brexit culture war; the second is through today’s campaign against Trump’s re-election.
The first went disastrously wrong. Rather than engage meaningfully and seriously with what Brexit represented, a request for change, liberals did all they could to block the vote outright, overturn it or dilute it so that it was largely indistinguishable from the status quo.
Along the way, they repeatedly derided and dismissed the other side as racists and relics from the past. The failure of liberalism to rise to the occasion and chart a more constructive path forward was then reflected in what happened next: Boris Johnson’s comprehensive victory, the worst Labour vote since 1935, and the passing of the Withdrawal Agreement.
If, after four long years, this winter the Democrats similarly fail to articulate a compelling, convincing and successful reply to Trump-ism, then alongside recent events in Britain this will confirm that liberalism is in a much deeper crisis than people thought four years ago. Aside from exposing the fact that “anti-populist” campaigns are on their own insufficient, a Biden defeat, coming so soon after Brexit, would throw light on a glaring absence of ideas that might otherwise be capable of maintaining or even saving the liberal project.
Some writers have alluded to the potential significance of this moment. Pointing to violent protests in cities such as Portland and Seattle, and a tendency among Democrats to explain Trump away by pointing to electoral procedures, the writer Shadi Hamid has remarked: “I struggle to imagine how, beyond utter shock, millions of Democrats will process a Trump victory. A loss for Biden, after having been the clear favourite all summer, would provoke mass disillusion with electoral politics as a means of change — at a time when disillusion is already dangerously high.”
Writing on this platform, Justin Webb similarly asks what actions, after a second Trump win, would Biden’s “radicalised” supporters consider proportionate and reasonable: “We do not really know any more; what we do know is that Joe Biden’s denunciation of violence -unequivocal and heartfelt and sympathetically reported by most of the media — is not regarded as wise or just by large segments of his supporters”.
These are all interesting observations. But perhaps the deeper question to ponder is not just what will happen to individual parties and their supporters should such a moment arrive, but also the broader philosophy that has governed our societies for much of the past half-century. A second Trump win would not only confirm to the world that his opponents have failed to find a serious ideological reply but that liberalism itself is failing to rise to the challenge that has been presented by the post-liberal turn.