The vanishing 'red mirage': how Trump's election week soured

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For Democrats, the familiar sinking feeling began in the early hours of Wednesday morning when Florida came out for Donald Trump. The state is a critical battleground. Up until that point a Democratic victory in Tuesday’s US presidential election had seemed likely. Joe Biden, the former vice-president, was going to win, the polls said. Probably by a landslide. The only question was the giddy margin.

© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Michael Reynolds/EPA

But the humiliating rout predicted by the pundits wasn’t happening. Trump’s support was holding up remarkably well. This wasn’t just true of diehard fans who had packed into his election rallies in the tumultuous closing days of an extraordinary campaign. Others were backing him as well. This, despite a health pandemic and a divisive presidency like no other.

The Florida results suggested a more complex picture was emerging. For the Biden camp, it was an alarming one. With 96% of ballots counted, Trump was 375,000 votes ahead. Biden, it turned out, had underperformed in the Democratic stronghold of Miami-Dade County. The president had increased his vote among white, working class and Latino people. And among African Americans.

Trump, it seemed, had defied his critics yet again. He comfortably won Texas, crushing Democratic hopes of flipping the state. In the crucial swing state of Pennsylvania – visited repeatedly by both candidates in recent months – Trump was more than half a million votes ahead. There were other notable wins, including Ohio and Iowa. Much of the electoral map was going red.

© Provided by The Guardian Trump supporters outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center on Thursday. Photograph: Amy Harris/Rex/Shutterstock

Before polling day on Tuesday, the Democrats appeared to have a strong chance of gaining control of the Senate. This wasn’t going well either. A raft of Democratic challengers were coming up short. In Maine, the moderate Republican incumbent, Susan Collins, easily beat her rival Sara Gideon. Hopes that Democrats might expand control of the House were fading too.

Those watching the election unfold, in the US and around the world, might be forgiven for thinking history was on a doom loop. The liberal trauma of 2016 – where a dead cert Hillary Clinton victory turned into a Trump triumph – appeared to be happening again. Trump, we discovered, was no freak winner. Tens of millions of Americans were enthusiastically voting for him, in even greater numbers than before.

“This feels all too familiar,” said Laura Hubka, the Democratic chair in Howard County, Iowa. The rural heartland state twice voted for Barack Obama. But it failed on Tuesday to embrace Biden, with Trump’s vote share a couple of points shy of his winning 2016 tally. “He just seems real,” one Trump voter, Elysha Graves, said. “He’s relatable. He’s not a politician.”

Despite the ominous indicators, Biden remained calm as he watched the results come in from his home city of Wilmington, Delaware. Amid the early gloom there was reason for cautious optimism. In the midwest – Michigan, Wisconsin – the race was extremely close. And in Arizona – the home of the late John McCain, Trump’s most prominent Republican critic – Biden appeared to be ahead.

The dynamic of the night was a curious and artificial one. Biden had urged his supporters to cast mail-in ballots. Trump had called on his voters to turn up in person. In many places, these Trump votes were being counted first, giving the impression of an insurmountable lead. Was this real, or the much talked about “red mirage”?

In the East Room of the White House, Trump and his supporters were upbeat. Then, a little before midnight on Tuesday in Washington, Fox News called Arizona for Biden. This was a major blow to Trump’s re-election hopes: the first flip of a state won by Trump in 2016. The president was furious. He dispatched his son-in-law Jared Kushner to remonstrate with Rupert Murdoch. To no avail.

Trump reportedly spent the next few hours ringing Republican governors. At 2.30am he gave a presidential briefing. It was everything his adversaries had feared: an angry and unfounded riff in which he accused the Democrats of fraud. Trump claimed – wrongly – that he had won the election. He suggested the supreme court would intervene. “This is an embarrassment to our country,” he said, to cheers from his family and friends.

The grim scenario, which Trump had been carefully preparing for months, was now being played out on the nation’s TV screens. The president’s argument – that mailed-in votes for Biden amounted to cheating – was untrue. But like previous presidential lies, it was to have ugly real-world consequences. A dark myth was taking shape: that the Democrats had stabbed Trump in the back.

© Provided by The Guardian A Trump supporter in Phoenix, Arizona, on Friday. Photograph: Ross D Franklin/AP

Meanwhile, Biden expressed optimism and urged voters to be patient. Later on Wednesday, results looked increasingly good for him. Trump’s 2016 path to the White House went through Michigan, a traditionally Democratic northern state, and Wisconsin. Now both had swung back and were called for Biden. In a speech that afternoon, he said: “When the count is finished, we believe we will be the winners.”

Slowly but surely, the race was going the wrong way for Trump. The president’s aggressive fightback took a familiar shape: a wave of lawsuits. In Wisconsin the Trump campaign demanded a recount, in Michigan a stop to counting, in Pennsylvania a challenge to the legality of extending ballot deadlines. And so on. The apparent goal: to prevent Trump from sliding, as each ballot was counted, to ignominious defeat.

© Photograph: Michael Reynolds/EPA An anti-Trump protester in front of an inflatable caricature of the president in Washington DC on Friday.

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The president did not appear on Wednesday. Instead he expressed his growing frustration via Twitter. “We are up BIG, but they are trying to STEAL the election,” he declared. Twitter flagged this and other similar tweets as “misleading”. Social media companies appeared to be trying to atone for the errors of 2016, flagging Trump’s false ex cathedra claims in real time.

As America woke on Thursday, the battle was still too close to call. But Trump’s pathway to the presidency had become increasingly fraught. Biden was on 264 electoral college votes if counting Arizona; Trump on 214. Biden had multiple routes to 270 and the White House; Trump had to win everything. That included Pennsylvania and Georgia, where mail-in ballots were rapidly eroding Trump’s once mighty lead.

Taking their cue from the president, pro-Trump supporters descended on swing state venues where votes were being counted. A small group gathered outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center, shouting: “Stop the count!” and “Let us in!” Police stood guard. Inside, all was normal. Philadelphia election workers in yellow vests who had stayed up all night sipped coffee. They carefully scanned and sorted votes.

In Arizona, where Trump was clawing into Biden’s lead, it was a different slogan. Demonstrators massed outside an election facility in Phoenix. They shouted: “Count the votes! Count the votes!” One banner read: “Fox News sucks!” One Trump voter complained: “It’s like the news media and social media has people believing all sorts of stuff.” Some protesters were armed.

These contradictory cries made for a compelling split-screen moment. They also undermined the prospect of success for Trump’s multiple legal challenges. First, there was no evidence of fraud. Second, the president was demanding that votes be processed in states where he trailed, and that counting be suspended where he was narrowly ahead. A flailing strategy, as Biden’s campaign manager, Jen O’Malley Dillon, put it.

By Thursday afternoon it appeared Trump was in the grip of the first two stages of grief: rage and denial. Nobody doubted the power of his rhetoric. Or his ability to incite his supporters to come out on to the streets. The president, however, seemed to be waging an increasingly hopeless fight against reality itself, and the inexorable march of numbers that refused to heed his command. It was Canute-like stuff: deranged, arguably, and dangerous for democracy, for sure.

After spending four years denigrating facts, Trump was being slowly mugged by them. Meanwhile, the networks were having a good election. On CNN, the anchor John King plotted results county by county, shading areas blue. “We do the math right now,” he said. By Thursday afternoon, Trump’s lead in Georgia was shrivelling. It was vanishing in Pennsylvania. “Math isn’t on our side,” one Trump aide told CNN. “We need an act of God to alter the course.”

Soon after 4pm on Thursday, Biden made a short address from Wilmington. He began with Covid, citing the latest figure of 240,000 US deaths. His tone was that of a president in waiting. “I ask everyone to stay calm,” he said. He again predicted that when the count was done he and his running mate, Kamala Harris, would emerge as winners. Democracy, he reminded Americans, could be messy.

Biden’s quasi-presidential appearance appears to have enraged Trump further, prompting him to hold his own White House press conference two hours later. It was unrealistic to expect Trump to concede. But even by the ignoble standards of his presidency, Trump’s performance marked a new and horrible low. In effect, Trump repudiated the electoral system because it didn’t let him win.

“If you count the legal votes,” he began, “I easily win. If you count the illegal votes, they can try to steal the election from us.” Trump sketched out an amorphous conspiracy. It included “big media, big money and big tech”, as well as the predominantly black cities of Detroit and Philadelphia, where his votes fell short. Republican election observers had to use binoculars to see what was going on, he suggested.

Trump looked beaten and defeated. The vice-president, Mike Pence, was conspicuously missing. It was true that Trump had clocked up some remarkable successes on Tuesday, as he reminded the press. He increased Republican votes by 4 million. But as ever, Trump had sunk to the occasion. His speech was reckless, filled with false claims, and seemingly designed to rouse his base into unhappiness and protest.

Many Americans were appalled. Several news channels including MSNBC cut away from the briefing, and pointed out that Trump was lying. The CNN anchor Anderson Cooper likened the president to an “obese turtle on its back, flailing in the hot sun”. Others noted that his behaviour was that of an authoritarian rather than the holder of a great office – like a Vladimir Putin or Belarus’s thuggish despot leader, Alexander Lukashenko.

Several top Republicans endorsed Trump’s anti-democratic remarks. Others, including Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, stayed silent. By Friday morning, meanwhile, Trump’s hopes of taking the presidency via legitimate means appeared to have died. First, Biden overhauled Trump in Georgia, nudging ahead by 1,097 votes. The gap was so tiny election officials announced a recount. Then, Biden took the lead in Pennsylvania. There was almost certainly no way back.

The next few months look bleakly uncertain. The US is more polarised than ever. Trump is shaping up to be the first one-term president in 28 years. But in contrast to others in that club – among them Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George HW Bush – Trump is unlikely to disappear from politics. With his vast pool of fans, another presidential run in 2024 seems distinctly possible. Trump and Trumpism will continue.

In the meantime, Biden is on the brink of becoming the 46th US president. In a speech on Friday night, he set out the priorities of his new administration: Covid, the economy, climate change, racial justice. And he talked of healing the nation in a post-partisan era. A dream perhaps, but a refreshing one. “I have never been more optimistic for the future of this country,” Biden said.

True, the events of this week were disappointing for Democrats. Candidates for both the House and Senate lost races they should have won. The blue wave that progressives had yearned for turned out to be a more modest tide. And at 77 – soon to be 78 – Biden is a transitional figure. His options in government may be severely limited.

At the same time, the historic dimensions of Biden’s win are astonishing. He won more votes than any US presidential candidate ever – around 75 million. He defeated an opponent with brutal political instincts and a genius for communication. For a while at least, the US and the world can hope for a period of normalcy. Populism hasn’t gone away. But this week it suffered its most significant 21st-century defeat.

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