How popular are populists?

It seemed to take forever but it has finally been confirmed that Donald Trump has lost the Presidency and Joe Biden has been elected. The result was rather closer than pollsters expected and took far longer than seems sensible for the world’s most powerful nation.

But it is worth reflecting on the result. In 2016, Trump’s initial election and the Brexit referendum vote were portrayed as a crushing rejection of the “liberal elites” by forgotten communities in the two countries. But Trump lost the popular vote by almost 3m and won only because of the peculiar workings of the electoral college, which favours smaller states.

This election only looks close because of the electoral college: Biden is 4m votes ahead already and the margin is expected to widen. Indeed, this will be the seventh of the last eight elections in which the Democrats have won the popular vote (the exception was 2004). Going in a more “populist” direction has not made the Republicans more popular.

The final result in this election may well be around 52% to 48%, the same margin as in the Brexit referendum. That margin was cited as a mandate for the hardest possible Brexit on the grounds that anything else was resisting “the will of the people”.

That is not going to happen here. Gerard Baker, a conservative commentator writing in The Times, has already said that the real losers of the election were the “radical left” and the establishment with its “secular, progressive globalism”. In short, if the “liberal elite” loses a poll by 52%-48%, they are being rejected; and if they win a poll 52%-48%, they are also being rejected. Funny that.

In the UK, Boris Johnson who was dubbed “Britain Trump” (sic) by the current President has only been in power 15 months and is already facing backbench rebellions and falling poll ratings because of his mishandling of the pandemic.

Elsewhere, populist leaders have tended to keep themselves in power by using their power to try to crush the independent media and judicial system. If there is a philosophy that defines populism, it is that a particular party or leader represents the will of the people and thus that any opposition must be unpatriotic. Therefore all constraints on the leader’s power must be removed.

That couldn’t happen in the UK where the Supreme Court rejected Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament by a crushing 11–0 majority. And the US system just about survived Trump because of an independent media; indeed this independence was the very reason Trump was so keen to attack it.

More people voted for Joe Biden than for any other President in history. As I write, my TV is showing “the people” celebrating on the streets of Philadelphia, New York and Atlanta. You can be “popular” without embracing the tactics or the language of Donald Trump.

Economist columnist, opinions generally my own, typos always my fault. Author of Paper Promises, The Last Vote and The Money Machine